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Friday, March 12, 2010

Memoirs of Vaishnodevi visit

Offering obeisance at VAISHNO DEVI shrine means offering Puja to tri Maha shakti (Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati) at a time. Vaishnodevi cave temple is extremely popular to the people of all faiths. Among the most revered of shrines, and the oldest in the region, it entails a 13.5 km trek from Katra which in turn is 50 km from Jammu. The route up to the Vaishnodevi shrine consists of both tiled paths as well as steep staircases, and the devout often walk barefeet up the Trikuta mountain. Several shrines, wayside stalls for snacks and beverages and water-points dot the route. An important temple, midway at Adhkwari, marks a major centre of obeisance where the goddess is supposed to have spent nine months on her journey up the mountain. The cave vaishnodevi shrine is narrow and pilgrims have to walk through a running stream of cold water Charan Ganga to get to the sanctum sanctorum. Within, three rock-cut idols of the goddesses, Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati are venerated. Canopies of silver and gold adorn the idols. Coconuts and red scarves are offered. Coconuts are to be deposited on the way to the sanctum and have to be collected later along with a coin. Legend has it that Vaishno Devi took the cave for her home upon being chased by a demon, Bhairon, whom she slayed outside the shrine. A visit to the temple dedicated to Bhairon who was absolved of his sin before he died, is an obligatory part of the pilgrimage.

My journey commenced from Chandigarh as I could not connect to Jammu from Mumbai . A friend and I drove from the Chandigarh airport straight away towards Jammu on 22nd July 2006 by road at 3-30 pm . We passed through fields of Punjab and the G T Road and reached Katara , the foot hill of the shrine at well past mid night. The road from Jammu to Katara was in an awfully bad shape and so were the roads leading from Lakhanpur to Jammu . We braved several diversions , weather and poor light and visibility on our way stopping for evening cuppa’ tea and supper and midnight dinner at way side Dhabas. It took us approximately 8-9 hours to reach Katra from CHD. Another friend had booked us in Shanker palace Hotel in Katra and so we decided against climbing up the hill during the night as we were also travel weary from a 9 hour road journey. Normally , it is preferable to climb up the hill (13 km uphill route )during the night as it is less tiresome as the temperature is more acceptable than during the day. After spending the night in the hotel, and completing our morning chores we three had typical North Indian lunch at Manoranjan ,Katra comprising Rajma Chawal, Parathas and strted on “Mission Mata” darshan. We obtained the ticket to go to the shrine from the J&K Govt. run ticket office at Katra. You can walk , take a copter ,weather permitting, ( Rs 4000 to and fro) , take a pony or a doli which four people carry and pay according to your body weight from Rs 300 onwards. The copter ride takes just a few minutes.
There is an interesting side to this visit to Mata shrine as to how it materialized. This was my third visit to Mata shrine . The first one was in 1997 and second in 1999 with my wife. Both were wonderful experiences and hence I had a strong urge to visit once more . In Dec 2005 , my brother in law came down from USA and I used my CC to book him some flights to Nagpur . This entitled me to qualify for a “Fly for Sure” offer from Citicards. After a lot of follow up , threats and protests , Citibank finally relented and gave me the free air-ticket I wanted – to Chandigarh and back to Mumbai. When Citibank was dilly-dallying , I was skeptical that Mata is not approving of my visit. Those who believe in Mata Vaishno Devi know too well that unless her divine “bulawa” ( call) comes , a visit there is virtually impossible. Many have reached the foot hill and had to return without her “darshan” ( sight) due to several factors . So goes the story. Finally , I have to thank Citibank for arranging my visit to see my loved “ mother” and have her “darshan”.
At Katra , my friend decided to hire the services of a “pitthoo” – a luggage carrier for Rs 330 for a 24 hour journey . While I was initially against the idea , it turned out to be a good foresight on his part as the pitthoo Badrinath did all the work of carrying the luggage on his back and head and left us to trek the distance up free of weight , which is quite a formidable challenge. Badrinath , even doubled up as a masseur whenever we wanted and our feet and legs were aching. “ Aap ki Sewa nahi karenge to mewa kaise payega” he would say. He was doing this job for 32 years and said he was free for last four days which made me feel sad for him. It is also advisable for pilgrims to book a room up at the shrine for resting , at reasonable tariffs at Katara itself , as one may not get a room once you are up at the shrine and may have to rest in dormitories and open places.

At the start of the yatra is a bathing point called the Banganga where pilgrims have a holy bath . Due to security reasons , one has to cross several check points and barriers . The late music aficionado Gulshan Kumar conducts a bhandara or free food distribution ( langar) for devotees every day and the daily expense could be running into thousands. Such is the family’s belief in Mata , we were informed by Badrinath . The 13.5 km journey has a mid route stop over at Ardhkwari. Of course there are several resting points along the journey and any pilgrim can take any number of halts , sip coffee at Coffee day , or Government run shops , have snacks , fruits etc. Several shops sell various eatables along the way. On the way as you start climbing up , one comes across temples devoted to Saint of Shirdi , Sadguru Sai baba , Mata’s Charan paduka (holy feet), Gayatri Gita Mata , Siva , Ganesha and Durgadevi. Several monkeys are seeing jumping around and so long as you don’t harm or tease them , they are to themselves. We travelled amidst foggy weather and through clouds as we ventured on a long awaited dream to fulfill.
At Ardhkwari we touched base at 5-30 pm and the queue for going through the “garbhajoom” was long enough that it would have taken us atleast 3-4 hours in waiting . However, my friends’ never say die spirit came to our rescue and approached the local office for help to get us a quicker passage as we had a return flight to take back. We were obliged with the grace of the Goddess. Garbhajoom is the place where Goddess Mataji performed penance for nine months in a small cave . The journey is a marvelous experience. It is initially frightening as the entry into the cave is very small and one has to slide inside on crouched feet , prostate , and turn , overturn before you come out. Even the fattest of the fat get in and come out. The passage is called “garbha joom” because it is like a journey through Mother’s womb. I had a relatively this time compared to 1999 as my body perhaps, has become stiffer over these 7 years. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful experience. We completed this leg of the journey and now what was to follow was the stiffest test of endurance, patience, and strength and will power. The journey from Ardhkwari upwards is most challenging as it almost completely up hill and you are already famished walking half way through. But devotees with their tremendous faith , will power and endurance scale this walk taking the name of the Goddess amidst regular chants “ Jai Mata di”. As one walks past another devotee, it is customary to wish one another this way. There is another route to reach the Bhawan ( the shrine) without reaching Ardhkwari and one saves a half km distance and the road is also more flatter and not so much up hill. We could not use this road as a landslide few hours before had compelled the authorities to close the path. Fortunately there were no casualties.
After trekking , some times huffing and puffing , with our pitthoo Badrinath massaging our feet , we reached Bhawan at approx 10-30 am. If you hire a pitthoo it is important to keep his Id card with you. Having purchased the “Prasad” bag from the shrine counter ( Rs 21,31,51) we approached the Police station and “flashed” our VIP recommendation thanks to a business associate -friend from Jammu for a quick darshan through VIP route ! The Police were kind and guided us so that we could return after a cold water bath . A shiver went through me as I briefly wetted my body in the freezing cold water . Having changed to new dress gear , we again went to P/S where the police in-charge sent a cop to guide us into the queue to Army Gate No 3 from where we proceeded for divine darshan I had been so profusely longing for . We kept our leather articles back.

After the darshan which happened on the stroke of midnight , we were feeling fulfilled and again the police guided us to the reception at Bldg. No 4 where we were able to get a room at Shridhar Bhuwan at a nominal rent of Rs. 600 to rest for the night.

Next morning, having completed this leg of the journey we completed the darshan of Bhairavnath which is up hill from Bhawan at a distance of 2.5 km. No yatra to Mata is supposed to be complete unless you pay your respects at Bhairav nath . Hence a visit to Bhairav nath is a Must. From here our downward descent commenced feeling satisfied, fulfilled and blessed.
Narendra Chanchal has sung many bhajans and aartis in obeisance to holy Mother which rent the air as you undertake this unforgettable journey . Even modern day famous songs like " aaja aaja " and "dhoom dhoom" and numbers of Himesh Reshammiya and others have been converted to sing praises of holy Mother.
Jai mata di.

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