Her Majesty’s Pilgrims

They say that no one goes of his / her own accord to visit the most celebrated of goddesses in the mountains of India; the lady herself calls them when she wishes it. Well, we got a call from her Friday morning.

It started as an idle conversation between Anil (my roommate) and me on our way to office; one of his friends were going to see “her” that night. I am not sure how things turned out the way it did, but an hour later we had tickets booked on the night train out to Jammu and back. Two others were added to this impromptu party of pilgrims. I must say the lady calls people right out of the blue; the last two members were just asked over phone, “you free this weekend?….book karlu tera bhi?” and that was that.

Our journey started (late by 2 hours) on the historic platform no.18 at Old Delhi. A board proclaiming it to be the exit point for the train to Attari, from where the erstwhile Samjhauta Express took over up to Wagah. Quite appropriately the platform has high metal fencing, not unlike what we see in our cricket grounds. The journey itself was uneventful, other than that we reached Jammu nearly 3.5 hours behind schedule. On the way we passed the River Beas, a muddy stream at best, and lovely green agricultural scapes refreshed by the monsoon.

Jammu was a bit of an anti-climax for the four of us. We madrasis were all probably expecting a snow-bound hill station (being geographically challenged) and were instead faced with a typically bustling, hot & unkempt northern-Indian town. From right outside the Jammu-Tawi station (so called in honour of the River Tawi), we boarded a bus to Katra.

This was arguably the most entertaining phase of our journey. The driver seated us with an assurance that the bus would move in 5 minutes. Half an hour later, we were still cooking inside with the driver refusing to budge without filling his two remaining vacant seats. Soon tempers rose to boiling point and the passengers staged an outraged walkout. The driver and his brother (the cleaner who was driving us crazy by chanting “katra, katra” all the while) ran out and implored us to return (citing their rozi roti, kamai etc etc). Melting at their entreaties we returned to our seats. The cleaner followed, tugging an old couple to fill the two vacant seats and finally the bus trundled out. Barely 500 yards out of the station, a commotion broke out. The reason being that Katra was never the old couple’s destination and they had been forcibly installed in the vacant seats!!

The bus insisted on slowing at every corner for the cleaner to shout out “katra..katra” and it soon became a running joke amongst the passengers. Three times before the city limits were crossed, the bus was subjected to police checking and each time, we took over the “katra..katra” chant from the cleaner, reducing the stern policemen to giggles.

Only when we reached Katra (another small, but bustling town) did our two companions realize what they had been talked into. The majestic Trikuta mountains loomed behind the bus stand; green, dark and imposing. On its heights resides Mata Vaishnodevi, the lady we were seeking.

Despite her earlier urgency in inviting us over, she now decided to play coy. Right after we bid farewell to the triumphant bus which had managed to successfully stretch a 1.5 hr journey into a 4 hr one, it started raining. We looked up at the mountain and saw that she had wrapped herself in a dark swirling veil.

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Not to be daunted, we fed and bathed ourselves and armed with raincoats we began our ascent just as the sun began to go down. These raincoats I must say are extraordinary, for they are to be had locally for just Rs.10 and are practically useless if you try to put them on.

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The ascent to the top, Bhawan, where the lady stays cannot be really called a trek. The paths are well paved and kept, with bright lighting and shelters and shops all along for the devotee. You can find eateries and even dispensaries en route Bhawan. The goddess is a kind hostess. However the distance to be covered (anywhere between 13 – 16 kms one way) and the steep incline is challenging, if you decide to take it by foot.

I have read somewhere that Vaishnodevi is  “intoxicating to the senses” and “spiritually uplifting” and now I will certainly vouch for the first part. The climb, right up to the halfway stage is an assault on your senses. There is an unending stream of shops on either side: those selling ready-made “prasad” ideal for distributing amongst neighbors, CD shops blaring out bhajans that are actually remixed bollywood hits and small eateries selling spurious soft drinks. Mules carrying devotees and donkeys carrying luggage , lurch up and slide drunkenly down the steep paths. Do not be alarmed if you feel someone feeling your backside, its probably just an impatient mule wanting to pass you. These mules are from an exotic breed; they are all rear-wheel drive models with the bridle usually hanging uselessly and the drivers guiding them with clicks of the tongue “tchak tchak” and twists of the tail.

The greatest contribution that these creatures make to the trip, other than fondling your backside, is their dung. The trek is a virtual obstacle course for those on foot, climbing over hills of the stuff or fording rivers of it in case its raining, like we had to. The place smells like, quoting my wild-haired companion Arun, “a circus tent”.

By the time you have covered a few kilometres and been winded, you are never quite sure where you are. It could be the foot overbridge at Ernakulam Junction, the subway market near ICH in Bhopal or of course “The Royal Gemini Circus”. And then to add to your confusion, a mule will bump you onto the glass door of a Cafe Coffee Day. A Cafe Coffee Day! Surely, I am not in Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market on Sunday?? Men in three-fourths and sleeveless tees and girls with “I am still a virgin, please give me a chance..” scrawled across them definitely don’t help matters.

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And yet in between the shops and mules and Cafe Coffee Days you catch sublime glimpses of the rugged, magnificent mountains of the lower Himalayas; stunningly grand vistas cloaked in the eerie dusk glow below you and suddenly its all worth it; the physical effort, the intoxication, even mules fondling your backside.

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At Adhkwari, relief awaits the beleaguered foot pilgrim. This is where the lady sat in meditation before being disturbed by a foolish black magician called “Bhairav”. And we know what happened to him. His head, free of all mortal connections, lies a further 1.5 km above her shrine at Bhawan. Any devotee who might have entertained thoughts of turning back at this point will change his mind immediately. Hell, we know, has no fury like a woman scorned.

From Adhkwari we took the “alternate” road (where no mules are allowed) and soon began congratulating ourselves because it was curiously devoid of crowds. The reason for this peace soon dawned upon us. Every few hundred yards, we came across piles of rock and stone and mud on the path, leaving barely a few yards for trekkers to pass through. The landslides had at places taken away whole fences and entire roofs of the shelters en route. At some corners the sheer rock cliffs curve right over head and at others cool mountain water trickles down on to you. There are signboards warning the tired traveler not to stop, because this is an area of “shooting stones”.

By now the night air was cool and crisp and finally we could listen to the mountains speak. At one point in the journey, we could see below us the glittering jewel like town of Katra and above us, the fiery temple complex at Bhawan. And in the silvery light of the mercury lamps, you could imagine yourselves to be on the mythical middle city of the Asura’s Tripura.

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The last part of the climb passed by in a blur, our untrained bodies well past their physical limits. Only occasional glimpses of Bhawan, restless monkeys jumping on the sheets of the shelters (aah its a landslide!!….bhaaaaaaag!!!) , hot coffees from the occasional Nescafe vendor and bursts of enthusiastic “Jai Mata Di-ing” kept us going.

After a four hour climb we finally reached Bhawan. There we found that there were separate queues for depositing all your items esp. leather ones in lockers, one to get the real prasad and finally one to enter the sanctum sanctorum. Thanks to the odd time that we managed to reach (thank that peculiar bus?) and it being off season we were able to push through the queuing process in less than 3 hours. Of course there was more entertainment and delays along the way, with one of our band remembering at each checkpoint that he hadn’t put his things into the locker (“o my wallet”….”*&*%$#% I still have my wristwatch”…”oh no I forgot to remove my belt”). Despite its 5200 ft elevation, the temple still remains safely within Indian Sovereign territory and so it would be unnecessary to elaborate on the jostling in the queue.

However, the temple authorities are considerate enough to have installed TVs every 500 yards or so on which you can see “live” images of the goddess (three round “pindi” stones covered with yellow silk and each having a crownlet). It is a constant reassurance that “she” is still home, waiting for you.

And finally we arrived at her lady’s sanctum.Vaishnodevi dwells in a deep cave. Legend has it that she came here to sulk when Rama of the Bow declined to wed her. The outside of the cave is like from Jurassic Park, with damp moss and small bushes, and water tricking everywhere. That she is wealthy is without doubt. She has two of the classiest transports going around: a snarling bronze tiger and a grumpy, crouching marble lion.A newly dug tunnel (decorated with white tiles) leads to the sanctum.  A priest drew red tilaks on our foreheads as we moved through the white tunnel.

At last we reached her. She was in a tiny cove in the corner of the tunnel. Just like on TV. A priest offering flowers and an AK-47 wielding policeman stood guard. The man in front of me bent low before passing. I assumed that was the way to do it; bent my aching back low before her and held my pose. And got tonked on the forehead by the policeman (with a curt “hato jaldi” to boot) for my efforts. I guess the fellow in front of me was just peeking around the priest’s belly. As we jostled our way out of the tunnel, we heard the gurgling of a delightful mountain stream that originates from right within that cave. “The Baanganga” as she is called, was born of an arrow shot by Vaishnodevi when one of her disciples felt thirsty.

We had to start immediately back downhill to Katra to be on time to catch our return train in Jammu. We were almost alone  because the other pilgrims stayed back to rest and catch some sleep at Bhawan. A “Dosa Point” we had smelt on the way inspired a rapid descent but it had already closed by the time we reached it.  Instead we had to be content with yesterday’s kadhi-chawal at 2.30 in the morning. Just before reaching base, we were accosted by men who wanted to rub our feet for Rs.10. Since it seemed unseemly to have men pressing our legs, we pressed on. A little later we came to the “massage parlour”. A row of sleek black vibrating chairs sat whirring contentedly in a dimly lit shed. The propreiter gave a demo, strapping himself in, his feet jiggling and bouncing and eyes closed blissfully. Anil was curious enough to want to try this for Rs.50 /15 minutes; admittedly a much better deal than those shady men before. He gave up the idea though when “Tommy” Thammaiah reminded him of what happened to the last cat that got curious. We pressed on..rather pushed on.

Aching bones, pulled muscles and all we reached Katra at 4 am. And had some divine “Meetha tez, adrak wali, badhiya chaai”. And by 630 we were back on our way to Jammu (this time just managing to avoid “The Bus”). It rained heavily and we took a detour to avoid more landslips.

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As we waited on the platform at Jammu, I aimed my camera at some egrets and attracted the attention of a military man. He diligently checked the contents of my camera, because it had been pointing in the general direction of a petrol depot. Another one checked it again on the train at Jalandhar. No doubt after effects of the attack in Srinagar.

Despite the aching body there is a lightness to the spirit even now. I think there is a reason why all of our great pilgrimages are physically arduous ones. I think there is a reason why our all greatest gods are placed where they are: on craggy mountains, in lush valleys, besides rushing rivers and next to the roaring sea. I think it is because that is where our spirit really belongs. And is it not what we really worship?

Another age, another time; without bathroom tiles in a holy cave, without Cafe Coffee Days in a jungle, I would have gone back to see her again a hundred times. But I am glad she called us.

We passed the Beas again. This time she was a red, roaring river, frothing at the mouth and bursting at her banks.

P.S: Those who showed the perseverance to read to the end may be thanking their stars I dont write a blog every time I go somewhere 😉

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