Intention is 99% and the rest is 1% and my deep desire to visit Mata Vaishno Devi with my family was nothing short of miraculous. It is a popular belief among devotees that the privilege of being able to visit is possible only through divine permission or ‘bulawa’, which is probably why it was only after a gap of 26 years that I was able to visit this holy shrine.
My trip to India was planned 2 months in advance to coincide with the year end school holidays. Once the flight bookings to India were in place, it was time for the bookings to Jammu from Delhi. I had fond memories of train travel as a student and looked forward to reliving the same.
My friend Asha, on learning of my plans suggested that I take the helicopter from the base of the Trikuta hills at Katra to the shrine to make the trip easier and faster. This was a surprise as I had expected to hike 14km up and back via walking path or stairs. I Googled and found the site, where bookings can be made up to a month in advance. A major advantages of taking this service is priority ‘darshan’ for entry via gate no.5 at Vaishno Devi. It was definitely a case of well laid plans. Now for the execution on a very tight schedule.
Delhi winter this year was extreme with temperatures plunging to 3 degrees. One cannot imagine how cold it would be and what clothes one needs to carry in tropical Jakarta. We did make the effort to get thermal inner wear and down jackets from one of the factory outlets. These were absolutely wonderful and kept us warm.
We took the Jammu Tawi express from the New Delhi Railway station. The railway station had baggage x-ray machines at the entrance but no supervision. It was far more crowded and dirty than I remembered. The train left on time and we were pleasantly surprised to get individual linen packs with clean sheets, blankets, pillows and a towel. The 2nd AC sleeper bogey was clean and we had great seats. The train left exactly on time and the ticket collector was there to check our tickets followed by the dinner service. A 3 course dinner starting with soup and bread sticks and ending with ice cream. We had not been expecting this so had had our dinner earlier at home. A comfortable sleep led to early morning arrival at the Jammu station.
This was the second leg of the trip. We were really traveling light with just individual backpacks and were soon at the taxi stand, in the early morning fog. The taxi stand was organized with a listing of car models and their daily rental which included driver and gasoline as well. We chose a Ford Ikon sedan and set off for Katra with our really friendly driver. As it was early morning, the roads were deserted and the sunrise over the mountains was breathtaking. Our cab driver took us to a small motel in katra to freshen up before our helicopter ride. The motel provided hot tea and hot water. We added layers of clothing in anticipation of cold at the altitude of 1700mt.
As per our online booking, the helicopter flight was booked for 1100hrs and we had to report an hour in advance, but we reached much earlier. There were a few other passengers at the quaint boarding station. A small waiting area overlooking the valley with two ticket windows of the two different operators – Deccan and Pawan Hans. As there were few passengers, we were invited to board the helicopter earlier. A short safety lesson and my daughter had the privilege of sitting up front. It took merely 5 minutes from Katra base station to Sanchihat. Sanchihat is at distance of 2.5 km from the main shrine or ‘Bhawan‘. Ponies, palkies and guides were available for this short stretch at the exit of the helicopter pad. We collected our priority ‘darshan‘ pass at the window near the exit.
As we walked out a security guard rushed up to tell us to greet us with ‘Jai Mata Di‘ and said that the old cave had been opened for the day. What amazing luck, as the old cave, which was the original entrance to the main shrine, is now closed for greater security and an alternate route is used.
We hired a guide to help us along the way. The walkway to the temple was covered and had piped bhajans. It was a very pleasant walk overlooking the valleys and the snow clad mountains in the distance. Devotees on the path chanted ‘Jai Mata Di’ and it created a sense of gaiety and a fair like atmosphere.The only distasteful aspect was the smell and dirt from pony shit on the walkway which was being swept by the cleaning staff. Wonder why they could not tie bags on the ponies tails and keep the path clean.
We soon reached the Bhawan. Shops selling ‘prasad’ and eating joints crowded along the path to the bhawan. Our guide instructed us to leave all our belongings including cell phones, wallets etc at a designated locker.
Tip: Continue wearing your socks.
This was the last leg of the walk to the main shrine and we were indeed lucky that it was almost deserted and we did not have to queue in long snaking lines to the gates leading to the main shrine. Once through the gate we walked through a narrow fenced and covered walkway which also took us through a metal scanner and all the offerings for the deity were checked. Any coconuts were collected and only the ‘chunni‘ and silver ‘chattar‘ were allowed past the checkpoint. A body check is standard security practice. It was worse than the US airport checkpoint.
Finally we were at entrance of the small cave guarded by 2 large metal lions on either side. It has a slant opening carved by running water. The smooth, narrow and rocky passage is ninety eight feet long. The symbols of a large number of Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon can be seen in the holy Cave. We had to wade through the ankle deep chilled water at the bottom and squeeze through the opening – akin to going back into the womb. Finally we emerged into a small chamber with priests in attendance to 3 conical rocks or ‘pindis decorated in flowers, ‘chunni’ and a big silver crowns.The holy Pindis are basically one petrified rock at the bottom which approx 5 feet tall.
This holy shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi Ji is considered the holiest of holy ‘Pindis‘ manifesting ‘Mata‘ or the Mother Goddess in her three forms i.e. Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi, Maha Saraswati. Each form represents a particular attribute.
MAHA KALI represents Tam Guna, Tam Guna means darkness. In her manifestation of Kali, the goddess inspires her devotees to constantly fight the darkness and never to give up the path of righteousness.
MAHA LAKSHMI represents Raj Guna, Raj means prosperity. In this manifestation, the goddess blesses her devotees with wealth and prosperity for their better life.
MAHA SARASWATI represents Stava Guna, Stava means wisdom and knowledge. This manifestation of the goddess enables her devotees to distinguish between good and bad and help them to adopt the right path in life.
Two priests sit in attendance near the deities and accepted our offerings. He then put large tikkas on our forehead. We prayed for a minute and then were rushed out to the exit.The darshan took all of two minutes and happened very quickly. The exit led to a cemented path which was a challenge in the cold and bare feet. We rushed back to our waiting guide and shoes.
We decided to stop for breakfast at the dhabha and had stuffed potato paranthas, aachar/pickles and piping hot tea. It was delicious. Sated we returned to the helipad at Sanchihat. Buoyed by the darshan and food we were in high spirits on the way down.
The driver took us back to Katra. As we had time to spare, we went window shopping in the small market and picked up little souvenirs before heading to the railway station. One highlight of the roadside dhabhas on the Katra-jammu are the amazing paneer pakoras. We spend some time savoring the hot pakoras and tea.
The Jammu railway station in daylight is a very depressing place. It has very dirty eating joints in front of the station. The waiting rooms at the station are filthy and stinking. It was a relief to board our train on the way back to Delhi.
The trip would not have been possible without help and a lot of planning from family in India. Thank you for an amazing experience