A Journey of Faith

It was 9.30pm on a hot day in the end of May. The heat of the day had not yet abated. The buzz in the town centre seemed quite unusual for a small town. The shops were still open for business. Dry fruits, kurmura, chunri, sindoor, small imitations of the temple, all shone in the bright lights of the shops around. The restaurants seemed full of people. The taxi stand showed signs of high activity. Auto drivers were haggling with travellers.  This was Katra-the base for Vaishnodevi Yatra.  And it looked like the town never slept!

Our driver Bittu left us at the town centre saying that an auto will take us to Banganga Gates, where the Yatra starts. We were told that the gates shut at 10pm and reopen early morning next day. So we were in a rush to get there, lest we have to wait till daylight to start the climb to Bhawan- the site of the Shrine. We decided to walk in the night to avoid the scorching heat during day time.

After the usual haggling, an auto driver agreed to take all five of us in one auto and drop us to Banganga which was about one kilometre away. Five in one auto reminded me of schooldays where little kids with their huge school bags and water bottles used to be piled into autos to be dropped off to school. The auto driver, as expected, took us to a shop to buy things for the offerings to the Devi. He kept saying that beyond Banganga Gates you will not find anything to buy, thinking we were all first time visitors. Three of us were, but Nishant and his father had been there before. So we refused to fall for the trick and after the short ride we reached the gates of Banganga.

It was a sea of humanity. I guess we were not the only ones who wanted to avoid the day time heat. Horses, palkis and pitthus were available to aid those who could not or did not want to walk the 13km uphill track to reach the Shrine. The lights along the path shone bright against the darkness of the night. Looking at the elevation, the climb seemed like a daunting task.  We had booked our tokens or yatra parchis as they are called, online. But there was a photo identification to be done hence we stood in a queue. There was absolute chaos; no one was sure whether one person needed to be in the queue or all members of the group. Later we realised that the chaos was created on purpose. Some people were robbed of their mobile phones and wallets. So much for a visit to a holy place! After the incident, the crowd got wary, the perpetrators disappeared and the chaos smoothened out. We got our photo registration done and moved on.

We had travelled 15 hours by road from Gulmarg to Katra. We were tired and hungry. There were several standard dhaba type outlets providing meals. We selected one and had our satvic food-vegetarian fare without onion and garlic. In the meantime a light drizzle had started. We were hoping that it would stop by the time we are ready to start our ascent. Luckily it did.

With tummies filled, we decided to walk at least half way in the night up to Adhkuwari- a distance of 6km, where we had made reservations in dormitories for resting. We started the yatra slowly. The road was paved all the way, unlike what I had expected. Most of it was also covered by shade to provide respite from the elements and we were really glad for it. As time elapsed, there was thunder and lightning and the power went off. It was pitch dark all over the Trikuta Mountain. People continued to walk, there were also horses which were ferrying people alongside. Those who had started their climb earlier and were tired had taken a break. Several of them were rolled up in blankets and fast asleep along on the sides of the path. It was a little difficult to walk without light with so many obstacles around, and then it started pouring. We decided to wait it out. The power was also in a mood to play hide and seek. Once the rain stopped we continued our climb along-with other devotees; the shop lights gave us good company. The temperatures had dropped thanks to the shower, so it was quite pleasant. After a 3 hour walk, we reached Adhkuwari. It was 2am. Nishant was running a bad cold and was feverish. So we approached the dispensary near Adhkuwari where the doctor freely dispensed antibiotics to him. With the medication in place, we checked into Shailputri Bhawan, the dormitory residence under the Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board (SMVDSB). We were allotted out beds but we skipped the blankets that could be availed on a deposit basis, as it wasn’t very cold. The dormitory was neat and clean with bunk beds. There were about 40 beds in the room, each with a locker to keep your belongings. But you needed your own lock, which we had not carried. The solution was simple- we just stepped out in the night to the grocery store opposite the dormitory and bought one! Exhausted after the long day, we were soon in slumber land.

Waking up early in the morning, we felt refreshed and ready for our next leg of the journey. Nishant was feeling exhausted due to the cold. So he decided sleep a little longer and start later with Abha. The remaining three of us got ready after daily ablutions to tackle the next part of the climb. As soon as we started the walk, we realised that it was much steeper than the earlier path. Hence my Aunt decided to take a horse. Nishant’s Dad and I decided to walk. We were to meet at Sanjhi Chatt. The road after that is downhill till the Shrine. It took the horse about 1 hr and us about 2.5 hrs to reach Sanjhi Chatt. Breakfast was at one of the eateries run by the Shrine Board. It is standard menu right from Jammu to the Shrine.

After the breakfast we checked with Nishant, they were on their way. So we moved further ahead at a slow pace. It was about an hours’ walk more to the Shrine. It was downhill or flat throughout so was that much easier. Close to the Shrine there was another token to be taken for the entry. The tokens are batch numbers according to which you can get inside. I had heard that the queues to get in could take as long as 8 hrs. I was only hoping that we didn’t have to wait that long. There was a lot of confusion about the various queues. Some said it was for Prasad and others said it was for the locker. You are not allowed to carry any of your belongings into the Shrine area. Hence you need to put everything, including footwear, in lockers which are available at a few places along the way. If you want Prasad, you need to buy a token and collect the Prasad packet from the board office. There are several shops also which sell the same.

We finally figured it out – The Prasad was easy, not much rush for it, but the locker queue was a nightmare. It took us almost 1.5 hours to get allotted a locker. In the meantime Nishant and Abha had joined us.  We were wondering if we missed our batch to enter the Shrine while we waited for the locker. Luckily we made it just in time. And the queue was not much; we walked in right till the entry to the sanctum sanctorum in about 10 minutes.  There was a circuitous queue near the entrance and people started jumping the queue by climbing over the bars. Not only young people but old men and women too jumped the queue for an early Darshan. It was ridiculous. No one was bothered about maintaining the decorum and dignity of the place.

Finally we reached the entrance to the cave- the sanctum sanctorum. Here there was a single file for entering. We were just allowed to carry the Prasad packets and nothing else. The coconut offering was collected at a counter earlier and a token was issued against it. No offering was allowed to be made inside the sanctum sanctorum. A brief glimpse of the pindis is all we could get; it was not even two seconds before which the guards pushed us out. So much for DarshanL

It was 1 pm by the time we completed Darshan. We collected the coconut Prasad against our token, walked back to the locker to collect our belongings and moved onward for food. We were happy to see a branch of Sagar Ratna restaurant which we had visited at Pahalgam earlier. Apart from other things, it offered South Indian food. We were bored of eating rajma chawal, kadhi chawal and various versions of potato. So dosa, idli, rasam was a welcome break. With that done, we started our return journey to Adhkuwari.

We took a newly developed alternate route that was about a kilometre short and less steep. On this route we saw electric autos plying to Adhkuwari. But there was about an hour for the services to resume, so all of us decided to walk back. Later we saw the autos plying with a full load.  We reached Adhkuwari by about 5 pm. Nishant and his Dad wanted to wait for the Adhkuwari Darshan, the rest of us wanted to go to Katra for the night. We thought that we will rest for a while and then walk back the remaining 6 km to Katra. Alas, we went off into deep sleep and woke up only close to 9pm. By then it was too late to walk to Katra and look for a hotel. So we decided to stay the night at the dormitory at Adhkuwari which we had pre-booked.  So another meal and a stroll, and we were back in our rooms. The next morning we saw that it was unlikely that we would get a chance of Adhkuwari Darshan as there was a long waiting. We all walked back to Katra with breakfast at CCD enroute!

It was quite an experience. There were mixed feelings. There was so much to see that the senses were numbed, the mind was confused.

There were millions of people from various parts of India. North Indians pre-dominantly but there were many Bengalis and Maharashtrians. I was surprised by the absence of Gujaratis.  My conclusion was that the people who prayed to Goddess Durga in any form revered this pilgrimage. That would explain the followers of Durga Maa from Bengal and of Amba Bai from Maharashtra -predominantly from Kolhapur. There was so much faith, belief and hope. Millions of these people would have been brought up on the faith in Mata Rani. For them this would be a very sacred journey. So many would have come because of ‘Mannat’- gratitude for a wish fulfilled. So many others would have come in hope of salvage from despair in one form or other. There were babies in arms; grand mothers who we feel would not walk half a mile, let alone an uphill climb of 13 kms. All of them completed the Yatra at their own pace. That could not be done without faith.

There was another set of young people for whom this probably was a ‘been there done that’ kind of journey. For many of us it was a testing of our own beliefs and way of life. We believe in faith and divinity, but also believe in rationality. A ‘questioning ourselves’ kind of journey, to understand where we stand in our belief in divinity/rationality.

This was also a journey which showed clearly how the faith economy works. How India sells to Bharat.  SMVDSB has done a wonderful job of maintaining and managing the Yatra. It is very good, but there is scope for immense improvement in crowd management and directions. From what I hear of the travails of the earlier Yatris, it is a marvellous improvement over the years.  All along the way, apart from the local eateries and the Board Bhojanalayas, there were brands vying for the attention of the millions who take up this journey of faith. Branded tea/coffee kiosks, juice centres, restaurant chains were all there. You could have the humble rajma chawal at any of the eateries or a burger at CCD. All packaged to the hilt including satvic ketchup satchets- without onion or garlic, to serve the needs of the yatris! You could find all things packaged to serve urbanites and entice ruralites chips, colas, snacks, toiletries, diapers, OTC medication etc.

The good and bad was all there to be seen at one place. The faith, the belief that could make the old and infirm climb mountains, the ingenuity of hard working young men who are willing to use their muscular force to carry the old, infirm or the rich through the high roads or carry babies on their backs (pitthus) so that the parents can complete their yatra peacefully. The disgust for some who are uncivilised enough to can commit thievery right under the eyes of their beloved Deity, those that can blatantly ignore the efforts at cleanliness and urinate and defecate in public in the house of God, or use the modern chips and colas and litter the place with the packets and glasses. I believe that it takes a generation for change in habits of population to occur. Looking at the filth there, I was wondering how many generations will the Swacch Bharat Yojana take to succeed L When you can do all unholy things in a holy place which should ideally motivate you to become better, I wonder where else will you get motivation to become a better person and make your country a better place!

For me it was more of an experiential journey. Whether I will go back- I would not want to- but I will not say ‘never’, as destiny may have other plans. For me, every trek I do, every mountain I climb is sacred. There is divinity all around and within. If I am able to be kind, be a good human being and make this world a better place, I believe I would have found God. Till then experiences will continue, life will go on.

Jai Mata Di.