Before embarking on my first pilgrimage, I had asked myself whether this was a display of hidden traits of my spirituality. But the answer had been an emphatic “no” as we were undertaking the trip to the holy shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi, simply because it was a part of the itinerary of our Kashmir tour. But at the end of it, I was left enriched with an unsurpassed experience.
We had reached Katra, the base camp at 6:30pm after a 13 hour-long bus journey from Pahelgaon. After a quick refreshment and dinner, we were ready by 10:30 pm to embark on our journey. An auto took us from the hotel to the place from where devotees either start by foot or take a pony to the cave shrine, nestled in a beautiful recess of the Trikuta Mountains, forming a part of the lower Himalayas. We had already got slips from the Yatra Registration Counter, as without it no one is allowed through the Banganga checkpost. With great zeal, our group started the trek of 12 km, to the Holy Shrine located at 5200 ft above sea level.
The initial 3-4 km were dotted on both sides by shops of different things, ranging from ones selling sticks to facilitate the trek to the ones with display of Gulshan Kumar on cassettes of devotional songs.
It was not only we, but also hundreds of pilgrims of all ages, taking the same route to reach the holy shrine in those late hours. There were people who were undertaking the journey in barefoot or through a series of shaastaang pranams. The most dangerous part of the journey for me was the initial 9 km where ponies were also plying on the same route. I was knocked off by one and so, for the rest of the trek was extremely cautious whenever one of them was passing by me. At a point the walking trail got separated from the rest and I heaved a huge sigh of relief.
We stopped from time to time to catch our breath and give our aching legs rest. Though we were carrying only bottles of drinking water, the uphill trek left us huffing and puffing throughout the journey. We had been told not to wear leather accessories or have any plastic stuff on us, which are considered inauspicious, and were reminded every one km during the strict security check.
We saw many eateries on our way but nothing prepared us for a Café Coffee Day outlet at 3000 ft above sea level. So much for the comfort of us pilgrims!
It was almost 4:30 am when we reached the shrine. Though the weather was chilly in that height, we were hardly feeling anything after the exhausting trek. Our ordeal began when we joined the enormous throng of devotees to enter the temple. The counters to deposit shoes and cameras were quite a distant away and to top it all, they were underground. After we had descended four flights of steep stairs and fought with hundreds of pilgrims to reach the front of the counters for depositing all our belongings, we had to walk barefoot till the tail of the long queue and start a painful slow walk. The rope carpet (!) beneath our feet was wet and all of us got horrible blisters in the feet because of the sharp texture. It was almost after one hour of waiting in the queue that we witnessed the holy shrine but was swiftly whisked away.
After a quick refreshment, we started the return trip at 6 am. The pilgrims, who had reached then, were stuck there for two hours because of the morning pujas, which were being conducted. While walking up, we were enviously eying those who were returning, imagining that all the pain and breathlessness of the uphill trek would not be there then. How wrong were we! Within minutes of starting the trek, I realized that my legs were so wobbly that I had to use full force on the walking stick to prevent me from falling over. All of us were in great pain, which made it extremely difficult not to wince while putting down our feet on the hard ground. We tried to take short cuts by walking down the series of stairs but after a point of time, I could no longer fold my aching knees to do the simple act of descending down stairs.
We were so glad to be back on plain land that we readily agreed to pay the autowallahs the exorbitant rate that they were demanding. At around 9 am, we were back in our hotel rooms, trying to soothe our legs by giving hot and cold treatment. Everyone in our group was in excruciating pain of some kind or other. Those of us, who had walked up, had acquired a limp while others who had ridden a pony, were complaining of severe backache.
I could not help but recall the eventful trek and our darshan of the famous Vaishno Devi shrine and realized that my experience meant much more than the throbbing pain. It is unwavering belief that attracts hundreds of pilgrims to this place every year, but I will certainly attempt to visit it again for the sheer grandeur, serenity of atmosphere and cheerful shouts of “Jai Mata Di” that fills the air.