The Vaishno Devi shrine atop the Trikuta Hill in Katra town (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir) is one of India’s most frequented sites of pilgrimage. Almost every North Indian has been there not once, but many times. I was among the few who hadn’t been there and it kind of always rankled me. What is very famously daunting about this pilgrimage is the 12 km trek to the top of the mountain and back. To add on to this, I had heard many tales about sore feet and tired legs that took days to recover. These really weren’t the reasons which prevented me from going. I somehow just couldn’t take out the time to go. It is said about the shrine that unless the goddess beckons(bulava in Hindi), you can’t visit her abode.
My bulava came about two years back in the month of March. It is indeed a pleasant time to take the trek during March. I was accompanied by my wife and my 10 year old son and we had all decided that we were going to walk it all the way up and back and not ride on mules that one could hire in Katra town. The trek to the shrine, popularly called Bhavan after the large structure that houses it, is a well laid out path. The quicker way up particularly around steep bends is by taking the stairs but these stairs might reduce your travel time but tires you faster and stresses your knees.
I bought a wooden stick for my son for ten rupees, which I thought would help him in his climb but he was more interested in brandishing it like a sword! The terrain is quite scraggy and rocky with not much tree cover. It became quite warm soon even though we had started early in the morning. But to our relief came the shops selling basic utilities like water, eatables etc. Main attraction of these shops spread on both sides of the road are the pilgrimage merchandise as well as blaring devotional songs at full blast which adds on to the speed of your legs. One particular shop even had electrically operated massage chairs, where you could sit and get your tired limbs and back an invigorating massage!
It was in fact quite an arduous climb and my son soon got very fatigued and we had to take frequent breaks to fortify him with cold drinks and chips! On the way we passed by Ban Ganga a holy mountain stream which is the first important stop on the way up. The whole atmosphere on the trek is quite electric with all the pilgrims encouraging each other with cries of Jai Mata Ki! Soon we were at “Ardh Kuwari” where we treated ourselves to a lunch of Rajma Chawal and some well earned rest. Soon enough we trudged on to complete the last leg of our walk. My son was so tired by now that we let him ride a pony for a few kilometers while we walked beside it along with the owner of the animal. The terrain by now had changed and it consisted of mainly pine trees and the air was distinctly cooler.
After what seemed an eternity of walking we made it to the “Bhawan” in the evening. It was quite cold by now and the lights had come on bathing the Bhawan and the many hotels, guest houses and dhabas(restaurants) with an ethereal golden light. Soon we snaked our way inside the winding corridors of the Bhawan which at times had cold mountain water dripping down the walls. We finally reached the sanctum sanatorium and though we were there for only a few minutes it was a very special experience. The three pindis (figurines) representing the meditating goddess were the focus of every pilgrim’s attention and the time we spent looking at it we felt all our tiredness melt away and came out of the Bhawan with a feeling of exhilaration. As we watched the new arrivals make their way into the Bhawan, we felt truly blessed that we had finally accomplished the difficult Vaishno Devi pilgrimage. All that was left now was the trek back to Katra!