Vaishno Devi shrine in the crowning state of India, Jammu and Kashmir has a special place in the hearts of North Indians. People have great faith in the divine Pindis of the goddess. I also heard a lot of interesting stories about rocky caves, the straight climb of Hathi mattha from family and friends who visited the place. Keeping all the information safe in my memory, I visited the place for the first time in Dec 2011 along with my husband and In-Laws.
It was the time we lived in Kurukshetra. Night journey followed by day climb, we came down from the hill and reached Katra in night around 9 pm. what do I tell, I had to hire a pony on my back journey because I got blisters between my toes and hence, could not walk downhill! Not a good plan to be honest; it needed so much energy to keep myself on its back that the moment I was to get off it, I was in a state of rigor mortis ( well that happens after death but yeah it was like that only!). I realized later that we didn’t go through the cave, my mom mentioned used to have water; in fact we didn’t go in a proper cave! The cave that we were sent into was man-made. Mind started playing its games. Were we bypassed because of the huge crowd? This question stayed with me and we left the shrine for that moment.
Year 2015: It was getting hotter in the plains, our Thakur family again thought of paying obeisance to Goddess Vaishno. Keeping in mind the previous clutter, I, the techno-savvy daughter-in-law of the house, took the responsibility to plan the trip. This time, I wanted a night stay for the family up near the main temple, therefore looked to book the options of guest houses. I was browsing through the site of Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, but the booking link wasn’t working at all! Thinking that the link would be inactive for everyone, and believing that the place would be available, I left this part of the plan ‘unplanned’. But I noted the details of various guest houses present in the vicinity of the temple, and started the holy trip with my travel partners-Mr Coolhead, Snow my daughter , and my parents-in-law.
This was the first train journey of Snow, and yes the decision turned out to be a good one. Snow was jumping with joy all through the journey; we had the full cabin to ourselves.
We were meant to make first stop in Jammu at Mr CoolHead’s friend. Shockingly, Jammu was experiencing thunderstorms and heavy rains that night just like those typical horror movie scenes. After disembarking the train, and meeting up with the friend, we got on a bus. It was total black out. Turned out the friend has arranged our stay in a hotel which was hard to locate in such terrible weather.
Somehow we reached our temporary abode which was bathing in black. It was weird. At least hotels are supposed to have arrangement! We banged on the gate but no one came to see them.
“Now the things are getting goofy man?” Mr CoolHead reffered to his friend.
“No mate. It’s the untimely weather burst out. Nobody was expecting this! So it is equally a surprise for us as well. Let me make a call,” answered the friend.
“No signal!” He continued, “What’s going on? See if you guys have some bars on your phone.”
“Damn. Even our network is nill. Now I am starting to smell a rat here,” worried Mr Coolhead.
“Oh.. Don’t be scared Brother. Let’s find another inlet,” He assured all.
All of us were drenched head to toe. The pleasant April did not appear pleasant at all; our teeth were cluttering. I embraced Snow closer and tried to get shelter under the tiny roof top of the hotel gate.
What! No dear, it’s just lightening…nothing else. I am holding you. You don’t worry. Mamma has got you. Okay! Snow dug her head into my neck.
Even if people don’t believe in such things sometimes circumstances force them. Snow’s words were echoing in my mind. Haven’t we seen in movies that kids see abnormal things? I wondered what if Snow was telling a truth! We spent the entire night in blackout. Start wasn’t pleasing at all but there was still something to look forward to.
After an early exit from Jammu, we started ascending the hilly track to Vaishno Temple from Katra very enthusiastically with a toddler in arms. This time, I had come with all the homework done to make the climb near-comfortable by taking the easier route. Weather seemed pleasant.
After the 13 km of walking, the first glance of the ‘Bhawan’ from a hilltop, brought smiles on every face and we heaved a sigh of relief. Then, began the hunt…for a place to stay! My in-laws pointed towards a free Dharamshala. The word ‘free’ in itself plays with your mind and after seeing the wooden low-lying beds, I didn’t take a sec to give my refusal. They suggested dormitory, again I was concerned about the privacy there. Eventually, we looked for the guest houses. One after the other, every door closed on our faces, saying already booked! I was thinking how? ‘How did people book these? Anyways, people keep moving day-n-night to and fro. Therefore, the option to return down to Katra was still open.
It was the evening Aarti time and people were making lines to be part of it. Interestingly, we were told that no entry through the real cave is allowed anymore especially during the peak seasons. Because it’s very time-consuming, alternate caves are made. (OK…so we were sent to those caves during our first trip!)
(The arti takes place in front of the main cave only. If you want to attend it you have to buy ticket. The ticket cost is inversely proportional to the distance from the holy cave.) Even if we would think about it buying the tickets, there was no possibility of attending the Arti, on the very day! So instead, we moved on to the new cave, bowed our heads in front of the ‘Pindis’ and took leave.
On emergence from the cave, we saw the weather had taken a U-turn, and it had started raining. Now that’s odd, such weather and no roof over your heads! It was already dark, and above that, raining! I didn’t have the courage to move uphill to ‘Bhairon temple’. So, it was decided that we would have to stay there. (Trip to Vaishno is not considered complete if you don’t pay a visit to Bhairon temple). Even the Dormitory was acceptable at that point. But to our total dismay, the earlier deserted and rejected places were not welcoming now anymore. Every inch of the space was taken, including the corridors and stairs. I repented my bad decision.
As the night advanced, the pouring got heavier, and our misery, heightened accordingly. There was beeline for rented blankets and people were feeling fortunate to secure one; it was getting very cold. Mr husband got some success after hours of patience, and we spent the night, sitting, stooping, growling, shrinking, expanding, wondering and repenting, and imagine, that too with a kid. Somehow we made it to 4 am in the morning, in the hope to move out. But the rain and the cold were big hindrances. We collected some courage, and began ascending the hill in rain, only after 9.00.
All our clothes were totally drenched and to worsen the situation, the little one wanted ‘Ma’ only. It was the toughest thing to move ahead in killing cold and thumping water with just one layer on body. Soon the senses were gone and a willingly planned holy trip started to appear like a ‘burden’. I couldn’t bear the blue turning lips of my daughter and her cries. The ‘Bhairon Temple’ turned out be just a formality and we were in a rush to come downhill via same route.To our utter surprise, as soon as we reached the main temple from Bhairon, the weather smiled back on us… but we…Thakurs, were not in a mood to reciprocate.
Our journey was nothing like what it should have been. We did succeed in solving the mystery of cave though.
Learning from this Journey:
- My love for sophistication faded. It made me realize how difficult life is for the people who don’t have any roof over their head for no fault of theirs!
- I never left the stay part of travel, pending ever.
Read the previous oriental afterglow Travel Tale here: Unusual Mountain Tracks of Kinnaur