They say “Chalo bulawa aaya hai, Mata ne bulaya hai” (Let’s go to visit the Goddess, as the Mata has invited us). So be it. With the invitation, we were on our way for the holy abode of the Mata, in the Trikuta mountains.
Katra a small town serves as the base of this religious tourism. This is a typical temple town bustling with a huge number of pilgrims from all over India. Thus providing business and a source of livelihood to the locals. There are numerous stalls selling a variety of good like religious souvenirs, dry-fruits, woollens and many other items of religious offerings.
It is a 14 km trek from Banganga, in Katra to Mata’s Bhawan. The trek is not that arduous. But for those who are not used to long walk may face some difficulties walking all through the paved stretch, sometimes plane and sometimes steep. Although there are a variety of options to reach the destination. The options are Helicopter services, Horses, Palki (Human Palanquin) and Electric Rickshaws on the Himkoti road (starting from the road bifurcation to the Bhawan). Those who are not travelling by helicopter has to register the name and number of group members at the Katra Vaishno Devi Shrine Board office to get a travel slip. The slip is required for various checkpoints on the trek.
With the scorching heat during the daytime, we decided to start our trek in the evening. After packing a few essentials and buying walking sticks, we were on with the flow, for my first ever religious trek. The Banganga check post had a large gateway made to welcome the devotees. There were cloakrooms and other arrangements for the convenience of the pilgrims. There was a huge crowd of enthusiast pilgrims from all strata of economy and age. And also a large number of horses.
As we entered the trek route, the horse and the palanquin owners kept on their persuasion to get a ride to the Bhawan, describing the trek to be highly strenuous. We declined their offer and went on by foot. Gradually walking through the well-paved road with eateries and other souvenir stalls on the either side, we blended with the crowd, losing our identity and becoming one among the other pilgrims. The initial phase of the trek was quite energetic. Few enthusiast devotees chanted out loud “Jai Mata Di”. They even urged the fellow travellers to join them aloud. “Jor se bolo – sab milke bolo – Jai Mata Di” (Say it aloud, say it all together). We cheerfully obliged and happily followed, sometimes overtook, at times accompanied and sometimes left behind by our fellow pilgrims.
The only annoying part were the galloping horses pushing the pedestrians aside to make way. While their dung filled roads were even more bothersome. Thus, we reached the Charan Paduka. It is believed that the footprint of Mata’s pious feet is imprinted on a rock here. This was just about 1.5 km from the starting point. A well equipped medical unit is here to provide assistance in case of medical emergency.
Then the trek was turning tiring and tedious. We were ascending to heights. The weather was turning from hot and humid to cool and windy. It was 12 am and was my birthday. Resting on one roadside stone railing, my parents wished me. We did a meagre celebration with bites of Chocolate from our stock. By then quite exhausted we reached a buzzing hub. Adhkuwari, located at a distance of 7 km from Banganga, holds a special importance. There is a cave of about 15 foot long, with a trident path. It is believed that the Mata stayed here for nine months to escape through this trident, from the chasing Bhairon. There was a huge rush of pilgrims even at these hours. There were Sarais, eateries and medical facilities. A large number of devotees were seen sleeping on the stairs, platforms and every other suitable place. Probably a small rest to energise for the rest of the journey.
Here we realised that we were 2 km ahead of the road bifurcation. One with a short and Horse free route through Himkoti (Horses are not allowed on this route). While the other one, longer and less taken, through Adhkuwari and Sanjhichat. Thinking that returning would be an extra loss of effort and time we continued along the horses through Adhkuwari. There were additional facilities of the electric rickshaw from Himkoti, which we were yet not aware of. Now completely exhausted and lonesome, we three were moving through the less lighted tracks. I became concerned whether my mother can make it or not. She is physically weak and an asthma patient. She was totally drained out by then. But still she had the resolution and mental strength to continue with frequent rest sessions.
Then there was the final check post that provided us with a number. It was the number of the group, allowed at a time to enter the Bhawan. Finally, we were able to feel the vibe of nearing the Bhawan. Then came the nastiest part of our trip. Our route took us to a stable full of horses and literally no way to walk past them. While the floor was full of dung, stinking and our feet sinking. After the worst part, we reached the Bhawan. We deposited all our belongings, in the cloakroom, climbing few stairs down. After standing in a long queue to get the lock and key of a locker to deposit all our belongings.
It was the sunrise time. We entered the pious Bhawan along with the first rays of the sun. It was a sacred feeling along with the feeling of contentment. After the darshan of the revered Pinds and other deities, we left the temple premises, feeling satisfied and pious. We had our breakfast in a nearby eating joint. Then we were off for the descent.
We never realised that climbing down will be such an uphill task. This time with no further mistake we took the Himkoti route. It was comparatively clean and horse free. We also came across the electric rickshaw (for senior citizens, people with a disability or other medical conditions). But to our surprise, they were preoccupied with normal pilgrims. The fiery sun along with the sore calf muscles made our walk even more painful.
On reaching the road bifurcation area we decided to take the stairs. This will save time and effort as well as prevent us from bumping on the horses. My mother, with her trembling feet, was feeling the descend even more burdensome. Finally, we were down to the base point, limping to reach for an auto rickshaw to take us back to our hotel. After an afternoon rest, we enjoyed the other day exploring the Jammu town.