Pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi Temple, Katra, Jammu & Kashmir, India
Vaishno Devi Temple is situated in Katra, Jammu and Kashmir, India. It has the presence of Maa Kali, Maa Lakshmi and Maa Saraswati in caves in the form of Pindi (sacred stone) at Sanctum sanctorum, who are revered by Indians.
The devotees take up pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi caves with family and friends from all over the world. The ardent devotees take up this pilgrimage every month on regular basis. It is believed that only with the blessings of Mata (The Mother Goddess) the devotees can visit her, which is prominently covered in the bhajans (songs) in the praise of goddess Vaishno.
There are many legends about mata vaishno devi. It is believed that the energies of maa Kaali ( denoting strength), maa Lakshmi (denoting wealth) and maa Saraswati (denoting knowledge) were combined to create Mata Vaishno Devi, a unified energy to take on the evil spirits of the society. The girl born to father Ratnakar and mother Samridhi had the vigour of this unified energy and named Vaishnavi. She was a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu and waited for her sublimation with Him. At a tender age she learnt a lot of vidya (knowledge) and acquired cosmic powers. Once, Bhairon with evil spirit and dirty intention tried to catch hold of vaishnavi. She then fled to Trikoot mountain range, north of Katra.
While running she felt thirsty then she used her bow and arrow to bring out the stream of water from the base of the mountain. Today, this place is known as Baan-Ganga.
Then she took shelter in a cave at Ardh-Kumari for nine months. Today this is called Garbh-Joon. It is believed that a person gets free from cycle of rebirth after going through Garbh-Joon.
She meditated there and recognised herself as the manifestation of the unified energy of three Devies. She then came out and acquired her true form with Lion as Her vaahan (companion) and beheaded Bhairon. His head fell atop hill, where Bhairon temple is situated today.
Bhairon realized his mistake and sought pardon from Mata Vaishno Devi. With his pleadings, she gave him a boon that anyone visiting her should also visit Bhairon to complete the pilgrimage. She then took the form of three pindies in the cave, where today Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan is located.
It is popularly known that around seven hundred years ago these caves were discovered by Pandit Shri Dhar Ji who was guided by mata Herself. Goddess Vaishno Devi is today worshipped all over the world. Mata ka Jagrata is organized by the devotees in which the devotional songs are sung to please Mata Vaishno Devi nonstop throughout the night. Now a days, devotees also organise Mata ki Chowki for appx 4-5 hours duration.
Interestingly, Mata Vaishno Devi Temple has one of the highest earnings throughout the year from donation. Vaishno Devi Shrine Board was constituted in 1986 to develop the area for comfortable pilgrimage.
The YATRA (Journey):
The Yatra or the pilgrimage to holy Vaishno Devi consists of the trekking of appx 12 kms from the altitude of Katra at 2474 feet to Bhawan at 5200 feet.
In between Sanjhi Chhat lies at 6200 feet.
Devotees undertake this journey by foot. Those who are unable to take up the journey by walk may do so by horse, by palki or by helicopter/ vehicle to some extent.
For the pilgrims undertaking this Yatra on foot, there are motorable road, Ashva Marg or stairs. Usually, the devotees use Ashva Marg while going up towards Bhawan and use stairs while coming back to Katra. While going and coming, the devotees sing songs and do Jaikaara (enchanting the name of Mata) in praise of Mata Vaishno Devi, dance to the tune of Dhol or just say Jai Mata Di to each other in Chorus.
There are plenty of eateries on both sides of the track where you can have almost all kinds of food and beverage. The other shops offer souvenirs, prasad, photography, massage services, cloak room facilities, shoe/ slippers/ laathi (stick) on rent etc. Devotees can hire horse/ van/ palki etc as per the charges fixed by the government. As on 4th of July 2021, the charges for horse were Rs 1250 from Katra to Bhawan and Rs 550 half way upto Ardhkumari. Parents with small kids can hire prams. The track is well laid with a lot of friction to avoid any slip during the Yatra. Nevertheless, one has to be very attentive while going up or coming down as some of the areas have very steep slope.
The benches are laid on the way to up and down to provide rest to Devotees or they can settle at Ardh-Kumari for longer duration or overnight. Blankets are available for free for devotees at a payment of security deposit for Rs 100 per blanket.
There are Bhojanalaya (eating place) available on the way where meal is available starting Rs 40 for Rajma-chawal/ Kadi-chawal and Rs 75 for Thali having 2 chapati, rice, dal and vegetable.
Drinking water machines are installed at almost every 500 metres. Toilet complex is available at appx every kilometre. 90% of the whole track is covered with tin shed to make it easy for pilgrims to walk during sun and rain.
Monkeys can be seen throughout the track and one has to be a little careful while eating something as they can snatch it from your hand.
Just before the Bhawan, there are dormitories where people can take some rest at a price for Rs140 per bed per night. They keep their belongings in cloak room/ lockers and then head for Mata Vaishno Devi Darshan. Others don’t stop there and head straight to Darbar, keep their luggage in cloak room for free, take bath and then go for Darshan. Some other people book their rooms/ dormitories online available at Bhawan and get ready there.
Whatever their approach is, they land at the cave for Mata Vaishno Devi Darshan with whole hearted devotion and reverence. While standing in queue and waiting for their turn, they keep chanting Jai Mata Di, Jaikaara Sheran Wali Da – Bol Sanche Darbar ki Jai and similar phrases.
As they reach near to the cave having pindies, devotees donate money, coins, silver, gold etc in the donation box kept before entering to the cave. The devotees pray for their well being, seek blessings for prosperity, thank Mata for her blessings showered on them etc. As the devotees reach in front of the pindies, Pandit Ji would show the pindies of Maa Kali, Maa Lakshmi and Maa Saraswati. The pilgrims just get a glance of the holy pindies and move further to give way to others. After coming out from the cave, some devotees also go further down to Shiva Gufa for Darshan of Lord Shiva.
Now a days, trolley has been operationalized to carry pilgrims from Bhawan to Bhairon temple costing Rs100 per person for to and fro journey. As you enjoy the ride in trolley for 2 minutes, you reach Bhairon temple. Just coming out from the trolley and Bhairon temple is just 2 minutes walk.
One can buy offering for Bhairon from outside shop but the same are not used at temple. Pandit ji will point out Bhairon and Hanuman Ji pindies, you bow your head and pray.
Now one may like to follow the Sanjhi Chhat route to reach Ardhkumari or come back to Bhawan by trolley and start downward journey.
A healthy young person can climb up from Katra to Bhawan in appx 4-5 hours and climb down from Bhawan to Katra in 2-3 hours. Others with age and health issues can plan accordingly.
How to reach Katra
By air: Jammu is the nearest airport which is connected to many airports through different flights. After reaching Jammu, one has to hire a taxi to Katra or use bus service from Jammu to Katra.
By Train: SVDK is the new railway station for Katra which is connected with main railway stations through different rails. One has to be covid negative to come out of the railway station. You should either carry negative RTPCR test report or undergo testing at railway station itself.
By Road: Simply open Google maps. Choose destination Katra and start your voyage as per your convenience by your choosen vehicle.
By Sea: Sorry, no direct sea route.
Best Time to visit Vaishno Devi
Actually, all times are the best times. As its said that Mata Vaishno Devi calls her devotees herself. So any time is good time. Just be prepared for the seasonal issues specially during winters when you can also experience snowfall/ rain. During winters or rain, one can experience chilly wind and woollens will be required. Though, you may need to be in summer clothes or cottons while climbing up or down.
- Clean drinking water after almost every 500 metres.
- Toilet block for men and women after almost every kilometre.
- Restaurants, fast food shops, souvenir shops, dry fruits, photo shoot etc available every now and then.
- Telephone booth for local, STD, ISD available at some points.
- Benches or concrete slabs available for resting at frequent locations during climbing up and down.
- Overnight staying available at Ardh-Kumari for free and near bhawan at a nominal price.
- Common bathing facilities available near Bhawan where devotees can freshen themselves up before entering Bhawan.
- Cloak room facilities available at Ardh-Kumari and near Bhawan where extra luggage can be kept safe.
- Helicopter service, palki, horse ride, electric can etc are available at rates fixed by government to facilitate devotees to reach Bhawan.
- Rope way trolley available for Bhairon temple and back for Rs 100 only.
- Medical facilities available for emergency. Further ambulance on standby to take patient to Katra General Hospital.
- The locals are simple, warm hearted, helpful and honest.
- Fencing has been erected towards the valley to safeguard against the accidental fall.
- Some of the markings, directions, indications, information on Yatra details are missing. First timers have to depend on the fellow pilgrims to seek any information.
- The rates of various activities fixed by government are not mentioned at any prominent location which might create confusions for pilgrims.
- Cleanliness is hard to find in the shops serving food.
- Most of the toilet complex are not well maintained. The latches of the toilet doors are broken, taps leaking, flush not working, no light, dirty surroundings are the common problems.
- The Ashva Marg, which is normally used by pilgrims on foot, is full of horse shit smell, though it’s being cleaned regularly but at places it’s very stinky.
- No Mike or megaphone is used for briefing the pilgrims when they line up for Garbh-Joon at Ardh-Kumari and as such the instructions are not heard properly by the people standing towards the last in the queue.
- Pre-paid sim cards from other states do not work. You need to have either a post paid sim card of other states or local sim card. The data connectivity is very poor due to the hilly areas.
One has to make sufficient finances available in cash. Online payments through Paytm etc are also available at most of the outlets. Apart from rail fare/ air fare/ Bus or Taxi fare, one has to consider the number of days one wants to spend there.
Normally people reach Katra in morning, rent a room at Inn or Dharamshala or Hotel, keep their luggage, freshen up and start climbing up. By next day they are back to Katra ( depending upon their number in the queue for Darshan), take rest and catch train from Katra.
So you may need to pay 2 days rent at hotel (which you have to bargain as the check in/out time is 12pm). Budget hotels are available for Rs 800-1500 per double bed room. You can also bargain to include one extra mattress, if required. Breakfast for Rs 100, lunch for Rs 150, dinner for Rs 150 and miscellaneous Rs 100 i.e. Rs 500 per person per day.
For example, a person travelling from Delhi will have to spend Rs 6000 per head on this trip (Rs 1100 AC-3 fare by rail one way= 2200, 2 days meals@500=1000, room for 2 days@800= 1600, contingency, appx 1200). The devotees can upgrade or downgrade the expenditure as per their budget.
Whatever may be your social standing, whatever way you may follow to reach Bhawan, all bow their head before Mata Vaishno Devi without any discrimination and that is the essence of this Yatra. Just forget about your pain, sufferings, negativity and surrender yourself to the almighty Mata Vaishno Devi to find peace and tranquility. Maa will bestow boons to Her children and fulfill their wishes for a happier and proper tomorrow.
Note: After coming back to your home, don’t forget to do kanjak. For this prepare a Prasad consisting of poori, black gram dry and with curry, suji halwa, dry Prasad, currency note and offer to small girls and take their blessings. Give one such Prasad to temple to offer to Maa Durga (Vaishno Devi).
JAI MATA DI
(The author visited Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine on 4th of July 2021 and this blog is based on his personal experience)
- Admin (Mustfrills)