Jai Mata Di

Jai Mata Di

“JAI MATA DI” frenzied chants ring out in concentric echoes on the hillside. There is a riot of colours in the profusion of merchandise piled high on both sides of the winding path.  Vivid red sequined nylon prayer scarves with fetching golden borders flutter from every pole and adorn every shop front. They vie for your attention and custom alongside framed pictures of Vaishno Mata and every other divinity in the Hindu pantheon. The road gets steeper with every step. It will eventually lead you to Bhawan, the abode of the divine Mother who attracts devotees from all corners of India like an irresistible magnet. A resplendent full moon lights up the towering peaks and plunging valleys.

But wait, the journey to Vaishno Devi, is in itself the destination, as with most other Hindu pilgrimages like Amarnath, Kailash-Manasarovar and Badrinath yatras. It is dream come true for millions of Hindus whose faith brings them here on trains, by plane, in a helicopter or on foot. But you are told repeatedly that you can’t get Ma’s darshan until you’re summoned by Her. I should know best. After all, I did attempt this journey unsuccessfully, exactly twenty years ago, to the very month and day, when I got stranded in Jammu for a few days when landslides blocked my route to Kashmir. Inclement weather and incessant rains made me and my friend turn back from the half-way mark.

The place has changed perceptibly since my last attempt in 1987. Katra, the town from which you begin your ascent on foot has swelled to a disproportionate size. The entire 18-km route to the temple is paved and much of it sheltered as well, with steel columns and zinc sheets on which hordes of monkeys prance about making a huge racket. The last time around, pilgrims were left to the mercy of the elements which usually decided whether they made it to the shrine or not, especially because the weather in these parts can change whimsically and dramatically. Also, back then, there were fewer eateries, and pilgrims often carried their own rations. Now Café Coffee Day and other such fancy outlets jostle for space alongside J&K government-run canteens. For those still feeling peckish, there are walnuts and badam – piled in gunny sacs, stacked in glass cases, and heaped in baskets. Gulshan Kumar’s T-series cassettes and CDs do brisk business and devotional music blares out of strategically placed loudspeakers.

And then there is this all-pervasive smell of horse dung. My own pony, evocatively named Badal is decked up lovingly with colourful garlands and tassels that sway elegantly as he trots up the slope. His mane is covered with a multi-strand necklace of tiny brass bells which tinkle at every step. Gradually I get the hang of how to balance myself comfortably on the steep curves. As long as he canters, there is no problem, but he would often sprint in trots and that’s when your whole body heaves out of control and your head throbs.

The devotional or sacred aspect apart, a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi is a quintessential Indian experience.  The bustling crowds – people of all ages from just a few day-old infants to doddering old men and women in search of moksha – are a microcosm of India. The single driving force here is faith. The hills are abuzz with the pilgrims’ chanting and their chatter.   The colours, smells and sights on this four hour ascent are every bit Indian and ethnic. Energetic chants of Jai Mata Di perk up the laggards.

The trek up takes around four hours if you walk briskly; if you saunter, it could take longer. For those on mule-back, the journey is only marginally shorter. Once you reach the top, for about two kilometers, there is a descent into the valley where the shrine is situated. The white temple complex sets off the verdure of the majestic hills. We make our way to one of the lodges that hang out of the hills. Bhajans and announcements pour out of the public address systems and there is visible excitement all around.

The temple trust has built a series of lodges to suit all pockets. For those who can’t afford these, there are free dharmshalas and dormitories and public baths. The shrine is open all year round and one can sleep in the open in summers.  We join the queue just before mid-night and are rewarded with darshan soon after. The shrine has been moved from its original site, a narrow ledge through which you had to squeeze yourself sideways to reach the cave. Now you still have to crouch a bit if you don’t want a knock on your head.

Next morning, we begin our descent through the same route, this time on foot. You now have the option of taking the winding long road or the thousands of steep and crooked steps that would hasten your descent as well as the separation of your knee cap from its tendons. If you persist and go down the stairs, you might reach Katra in just under two hours, but may have to rest your knees for days to recover. The choice is entirely yours.

No one turns back from Katra without making a regulation excursion to Patni Top three hours away. It’s a lovely untouristy hill station tucked away in the Jammu-Srinagar highway although JK Tourism and Patni Top Development Authority have built minimalist cottages to attract the discerning travelers. Patni Top nestles among giant cypresses and is a haven for those who want to get away from the madding crowds. We spend a tranquil night in a makeshift camp high up on the hills while the meadows are occupied by families of gujjars. Gujjars are tribesmen who spend their summers in the heights grazing their livestock, but when snow blankets the hillsides, they descend to the Tawi river banks on the outskirts of Jammu. We watch a gujjar family fetch water from a spring far away and cook out in the open. They are nomadic and wouldn’t settle in one place for anything in the world. Like the gujjars, we would have loved to bivouac under the starry skies, but are persuaded by the camp attendant to get back into our tin shelter.