Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vaishno Devi (Katra)

What better way to end our 10 day sojourn to Jammu & Kashmir than with a visit to the Vaishno Devi temple in Katra? Trekking Vaishno Devi, in 1 day, is a serious physical challenge. And for many, including me, it was a highly spiritual experience as well.

Though there were many ways to reach Vaishno Devi (helicopter, pony, Doli - a contraption by which a person is carried by 4 - 6 people, walking, etc.), I was determined to trek. My knee had healed well enough to allow me to do this (you might recall that I tore my meniscus in July). My uncle and aunt preferred the helicopter option, like most of the senior tourists in our group, though they often considered joining the masses and walking. Unfortunately, though, neither were in the physical shape needed to do the arduous trek.

There was also a lot of confusion over which tourists would get the helicopter tickets. First Kesari tours said that everyone who requested a helicopter ride would get it, but later they said that there weren't enough tickets. For many people on the tour, Vaishno Devi was the only reason they came on the trip. And the elderly were seriously concerned that without the helicopter they would miss Vaishno Devi. Fortunately, everyone ultimately got to see Vaishno Devi. Though Kesari could have handled this better, I also think the trip participants complained too much when there were already numerous ways to reach the temple if not by helicopter.

There are 2 routes to Vaishno Devi - the 12.5 km 'short cut' and the 14 km longer route. But in either case, the first 7 km are the same. This is the steepest part of the trek but it is also the most interesting part because there are numerous shops on either side of the path. After these 7 km, you have the option of taking the short cut or you the longer route. Whichever route you take, the festivities die down and the trek becomes more solitary. Gone are the shops and pilgrims are now tired enough that the path becomes quieter. Once you reach the Bhavan or home of Vaishno Devi, you have to leave your personal belongings (i.e. wallet, cell phone, etc.) in a locker. Then you pass through several security checkpoints before reaching the Bhavan. Afterwards, you can head back down or you can continue a few kilometers higher to the Bairo Nath temple. After worshipping there, you can head down to the base, a distance of about 12-13 km.

I started hiking along with the Kesari group at 11:15pm. We started at night so that we could reach the temple early in the morning and avoid lines. Shortly after we started our group spread out and I found myself far ahead of the group with the tour guide and one other tourist. Along the strenuous walk we heard pilgrims chanting praises of the goddess: "Pyar se bolo! Jai Mata Di! - Dil se bolo! Jai Mata Di! - Sare bolo! Jai Mata Di!..." (Say it with love! Praise the Goddess! Say it from your heart! Praise the Goddess! Everyone say it! Praise the Goddess!) These chants kept even the most tired pilgrims marching onwards towards the goal and were a lot of fun. I was amazed at one girl who kept this up for at least 20 minutes during the steepest part of the climb. Also, not everyone, especially the elderly trekkers, could do the trek in 1 day. Along the way we saw people sleeping on benches or in camps with free blankets provided by the management company of Vaishno Devi.

At 2:30am, I reached the temple. As expected there was no line and we were able to go inside to see the deities. Seeing the deities was anticlimactic for me because I didn't see the resemblance of the rocks to the deities. Afterwards, I separated from my companions and took a pony 3km higher to reach the second temple of Bhairo Nath. When I finished visiting this temple it was about 3:30am and I was exhausted. It was now time to go down but I didn't know the way. Was I supposed to go back the way I came or try a new route?

Luckily, another pilgrim saw my confusion and asked two guys around my age to escort me down. One was from UP and the other was a local from Jammu - unfortunately I don't remember either of their names. They spoke a little English so I tried my best to communicate in Hindi. But as the trek went on and we got more tired, my Hindi deteriorated as their English deteriorated. The local had trekked Vaishno Devi more than 20 times and went whenever he felt "a calling" to go. During the first hour of the descent there was a power outage so we had to rely on each other to navigate the steps. I saw a lot of interesting things on the trek but one of the sadder things I saw was 3 homeless kids sleeping under a blanket (we almost stepped on them) in the middle of the path in the hopes of getting a few rupees. No doubt that sleeping on the road was not their idea but they were probably forced to do this by their beggars guild.

The journey down was much tougher than the journey up because of the pressure on our knees. Our Jammu companion developed some possibly serious knee troubles though we all had very sore knees. About halfway down, I stopped to get a soda and some cookies. This gave me a burst of energy - because I hadn't had anything to eat for hours my pace had slowed to a crawl.

Shortly after dawn broke, weary but happy, we found ourselves at the base of the mountain. I was planning to bid goodbye to my friends and head back to the hotel. But our Jammu friend insisted that we first have langar (free food for pilgrims). The langar consisted of tea and hard pooris. I was initially apprehensive about taking the langar (was it hygienic?) but I was convinced by my Jammu friend to partake. I was glad I did because the food was actually quite good. The tea came out of a huge bowl and it was a sight to see the tea being served to a crowd of 50 people. Apparently langar happens almost 24 hours a day at Vaishno Devi and the tea is provided free by an Indian tea company.

The langar was an overwhelming experience for me. There we were, tired and dirty from the trek, having langar with people from all walks of life, even the very poor. At langar, everyone was equal - and equally hungry. It was rare to see this kind of equality in India.

Then it was finally time to say good bye to my friends and head home. We bid an emotional goodbye to one another. They remarked that it was only by the grace of the Vaishno Devi that they were able to meet me, a true Indian-American - I guessed that they haven't met many of my kind before. I also expressed my gratitude to them - for guiding me down safely and for showing me Vaishno Devi's great langar. As a last act of kindness, they negotiated a good rate for me to go back to the hotel by auto.

When I arrived at the hotel, I was congratulated by the tour guide and hotel receptionists for being the first from the group to arrive. First to arrive!? It was already 8am! I thanked them and went to sleep. I woke up a few hours later to let my uncle and aunt into the room (they had just arrived from their helicopter ride) and we rested for most of the day.

Vaishno Devi was a special experience for me. Seeing the 3 rock-deities was not a religious or moving experience for me. No, this trek was a special experience because of all the people I met, from all walks of life. That is why walking was so essential for me - I could not have met these people in the helicopter. I will always remember the faces of the poor elderly as they defiantly climbed upwards, sleeping on benches as needed or the poor mothers who walked in cheap slippers while holding babies. With that kind of determination, anyone can reach Vaishno Devi, even if he / she lacks the money for a helicopter, doli, or pony! Jai Mata Di!


P.S. All of my Kashmir trip pictures can be found here:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=174639&l=f2bb0&id=505250370

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=174646&l=ed83c&id=505250370

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=174649&l=6d9f9&id=505250370

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