A shivering cold night, mantras played on speakers are wafting in the air accompanied with zealous chants of “ZORR SE BOLO… JAI MATA DI…“, there are horses and mules rushing up and down the tortuous paths and there are enervated people climbing with their walking sticks, panting, struggling to catch a breath yet unwilling to stop. This is something you will experience if you undertake a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Mata Vaishnodevi on a winter night. Situated at an altitude of 5200 feet, Mata Vaishnodevi cave is one of the most arduous and most revered pilgrimages. Every year lakhs of devotees undertake the journey with a belief that the divine mother will grant them her blessings and alleviate all troubles.
“Mata ka bulawa aya hai” – a Hindi phrase meaning call of the divine mother – it is believed that one can visit the holy shrine and have darshan of Mata Vaishnodevi only when she calls her devotee. Fortunately, I got the call and had the opportunity to have darshan of Mata Vaishnodevi in her holy cave where she has manifested in the form of 3 natural rock formations called pindies.
The pilgrimage starts from the base camp at Katra. There is a wide range of hotels, lodges and other accommodation facilities available at Katra and most visitors prefer to stay here. However, since we had to travel to Amritsar early morning (a day after) from Jammu Tawi railway station, we opted to stay at Jammu. We boarded a bus at 8 PM and it took around 2 hours to reach Katra. Just near the Katra bus stand is the Yatri Parchi counter where devotees have to mandatorily register themselves and collect a coupon before starting the journey. This counter is open from 5 AM to 10 PM and the services are free of cost. Devotees must cross the Ban Ganga check post which is about 2 km from the counter within 6 hours from the time of availing the ticket.
Fortunately, there is an option to register online as well and the electronic registration slip (ERS) is valid throughout the day. A print out of the electronic registration slip along with a valid photo ID proof must be produced at the check post. The online registration can be done through the official website of Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board. There are other chargeable services like the helicopter, puja slot bookings, room and dormitory facilities etc. that can also be availed from the same portal at reasonable prices. Before booking please carefully read the instructions regarding the payment options and restrictions. We pre booked our ERS so we didn`t have to wait in the long queue at the reservation counter and directly walked to the Ban Ganga check post. At the check post, devotees have to undergo security scanning and the yatra parchis are stamped.
From Ban Ganga check post starts the actual pilgrimage. People undertake the journey round the clock as per individual conveniences. We preferred to climb during the night as it would have been more strenuous during the daytime. Further climbing in the night allows you to have an early morning darshan of Mata Vaishnodevi. As you start climbing, you will be hoarded by palki carriers and horse keepers who would insist you avail their services. Although I encourage everyone to undertake the journey on foot and enjoy the experience; at the same time the journey is grueling and would be extremely difficult especially for old aged people, kids and people with breathing ailments. Such people should consider availing services like palki, pithu or horses. In case you do, there is a scope for bargaining so ensure you settle for the right price.
We made the arduous yet common choice – climb by foot. On climbing up, you will find both sides of the path lined with food stalls, foot massage shops, dry fruit stores and photo studios. There are free toilet and drinking water facilities established by the shrine board at regular intervals. We bought red ribbons with “Jai Mata Di” written on it to tie around the head – it is almost a custom as you find a large number of devotees doing the same. We really enjoyed the initial part of the climb, regularly stopping to sip a cup of tea and have Maggi, paratha etc.
There were hundreds of caparisoned horses and mules walking up and down the same path with their dung littered all over the place (it was being cleaned regularly as well even in the night). There were people in large groups shouting slogans eulogizing the divine mother. Overall it was very lively in the initial part of the journey. We also crossed the Ban Ganga stream where we descended few steps to reach the stream and sprinkle the holy water on ourselves. These little things we do adds to the divine experience of such pilgrimages.
Then we came across the Charan Paduka temple. This temple has the imprints of the feet of Mata Vaishnodevi on a stone. The footprints are believed to have been etched when Mata Vishnodevi turned back to see if Bhairavnath was still chasing her.
As we climbed higher, the initial vigour started to fade. The stops became longer and intervals more frequent. However, there was no dearth of motivation as along with us were many old aged people pushing themselves on the shivering night which encouraged us. The mantras and bhajans played on the speakers added inspiration. At Inderprastha, about 500 mts before the Adhkwari temple, the path to Bhawan diverges into two – one via Hathi Matha and other via Himkoti. The Himkoti marg is 1 km less in distance (also less steep) and horses and mules are not allowed on this path. On taking either path you get a diversion which leads you to the Adhkwari temple. Adhkwari is about 6 km from Ban Ganga and is located midway between Ban Ganga and Bhawan (site of the holy cave).
Mata Vaishnodevi rested and meditated in a cave popularly known by the name Garbh Joon for nine months at Adhkwari. When Bhairavnath approached her, she escaped from the backside by creating a narrow creek with her divine trident. This is also the place where she beheaded Bhairavnath. Devotees visit Adhkwari and pass through the narrow creek. First, you have to collect a token which has the group number and then wait for your turn. The waiting time may extend over 8-9 hours on normal days. Most devotees visit Adhkwari while returning. Some devotees rest here before moving ahead. There is a blanket counter where clean blankets are available on payment of caution money of Rs.100. There are dormitories and room facilities which are allotted if available. They can be pre booked through the official Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board website. We collected our token and instead of waiting, we decided to visit Adhkwari while returning.
Following is a video clip of the path that the devotees take from Ban Ganga to Adhkwari. You can see the devotees walking with their walking sticks during the night and some devotees travelling on horses amidst melodious bhajans being played on the speakers.
For devotees who are too tired, it is advisable for them to take rest at Adhkwari before making the onward journey. Try to travel as light as possible since everything including food, drinking water and blankets are available and you need not carry them along. I hope you liked this post. Below is the link to the 2nd part of the journey from Adhkwari to Bhawan followed by the Bhairavnath temple.