Unlike my previous visits when I travelled by road, this time, I splurged a little and took a flight from Jaipur to Jammu. On arrival at Jammu, I headed straight for the Vaishno Devi counter from where pilgrims can get there group number and prasad slip. For the uninitiated, the group number makes the process of the darshan a lot easier as you can join the queue only when your group number is announced. As luck would have it, the lady at the counter gave me a group number that was already “running” so I could get directly in the queue. Feeling happy about this pseudo VIP slip (I’ll explain the pseudo part later), I headed to Katra and went straight to my hotel, which was one of the many that had sprung up in the recent yeas.
Refreshed, I began the climb uphill at 7 pm, a deliberate decision to avoid the scorching heat during the day. En route, the heavens opened up and the rain slowed down my pace. Once you start the journey, it’s all about enjoying the beautiful views of the valley and temple, breathing in fresh air, talking to complete strangers and the ability to incessantly chant “Jai Mata Di”.
The entire 13-kilometre path is laced with shops that sell eatables and beverages and even hot, steaming Maggi, which came as quite a relief in the wind and rain! If nature calls or you simply need to rest, you’ll find stoppage points and washrooms, every half a kilometre or so. If walking the path of nirvana is something that you find yourself unable to do, don’t fret. You can be carried up on a palanquin by a pitthoo and that too, in your own separate lane!
Once you reach Ardkunvari, the midway point of the climb, you can take one of two paths. You can choose to continue uphill towards the temple or take a detour via Garbhjoom, a tiny cave that symbolizes the journey of a baby in the womb of the mother.
To facilitate an easier and more convenient darshan, the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board has a cloak room where pilgrims can leave their leather goods, cameras and mobile phones, all of which aren’t allowed in the temple. Aside from the cloak room, there are dharamshalas where you can also wait for your group number.
I reached the temple complex at 1 am with aching feet so after resting for an hour; I got in to the “running” queue for the 6 am darshan with my VIP slip in hand. To my shock, I was told that 6 am is when they shut the entrance to the temple for the morning aarti. There were hundreds of us stranded in the queue, soaking in the rain. After two and a half hours, I finally got to the main temple and somehow, all the fear of being lost in a stampede was overshadowed by sheer serenity. The cave had three idols of Mahakali. Mahasaraswati and Mahalakshmi which were adorned with fresh flowers and gold crowns. I offered my prayers and exited the cave, collecting Prasad on my way out.
Near the main Vaishno Devi temple, Shiv Mandir is another temple worth visiting. Built inside a cave, it has a small pool with fresh water comingfroma glacier. Another temple called Bhairav Nath is also in the vicitiny and a stop here is considered to have completed your pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi. I, unfortunately, had no time and continued my descent to Katra. I figured I’d leave something to do on my next trip to Vaishno Devi.