Sunday Dec 02, 2007

A Trip to Vaishno Devi

During my vacation last week, I made a trip to Vaishno Devi Mandir - one of the biggest and the heavily visited shrine of the Hindus. This shrine is located in the Udhampur District in the Northern most state of India, Jammu and Kashmir, and is dedicated to the Mother Goddess.

The shrine is managed by Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) who are doing a stupendous effort. I was particularly very impressed with the communication, facilities and cleanliness through out.

The shrine is at an altitude of 5200 feet and visited by millions (almost 7 million in 2006) of devotees every year. Read the Hindu legend behind this holy place.

How to get there ?

After taking an overnight train journey from Delhi to Jammu, there is a 3 hour bus journey to The Katra. This is the base camp where all the pilgrims assemble to start the 12 km (7.5 miles) hike up the hill to The Bhavan. This is the main place of worship and has the holy cave which has the manifestation of Mother Goddess - Mata Maha Kali, Mata Maha Lakshmi and Mata Maha Saraswati.

More details are available here.

In Katra

There are numerous hotels in Katra that can be rented overnight and provide facilities ranging from full room service to cloak rooms. And the rates are pretty reasonable too.

The Shrine Board issue receipts (one per group/family) at the Katra in order to control the number of pilgrims in the Bhavan. It is of utmost importance to collect this receipt because this is your ticket to entry to the Bhavan later.

If you are not interested in hiking from Katra to Bhavan, then alternatively you can ride a pony, palki (palanquin) or even a helicopter ride. A mix-and-match where you ride the pony oneway and walk the other way is also available. Or you can also hire a pithoo (porters) who will carry your luggage from Katra to Bhavan and vice versa. The biggest majority of devotees walk all the way up & down and backpack their change of clothes or goodies (that may include prasad - offering to the Godess) to be offered at the Bhavan.

The hike can be done on the paved path (very well maintained) or up the stairs (shorter distance but steep and tiring). The paved path and stairs meet at certain points. However one particular stairs have 529 steps, before an exit, so make sure to watch out for that (marked before the stairs) before you venture. There are numerous food and utility shops through out the hike. And then of course there are Dhabas (street-side restaurants) which serve complete meal.

Mid Way Stop - AdhKawari

After approx 7 km of hike you'll reach AdhKawari. This is where Mother Goddess meditated for 9 months in a cave attaining spiritual wisdom and powers. The pilgrims wait in queue to enter the holy cave.

A token is issued (one per family/group) to control the flow of pilgrims. The typical wait time after the token number is current is 3 hours. In order to save time, some of the devotees skip this optional stop over.

At the Bhavan

The visit at the Bhavan typically start with a freezing cold water shower and a change of clothes. Even though both are optional, but highly recommended after a steep hike.

The ticket issued at the Katra is exchanged for a batch number at a counter in the Bhavan. The running batch number is clearly displayed at several places. The devotees which carry the current batch number, or lesser, can enter the queue.

After entering the queue, you pass through a maze (which is useful to handle the crowd during rush time) and finally find yourself in front of a marble stone cave. The actual manifestation of Shri Vaishno Devi resides at one end of this cave. After worshipping the Deity (typically for 2-5 seconds because of a continuous churn of devotees) and making your wish, you head over to the exit at other end of the tunnel.

The pilgrims keep reciting "Jai Mata Di" (Hail Mother Goddess) all through out the journey from Katra to Bhavan and back.

Bhairon Mandir

After worshipping at the Bhavan, you head over to Bhairon Mandir (Bhairon Temple). A visit to this temple is skipped by a few devotees because of a further higher altitude and steepness of the hike. This is the highest elevation (approx 6600 feet) in the entire trip. Make sure to carry your camera to capture some picturesque view of the Himalayas, especially in the winter season.

After worshipping at this temple, the downhill hike starts. However be cautious of the monkeys on the way coming back. Specifically if are using one of the commonly used bags (bought at the prasad shop) then they might pounce upon you ;-)

Back Home

At the end, we took a bus from Katra to Jammu and then finally a train ride back to Delhi.

This was my third trip and I must say I'm really thankful for Mata's Call.

The complete album is here:

The complete detailed planning can be done after reading the tips here.

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Arun Gupta is a technology enthusiast, a passionate runner, author, and a community guy who works for Oracle Corp.


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