Staying at Delhi, I have seen the importance of the to Mata Vaishno Devi (lovingly called as Mata Rani) shrine located near Katra in Jammu. Popularized by late Gulashan Kumar of T-Series fame, the chants of जय माता दी (Jai Mata Di - which also is part of T-Series logo) is as popular in Delhi as the Ganpati Bapa Moriya in Mumbai. The Vaishno Devi Yatra is probably the most popular Hindu pilgrimage circuit from Delhi. Everyone living in and around Delhi aspire to visit the shrine. The popular saying goes that one gets a chance to visit only when Mata Rani wishes. Though not superstitious or very religious, I have seen people planning the trip, but had to be cancelled for one or other reason. May be the saying is true. We received our call or माता का बुलावा in Oct 2009.
Travelling from Delhi to Jammu by the Rajdhani was a familiar experience. Barely six months back had we taken this route for our Kashmir trip. The train arrives around 5 in the morning. The yatra starts from Katra, some 40 km from Jammu. We hired a taxi from the stand just outside the Jammu railway station. The taxi service is highly unionized. The rates are fairly high for a 40 km route, but no bargaining. One can hire a taxi only from the stand at the publicized rate of the taxi union. All types of cars are available from hire. We hired an ambassador for 750 rupees that accommodated two families comfortably.
There is no dearth of hotels in Katra. We took help of Kishor, our dependable driver from the Kashmir trip to find a decent accommodation at reasonable rate. We landed at hotel Indraprastha for 500 rupees per room. In Katra you require a hotel only for freshening up and then for a late night sleep when you will be returning dead tired. Thus taking a luxurious hotel makes very little sense unless you have loads of money to spare.
It was almost 10 am when we got ready for the यात्रा. Most hotels provide free dropping / pickup to the यात्रा start point. Being a lean period, the counter where यात्रा पर्ची or token / pass are issued was near empty. We had chosen a good time to be there. During peak seasons, like नवरात्री, there used to be huge lines in the पर्ची counters and it may take hours to get a पर्ची. The hotel car dropped us at the यात्रा start point which is another half km or so from the पर्ची counter.
यात्रा options from Katra:
One has the following options – 1) On foot which 2) Hire Ponies, 3) Hire पिठू (for small kids) and पालकी (for old people) 4) Use the battery operated car which is available between 6 and 12 km part of the track via Bhawan, and finally the easiest one, 5) Use the helicopter service.
90% of people do यात्रा cheerfully on foot. Hiring Ponies needs hard bargaining skill. Being un-regualted and so well organized to form cartails, the rates varies depending on your bargaining skill. If I compare this to my other यात्रा till date to the Hemkund Sahib in Uttaranchal, the pony service was organized and regulated. The rates were fixed and reasonable. The track there also was of 14 km, but not paved as this one and hence climbing was very tiring. The rates quoted by pony owner at Katra will make you shriek. Anyway, most healthy people will like to do the यात्रा on foot. It gives the real feel of a pilgrimage.
The shrine board offers services of battery operated autos between the 6 and 12 km part of the track. On their upward trip, the autos carry old people or ladies with babies. But on their downward trip they probably carry almost everyone. However, this service is available only upto 6pm in the evening. The charges are about 100 rupees per person.
The helicopter services are offered by two operators. The one way cost per person on the day of my visit (Oct 2009) was 1500 rupees. But going there by helicopter you will not be doing a yatra. A यात्रा on foot with friends has a different charm.
Our यात्रा started around 10:30 am. The weather was pleasant. It was a bit hot for climbing up the hill, but was bearable. Even though we had two kids, one 7 1/2 and other 6, we started on foot.
After the first 6 km, there are two routes -- one is 6 km (via Bhawan) and the other 8 km (via Ardhkuwanri). You have to take a call which way you want to proceed. The day we went, the route via Ardhkuwanri was closed for some maintenance. So we had only one option – the shorter one.
The entire track is tiled or paved and the incline is gentle. Therefore the climb is not very tough. Shortcuts with stairs are available at many places which we avoided as additional strength required in climbing stairs will drain you up fast. Almost the entire route upto the halfway diversion point is dotted by shops and eateries. These shops are allowed with hefty annual fees which run into lakhs and are a big source of income for the shrine board. There are a couple of eateries run by the shrine which offers lunch / meal at reasonable rates.
We had walked at leisurely pace. No one was in hurry. Every co-traveler appeared to be in peace occasionally chanting जय माता दी . There were several security posts where you will be frisked. This level of high security is because of the importance of place as a Hindu pilgrimage site and the location being part of the troubled state of JnK. Your bags etc are also scanned in X-ray machines at least twice.
After a long 7 hours of walking with numerous breaks, we had reached the shrine at 5:30 pm. The kids were so happy when they actually made the 12 km climb on foot. People say children have blessing of माता रानी which helps them to make the climb. Once you report at the yatra counter at the shrine, you are assigned a group no for darshan. This is basically done to divide visitors into batches. Even if you miss your batch, you can get in. प्रसाद has to be purchased from the shrine board counter located few meters ahead of the last security scan post.
By the time we got freshen up; the shrine was closed for the evening आरती. The आरती time was from 6pm to 7:45 pm. The two hour break had built up a sizeable queue. While waiting in queue, we had started to feel the bitter cold. Because of the height, the place becomes cold very fast after sunset. The bag where we had kept our warm cloths had been deposited in the locker rooms. The shrine board offers free of cost locker room service with safe boxes to keep your belongings. Nothing is allowed inside the shrine except you as person. One has to be careful to carry light warm cloths even in summer.
Our turn for दर्शन came at around 8:30. Moving in with the crowd and joining the chorus of जय माता दी, we reached the sanctum sanctorum. It was a memorable experience. We had heard so much of it and now we are standing in front of the deities. The दर्शन got over in about 15 minutes. The shrine remains open for दर्शन for almost 24 hours. Piligrims going there in summer often travels at night so that दर्शन can be done early in the morning.
Many people go to the Bhairon Temple located some further 2 km up the hill. Bhairon was a tantric who tormented the devi. He was killed by the devi, but then apparently given him a boon that the darshan of माता रानी would be considered incomplete if a visit to the Bhairon shrine is not done. Our legs were too tired to try that. May be we were not that religious. May be this appeared to be a cooked up story. We went there to pay obeisance to mata rani. Thus our यात्रा has finished. (There is a Bhairon temple in Delhi as well. I have a diferent story to tell about it.)
People were seen getting ready to sleep on whatever covered space available in the complex. Blankets can be hired there. But the idea of sleeping in open in that cold sent down shivers my spine. Other worry was the cleanliness of the blankets as they were both used as mattress as well as to cover up. Thus we had decided to return to Katra. We had our dinner there. Several eateries are available. This time we had skipped the shrine board run one at it was way too crowded. We tried hiring ponies for the kids. But the rates quoted were more than what they asked for coming up. That was ridiculous. They were so shrewd that they try to take advantage of your situation. Thus we decided to continue on foot.
The return trip took about 4 hours. My little girl indeed proved to be brave, in fact very brave. Aged just 7 ½ she completed the entire यात्रा on foot, i.e., a daunting 24 km in 15 hours. She needed some prodding and encouragement for the last 2-3 km. But she made it. I wrote a note to her class teacher about this feat who announced this to her class. When everyone clapped, she felt very proud of her feat.
We were back in Katra by 1:30 or so in the night. We hired an auto to reach hotel and lied dead asleep for the rest of the night.