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Vaishnodevi pilgrimage

A Tryst With Mother

Mate (mother) is calling me," is the usual refrain of one overwhelmed with the irresistible urge. He forgets his past commitments, drops the job on hand and, at the first opportunity, rushes to catch the train to Jammu, the railroad to reach Vaishno Devi.

Over 4.5 million Indians from all parts of the country respond this way to Mate Ki pukkar (call of the mother) every year to one of the holiest shrines in northern India. Youngsters hope to fare well in examinations; newlyweds look for conjugal bliss. Some hope to win property cases; others look forward to the blessing of an heir. And some visit Vaishno Devi for no other reason than that they wish to see Mate. (This may happen even three times a year!)

Here is a true story. A Delhi-based industrialist of the Independence era, blessed with six daughters, turned to Vaishno Devi as his last hope. Having a son -- to carry forward the family name as well as to light a torch on the eternal journey to the Hereafter -was his typically fervent Hindu desire. He knew of other people who had been blessed with health, wealth, progeny and prosperity by Vaishno Devi. And felt confident that he too would not return disappointed.

The middle-aged industrialist undertook the arduous journey along with his wife on foot. Two years later his wish was fulfilled. Today the son, a bright young industrialist, makes it a point o visit Vaishno Devi every year.

Last year over a September weekend, we, a group of friends, decided to take a comfortable overnight train from Delhi to Jammu. The fast-changing landscape outside provided the right setting for contemplation the next morning. A field here, a forest there, a tiny hamlet a little further up. How enticing was the countryside, and how the mind struggled to break free from its usual urban confines!

A deluxe bus awaited us at Jammu. The first halt was 13 km away at "Pehla Darshan" (First Sighting) in Nagrota. Here, Vaishno Devi was believed to have been first sighted when she was barely five years old. The spot is said to have been sanctified by a stone temple built by the Pandavas (heroes of the epic Mahabharata) during their 14 years exile.

Around noon we reached the JKTDC Tourist Bungalow at Katra, 900 metres above sea level. There were a doctor couple, a teacher and some students already lodged there for the pilgrimage. After lunch and rest, at four o'clock we joined thousands of other pilgrims of all castes and creed for the 14 km hill trek. There were old and infirm people, newly married couples, and some with babes in their arms. Most people were all set to brave it all the way on foot, though some hired ponies.

The 8-10 feet wide, neatly cemented pathway was lined with drinking water and toilet facilities, waste bins, first-aid centres, as also stalls selling fruit, drinks, snacks, curios, walking sticks, caps, raincoats, windcheaters, umbrellas and so on. All these seemed rather redundant when we first set out fresh and well fed. But we realized their worth slowly as the climb got tougher and tougher.

The atmosphere was festive all along, though. Total strangers who wouldn't dream of nodding to each other in cities like Delhi and Bombay, were now helpful buddies encouraging fellow travellers with their water-bottles and snacks. A family of two couples and five children inspired others by singing praises of Vaishno Devi in foot-tapping tunes set to popular film songs.

One kilometre further up we reached Bana Ganga, a gushing rivulet. Legend had it that Vaishno Devi, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, had taken a vow of celibacy. Bhairon Nath, a Tantrik who was attracted to her, followed her into the hills. Bana Ganga emerged from the spot where Vaishno Devi struck a bana (arrow) on the bare mountainside to quench her thirst.

Half way up, Ardhkwari marked a spot 1,500 metres above sea level where Vaishno Devi was believed to have vanished into a cave to avoid Bhairon Nath. It was dusk by the time we reached Ardhkwari, and soon the area was lit up electrically. There were several dharamshalas (charitable rest houses) where food was being offered free to pilgrims by grateful devotees whose wishes had earlier been fulfilled by Vaishno Devi.

The pathway narrowed down now and there were hardly any shops, as the climb got more and more steep after Ardhkwari. Clouds gathered around us at Sanjhi Chhat , 2000 metres above sea level. (We learnt that it snowed here every winter.) The atmosphere was getting cold now and visibility dropped to a few feet.

The electricity went off at this point. Surprisingly, there was no panic in the misty darkness that followed. After all, absence of electricity was but a small discomfort for the pilgrims looking towards the stupendous reward ahead. The spirit of fellow wayfarers remained gay as ever. And as the destination got closer, songs in praise of Vaishno Devi grew louder and more enthusiastic.

A horse slipped on the mountain stream crossing the slippery bridlepath. Luckily, no one was injured. Round the bend, the first glimpse of Bhawan, our destination, came as a surprise. The valley across sparkled in a myriad colourful twinkling lights like any other hill station.

Mercifully, the passage was now downwards. A thousand yards more, and we were there!

Though we were famished and absolutely exhausted, most of us took a bath in the waters of the sacred Bana Ganga (piped into proper bathrooms) and postponed dinner till after the darshan : siting God, so to speak.

Heartfelt chants of Jai Mate di (Hail to the Mother) emerged spontaneously from all those who entered the tunnel leading to the holy cave where Vaishno Devi was reputed to have simultaneously assumed the incarnations of Mahakali (Goddess of power), Mahalakshmi (Goddess of wealth) and Mahasaraswati (Goddess of knowledge) after destroying Bhairon Nath.

After the celestial experience, I cannot vouch that I returned to Delhi a devout fan of Vaishno Devi. But I do know that everything turned out right soon after that.

Within a week my trusted and efficient old domestic help turned up out of the blue --¤ a newly married, sobered and a more responsible fellow. My children exceeded my expectations in their education -- the elder son got an excellent job on his own merit. And my deteriorating health took a turn for the better at last.

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¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri