Knowing my much expressed detestation to be bracketed as “Religious”, or even “Atheist” for that matter, my colleagues did not consider counting me in for the Vaishno Devi Yatra! It could not have escaped my ears and I raised hell at how can they conclude without even consulting with me, but at the same time, admitted that it was the trek that I cared for.
The year was nearing its end and spending the Christmas-eve at Vaishno Devi sounded a little queer, but we had to cache on the holidays. The promised Volvo coach never arrived (how we cursed our tour manager) at its Connaught Place (Delhi) bus stop, and the one that did, had seats so uncomfortable that I spent the entire night dreaming of sleeping in a soft bed layered with quilts. We reached the base camp, Katra (Jammu) by mid-day and after jostling our way through hordes of vendors, pilgrims, cows and mules, reached a decent looking hotel that charged some Rs. 300 per double room (per day).
Some 15 km uphill from Katra was the much aggrandised sanctum sanctorum. After a quick shower and snack we, the “pilgrims”, set off. Unlike my previous treks, this time I carried nothing along, just sealed my body from head to toe to beat the December bone-biting wind. After the ritualistic queuing and frisking (some 1 hour activity), the journey began.
The cemented pathway laced on both sides with small dhabas, shops selling every thinkable Vaishno Devi souvenirs, woollens, dry fruits, prasad and what not, lasted for some 2 km uphill, before it was just us, and the likes of us drudging up the indomitable hill, squalling “Jai Mata Di”.
I was befuddled to see pilgrims (including small kids) walking barefoot (our colleague, Sachin, being one of them), some even crawling chanting mantras, some so old that they went up in palkis and mule-backs, and all in that December chill (2 degree C). And there I was, amongst believers, wondering what was it that moved them so, that moved me not! And to tell you the truth, I felt envious of them and so wanted to feel that fever, that zeal.
If you look at it as an adventure activity, except for the biting cold and the ubiquitous smell of mule excreta, it was the most posh of all treks I have ever undertaken – cemented and well lit pathway with abundant shades, benches and restrooms at regular intervals, Cafe Coffee days and Nestle kiosks, and innumerable small dhabas. But we decided not to halt much, else the fatigue so tends to numb your body. Initially it felt like automatons climbing on and on and on, but gradually I began to enjoy every moment of it and the “Jai Mata Di” chant felt like some life-force and I could actually feel the “propel”. They call it – “Mata ne Bulaya Hai”.
It was some 1 am when we reached the Vasihno Devi Temple. Some joined in the bath brigade, while most of us stayed back queuing for the “Darshan”. Another series of frisking and we had to leave our belts, shoes, wallets behind in a locker. The hour-long wait inside the temple, barefoot, standing on the wet carpet felt so hellish that I thought Mata is punishing me for my streaks of atheism. What turned the tables was when we actually reached the kernel – it was an enclosure so small that I had to stoop to enter, the pandit tucked in a flower into my hand and before I could even see the “pindies” (three cone shaped stones each representing Durga, Parvathi and Saraswati), a uniformed man literally held my head and pushed in out through another door. I was infuriate – was this that much brouhaha’ed “darshan”? This definitely wasn’t worth the arduous 15 km climb – I concluded and walked out fuming.
The climb wasn't over – legend has it that Mata Vaishno Devi yatra is incomplete without visiting the Kaal Bhairabh temple 2 km further up hill. This one was comparatively peaceful and less crowded and it was actually here we could actually join our hands and meditate for some time.
The climb downhill was fun. But me and a friend started running and we weren’t even half way through (Ardh Kuwari), when my ankle for cramped and I had to drag myself on till I could find a pony.
I was all body-aches for the next few days and my friends joked that the cramp was Mata’s was of punishing non-believers. I don't know if they were right, and if Mata granted their wishes for walking 30 km up and down a hill on foot.
For me it was a wondrous trek, but I was too boggled with too many questions. I headed for Vaishno Devi once again and this time, alone. When I reached, I did not enter the temple, but walked further ahead and found myself a quiet place to meditate. And for that peace that I found there, I am ready to go there again and again – next time with something to scribble on. As I walked down I looked for the “faithless” so that I could tell them – “trust me, it is worth the climb”!