India - Pilgrimages
|Pilgrimage Destinations of India|
Destination: Vaishno Devi, Jammu
"Chalo Bulawa Aya Hai Mata Ne Bulaya Hai,” 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 the 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 their wish to see Mata.
Devotees aver that the revered Mata calls out to her followers, and only then can one go to her sublime shrine. An arduous journey up the Trikuta Mountain range and the final darshan (audience) of the Goddess leaves one with staunch faith in Her. It is believed that one can ask the great Mother of any needful thing and promise to visit her when the wish is fulfilled. Lakhs of people vouch for the deity's graciousness and visit the shrine in the form of thanksgiving.
Vaishno Devi originated out of the combined tejas or powers of the three Supreme Gods forming the Trinity, i.e., Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The purpose of her creation was to eliminate the invincible and troublesome Rakshas community, mainly the vicious Asura Mahishasura. Another reason was that she might usher on earth an era of pious and ascetic life so that peace could prevail upon the world. She was destined to ultimately merge with Vishnu after attaining higher levels of spirituality through her penance. Vaishno Devi is the embodiment of the collective spiritual strengths of Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati.
The Goddess took birth in her human form in the house of King Ratnakar Sagar who ruled South India. Named Vaishnavi, she was a very extraordinary girl displaying an insatiable inclination towards meditation and penance right from the childhood. Ultimately, she decided to adopt a life of renunciation and go to the forest for tapasya (meditation).
It was during her tapasya that Lord Rama, who was in his fourteen years of exile, happened to visit Vaishnavi. The divine Goddess recognized him immediately as her supreme goal, i.e., Lord Vishnu himself. Subsequently, she prayed to be absorbed into the Creator. Lord Rama, however, told her that it was not the right time for the convergence and said that he would visit her again after the end of his exile. If Vaishnavi succeeded in recognizing him at that time, then he would fulfill her wish. Rama visited her again after killing Ravana, but this time in the guise of an old sage. As destiny would have it, Vaishnavi failed to recognize him. The benevolent Lord, however, consoled her by saying that the appropriate time for Vaishnavi's merging with the God would come in the Kaliyug when he would be incarnated as Kalki. He advised Vaishnavi to meditate in the cave of the Trikuta hills until then.
As instructed by Rama, the Goddess settled down at the foot of the Trikuta Hills and became engrossed in meditation. Very soon, her glory spread to far and wide and people started pouring in to seek her blessings. In the course of time, a tantrik named Gorakh Nath became curious about the sanguinity of the famed Goddess and sent forth his disciple Bhairon Nath to find out the details about her. However, on seeing Vaishnavi, Bhairon Nath felt so enamored by her beauty that he became possessed with the idea of marrying her.
At about the same time, Sridhar, an ardent devotee of the Mother, organized a Bhandara (community meal). All the village people including Guru Gorakh Nath and his disciples were invited. As the Bhandara progressed, the Goddess came to provide Sridhar with the necessary food items and also to attend to the guests. On seeing the beautiful Goddess, Bhairon Nath tried to embarrass her by demanding meat and alcohol. When Vaishnavi declined to provide Bhairon Nath with his desired items, the rogue sprang to grab Vaishnavi. The Goddess ran away and the nonchalant tantrik ran after her. There ensued a long-drawn drama of chase between the two. During her flight, the Goddess halted at Bana Ganga, Charan Paduka, and Ardhkwari.
At Ardhkwari, she hid inside a very narrow cave and remained there meditating for whole nine months. When she came out, the charlatan Bhairon Nath again commenced on his chase after her. Finally, both of them reached the cave entrance of the present-day shrine. It is here that the Goddess was compelled to behead the tantrik to end the drama. The severed head of Bhairon fell at the place where the Bhairon Mandir now stands. The dying Bhairon Nath realized the power of the Divine Goddess and begged her of forgiveness. The merciful goddess forgave him and blessed him with the boon that Bhairon Nath would have the glory of being visited by every devotee of the Mother. She ordained that a person's yatra (journey) would remain fruitless and incomplete if he/she fails to visit the temple of Bhairon Nath after having visited the Goddess. Since then, the custom is to visit the Mata's shrine first and then to visit the Bhairon Nath temple.
It is believed that Vaishno Devi is still meditating upon Vishnu and would continue to do so until the Lord arrives as the Kalki Avatar. She resides in the holy cave in the form of a five and a half feet tall rock with three heads or pindies. These pindies constitute the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine.
WHEN TO VISIT
Although the Vaishno Devi shrine can be visited throughout the year, the pilgrimage is generally undertaken by the devotees in the severe cold months of the year, i.e., from October to February. During the festival of Navaratri, thousands of diehard followers from all over the country and even abroad line up the long mountain roads to worship the deity. Navaratri is the biggest festival in honor of the Goddess and people have to stand in lines for hours to have the darshan.
A deluxe bus from Jammu takes one to the first halt at Nagrota, 13 km away. Known as Pehla Darshan (First Sighting), it is said that Vaishno Devi was first sighted here when she was barely five years old. The spot is sanctified by a stone temple believed to have been built by the Pandavas during their exile.
The next stop is at the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC) Tourist Bungalow at Katra, which is perched at 900 meters above sea level. The actual yatra starts at Katra, from where pilgrims are required to cover an arduous stretch of 13 km either on foot or by ponies.
The journey begins with the procurement of the yatra slip from the tourism reception center at the Katra bus stand. The slip, which comes free of cost, is nevertheless vital to initiate the pilgrimage.
One can get various assorted items for the yatra such as caps, canvas shoes, sticks, etc., on hire and purchase. Pithus (coolies) can be hired for carrying your goods and small children. In addition, pony and dandi (palanquin) services are available for those who have problems in climbing the mountains. However, only registered pithu, pony and dandis should be hired and their tokens kept during the period they are engaged.
The 8–10 feet wide, neatly cemented pathway is lined with drinking water and toilet facilities, and a variety of tit-bit shops. There emerges an atmosphere of congeniality as the fellow pilgrims start cheering each other to undertake the arduous journey. Many people sing in the praise of the Goddess and assert their faith that the Divine Mother would help them to reach their destination up across the difficult path.
One kilometer further up is the Bana Ganga, a gushing rivulet. It emerged from the spot where Vaishno Devi struck a bana (arrow) on the bare mountainside to dig up a water spring for quenching her thirst.
Ardhkwari is at halfway to the Bhavan, the main shrine spot. It is 1,500 meters above sea level. The venerated Mother was believed to have vanished into the cave of Ardhkwari to escape from the pursuing Bhairon Nath. Many devotees undertake the ordeal of the difficult narrow cave. It is believed that a sinner cannot pass through this cave shrine. This place has been developed on a large scale with the setting up of several dharamshalas (charitable rest houses), vegetarian restaurants and other shops.
The pathway narrows down after this and the climb gets increasingly steep. Clouds gather around at Sanjhi Chhat, perched at 2,000 meters above sea level. The atmosphere gets cold from here and visibility drops to a few feet.
Up at Bhavan, one has to show the yatra slip at the registration office and take the batch number provided on the slip. This is necessary only when there are a large number of yatris assembled for the darshan. Bhavan is situated in a valley and is literally a small, crowded, colorful hill station.
Upon reaching Bhavan, it is preferable if not mandatory to take a bath before going for the darshan. One should then proceed to buy prasad, chunri and coconuts from the shops located near the cave shrine. Now comes your turn to proceed towards the cave shrine. Amidst the chants of the joyous devotees, as they move in queue towards the awe-inspiring and venerated place where the pindies are worshipped, your pilgrimage to the abode of the Mother is made.
However, an important part of the yatra is still left after Bhavan. It is the ascent to the Bhairon Temple, which is located at a higher altitude. As ordained by the Goddess, it is compulsory to undertake the yatra of Bhairon Mandir, failing which the pilgrimage is deemed incomplete. The return journey from the Bhairon Temple takes one to an even higher height before leading down the mountains. This route is comparatively shorter.
The following is a list of attractions in the vicinity of the Vaishno Devi shrine:
7.Bhim Garh Fort
8.Shri Raghunath Temple (Jammu)
11.Bana Ganga Temple and Bridge
12.Charan Paduka Temple
17.Shri Raghunath Temple (Katra)
Hotel Asia Jammu Tawi, Hotel Hari Niwas Palace, Hotel Jewels are some of the standard hotels in Jammu. The room rent ranges from Rs. 300 to Rs. 3,000 per day. Besides, there is the Yatri Niwas managed by the Shrine Board.
Beside the Yatri Niwas, a number of quality hotels and rest houses are available at Katra.
HOW TO REACH
The nearest airport is at Jammu, 48 km from Katra. Regular flights are available from Delhi and Srinagar. One has to go by bus or private vehicle to Katra, which is at the base of the Trikuta range.
The nearest railhead is the Jammu Tawi railway station, which is connected with Calcutta, Delhi and Kanyakumari
The interstate bus terminus at Jammu has bus services to several cities within and outside the state.
INFORMATION TIT BITS
Devotees can buy the items for worship from the souvenir shops run by the Shrine Board at Bhavan and Vaishnavi Dham, Jammu.
The following is a list of the items available with their rates:
Superior chunris: Rs. 125
Medium chunris: Rs. 65
Other chunris: Rs. 30
Blouse piece: Rs. 6
Sari: Rs. 40, Rs. 75, Rs. 90, Rs. 100, Rs. 130, Rs. 150
Chola: Rs. 15, Rs. 50, Rs. 100
DO'S AND DON'TS
1.One must take official receipts for all payments made to the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board as well as private vendors.
2.One must pay the actual prices of all services. For the purpose, official rate lists are available.
3.Services of only the registered people—be it pithu, pony or the dandiwalla—are advised to be taken. One should also keep their tokens for the period they are engaged.
4.Luggage and belongings must not be kept with unknown and unauthorized persons.
5.One should be also careful against doubtful people, as such people abound in pilgrimage centers.
6.Sanctity of the place has to be maintained with abstinence from indulging in gambling, playing cards, smoking or chewing paan on the journey.
7.Beware of anti-social elements at Ardhkwari, especially during the overnight.
8.As for clothing, light woolen garments are required at night during the summer while heavy woolens are necessary in the winters.
9.Donations to the Shrine are exempt from Income Tax under the Income Tax Act.
10.To lodge a complaint, one may contact at the Central Office of the Shrine Board located at Katra, or the SDM or Tehsildar in Room No. 8, Kalika Bhawan, Durbar.