Let’s begin by saying ‘Jai Mata Di’ as this is what people keep on chanting throughout their journey to the holy shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi. It is considered to be one of the holiest pilgrimages and a large number of pilgrims visit this place every year.
As a matter of fact, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Ji is known to reside in a holy cave that is located in the folds of the three-peaked mountain named ‘Trikuta’ (pronounced as ‘Trikoot’). The holy cave is positioned at an altitude of 5200ft. The base camp is at Katra and from there the visitors have to undertake a trek of around 12km.
Before I give you a glance of my trip to Mata Vaishno Devi, let me give you an overview of the history of the holy shrine.
History and Discovery of Holy Shrine
As per the geological study of the Holy Cave, its age has been estimated to be nearly of million years. The mountain Trikuta has its name mentioned in ‘Rigveda’, the oldest of the four Vedas.
The Mother Goddess was mentioned for the first time in the Mahabharat. While Pandavs and Kauravs were in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjun, on the advice of Shri Krishna, called upon the name of the Mother Goddess to ask for blessings for their victory. Then, Arjuna addressed the Mother Goddess as ‘Jambookatak Chityaishu Nityam Sannihitalaye’ that infers ‘who always dwell in the temple on the slope of the mountain in Jamboo’ (referring to the present-day Jammu). It is also believed that the Pandavs were the first to build the temples at Kol Kandoli and Bhawan in respect for the Mother Goddess.
Talking about the discovery of the Holy Shrine, it is known to be discovered around 700 years back by a pandit named ‘Shridhar’. Mata helped him in organizing a Bhandara that she left mid-way to reach ‘Bhairon Nath’. Pandit Shridhar felt really gloomy and he locked himself in a room, praying for the Mata Vaishnavi to reappear. That is when Mata reappeared in his dream and told him to search her at the holy cave located near the Trikuta Mountain.
Pandit went on to discover the holy cave in the mountains and whenever he was losing the way, the vision of his dreams helped him to reach the destination. Upon entering the cave, he found a rock with three heads. At that moment Mata appeared in the form of Maha Saraswati, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Kali in the holy cave. She introduced him to the three heads that are now known as the ‘Holy Pindies’. Mata asked him to spread the glory of the Holy Shrine all over.
One-and-a-Half-day trek to Mata Vaishno Devi
I visited there with my family during the month of May when summer is at its peak in India. The hotel was already booked online and as soon as we checked into the hotel, the weather took a turn and it started raining. But as everything was pre-planned, so we were not in a situation to delay anything.
The hotel was about 2-3 km from the ‘Darshani Darwaaza’ from where the ‘Yatra’ was supposed to begin. The moment we reached that spot, it was already raining and there was no way to escape that. The weather at Katra cannot be predicted anytime. You can check the climate and weather conditions in advance before planning your trip. We had some warm clothes with us so cold was not a problem but we were not ready for the raining part. However, there were vendors selling umbrellas.
- You need to obtain the ‘Yatra Registration Access Card’ in order to begin the journey. The card will be checked at the starting point, only then you will be allowed to proceed. Online yatra receipts can be obtained free of cost while offline yatra receipts can be availed from Yatra Registration Counter near the Bus Stand of Katra and Jammu for free.
To start the journey from the Darshani Darwaza, there are a number of options available to reach the Bhawan that is around 12-13 km uphill or if you prefer you can walk all the way. The options include: Palkis, Ponies and Pithoos. We opted for Ponies but only till our first stop i.e. Ardhkuwari. You can even hire them for your entire route as well but make sure you are well aware of the important points.
By the moment we reached our first stop, we were all wet and cold, so we sipped our first coffee at a nearby eatery. You will find a number of eating joints en-route to ‘Bhawan’. On Reaching Ardhkuwari, first of all, we obtained a group number from the ‘Garbhjoon Parchi Counter’. You will be allowed to enter the ‘Garbhjoon’ cave as per your group number. Our number was 253 and the waiting period was around 15 hours. So, in those 15 hours we have to reach the main Bhawan and come back to ‘Ardhkuwari’ via ‘Bhairon Ghati’.
Next, we moved to our rented accommodation that was ‘Shailputri Bhawan’.
Note- A number of free and rented accommodations is available at various spots like Jammu, Katra, Ardhkuwari, Bhawan, and Sanjhichatt. There you can relax while waiting for your turn for the ‘Darshan’.
Afterward, we took a nap and then around 3 in the afternoon headed towards the rest of the journey. To reach Bhawan, there were three routes available and the distance to cover was around 6 to 7 kms.
First route is the oldest one via ‘Hathi Mattha’ and ‘Sanjhichatt’. This route is comparatively difficult as it is on the steeper side. Also, the services of Ponies, Porter and Palanquins are provided on this route.
So, for the pedestrians, it is better to take the second route i.e. via ‘Himkoti’ as it is much cleaner and shorter route (5 kms). At this route, you can avail the facility of Battery-Operated Vehicles at the cost of around Rs 350 per person till Bhawan. However, this facility is mainly for senior citizens and handicapped people. We did the return journey via ‘Tarakote Marg’ (the third route), so I will explain it later.
As per our plan, we started walking down on the Himkoti route. On the way, there were several shelter sheds & seats to sit and relax. Moreover, there was proper provision of refreshment units (serving cold drinks, coffee, etc.), bhojanlayas (serving hygienic food on no-profit basis), and clean toilets. All these amenities were adding to a more convenient journey.
While walking, we kept on taking drink breaks and when it was about to sunset, we were in the vicinity of Bhawan. We started looking for a ‘Bhaint Shop’ to buy the offerings for the Goddess. You will find some shops selling Chunri, Sarees, Cholas, Silver or Gold ornaments, dry fruits, coconut etc. We bought one bag for ourselves from a nearby shop.
Note: There are a number of Bhaint Shops near Bhawan and they sell at no-profit-no-loss. Hence, there is no need to buy the offerings from Katra and carry it all the way to Bhawan.
We kept all our belongings like bags, mobile phones and leather item in a locker of the cloak room as no such items were allowed any further. Then we got into a queue that took us to the main temple for the Darshan. There was not much rush and some time was left for the ‘Aarti’ to begin.
Note- The ‘Aarti’ of the Goddess is performed twice a day, first time in the morning just before the sunrise. Second time, it is performed in the evening immediately after the sunset. The whole procedure of ‘Aarti’ takes nearly two hours during which time the darshans remain suspended. You can also book an individual or special poojan for yourself.
Inside the Holy Cave
The moment we start moving towards the cave, it was really magical and spellbinding. Everyone around us was chanting ‘Jai Mata Di’ while moving forward. After crossing one or two check points, we entered the place where ‘Poojan’ of the Goddess’ takes place. That holy cave is known as the ‘Old cave’, through which devotees used to reach the ‘Sanctum Sanctorum’ in the earlier days. Nowadays, the cave is kept closed for a large part of the year as it is quite narrow. It takes several minutes for a single person to cross it and reach the Sanctum Sanctorum.
Note- The original cave is opened during the traditional festivals or for ritualistic occasions.
After crossing the area of the original cave, we reached a broad platform where statues of the Lions, the mount of the Mother Goddess and a life size statue of the Mother Goddess have been enshrined. This is the entrance of the new tunnels and at the end of the tunnel; we saw a raised marble platform on which the Divine Mother has revealed herself in a natural rock form known as the Holy Pindies.
Make sure you totally concentrate on the three ‘Pindies’ and the priest sitting on the platform. He will enlighten you about these Pindies. Also, the Darshan time is very limited due to a large number of pilgrims.
Those two minutes that we got to have a glimpse of the Holy Pindies sums up the entire journey to Mata Vaishno Devi. After moving out from the tunnel, we all were very content and smiling.
However, this is not where the journey gets over. After coming out of the tunnel onto the left side of the cave, there is the ‘Amrit Kund’ known as the ‘Charanamrit’. The taps run the water of the Charan Ganga, the sacred water flowing from the feet of Mata.
Other Darshans at Bhawan
There are other Darshans in the Bhawan area as well. We went for the Darshans of Lord Shiva’s Shivling in a cave. You can look for these temples by following the directions given by signboards that have been put up at Bhawan.
After all this, we got a hold of our bags and stepped towards the next stop, ‘Bhairon Ghati’. To reach there, ropeway service has been started lately. The Ropeway service has shortened the distance to just 3 minutes and the charges were also very affordable (Rs 100 per person). But to our bad luck, it got dark till that time and ropeway service cannot be availed during night. So, again we had to walk for the rest of the journey or hire those pithoos or ponies.
It was around 8 at night when we started off for Bhairon Ghati. The distance was an hour long and steeper than before. So, when we reached Bhairon Ghati, we all very hungry. No eateries have been provided on the way as the distance is not that long. But near the Bhairon temple, there were some shops and stalls, where you can munch upon some snacks.
Next, we followed the same procedure, got some offerings and walked upstairs towards the temple. We did not see any rush there as not every pilgrim to Vaishno Devi visits this temple. So, it took us only five to ten minutes to do the Darshan.
I will recommend everyone to visit this place at least once, whenever you plan a trip to Mata Vaishno Devi as the journey is considered complete after visiting this temple.
Back to ‘Ardhkuwari’
Till this time, the weather had already taken a toll on us and we were feeling both cold and tired. But to our dedication, we put on warm clothes and after a break of half an hour, started walking for the return journey to our accommodation at ‘Ardhkuwari’.
There were two ways for return journey; one was the same way using which we have reached the temple and the other one that was relatively shorter. So we chose the latter one and after a long walk of two to three hours, we were at ‘Shailputri Bhawan’. Then we checked the current group number that entered in the ‘Garbhjoon’ cave and it was 225. Ours was 254 and as per our estimation, our turn to enter the cave will come early in the morning.
So, we took some blankets on rent and got on our beds to sleep for the next 4 to 5 hours. After a restless sleep of 3 hours and at around 3 in the morning, I was woken up by my brother telling that we need to rush to the temple as our turn was about to come. We got freshen up in five minutes and in the next ten minutes, we were in the temple with 40 other people.
I was considering myself lucky that time as for the next group the Darshans got suspended for the next three hours due to ‘Aarti’ at the temple. So it was around 5 in the morning, we all were so happy and relaxed as we have finally completed all the major Darshans. Now, we can head over to Katra to our hotel.
Journey Back to Katra
The journey was not over yet as we have to walk down all the way to Katra. From there we will hire an auto or taxi for the hotel. It was our bad that we chose the new route i.e. Tarakote marg to reach Katra. As the route was newly inaugurated, there were only two or three places to eat or drink on the way. Also, the route was relatively less steep so the distance we have to cover by walking got increased to around 7.5km (2 km longer than the other way).
However, there is a facility of ‘Langar’ (Free community kitchen) on the Tarakote marg where the free food facility is provided from the donations received by the pilgrims. We did our breakfast there after a walk of around 5 kms. We also put some amount as a donation in the box provided there. The Langar serves around 8500 pilgrims.
No doubt the route was all clean and the toilet facility was also available at different spots, but still choosing the Tarakote marg was not a good idea at all. I will recommend, it is better to use the other way even if it is more congested because of the pithoos and ponies. It took us around 3 hours to reach the ‘Taxi Point’ and till that time, our legs were cramping so badly.
The best way to get back to Katra is to take the helicopter service. There is a place known as ‘Sanjhichatt’ that is around 3km from Bhawan. A new Helipad has been constructed there. The helipad offers the Helicopter Service between Katra and Sanjhichatt. This way you can cover the entire journey back to Katra in the blink of an eye.
On an ending note, I can conclude that my trip to ‘Mata Vaishno Devi’ was an adventurous one. It was tiring on one hand but on the other hand, we got to see the struggle of other people during the journey. All in all, it was a memorable experience for me. If you are a person of strong religious sentiment, you must make a visit to this place at least once in your life.
Some Tips from My Side:
- Pack your bags in a way that you have every single necessity like warm clothes, torch, lock, spare footwear, pain reliever spray, first-aid, an extra pair of clothes and the other important things you can think of. This is vital to avoid any uninvited emergencies.
- Make all the bookings in advance from a trusted website and read all the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ mentioned on the official website.
- Your security and safety are your responsibility.
- To evade rush; avoid going there during weekends, festivals and during the month of May and June.
- Beware of emotional blackmailers. If someone approaches you on the pretext that he/she has lost her wallet and need money to reach back home, DO NOT entertain them and the least you can do is to escort them to a nearby police post.
- To enjoy thoroughly, make sure you plan a trip of at least 2-3 days.