Header image courtesy of Ankush Choudhary (via Unsplash)
There was a nip in the air. I sat by the window seat on the Jammu Tawi Express, and it squealed as it took a sharp turn, meandering with grace through a changing landscape. It was a long journey from Mumbai to Jammu—33 hours, to be precise. Back in the 1990s, there were no flights that we could take; they were either too expensive or always booked.
I personally loved taking the train. The idea of sipping on a steaming cup of tomato soup while reading my favourite book added to the entire experience. We were on our way to the town of Katra. While we had to undertake the 33-hour-long train journey, Katra was another two hours away by road. However, things have changed now, and there are direct flights available from Mumbai that can drop you into the heart of Katra in just a couple of hours.
My father always said that my ancestors were from this quaint little town in the mountains of Jammu. He also said that they were the pundits and treasurers at the Vaishno Devi temple. and that our family had fled the land when a few dacoits (डकैत; bandits) had murdered my great-great-granduncle. It was then that the family decided never to return—until my father decided to reconnect with his roots. He had always been a disciple of the goddess and he knew he had to go back, even if it was against the wishes of my grandfather.
A part of me thought that this was just a myth, family folklore, which was probably not true at all. But another part of me thought about how scary it could be if it really were true. My grandparents were petrified when my father first announced that he had to visit Katra. But then, they also said submissively that my father’s bulawa (बुलावा) had come—which roughly translates to “My father had been beckoned by the divine goddess Vaishno Devi herself.”
There was nothing they could do to stop him from going. From then on, these trips became a yearly ritual in the Katara household. And that’s when our adventures began.
Every Christmas break, we would embark on a month-long vacation to the north of India. It was the perfect weather to visit the goddess. While our destination was the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine, the itinerary was always different, and includes culturally rich places in close proximity to Katra. On one of our visits, we took a detour by visiting the Wagah border (the celebrated border between India and Pakistan) in Srinagar on our way to the shrine.
Another time, we visited Patnitop, an unheard-of hill station in the Udhampur district of Jammu. We also stayed at the iconic Wildflower Hall in Shimla (the summer capital of colonial India) on one of the trips. Each of these experiences was so varied from one another that, even though I was only a child, I can still see the memories vividly unfold in my mind every time I think about them.
On arriving at the Jammu Tawi Railway Station, the cold air stung us, chilling our bones as we stood waiting for the taxi to our hotel. We always stayed at K.C. Residency, one of the best hotels in Jammu in the 1990s. With time, other options for a comfortable yet luxurious stay in Jammu have sprouted up, such as Radisson Blu Jammu and Ramada Jammu City Centre. For the sake of nostalgia, my obvious choice even today would be to stay at K.C. Residency.
K.C. Residency boasts a revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel and close proximity to the Raghunath Temple and the market, which is why we always chose to stay here. Raghunath Temple is filled with over 2,000 idols of different gods. Be careful as you enter, because you will be asked to donate money at every step along the way. You can either politely refuse or enter with a bag full of change.
Cultural experiences aside, one of the best parts of our stay at Jammu would be getting takeaway from a local restaurant called Papa di Hatti, where we would gorge on the juiciest grilled kebabs. Cubes of grilled meat would melt in the mouth as a cool breeze enveloped you, keeping you warm and sated.
Our next day would be spent at the beautiful Hari Niwas Palace. It was built by the last maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, in the early twentieth century. He spent his last few days as maharaja here before he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). In the 1990s, the maharaja’s descendants converted the palace into a heritage hotel.
While we loved visiting the palace, we never stayed there as it was located on the outskirts of the city. Jammu is a beautiful place, but back then, it was not exactly safe to be out and about after sunset, so it was advisable to stay within the city limits. On the following day, we packed our bags and left before dawn. We were finally on our way to Katra. A soulful Punjabi song played as we made our way through lush mountains littered with snow, and the journey was filled with a panorama of picturesque views.