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Katra, India: Into the caves of the goddess Vaishno Devi

By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 January 2022

Header image courtesy of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board

I was two years old when I first embarked on this religious trek. My father had always been a devout believer of the goddess Vaishno Devi and had visited her abode multiple times. We often planned our family vacations around this pilgrimage. Looking back, I still feel a rush of adrenaline as I think of those beautiful days down memory lane.

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When I first stepped into the town of Katra, my mother told me that there will not be any meat available in the city. She then went on to say that onion and garlic was not used in the food. I stopped in my tracks. How would it taste, in that case? These were probably two of the main ingredients used in every Indian dish. But evidently, not in Katra.

While I was coming to terms with this, I decided to battle the cold and my thoughts with a cup of steaming masala chai. It heightened my senses immediately. I am not a fan of teas, but this particular brew had changed the way I looked at this beverage. I continued to sip on it as I stood in line for the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine yatra parchi (यात्रा पर्ची)—in other words, a ticket to visit the shrine. It is advisable to get your parchi as soon as you land in Katra. The queues are long and you may not be able to get it for your desired visiting time. We would usually buy ours 24 hours before making the climb, so that we can spend the day preparing for the long hike into the holy caves.

While we always hiked to get to the top of the mountain, there are other easier means to get the darshan (दर्शन)—or “sight of the goddess.” You could rent a horse, a palki (पालकी; a palanquin) or even book a helicopter ride up to Sanji Chatt (सांझी छत), a scenic plateau overlooking the shrine. We are a little old-school and loved the views as we climbed, so we stuck to trekking up on foot. After that, we hired a rickshaw that dropped us on the summit of the hill. We each brought a walking stick with us, as it was a steep descent. We also packed a little bag of essentials but made sure to pack light, as the hike takes about 24 hours. A change of clothes, a pair of socks, a packet of glucose biscuits, a small water bottle, and a torch is all you need as you make your ascent.

After passing through numerous security checks, we entered the abode of the goddess. A few miles in, we went down a flight of stairs to stop at a kiosk where a rugged old man wearing a beanie and multiple sweaters was serving a plate of the most delicious chana puri (चना पूरी) with a glass of sweetened milk—a heavenly combination and just the right thing to eat at the onset of the hike. 

I had been to the shrine nine times previously, but every time I stepped foot onto this beautiful incline, it felt as special as the first. Pithus (पाइनस)—Hindi for porters—were on hand to offer help with carrying your bags, little children, or frail old people in the long journey for a small price.

Slowly but surely, one step at a time, we continued to make the ascent. We were surrounded by an expanse of deep valleys, with lush trees everywhere. A convoy of monkeys accompanied us in this adventure, seeming very business-like in their mannerisms. Some of them were perched up on the trees, looking at us in sullen silence. Others were going about their routine trying to snatch any and all food items that they could lay their hands on.

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All through the ascent, we stopped at many points. First was at the Baan Ganga (बाणगंगा)—the holy stream, and a river of great spiritual significance for Hindu devotees. Legends say that when Vaishno Devi was heading to her abode in the Trikuta hills, her companion Lord Hanuman felt thirsty. She shot an arrow into the ground and a river sprang from it. She then washed her hair in this river before she continued. This is why anyone who embarks on this pilgrimage bathes or washes their feet in the river to cleanse themselves before continuing the journey.

According to mythology, Mahayogi Guru Goraksh Nathji had a vision of an encounter between Lord Rama and Mata Vaishno Devi. Lord Rama had directed her to meditate at the foothills of the Trikuta range and attain a higher level of spirituality in order to bless mankind. The Mahayogi called upon his able disciple Bhairon Nath to find out whether she had succeeded in her mission. Smitten by the goddess’ beauty, Bhairon forgot about his task and pestered the goddess to marry him. The Devi was aware of her powers and did not want to confront Bhairon, so she decided to flee from her ashram. Bhairon followed her up into the mountains, which brings us to the next stop in the trek: Charan Paduka (चरण पादुका). It is said that the Devi stopped at this point to see if Bhairon Nath was still following her.

There are two tracks that can lead you into the holy cave. Remember that you can only visit the Charan Paduka if you go by the old route. The new tarakote track is an easier climb, but does not pass some of the revered landmarks.

Next is Adhkuwari (अर्द्धकुंवारी), which means “the Eternal Virgin.” Long before you reach this point, the sound from booming loudspeakers will already have begun to besiege you. Located six kilometres from Katra, this landmark can be reached fairly quickly. It is said that the goddess found a womb-shaped cave where she meditated for nine long months, and when a disciple passes through this cave, they are cleansed of their sins and their souls become pious. When she realised that Bhairon Nath was approaching the cave, she created an exit with her trident and escaped.

At first, this cave may look extremely narrow and difficult to pass through. But every person who has taken the vow to pass through it has done so without any problems, regardless of weight and height. While the entrance is fairly broad, getting out of the cave is the challenge—you literally have to crawl out of it on all fours.

After Adhkuwari, the last stop remains the holy cave. Along the way, you are sure to find little girls dressed in ethnic Indian outfits sitting by the road. Passers-by would donate a few pennies to them, taking them to be a form of the goddess. As a child, I remember making the climb up to the holy cave and many devotees would spot me and touch my feet to seek blessings. They would offer me delicious chana puris as well. 

While trekking up, the list of delicacies that should not be missed includes rajma rice (राजमा), a North Indian meal made with red beans and rice. It’s important to keep yourself nourished at all times since the walk is so long. Keep sipping on glucose water and don’t forget to try the parathas (पराठा)—Indian flatbreads stuffed with different ingredients. The most popular of these is a potato-stuffed flatbread also known as aloo paratha (आलू पराठा).

The holy cave—or gufa (गुफा)—is where the goddess finally became one with the earth in all her glory. Bhairon Nath followed her relentlessly, forcing her to cut off his head. It landed in a place far above the holy cave, which is known as Bhavan (भवन) today. He pleaded for her forgiveness. The goddess then said that anyone who would come seeking her blessings into the holy cave would have to visit the Bhavan to complete the religious trek. 

Even while you walk up to the holy cave, it is important that you do not look up to the Bhavan which shines bright in the night sky. Bhairon Nath’s blessings can be sought only after you have received the goddess’s darshan. The atmosphere in the holy cave is always electric. The chants of the devotees echo fervently through the stone walls.

You have to make up your mind if you want to visit the Bhavan or not. It’s okay not to, but if you have resolved to do so, you cannot change your mind. The track up to the Bhavan is narrow and more difficult to climb. Ponies, porters, and palanquins accompany you with traffic from both sides while you are making the ascent on the narrow incline. 

Although it looks precarious, don’t panic—the ponies won’t hurt you, as long as you keep going. Once you reach the Bhavan, you will notice something unusual. The pandits and devotees offer gallons of whiskey to the idol as a token of respect. This is probably the only Hindu deity who wishes to be offered spirits (either whiskey or rum).

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From then on, the hardest part of the trek commences. Going down the incline is far more tedious than climbing up. The steep slope and setting sun are some of the factors that add to the exhaustion. While there are street lamps, oftentimes there is a shortage of electricity on the roads, and this is why it is important to carry a torch. 

But still, remember to look up every now and then into the night sky. The stars are bright and they gaze down on you, larger than life, as you descend through tufts of cloud and fog into the glittering city of Katra. People of all faiths come together to praise the goddess and seek her blessings. Some make the trek just for the beautiful views and to get a glimpse of Hindu culture. Either way, it is the kind of experience that stays with you for a long time.

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Amrita was born and brought up in the city of dreams—Mumbai—before she moved to Hong Kong. Magic is her life’s mantra. Which is why, you get no points for guessing that she’s a die-hard Potterhead. She loves manoeuvring through the bylanes of alien cities in search of delectable delicacies and blogging about them. She also has a palate for short stories and often writes tales inspired around the food she eats. Amrita has contributed to Condé Nast India in the past as a Copy Editor and Writer. And now, she’s on the quest to discover Hong Kong, one bite at a time.