With our hustle-and-bustle Varanasi trip over, we make our way over to the next bump in our journey: the northern Indian state of Jammu, specifically the city of Katra. On both legs of the flight, I’m beset by a stomach bug, headaches and nausea, so I spend most of the day forcibly lugging myself and my baggage around airport terminals. Woe is me and my poor immune system. But on the Delhi to Jammu leg of our flight, I somehow score an entire row to myself, so I take full advantage and curl up sleeping like a baby.
We disembark from the plane in Jammu, where we meet up with our driver, Vijay, who will take us to Katra and accompany us on the remainder of our trip. On the way to Katra is highly majestic – and illuminating – car ride, filled in equal measure with army barracks and lush green, mountainous landscapes. I’m at once enthralled by the natural splendor of the area, and also unsettled by the numerous soldiers, gun shops and roadside replicas of tanks that we pass. I’m sure there are reasons for this heavy armory, such as being located close to the border with Pakistan, with whom India has tense relations and also due to the conflicted political situation in Kashmir. Yet it still seems like a uncomfortable bit of a glorification of militarization to me. And oh, how could I forget the monkeys! We spot a few gloriously cute monkey moms and their babes sitting by the side of the road. But they’re not only cute…more on that later.
We make only one stop at a temple (ironically, I’m thanking God that we’re not visiting any more temples today) on the way to Katra. When we get to the hotel, I fall into a blissful, much-needed ten or eleven hour sleep. And then we’re off to Vaishno Devi!
Vaishno Devi, located atop a mountain, is a temple that honors Mata Di, the goddess representing a combination of three other deities: Lakshmi, Paravati and Saraswati. Containing the strength and powers of these three goddesses, Mata Di killed an evil demon, whose name I cannot remember, but I think is Bhairov? Anyway, this place is a sacred pilgrimage site for many Indians who journey from all across the country to make it here. We fly over in stellar style, via helicopter, taking in the awe-inspiring aerial view of tree-lined mountains.
From there, it’s a brisk 45 minute walk, mostly downhill, to the temple. On the way, we soak in the breathtaking scenery, and also attempt to avoid the monkeys. While they’re cute from afar, in places like Vaishno Devi where the monkeys are accustomed to humans, you need to be wary at all times of a monkey snatching your bag or purse in search of sweet treats. Mom has a close call when a monkey frightens her, and she drops a simple paper bag of cloth offerings for the Mata Di. The monkey runs away, but not before ripping the bag open in search of food. Along the way, pilgrims walking to the temple shout ‘Jai Mata Di! Jai!’ a holy call to Mata Di. There’s a wonderful sense of community among those making this ‘yatra’ or pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi, which I’ve never really personally felt in a Hindu temple before. I find it to be refreshing.
The temple itself is a confusing mix of different locker areas where one can store personal belongings (only offerings to Mata Di are permitted inside the inner sanctum of the temple), bathing ghats, minor temples within the larger temple complex, and finally, a narrow tunnel that leads to a teeny-tiny cave where the statue of Mata Di is held. There, where we can make our five-second offerings before the next person in line has their turn. For me and most people, I think most of the experience of visiting Vaishno Devi comes from the journey of getting to and from the temple, rather than the temple itself.
We make our way back to the helipad area, but as we walk there, we grow worried by the increasing fog. By the time we make it there, the area is completely surrounded by fog, and they’ve shut down the helicopter operations for safety purposes. We wait and hope that they resume the rides, but after nearly two hours of waiting, we decide (after some shameful nudging on my part) to make the 3-4 hour trek down the mountain. It’s all downhill, the weather is refreshingly cool for this time of year, and the views are spectacular, so it wouldn’t be that bad. Except for the aforementioned monkey dodging. And did I not mention the horses? No, I guess not. For those unable or unwilling to climb up and/or down the mountain/purchase a helicopter ticket, you can also opt to ride either a horse, pony, or dholi. If you ride a dholi, that means you sit in a cart and are carried by four men up and/or down the mountain. From Western sensibilities, this might seem like a gross form of human labor. And while to some extent that’s true, these dholis also allow elderly and/or disabled individuals who would not otherwise be able to make this pilgrimage to get to the temple. Halfway down, we hire a dholi to carry Vijaya Grandma, as the walking is starting to wear on her feet..all of us are exhausted, really. Going down the constantly steep incline of the mountain is brutal and quickly wears you down.
Back to the horses: you can ride either a pony or horse, depending on your age and size. A horse trainer remains at the back of the horse, guiding it and up and down the steep mountain, and occasionally, whipping the horse if it runs too fast or too quickly. For the record: I do not condone horse whipping. I do, however, despise walking in front of a galloping horse. The horses turn what would otherwise be a fairly pleasant walk into a game of hopscotch, stepping from one side of the road to the other and looking back and forth in order to dodge horses coming from both sides. Not to mention that you also have to manage to look down as well in order to dodge the horse doo-doo.
As we reach the end of the hike, we also find a splendid blend of Hindu religiosity and capitalistic fervor. Here, countless shopkeepers hawk low-quality wares, including photos and model replicas of Mata Di, as well as ceremonial areas replete with cheesy fountains and photo booths, where you can combine your prayer with a family photo opportunity.
With that, we hire a small taxicab or auto-rickshaw (“auto” for short) and head back to the hotel for dinner, some shopping, and rest. What a day!