Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trip to Vaishno Devi – The Mother goddess (November 14, 2009)

When I came to India, I wanted to do one hiking trip at least, and nothing crossed my mind but to do Vaishno Devi hike. Last time I did this hike in 1982. I am thankful to Dr. Tarun (my brother) and Dr. Kapil (my high school classmate) who agreed to quickly drop whatever plans they had for that weekend, and joined me. It was quite reassuring to have two Doctors along with me, just in case I needed some medical attention durin

g or after the long hike of 30 KM ( 20 miles) and elevation gain of 3700.

We booked reservation in train using Tatkal (immediate) service, for which they charge 30% premium. Some time back there was a study, in spite of being Government run, why Indian Railways has been ridiculously profitable, even though they did not raise fares for a long time. Dr. Tarun explained some of that mystery. Some trains, only had 12 tickets in general category, and rest of the 128 tickets, available in Tatkal reservations only. If you want to book return ticket, there is extra charge for that in addition to regular fare; you get the idea. I was simply amazed at ingenuity and creative ways Railways Administrators found in making it profitable, of course, it helps that there is no competition.

We boarded the overnight train, from Delhi to Jammu. The compartments were comfortable, food was provided, along with water, blankets, sheets and pillow. Most of people who boarded the train, are meant to go for the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage. Our neighbors (two families),

confirmed that they are heading for the pilgrimage, and they have done it over 15 times. I was impressed, though they looked much younger than me, some of them were out of shape. Out of

curiosity, I asked them, how much time did it take for climbing up? After a brief pause one of them answered 3 to 4 minutes.


They mentioned that they used helicopter service. That explained some of, as why India is now Diabetes Capital of the world. Even though there was a very well maintained trail with over 15 restaurants in 15 Km and tea shops through out, (literally, as shops were blocking most of the views of mountain/valley), I saw lot of young people using Helicopters and mules. This was not true 27 years ago, when I saw a lot more people on trail, chanting Jai Mata Di (hailing mother goddess), through out.

In my opinion, this shift in culture is primary due to increased affordability, import of western TV channels/programming coupled with fast food concept. North Indian food itself is heavy, and if you further add TV programming to it, it seems like 4 of your 5 senses (sight, listening, smell and taste) have immediate gratification. Apart from 4 movie channels which show constantly

western movies, you could see Seinfeld, Friends and other popular sitcoms. Then there is Indian equivalent of American Idol, Bachelor, Big Boss (where you see outdated celebrities) and similar other programs. Besides, you have Indian Soaps which are hugely popular and Indian movie channels. Then there is cricket, 3 hours, one day and 5 days version.

After reaching in time at Jammu, thanks to Dr. Kapil, we had a taxi waiting for us to take to Katra (50 Km). It took us one hour to reach and another hour to find out that hotels at the top (Bhawan) are all full. So we decided to go and come back on the same day. We stayed at Niharika hotel, managed by Vaishno Devi Shrine Board. Shrine board has made the pilgrimage extremely affordable and facilities were real good. The whole trail is paved, the food is extremely cheap at restaurant managed by Shrine board. They have free sleeping facilities through out the trail; and also dorms, rooms and AC rooms at nominal prices. Toilets and cloak rooms are available every where. Basically, from Katra to Bhawan hike, you do not have to carry anything, if you are planning to return the same


I thought, based on my weekly hike experience, I would be up in 2-3 hours. However, Dr Kapil decided to make use every rest room which came along the way. It was clear something was

bothering him. He would not admit it. However, masseuses, which were available through out the trail, kept coming to him and offering their services. Soon, he succumbed to the pressure, and got a massage. Dr Tarun took the opportunity to shoot the video, which killed any further chance of getting a massage. We were offered mule ride also. It was painful to watch people who were riding the mules, as they seemed highly uncomfortable, and from their grunts, it appeared pained had shifted up from their legs. Some women and kids were crying on mule as

they were afraid to fall down. Palkhi or palanquin (four people carrying you in a chair with four poles) seemed more comfortable.

We reached at top, and have to wait around 30 minutes for a locker to be available, as camera, mobile, leather belt, valet were not allowed in the holy shrine. Again arrangements by Shrine Board were excellent, it took us no time. Shrine board controlled the offering which you could bring to the mother goddess, coconuts were not allowed. We bought offerings from Shrine board shop, and were little disappointed later on to find that it did not have customary walnut and dried apple.

We then visited Bhairon Ghati, which was another 2 KM (1400 feet elevation gain) away from

main shrine. For those who are interested in story of how this Pilgrimage came into being, please follow

We did not take much time there and started climbing down. We started the hike at 11 AM, and it was around 6 PM when we started to come down. There were a lot of monkeys on the way down, they were somewhat aggressive. By this time, Dr Kapil was liberally using the Bengay, I brought. He was remembering his wife, Dr Alka, every 5 minutes. Whenever, we see Maggi stall or corns, he would say Alka really would have loved it; how she helped him with his diction etc. Needless to say he was missing (read fearing) her. Somebody has rightly said that a man's wife has more power over him than the state has.

On further asking, as why did not he bring her, he told me that only those people could come to the pilgrimage who had been called by the Mother. This may be somewhat true, as 27 years ago, when we visited the shrine, my dad had the dream of the place. On describing the dream to

coworkers, they told him that it might be Vaishno Devi. I remember still that on reaching the place in night, he did mention that this was what he saw in the dream. I did feel some energy/vibration before entering the holy cave.

At 9:30 we finally reached back, ate north Indian food at Sagar Ratna; a South Indian Restaurant in extreme north of India. Food was good. Back at hotel, Dr Kapil was liberally using Bengay, took a pain killer and we all had a sound sleep. In morning we took breakfast again at Sagar Ratna, and ready for some local sight seeing.

We went to Patni Top, which could literally means, ‘Wife on Top’. A lesser known hill station,

which is not frequently visited by visitors, it still had the neat outlook of a small hilly town, at

elevation of 6500 feet. It had few resorts, almost no recognized restaurant chain. It was chilly, foggy and picturesque. On asking what generally people do here, like hiking trail etc, locals told us that tourists spend most of the time inside the hotel room there, probably inspired by the name of the place. We visited Nathatop, which was further up and it was raining there, so we quickly came back to Jammu. We still had time after dinner in Jammu, so we visited famous Raghunath temple.

After boarding the train, we noticed that there were some girls who, sitting in the next cabin, were limping. Dr Kapil, started squeezing the last ounce from half a kilo of the Bengay (Indian Iodex) tube, liberally applying to his knees, hoping that some girls in need might approach him. However, one girl, who was limping, said loudly that where was this bad smell of Iodex is coming from, and that she could hardly breath. This naturally curbed Dr Kapil’s enthusiasm. Train was 3 hours late, so we got down few miles before our station, on tracks, and got a taxi to head back home.

As per Dr. Kapil, this is his secret of keeping the balance between Mother and Wife, i.e. to visit the Mother first, followed closely by wife (Patnitop); not sure if Dr Alka would agree with that. This is somewhat true that no man succeeds without a good woman behind him. Wife or mother, if it is both, he is twice as blessed indeed.

For photos of the trip visit