The Holi shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi Katra dedicated to Adi Shakti is one of the most visited religious sites in India. There are families who visit at least once every year while most carry a wish of returning whenever they can.
As per a popular belief desire of a pilgrim to visit the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine fructifies only and only when the Goddess approves. Born in 1965, I waited for 38 years before I got the first opportunity to pay respect at the shrine. I had been to Jammu on numerous occasions prior to that but somehow had never been to abode of the Goddess. This time around while on a short visit to Jammu my wife just got motivated to visit the shrine. We started on the trek with our five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter (in my arms) at 5 pm in the evening and by 4 am in the morning we were back in Jammu after the visit. Thereafter, I went back the second time in 2019; after a gap of 16 years.
The live Aarti (prayer) at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine is a two-hour process which every pilgrim has a desire to attend but very few get an opportunity to do so. My wife always carried the burning desire to attend the Aarti, however time never permitted. But she is not the one who will give up on her dream at least without giving it a good try. On 23 Mar 2021 she decided to give a try again and I was in one of those moods when I do not say no and hence agreed.
My heart condition does not allow taking too much stress hence helicopter ride to the shrine was the preferred option. But weather God decided to be not on our side and helicopters could not fly. Between the other two available options of trekking or taking a pony ride we opted for the later. In fact, our choice was a mix of taking a pony ride till halfway from where Battery cars are available for ferrying the pilgrims to the top. For local reasons battery cars are not permitted to operate from Katra despite numerous efforts being made over last many years.
We started our journey at 1 pm. The sky was overcast but fortunately the rains had stopped. The cool breeze was flowing and the journey much more enjoyable than we had expected.
After hour and a half, we reached Ardhkunwari which is halfway to the Holi Shrine. Ardhkunwari is believed to be the original abode of the Goddess where she meditated for nine months. As per mythology it is here the Goddess took the form of Chamundi and beheaded the demon Bhairon Nath. The Ardhkunwari shrine is in a 15 ft long cave through which more religious minded visitors crawl through. It is a long wait hence the pilgrims desirous of paying respect at the cave must have loads of patience.
Kind courtesy COVID and 23 Mar 21 being a weekday the rush was less, and we were through with pour visit by 3.30 pm.
The journey ahead….
The battery cars only operate from 4 pm from Ardkunwari. It is a 6 km enjoyable journey from Ardhkunwari to the Main Bhawan and takes about 20 minutes. The tickets have to be taken on the spot and costs Rs 365 per head at present. Each car carries seven persons. Passengers have to ensure their own anti covid protection as there is no scope of maintaining social distance. Option of taking a pony ride or a walk to the main shrine is always available for the more health conscious.
Accommodation and the view….
Variety of guest houses managed by the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine board are available near the shrine for those desirous of spending a night at top. We were fortunate to get a booking in Kalika Bhawan which is located nearest to the shrine; just about 5 minutes’ walk. The Kalika Bhawan is located at a commanding height and provides a beautiful view of the surrounding areas. A nice place to indulge in photography and spending quality time. The rooms are clean and have ACs/ heaters and 24 hours hot water facility.
The Aarti and the Darshan….
Finally, it was time for my wife’s long pending desire of attending the Aarti was going to be fulfilled. We were seated by 6.15 pm and fortunately got a place in the first row. Just about 100 people get an opportunity to attend the Aarti. A caution for those not used to sitting on floor for long; it is not easy to be seated on the floor for nearly two hours. The Aarti/ prayers lasts for little more than two hours. The Bhajans/ hymns generate good religious fervour and work as a great motivator.
The shrine is closed for ‘Darshan’ during the period of the Arti. The people attending the Aarti are given the first preference for the Darshan. We had a peaceful satisfying darshan and were back in our room at 9 pm.
The weather did not hold for long and at around 10 pm heavy rains arrived and stayed on till past midnight. Though weather Apps were indicating heavy rains in the morning too, but God was kind and the sky opened. The first helicopter landed at 7.20 am on 24 Mar, precisely 10 minutes before time.
It is a nice 30-minute, part uphill walk from Kalika Bhawan to the helipad. Ponies and Palkis are available for those who prefer not to walk. As our helicopter approached to land the rains started. But fortunately, the visibility remained good, and it could land. We were only two passengers who boarded that flight and were down at the Katra helipad in five minutes.
A satisfying visit….
It was really a peaceful and satisfying pilgrimage. I just cannot stand large crowds, specially at religious places. Fortunately, the timing and COVID helped, and the crowd was manageable. The Shrine board administration deserve to be complimented for excellent management specially regarding the COVID protocol implementation. It is hardly seen at any other religious place. The other good thing is that people from all religion, caste and creed have faith in the Goddess/ shrine.
I only pray that my wife does not get an urge to attend the Aarti at the shrine again. It is beyond me to sit for two hours again. I hope ‘Goddess mother’ listens to my prayers.
I am attaching a small presentation of slides for you viewing pleasure, hope you enjoy it.