Shrikhand Mahadev Kailash Yatra

From Phanchkanda to Sapava

7: 35 a.m.——-11:45 a.m.          18 July, 2012

The tea at Phanchkanda had further energized us, And the best was that Shaunka Ram and Ram Rattan, the two godsend friends had assured us to walk along us till the place of night halt. So we had nothing to worry about. Although honestly speaking at that point we never could imagine how could the journey be possible had these two persons not been with us. We welcomes company as we three were feeling quite lonely after Phanchkanda when there was no human habitation in sight. We came across a woman who was taking her sheep for grazing and wondered at her stamina to take sheep everyday to places where we would not dare to put our foot on!

Shaunka Ram was more talkative of the duo and all that I learnt about the Yatra is from him as both of us had become best of the friends by the time we parted company. There was steep forest path sometimes going us and sometimes going down. We wanted to fill our bottles with  water but Shaunka Ram advised us to wait till Gaishav Nallah that would be the last water source till Sapava. “The water of this nallah is very good” Shaunka Ram informed us, “even scientists from Italy had checked it!” he added proudly. We drank water to our fill and filled our bottles as well and geared up for the upward ascent.

“Now there is straight ascent till Sapava” he forewarned us. “How long would it take for us to reach Sapava?” I asked him. By this time I had underestimated the distance and the ascent. “Four hours!” said he. Period.  We walked on and on. The forest was deep and thick.

The path was narrow, very narrow. If you look down, you would feel as if your head was spinning, such was the deep gorges down, full of forest growths. The trees seemed to be thousands of years old. They were thick and large. Sometimes it would be difficult to look towards their top. It seemed like a virgin forest where no one had ever come. There was silence all around, the only sound would be of five pair of feet walking upwards. The dry leaves under our feet would make a strange sound as they, too, were not accustomed of letting anyone pound them under their shoes!

A multitude of tropical plants had their own world under these trees. It was as if the big trees had sheltered small plants under them and the small plants, in turn, had sheltered still smaller shrubs, ferns and mosses under them. I was wonder-struck at the plant kingdom and the way it helped each other to grow and survive. Each plant exhibited a unique form. The plants of one type grouped together in the form of a colony. The big deodar trees were host to a number of small plants that encircled them or grew upon them and down at their feet were many small fern-like plants in their colonies, not to forget the moss beneathe them! Peaceful coexistence at its best!

I thought of the animal life where the bigger one would try to annihilate the smaller one or the worst was the human life where bigger a person was more would be his destructive power! This jungle had so many lessons to learn from but all these thoughts would be interrupted by the more important thought, “how far is Sapava?”

We were tired. Really tired. The backpack seemed to weigh a ton to me. I would sip in some drops of water and would sit at any place which was wide enough to accommodate me. I was not even afraid of tumbling down the mountainous forest. We had been walking for some two hours and still there was no sight of any place that could be called a plain land. It was the forest path–narrow, dark and steep!

Sometimes we would come across wild rose bushes with pink roses on them. These were just five petaled roses. I would put these petals in my mouth and chew them. I wanted to take a lot may pictures of this jungle but didn’t want to spend the memory card and the battery till the return journey.

We went up and up. It was an ascent at the angle of 85 degree angle. Whole of our body would slump down to balance itself on the steep chase to Spava. After about four hours we reached a place where was a leveled path. It was as level as you can call in those circumstances. There was a board mentioning the right side to be the path towards Shrikhand! I was walking ahead of the group. I was astonished to see a big black snake gliding towards Shrikhand path. Though I was not afraid of the snake but I called loudly, “snake!” Shaunka Ram came running and said to the snake, “go away!” but as the snake kept on moving ahead of us, he shooed the snake away with his stick towards the jungle. And said,”I would have killed the snake had he crossed our path!” We took it as a good omen to be guided by a snake on way to Shrikhand and moved further.

Heaving a sigh of relief at some solace we walked further as we were assured that Spava was very near. And imagine how happy we were when Shaunks Ram pointed towards a tent in the open saying, “here is Spava the Parbati Baag where we will get food!”

Suddenly we started walking fast and reached the tent. There was a wooden bench and we sat on that putting all our bags on the ground. We had seen some more human faces after more than four hours. There were some young boys waiting for the food and we were glad to learn that they, too, were going to Shrikhand. The two small boys were busy preparing rice on one stove and daal on another chullah! The aroma of daal filled our nostrils with desire for food, We started feeling very hungry.

I looked at the boy who was cooking rice. He was wearing only a shirt as his upper garment. The shirt was old and torn. I felt ashamed of taking so much care for covering myself in woolens to save myself from cold droughts at this height when this young boy, in a torn shirt, was preparing food for us, the so called pilgrims!

They don;t charge anythig for the food but there is a box wherein you may put some amount if you want to. Looking at the pressure cooker full of rice I wondered would they be able to finish it as I was not sure of anyone else coming from this route that day!

We had a full meal which was rice and daal. It was so good, felt good at that point of time and place. I thanked the people who organize such service for the pilgrims otherwise there was no way to find anything to eat on this route.

Shaunka Ram and Ram Rattan were languishingly relaxing with  beeri in their hands. We had relaxed and now were ready for further journey. They motioned us to restart our trek. We got up from the wooden bench that had given some relief to our bodies and moved up.

The scene had changed absolutely. There was no tree in sight. it seemed as if the whole picture of the jungle was erased by some invisible hand. In a sudden change, The boulders and rocks had taken place of trees and plants but there was some greenery on both the sides of big boulders!

The scene was amazingly out of the world, the world that I was familiar with!

Shrikhand Mahadev Kailash Yatra: Phancha to Phanchakanda…

Wednesday, 18 July, 2012                      6:20 a.m.

From Phancha to Phanchkanda

It was 6:20 a.m. in the morning when we reached Phancha. The road from Ganvi to Phancha was kutchha and muddy, narrow and ascending, beautiful as well as horrifying! So when we got down at Phancha we were happy that now on it would be our legs alone that would support us for rest of the journey.

I looked around and was surprised to find an English style bunglow by the roadside. I had walked past it.  But the presence of a colonial style bunglow in such a remote place had made me inquisitive. I asked  someone nearby about it and was surprised to learn that it was Forest rest house built during the Raj period. !914 was the year attributed to its construction by the person proudly informing me about it.

I wanted to capture a picture of this beautiful Rest-house but walking back seemed too much of an effort to me. I thought of taking the picture during my return journey but then decided to go back a few steps and take the picture. I am glad that I did so as we didn’t return to Phancha during our return journey.

We made some inquiries about the path to Shrikhand and a local woman  told us to walk some distance and then start upward journey. I asked her, “Have you gone to Shrikhand?” Her answer was, “Yes.” But after that she put her finger on the badge that she carried on her chest and said, “We go to Mount Abu every year as we have faith in “Om Shant”!” I was bewildered and thought strange are the ways of the world. We were traversing such travails to reach Shrikhand and these people go in search of the same peace to Mount Abu! I learnt at the start of my pilgrimage that peace is ever elusive and we have to run here and there searching for the same!

We had thought of finding some more pilgrims to meet us at Phancha but found none. There were just three of us and we didn’t know anything about the way to Shrikhand!

We started ascending upwards. The path was beautiful. It was a village path where small terraced fields and grasslands surrounded us. The Sun had cast its golden rays on the grass and the scene around us looked heavenly. I clicked some pictures and we moved on. Wherever we would come across two paths facing us, we would look around for some one to guide us but would find none! Looking downwards, I could see the village Phancha and it looked beautiful. We had come quite up as Phancha looked small from here!

We moved on and came to a small muddy house where some human life was visible. It was so relieving to find some people around. We asked for water and talked to them. It was at this point that we found two shepherds, who were to be our guarding angles later on,  sitting and enjoying a smoke-pipe. I was smitten with the charm of a mother-daughter duo who watched us curiously. Both were graceful and innocence personified! We chatted a little with them and moved on towards Phanchakanda.

Phanchkanda is barely an hours walk from Phancha but we had taken more than an hour to reach this place. By this time we had been walking quite leisurely enjoying every little thing around us. At Phanchakanda we found a small kuchha house with a tin shed attached to it. The tin shed served the purpose of a makeshift kitchen. An elderly man was in-charge of the kitchen and he offered us to have tea. It was an offer not to be declined and we sat around waiting for the tea. The tea was sugary, syrupy and very refreshing. The room in that house had rubber sheets and blankets lying in a heap and was a welcome resting place for pilgrims who reach Phanchakanda in the evening and take rest there. The house and its structure spoke of the easy access to big logs of wood as the house was made of very huge logs kept to support the walls and as flooring material as well. The forest that we had to ascend had been the source of such plentiful wood in construction work.

While we were waiting for tea, the two local men we had met earlier reached there and they, too, were offered tea. When we came to know that both of them were going to the place where we had planned to stay during the night, it was such a relief to us. Bhagat Ram Ji told us that a group of boys had also gone ahead on their way to Shrikhand. We were so happy that we were not alone on this track but there were a few others.

After taking tea we moved further and now we had local friends with us to lead us towards Shrikhand!

Shrikhand Mahadev: The Uncertainty Preceding the Yatra

Monday, 16 July, 2012                                                           Ganvi (Jeori)

From Ganvi to Phancha

The two days that I spent at Ganvi were full of hope and despair. One moment I would be full of hope that my dream to visit Shrikhand would be realized but the other moment I would be full of despair as uncertainty loomed large over my plans!

The more number of people we would talk to, the more confused we would be! When I had started, I had one thing clear in my mind that I would have to trek 37 Kms. and that the terrain would be difficult. I was prepared for the same. I had come to Ganvi as my brother-in-law was serving there and I had hoped to fit myself in any local group starting from Ganvi! Inquiries on Monday produced no results as no one from Ganvi was going. The land lady had a word of advice for me, “you should have come in a group!” And further explained, “the snow is deep and heavy this year and it might be difficult for you to walk!” She had put in very politely her disapproval for my plan to travel alone. Another point may be would have been her plain under-appreciation in the capabilities of  someone from lower region  to trek in such a rough terrain. Looking back I find that she was so right!

I was uncertain of myself by now! All my self-confidence and months of training on the ground was shattered! KS was more concerned about me when another person had a tale to share. According to him last year some three four boys decided to trek to Shrikhand from Ganvi. The group included his own son and also a friend of his son who had come from Chandigarh! On way back, the Chandigarh boy lost in the trails because of heavy fog that surrounds the mountains bring down the visibility to almost zero level. The poor Chandigarh boy could not be found by the friends though they tried as hard as they could, and they returned without him. The matter was reported to the police and the administration but even police could not locate him. Later on the boy returned on his own after 4-6 days. The local people owe it to the benevolence and  protection  of the local deity who guarded the boy throughout the ordeal! The boy was found by some local villager in the trails. “The boy walked following the Nanti rivulet as he knew that this flows by Ganvi and was able to reach some habitable place!

The story was a real incident and not a mere hearsay! It was not to scare away the pilgrims but to forewarn them of the dangers that lurked in the forests and mountains.  I was uncertain of the trails and was afraid of getting lost but was unable to find any local group going to Shrikhand. I decided to go back to Rampur and from there to Bagipul and join the pilgrims from there as I knew that Bagipul route was a busy route where one cannot be alone at any point of time! I discussed it with KS and after some ifs and buts decided for the Bagipul route.

But Shiva had different plans. My brother called me up in the evening as a routine matter. As by now I was fully prepared to go to Shrikhand and had reached the foothills of the trek, so I lent out my little secret and said to him, “Do you know where I am right now?” When he failed to guess, I blurted out my secret, “I am on my way to Shrikhand and plan to go tomorrow to Bagipul.”  When he came out of the initial shock, my brother asked me, “who else is going with you?” “I am going alone” I said, “but I would get many people on way to Shrikhand.”  I added. It was Monday evening. My brother must have felt concern for me. He said, “Wait for me. I would reach Ganvi tomorrow evening and both of us will go together!”

Honestly, I got so much of relief. I was happy that now nothing can change my plan to visit Shrikhand as I would have my brother with me. I told KS about this development and he, too, was much relieved. With Monday over, Tuesday was a day of wait for my brother but the plan to take up Bagipul route was still intact, But Shiva had another plan for me!

Tuesday, 17 July, 2012

The day was, as usual, not very happening. We planned to make the best use of the day in exploring places nearby. We went to Jeori and from there to Sarahan to pay obeisance at Bhimakali temple. While coming back from Sarahan, I could see Ganvi in the distance and felt like walking to Ganvi, it seemed so near though it was some 30 kms away. It was later that I learnt how distant goals appear so near in the mountains!

In the evening Tarun Goel called me up. He had read a post on my blog about my Shrikhand Yatra and he put me to Arun who had gone to Shrikhand both from the Jeori side and from Bagipul side. Arun’s call was the message that perhaps I needed at that time. “Ma’am let people say what they want to, but you can go!” He said to me. He wanted me to have faith in myself and not to be swayed by what others say about the trek. And after this call, I decided that now we would take the Jeori route as this was what we had decided in the beginning. I shook my head of all discouraging inputs that my little brain had been fed upon during the last two days. I let my mind ravel in the pleasant trek from the Phancha side.

But the final decision was to be taken when my brother would reach Ganvi. I had prepared rice. daal and a vegetable for the dinner. My brother, accompanied by one his friends, reached Ganvi at 11 p.m. It was quite late. We hurriedly had our dinner. Decided the Phancha route and packed our bags. It was decided that early in the morning we would start at 3 a.m. to Phancha by my my brother-in-law’s car and from there would start the journey!

With packed bags lying nearby, I went to sleep. I could not sleep despite my best efforts as all those negative thoughts came back to me and I was once again filled with doubt over my decision to trek to Shrikhand.

I was unable to decide. There was no point in debating over the pros and cons before the advent of the journey but I thought about KS and my three kids staying abroad. The thought of “what if …” would erupt its head and drive away all efforts to have a wink of sleep.

I tossed in the bed making as little noise as I could though the beds creeked every time I would as much as try to breathe heavily! I don’t know when, at last, I fell asleep. I had barely closed my eyes when there was sound of heavy rain thrashing the tin roof.  I thought of my childhood days when Amma would make us sit with book in hand when all that we wanted was to go to bed. And if perchance there would be power breakdown we would be so happy that now we can go to sleep! 🙂 I had a similar kind of euphoria when the heavy rain lashed the region!

I was relieved. The relief was such that I cuddled myself in the blanket, tightly holding it close to me and thought of not coming out of this comfort zone. A part of my mind and heart was happy that it was raining as my brother-in-law would not be able to take his car to Phancha as the kuchha road would be full of mud! And we would not go to Shrikhand tomorrow!

Surprisingly I didn’t feel regret at our plans coming tumbling sown but I was feeling relieved! I could sleep now. Sleep peacefully. But suddenly there was a knock at the door and I found my brother and his friend ready to take on the journey! I, too, had to get up, though not very willingly and I straight way went to the kitchen to prepare tea. We all waited for the rain to stop and start the journey. By this time I made some chapattis and we had one chapatti each with the leftover vegetable of the previous night, Though none of us was interested in gulping chapatti at that deadly hour but the feeling that where and when the next meal would come from, made us gulp it down.

The rain stopped. It was 5 a.m. by now and we all were ready to go. I looked at KS. I held him close to myself and could feel energy from  his body transferring to me. All the feeling of uncertainly, doubt and fear vanished from my mind. I knew that I was given an opportunity of once-in-lifetime by Shiva and I had to come true on His test!

We walked by the bank of Nanti rivulet to the car which took us to Phancha! The drive from Gabvi to Phancha took almost an hour for a distance of barely 10 Kms.

And by 6-20 a.m. we were at Phancha!

………… be continued.

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Shrikhand Mahadev: Karsog to Rampur to Jeori

Sunday, 15 July, 2012

The bus journey to Rampur and Jeori, throughout,  was a treat to eye though a ache in the back! The road was truly serpentine with deadly descent and narrow U-line curves! I was awestruck at the driving skills of the HRTC driver who would maneuver blind curves with extreme ease. Though the more popular road to Rampur and beyond is from Shimla but the Karsog road is full of such panoramic beauty that I had no doubt that we were heading towards a place of pristine beauty!

We had tea at Chowki where the dhaba had a local touch and flavor. The steamy hot paranthas were really inviting but it was too early for me to take anything so I made a mental note of partaking paranthas at some other time.  But later after the Shrikhand trek I realized that deferring to-do-things is not a healthy attitude as the next chance does not always come your way!

River Sutlej flows parallel to the narrow road to Rampur and at times I would try not even to breather heavily for the fear that my effort to breather heavily might not tilt the bus towards the river. Such close the road is to the river!

The Karsog valley was, as usual, beautiful! But focusing on the journey ahead I was immersed in deep thoughts about the ensuing trek! At Karsog a number of Sadhus boarded our bus chanting the name of Shiva! The bare chested and bare footed sadhus grabbed all the available seats and put their big bundles, sticks and umbrellas on the bus floor! They were insensitive towards fellow passengers. I thought hard what is the point in donning ocher clothes if you are like an average worldly human being? Most of the sadhus put earphones of their mobiles in their ears and switched on their mobiles. I am sure that they were not listening to any religious discourse on their cells! And the fact that these would be my fellow pilgrims made me somewhat uneasy!

Though KS had stopped his initial grumbling about travelling in a crampy bus but now this heightened activity in the bus made his grumbling to recur with enhanced vigor! “And these are the people you would be keeping company with during the yatra!” Even I was having the same thoughts. I was a bit worried by now as  I had planned to trek alone. The Sadhus, oblivious to the commotion they had created in the hitherto peaceful bus, were arguing with the conductor for some concession in the fare if not a free ride to the servants of the god on an arduous yatra!

I was feeling uncomfortable by now but a look outside the window to the distant Himalayas reaffirmed my faith that everything will fall back in place and I started enjoying my bus ride.

We reached Jeori y 2-30p.m. and here from we had to go to Ganvi which is barely 12 Kms. from Jeori. My brother-in-law was waiting for us and it took 50 minutes to cover these 12 Kms, The road was a difficult one. By 4 p. m. we were sipping a cup of tea at Ganvi and chatting happily! The tiredness of the journey was gone in a jiffy. It seemed as if the clear wind of the Himalayas had done wonders to us. The khadd nearby called Nanti was flowing with a loud noice. Someone pointed oout to me, ” this Nanti Khadd comes from Nanti village and has water from the Shrikhand in it.” I looked at the distant high mountainous peaks behind whom lay Shrikhanf!

My heart gave up the hope of ever reaching that height. But shaking my head of any negativity, I back-grounded all such feelings and waited for the next morning. The certainty that I had about my resolve to trek to Shrikhand was overtaken by a sense of doubt! I wanted to have a good sleep. Perhaps a dream may indicate the course of things to happen, perhaps may be God would send me a signal, I thought and prayed. With prayer in heart I went to sleep listening to the gushing sound of Nanti Khadd that brought water from Shrikhand!

Tomorrow is a new day, I thought, and a new beginning.


Shrikhand Mahadev: Hamirpur to Sundernagar

Saturday, 14 July, 2012

As I have never been a very organized person so I had planned to keep all the things that  I wanted to take in the form of a heap on the bed so that I don’t forget anything! There were certain things that I had scuttled from the cupboard others that I had borrowed from friends! 🙂 One special item was a walking stick that was a parting gift to me from Mukta, a dear friend. I got some improvements made in the walking stick  by getting a metallic end fixed to it.

I had kept a quilted olive green jacket to be taken on the trip. While packing the things in the bag-pack, I would be careful about the weight as I knew that I would have to carry it all by myself. So I had to make a very judicious selection of what to take and what not to take. I was undergoing Hamlet’s dilemma of to take or not to take? But by afternoon I had packed a bag, kept my cameras in a water-proof small bag, the stick on the bag and all this I had put on the jacket! I wanted to carry the jacket in my arms so had not packed it in any bag.

KS was busy preparing our ever faithful Red Maruti 8oo ready for a journey. He made a sign to me to come out. I hurriedly dropped a mail to all my three kids, announcing my visit to Shrikhand, barely a line. I went to the gods occupying a small alcove in the kitchen and prayed to them for a safe journey. Hurriedly carrying a bottle of water in one of my hands, a stick in the other hand, the bag on my back, I sprightly went down!

In all that hub I forgot that the jacket lay behind waiting to be carried. I had forgotten to carry the most important thing with me. Luckily I didn’t notice it till we reached Sundernagar otherwise I would have sullenly spoiled my mood as well that of KS!

It was at Sundrenagar, at my younger sister’s place, that I noticed that I had left the jacket behind. My sister, magnanimously, opened her almirah and pointed towards well stacked cupboard where neat and clean winter wears were stacked neatly! She asked me to take whatever pleased me. But I wanted something rugged, worn-out and old as  I knew that for some days that jacket would be serving me day and night. Finally I opted for the one that she had discarded! It fitted me well, comfortably and smugly.

All prepared we went to bed as early in the morning we had planned to get the first bus to Jeori from Sundernagar. The bus started at 5-30 a.m. and would drop us at jeori at 2-30p.m. My sister had packed lunch for us and we walked to the bus-stand in the morning. I had expected that it being a Sunday there would not be much rush in the bus but I was shocked to find the bus almost full and we were lucky to have a two-seater seat at the rear end of the bus.

Here, too, I noticed a point of difference between me and KS. I am more of a nomad and hop in buses feeling very comfortable but KS avoids buses if he can! 🙂 Though he wanted to drive to Jeori but I was against it so we fell for the bus journey but now sitting at the rear end of the bus I had to tolerate his grumbling! But after a while the grumbling paved way to resilience and we had a nice journey sitting together in a bus seat where the rear door of the bus opened!  It was after years that we were travelling together in a bus and it reminded us of the good old days when we had no car and we used to travel by buses and loved it too!

I thought how easily human mind adapts to all circumstances. We were happy and eager to visit a new place and to have a new experience.

… be continued

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Vaishnodevi Yatra: Would Someone Listen to these Problems?

It is time to sum up my reflections and feelings about the Vaishnodevi Yatra that on one hand satisfied cravings of my soul and of spiritual journey but on the other hand left an indelible question mark about the management of places of great religious importance.

Taking into account the rough estimate of around 40,000 pilgrims taking yatra everyday, I may  say that the Shrine board is not suitably prepared to manage this inflow of tourists and pilgrims. As we had walked to the holy shrine and after resting  for 2-3 hours at a eating joint had taken the return journey, I am  sure that our visit had not burdened the shrine board with much responsibility. But this is not the case with average pilgrims who have to wait for hours in a queue and have to spend a night at some place in or around the Bhawan.

Is the Shrine board equipped to tackle this inflow of pilgrims everyday? Are they suitably prepared to provide a place to rest and sleep to all those who trek more than thirteen kilometers steep ascent to the Bhawan?

Well, the answer is plain and simple “No”. Despite a large number of toilets on the way, at reasonably distanced points, the condition cannot be said to be satisfactory! In fact it is not about the ratio of pilgrims to the toilets but the cleanliness which remains the issue.

And what pained me most is the attitude of the people who consider themselves to be state guests of the shrine board and expect the shrine board, alone, to keep the place clean!  It seems that we don’t have any civic duty whatsoever.

As we started back at 2-30 a.m. and by the time we reached Ardh Kuwari, it was almost morning so we had a good chance to see how we, as civic people, behave. During the day everyone puts on a mask of being elite, educated and well mannered but at that morning hour people were caught off guard, bereft of the mask that they would have put on during the day!

I could see endless used disposable cups, plates, soft drink bottles, papers etc. lying on every possible space. It seemed as if no one had even tried to put the waste in the bin which lay at comfortable distance. People were sleeping amidst rubbish and dirt.

The few toilets at the Ardh Kuwari were full to brim and it was a person with a strong heart who could enter the toilets. The morning hours necessitate the use of toilet for everyone but the long queues outside and the stink inside made it a task next to impossible. The kids and old people were seen relieving themselves out in the open.

I wonder what could shrine board do except to construct more toilets but could someone teach basic civic sense to our own people! My friend had a heated argument with a mother of a toddler who would not put water to flush off the shit of the child. When caught and reprimanded for the same. her only defense was, “it is the duty of the toilet cleaner.”

The sweeping personnel had a hard task cleaning all the rubbish and what they did after collection was a nightmare for the fragile environment of the Trikuta hills. The burnt all the waste in the open. The dreadful fumes coming out, sure, would be harming the lungs of the gullible pilgrims as well endangering the eco-balance of the place.

The horse dung and urine on the path was another of the problems that needs to be taken care of. More so as I saw a number of pilgrims walking the path barefooted. May be it was a religious compulsion for them but I thought of the infections that they may harbor on account  of it.

Another aspect that needs some very urgent steps concerns the pilgrims. I came across a woman of sixty who was weeping inconsolably. Her mother about eighty years of age was missing since a day. This woman could do nothing except getting her message announced to her mother through public address system to reach the announcement booth. But as the old mother could neither understand Hindi nor English the problem to reach out to her had compounded.

There was another case of some pilgrims  who had lost contact with their young daughter-in-law along with an infant son. My friend tried to help them as best as she could but left them to their fate later on. As mobiles do not work in this area, people have no way to connect to one another if they lose track of one another, which in most cases they do.

I am sure that all missing persons meet  their very own in a day’s time at the most but the anguish and the pain caused to the concerned cannot be ever compensated. The Shrine board must come up with a suitable plan to deal with this problem. And as for the pilgrims are concerned especially the ones coming from far flung  non-Hindi speaking areas, each one of them  must have all details written in Hindi and English with them along with a phone number where someone would provide complete details.

Needless to say that the problems are many and no one has anything to do with them once they are done with the Yatra. I talked to people who were grumbling but would they ever approach the right persons about the problem? No, as elsewhere in the country, everyone’s problem is no one’s problem.

Let Goddess take care of all our problems!

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Vaishnodevi Yatra: Back journey via Bhairon Dev Temple

After having darshana of Maa Vaishnodevi all of us felt rejuvenated, and surprisingly suddenly started feeling hungry.  Honestly speaking before this very moment no one had ever thought of hunger. We had been trekking since 3 p.m. and have had only tea once or twice and nothing else. It was 10 p.m. now and suddenly we felt tired and hungry as well as if all our bodily cravings returned back to us, all those cravings that had been obliterated when we were focused on having darshana of Ma Vaishnodevi!

We walked towards the nearest Bhojnalaya and once again stood in a long queue to buy tokens for food. Rajmah chawal and Kadhi chawal were the two options if you wanted rice and channe bhature another option if you don’t like to eat rice. The rates were very nominal and the food was simple. We had our dinner and had a craving for after dinner tea. Once again we stood in the queue for getting tokens for tea. The tea was damn cheap. Only Rs. 4 per cup and the quantity of tea in the cup was large enough.

It was almost 11-30p.m. now and the big question was whether to start fro Katra or to wait for some time at the Bhawan itself. It was getting cold now and the after effect of dinner was having its impact. We were feeling sleepy. We searched for a place to sleep but all were reserved. There is a constant day and night supply of blankets for a very nominal advance of Rs 100/ per blanket. You can have as many blankets as you want and then on return you get your money back.

By this time there was no space to be seen where one could lie down. All places were full of people lying down. I realized the truth of the old saying, “one doesn’t crave for taste when hungry and there is no need for a bed when one is sleepy”.

We decided that if we lie down to take some rest it would be very difficult for us to get up and start the long journey back to Katra so we opted to walk down. We gulped down another steaming cup of tea to provide us enough energy to get going.

As per the tradition we had to go to Bhairo Dev temple after worshiping Ma Vaishnodevi to make our pilgrimage a success. Bhairo Dev temple was at about 2 Kms from the Bhawan and the path was narrow, steep and dark. The worst part were the horses who would suddenly come forcefully down the hill and we, the pedestrians, would have to step up on the retaining walls of the path to save ourself!

The ascent was very steep indeed but somehow it reached the temple of Bhairo Nath. The shops around the temple of Bhairo Nath were very different in looks. Whereas at the Bhawan it was the color red that predominated every other color here it was black-sheer black that seemed to be the reigning color.

We offered our prayers at Bhairo Dev temple. There were black flags, black threads, mustard oil bottles being offered at the temple of Bhairo Dev. Here, too, like anywhere else people were sleeping on ground oblivious to all movements of men and horses around. Everybody, it seemed, was dead tired!

We started to descend downwards through  a quite narrow, dark and steep path but luckily this path was restricted to the horses. This seemed like a privileged area as I came across a board prohibiting taking pictures. Whatever may be the reason but we were free from the fear of being trampled under the foot of a neighing horse on this path!

We crossed Saanjhi Chhat and then walked down to Ardh Kumari. It was almost morning time. The open space at Ardh Kumari had turned into a big sleeping ground and I could see a large number of men, women and children sleeping blissfully on the ground among filth and squalor!

I was happy that we didn’t opt to take rest and shuddered at the thought had we decided to sleep on the open space. Who knows we, too, would have become a part of the rubbish that surrounded human mass in huge quantity.

We had a cup of our morning tea at Ardh Kumari and slowly moved toward our base camp at Katra. The steep descent was putting pressure on my toes and I decided to walk bare foot to have some relief. Ah! What a pleasure it was to give some fresh air to my feet. But when I crossed heaps of horse dung on the way, I was petrified of catching some infection!

The roads were full of horse dung, waste cups and plates and all other human waste that one can ever think of ! The whole path was just a big whole waste bin!

Morning Sun brought to light all those blemishes that the evening haze of the previous evening had shielded. Or it was perhaps because while going up I was so focused on reaching the Bhawan that nothing around me impacted me but now while coming down I was typically behaving like a fault finding woman, a typical trait of my creed of creatures!

…to be continued.

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Vaishnodevi Yatra: Finally an Audience with the Devi and Self

Throughout the path to Vaishnodevi a hoarding that is prominently displayed at all strategic points is one that is difficult to avoid! This hoarding tells or prepares the pilgrims about what to expect at the Bhawan!

It is human psychology that we have to have a concrete shape of someone we love, admire and adore and in all possible manner we try to invent one shape or form where we don’t have any. In the same manner whenever we think of Mata Vaishnodevi it is the image of a goddess in all its opulence, strength and valor! Where red saree, sindoor would complete the picture of Goddess who, astride a lion, would annihilate all the demons from the world.

The boards displayed at many places make the pilgrims wait for the dharshana of Ma Vaishnodevi in Pindi form. A form which is unique for it represents the Devi!

On reaching the entrance, my heart sank to see the number of devotees standing in queues which were as long as half a kilometer! And the worst was that we had lost contact with the group that we had come with. The registration slip was with another friend in the group. We just could not do anything without the slip. You have to show this slip at the counter and your group is assigned a number. You are allowed in the Bhawan as per  your number.

Without this slip we had no other option but to wait. And the surging crowds around me made me frantic about what if he would not be able to find us.  But luckily we spotted the other members of our group and walked towards the counter. We were advised to deposit all our belongings like purse, shoes, mobile, camera, leather belt etc. in the lockers provided for this specific purpose. There were still longer queues at the lockers as well!

You are allowed to take only money  to the Vaishnodevi Bhawan and nothing else. Other offerings like coconut, and Chunri for Mata have to offered at a specified place. Nothing is to be taken beyond a point. People can be seen searching for a place to keep their belongings when they are not able have access to a locker. At one stage even I thought of putting off my shoes in a corner and putting my small camera in the shoes! 🙂 I was glad that I was not carrying my DSLR that takes lots of space.

But luckily as our friend had arranged VIP passes so we got a locker easily and were permitted to join the long queue at a place where from the distance to the Bhawan and the wait was manageable! Once again this was an awkward moment for me when I overheard someone standing in the queue comment rather sarcastically, “Here come the back door entries!” And another realization dawned on me that people who get things done in a easier manner need to have thick skins so as to remain unruffled by public outcries!

While standing in a queue I was surprisingly happy to note that there was no display of frenzied outcries by the devotees the way one has in many other places. The boards put here, there and everywhere directed the devotees to mentally concentrate on the Shakti and not to chant her name and praise to her loudly!

Gradually the queue was moving and with abated heart I was waiting to meet Maa Vaishnodevi. I thought of my dream of coming to this temple since childhood and today when I was 55 years of age I was able to realize it. My heart filled with all those emotions that in the innocent years of my childhood had made me crave for Her blessings and even today I felt like a child seeking Her blessings. It seemed as if time had stopped and nothing had changed.

Like a small child I conveyed to Maa all that I had suffered and how I wanted her to teach a lesson to all those who had been instrumental in causing undue sufferings and pains to me. At this point I thought of how Maa Vaishnodevi, too, had to fight and struggle against Bhairav and realized that one has to go through all that one is destined for. I was grateful to Her for making me come out of my sufferings and herein lay her blessings.

I was almost at the entrance to the tunnel leading to Her abode. Somethign touched my feet, it was water beneath my feet. I entered the cave having washed myself of all that was unworthy of carrying to Her presence. Symbolically I had become clean and pure worthy to have an audience with Her. I entered the cave. It was long and having low lying roof. Water was seeping from the walls. I could feel that i was inside the womb of the mountains, Going deeper and deeper inside to have an audience with Maa!

It is difficult to put in words the feeling that I had when I was before her. Three Pindis denoting Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Saraswati were staring hard at me, The Pindis had come alive and so had my connection with Her! I could feel how different parts of my persona which had baffled me at times were in fact Her manifestation in all human beings.

I had depicted my Kali form to my enemies when I had faced them fearlessly, my Lakshmi form in my home where I was the  caretaker, and my Saraswati form to my students with whom  I learnt more than I taught.

I felt free. I felt enlightened, I felt empowered!

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Vaishnodevi Yatra: Katra to Banganga

We were so focused on the greater heights that beckoned us that we literally forgot to take some very essential and erudite steps which are a must for any pilgrim taking up the Yatra. You have to register yourself at a counter specially designated for this purpose at Katra Bus stand by  Mata Vaishno Devi shrine board. Registration is free of charge but one has to queue up for getting registered. There can be maximum of nine members in a group or family that can be registered in one slip. We were a total of seven persons and as one of us had used his contact at Katra to register us before we reached Katra, we saved time in standing in a ling queue. But one has to get registered maximum of six hours before reaching Katra otherwise the slip is cancelled. It being a weekend the average number of yatris had increased manifold.

We were happy at having crossed one hurdle effortlessly. I felt momentarily ashamed of having used a contact to get ourselves registered. I believe a pilgrimage is taken to get oneself rid of all those false notions that make us think superior to others. A pilgrimage is a great leveler as we all fellow-pilgrims tread together forgetting all distinction. But here we were taking/using services that many others could not. But we are humans after all and corrupt, in our own small ways,  basically!

The Katra market road that leads to Banganga was full of all those items that a yatri might need. There were sticks, rough and crude, in large number outside every shop. I could not shame myself by buying a stick. I thought critically like a proud pahari woman who could jump and run on hilly terrains like a wild goat. These are not for us, I rued. There were canvass shoes as well which people were taking on rent. Some were taking shaded caps to ward off the golden rays of the evening Sun! We passed through these shops without buying any such item.

We reached the first checking post for the Yatris. All through I was feeling guilty for not standing myself in a long queue to get the registration slip but all my guilt feeling vanished when I looked at the long queue that awaited us as Banganga entrance where these slips were being checked. There was red color dominating everything else. I could see red ribbons, countless in number, tied to the sides of the road. It seemed as if all possible vacant space was used to tie red ribbons on which was written in golden color–Jai Mata di! My reflections on red ribbons were cut short by security persons asking all pilgrims, men and women, to queue up separately. We stood in queues waiting for our turn. We were frisked by the staff and let go off!

Walking a little more steps we reached Banganga, our first stop. A mere 1.5 Kms from Katra it was not a place that the pilgrims would want to stop at. But religious fervor makes some other decision for the pilgrims.

We had reached Banganga!


1 Take a stick.

2 Leave anything unessential at Katra.

3 Take your medicine kit with you.

4 Don’t carry water bottles and eatables, you’ll get en route in many shops.

…to be continued

Changing face of Palampur

Driving through a link road to Palampur, I could see the difference between the Palampur of yore and Palampur of today. This link road joins Palampur from Maranda and what a pleasure it was to drive through dense pine forest on both side of the narrow road. It reminded me of the Palampur of yore when such was the scenic beauty on both sides of the main road. But not any more. Big and palatial houses in colorful exteriors welcome the visitor. These houses may speak of the rising financial status of the populace of Palampur but to an old timer. like me, they seem like eyesores on the picturesque beauty of Palampur.

What a pleasure it used to be in the town when the pine trees surrounded the living area of villages, the tea gardens were at one’s backyard, so close by that one could pick a few tea leaves while having put water to simmer! But as I was told tea cannot be prepared from fresh tea leaves the poor leaves have to undergo a long and hard processing before they turn into customary tea leaves! And the water Kuhals, an integral part of a courtyard, would flow through the aangan. It would be common sight to see water kuhals flowing near most of the localities. But I repeat, no more!

While I got down to take a few pictures at this road, I heard faint sound of water and surprisingly found a water kuhal nearby! It passed through the pine forest, silently and without any grudge! But still lucky Kuhal it was, having clean and cool water in it, as I found later many others literally dried up kuhals turned into places to dispose of waste material.

At right hand to the Neugal I was lucky to see a small rustic mud house, a seemingly relic from the Palampur of yore and near to it was the Gharal, a small enclosure for the cows! There were no cows as there was no water in the Kuhals! Just adjacent to this mud house was a palatial and colorful concrete house putting to shame the humble mud house. When I was busy taking the pictures and talking to a passerby about the changing face of new Palampur, he lamented that very soon this mud house would also be razed to ground to give way to another big palatial house! Who knows when I visit next it would not be here anymore.

But this is the price that we pay for development. I looked around the tea gardens and silently thanked the Government policy of not selling the tea garden land for any construction work. This check has restrained the emergence of concrete jungle in Palampur to some extent but the powerful lobby of land mafia is sure to find some way out to turn Palampur into a place alien to my tastes!