Two pairs of loving eyes watch three pairs of feet on a rainy day…

When my eldest born wrote on Facebook to my youngest born that it was more that four years that both of them had met, my middle born daughter put this picture to overcome the nostalgic feeling that overwhelmed her.   I, sitting miles away from my kids, was watching all this interaction taking place among my three musketeers!

But this picture revived a surge of memories of good days that we had spent together, trekking to various places in Mandi and around. This picture was taken on the bank of lake Parashara where we were walking barefoot in mud, water and grass. It was the month of June and it had rained heavily that day turning the whole path into a deep muddy pothole. All of us were covered in mud as almost everyone had had a fall in the slippery mud but the ecstasy of togetherness would put all these petty handicaps to backstage.

When the mud was washed off the feet, all three of them cried, “Oh, how clean our feet look!” All three of them stood together looking at their feet and I found it to be a right moment to click a picture of three pairs of feet when two pairs of eyes lovingly watched the little but sturdy pairs of feet that had miles to go in the world beyond our small nest!

And today when these three pairs of feet are trotting the globe, I sit here in my empty nest watching the great strides that all three of them had taken. I am still looking at the picture of the lovely time that we had together, the time that we all cherish and value even today. I am happy that despite many compulsions we had the good luck to spend time together and enjoy small joys of life!

Perhaps it is this strong bond of being together that holds us connected to one another while we are thousands of miles away from one another!

Amen!

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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: Ardh kumari to Sanjhi Chhat

May be it was the tea that invigorated us to walk with gusto or it was the good feeling of having covered half the distance that we resumed our walk. Or Perhaps it was watching very old and feeble men and women walking with a zeal that put us to shame for counting the hardships istead of counting the blessings.

We started the trek with added vigor and strength.After Ardh kumari the hill is very steep upwards to move for about two and half kilometres. Its shape is like the head of an elephant due to which it is known by the name of Hathi Matha. it was indeed very steep ascent.

Looking down the small town of Katra seemed like a distant hamlet. There were a number of horses and ponies waiting in a shed. That was the only time when I saw them taking some rest as otherwise I had seen them on a continuous move. I wondered at the trained ponies and horses who would gallop at a speed which would put my heart to tremble. Though I  was walking on foot my heart would tremble for the pilgrim astride the horse. But they seemed to enjoy the horse ride. I, very ruefully and selfishly, thought that after some time all that they would remember of this pilgrimage would be the horse ride and nothing else. The ascent was very steep and the poor horses walked with a great weight on their backs!

My husband, a trained vet, felt so sorry for the horses as they seemed to have no rest at all. The only saving grace for a horse was if he was lucky to have a light weight pilgrim atop it though in most cases I could see quite heavyweight pilgrims atop the horses. And these pilgrims as they didn’t have to do anything else than watch the fellow pilgrims treading around, would shout at the top of their voice, ” Jor se bole Jai Mata di”!

And we, the poor walkers, would not have enough energy to shout back! 🙂 I realized that why people in power generally are most vocal in giving advice and directions, it is because they have nothing else to do and have to use their surplus energy in some activity.

Vaishnodevi Ma had opened many vistas for me. I was learning a lot. My belief in theory of Karma resurfaced and I thought if the theory has any grain of truth in it then these horses, once upon a time, must have a human form in some previous birth  and  must have bled to work some others. They are repaying that Karma in this birth by carrying pilgrims without any rest and pause. I shuddered at the thought of what might happen to all those gleaming and smiling pilgrims sitting proudly on horse back and chanting Jai Mata Di. No God or Goddess would come to redeem you of your bad karma even if you go hundreds times to pay homage to a far flung and  inaccessible temple of a Goddess! It was with great difficulty that I got myself out of these thoughts and once again focused on the pilgrimage!

Suddenly at this place the sound of helicopter caught my attention and I watched a helicopter in the sky moving towards Sanjhi Chhat which has a small helipad. it costs only Rs 700/ per passenger in the helicopter and some pilgrims avail this service to reach Vaishnodevi temple. They alight at Saanjhi Chhat and from there take up horses to go further.

Sanjhi Chhat is levelled and declining ahead. From this place the temple of Mata can be seen which increases the enthusiasm of the devotees. It  was around 7-30 p.m. and I could see the bright lights of the temple. The steps of all the pilgrims automatically gained  momentum and the devotees started chanting her name with more profound faith and devotion.

Now we had to descend a little to reach the Bhawan. I was wonder struck at workmanship of carving a way in the rocky mountains. I wondered how difficult it must have been to get this pathway constructed. I was more than surprised to find a board claiming to be a middle school at Saanjhi Chhat. I could not see a village around but if there was a Middle school there surely would have been some population around. I wondered whether our Hon’ble Minister Kapil Sibal could ever understand the problems of these students studying in school in such areas? Could these students be ever equal to any other child studying in a Metropolitan city? Would it be equality of  opportunity for a child studying in this school when he competes for admission to IIT or NIT with some other child from an urban area?

Or would the blessings of Mata Vaishnodevi alone would be sufficient to bestow some special boon to children studying in this school? Or worse still would some children styding in this school would end up mending horses on the way to Vaishnodevi Bhawan for rich and elite pilgrims?

I shook my head of this nonsense thoughts and tried to concentrate on Mata Vaishnodevi  whose Bhawan glittered in lights before my eyes!

…..to be continued

Vaishnodevi Yatra: Charan Paduka to Ardkumari

As we had taken to stairs when we started from Charan Paduka so I had failed to notice how difficult it was to walk on the path meant for pilgrims. But the stairs were quite steep. But the real reason behind taking up the stairs and leaving the path was to save ourselves from the ponies, mules and horses of all sizes and colors that very proudly had the lion’s share on the pathway meant for us mortals! 🙂

To save ourselves from being trampled under the sturdy foot of an equestrian it was better to pant and huff on the stairs! Though the precautionary warning was written at the start of the stairs along with the number of stairs, fools as we were, we opted to take stairs. Midway we could feel our hearts pumping with extra effort to make us going!

Perhaps it was the expression on our face that some pilgrims going down taking pity on us handed us the sticks which had no use for them now. I was so thankful to them. We were waiting to reach Ardh Kumari, which could be pronounced as Ardh  Kwari in Dogri or Pahari. As this is the point where half the ascent to the Bhawan is completed, I thought that the word “kwari” could be “kwali” which in Pahari means ascent! Ardh Kwali would mean half the ascent! Some thoughts to keep my mind occupied!

After Charan Paduka comes the temple of Ardh kumari. After running away from Bhairav, Mata hid herself in a cave at this place, which is known by the name of Garbhjoon, and rested. She stayed here for nine months. This cave is very narrow in structure but even fat people came out of it easily and sometimes even thinner people get stuck in it. It is said that the people coming to this place with faith and devotion do not have to take rebirth. The people have to get receipt to enter at this place and may have to wait for a long time for his number to come and enter at at this place.

Honestly speaking, I din’t know that there was any temple here at Ardh Kumari. All I could see was a surge of humanity! I was more eager to have a cup of tea than anything else.

A word of advice to all those would-be fellow pilgrims if they, too, would have an urge to have a cup of tea from the Vaishnodevi shrine Bhojnalayas that are situated at strategic points. Buy a token for whatever you have to buy and then stand in a long queue. Looking back it seems that all that I remember of the Vaishnodevi pilgrimage are the queues, long and meandering, everywhere en route till the very Bhawan!

But the scene at Ardh Kumari was different for a change. There were no queues on the open space but huge mass of humanity sitting and standing and roaming around in the most haphazard way it is humanly possible! 🙂

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!

TO DO…

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