Navratri wa around the corner, how can we forget about Durga Maa and her holy temple, Vaishno Devi. Vaishno Devi, also known as Mata Rani, Trikuta and Vaishnavi, is devoted to the Hindu Goddess Mata Adi Shakti, also known as Goddess Mahalakshmi, located in Katra at the Trikuta Mountains inside the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir at the altitude of 1560 m above sea level.
Ever since the beginning of the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board in 1986, the Holy Shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi has witnessed an ever-increasing number of devotees. It is believed that during the pooja and Aarti, Goddesses arrive at the Holy cave to pay their respect to Mata Rani. The Bhawan houses the sanctum sanctorum or the holy cave where the goddess manifested herself in the form of natural rock formations, known as the three Holy Pindies. The Mother Goddess is believed to fulfill whatever her devotees wish for and devotees believe the goddess herself calls the devotees to reach here. Revered and highly believed in, thousands of Pilgrims visit each year to seek blessings and show unflinching faith in this temple. Apart from the darshan of the three Pindies in the holy cave, there are other holy sculptures in the original cave, such as the symbols of Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, Bhairon Nath, the five Pandavs, etc. These darshans are only possible during the lean season when the original cave is used. Also explore temples dedicated to Mata Durga, Lord Shiva, and Lord Ram within the Bhawan complex.
Although many legends prevail behind the discovery of the Holy Cave, the most accepted one is that of Pandit Sridhar’s journey to the same. A devout priest from a nearby village, Hansali, Pandit Shridhar was blessed by Goddess Vaishnavi for organizing a Bhandara in her honor. Her sudden disappearance depressed Shridhar to the core, and he took a fast unto death, hoping for the Goddess to reappear. Distressed by his vow, Goddess Vaishnavi reappeared in his dream and instructed him the way to discover her abode in the cave on Trikuta Hills. The moment he got up, he set off for the journey to the Holy Cave. After days of toiling and traveling long distances, he found the Cave. It is then that Goddess Vaishnavi appeared in her true form and blessed him with four sons, and gave him the boon of being the official custodian of her Holy Cave. To this day, the successive generations of Pandit Shridhar honor this commitment.
According to Hindu Mythology, in the Treta Yuga, when the earth was overburdened by the wicked and tyrannical rule of the demons, the Goddess Vaishnavi was created when Uma aka MahaKali, Rema aka MahaLakshmi and Vaani aka MahaSaraswati decided to combine their energies to rid the earth of impending doom. After destroying the demons that were burdening Mother Earth, Goddess Vaishnavi was requested to reside on Earth, so that she may forever keep all evil at bay. She decided to incarnate as a human, also named Vaishnavi.
As a child, Vaishnavi was immersed in the devotional service of Lord Vishnu – a habit she carried well into her adulthood. When she was of marriageable age, she left home to perform intense austerities to please and win Lord Vishnu as her husband. Years passed, and as an answer to her prayers, Lord Vishnu appeared to her in the form of Lord Rama. She learned from him that he was already married and was searching for his wife Sita, who was abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana. Seeing his devotee distraught, Rama promised her that he would return to her one day, and if she recognized him, she could marry him. Rama went on to rescue Sita and become the king of Ayodhya, all while Vaishnavi waited for his return. One such day, she was approached by an old man who asked the beautiful Vaishnavi to be his wife. She, however, refused his proposal, thinking of him as undesirable for his age and looks. She had failed to recognize the old man who was none other than Lord Rama, who had come to keep his end of the promise. However the harsh penance of the goddess can’t go unfulfilled, so Lord Rama granted her the boon that in his 10th incarnation of Lord Kalki during kaliyuga, he would marry her and requested her to wait for him till his 10th incarnation on the trikuta mountain. He even gave her a troop of his monkey army for her protection.
Rama left, and Vaishnavi continued to spend years in meditation, moving from place to place, solving the troubles of all who asked, with her Siddhis. This threatened the popularity of a local Tantrik who sends his disciple Bhairon Nath to find out more about her. But Bhairon Nath was stupefied by her beauty and lustfully stalked her wherever she went. To escape his unwanted attention, Vaishnavi entered a cave and continued her meditation there, for nine months, as a child rests in its mother’s womb. When Bhairon Nath located her hiding spot and tried to chase her down again, planning to force himself upon her, Vaishnavi transformed into the Goddess Kali and separated his head.
Bhairon Nath realized his mistake and begged her for forgiveness. His head had fallen far from his body, but the merciful Mother Kali promised him that he would forever be enshrined there and that he would be her guardian from then on. Kali abandoned her rage and returned to the form of Vaishnavi, and reentered her cave, where she assumed the form of three rocks and resides there to date. Each rock is representative of MahaSaraswati, MahaLakshmi and MahaKali. This shrine is lovingly called ‘Vaishno Devi’, where lakhs of devotees throng every year.
Vaishno Devi is a religious trekking destination where pilgrims walk about 13 km uphill to reach the little caves which are among one of the 108 Shakti Peetha. It takes approximately 6 to 9 hours depending on the health, weather conditions and age. Ponies, as well as helicopter services, are accessible by many vendors to get you at the top. The helicopter services to Vaishno devi are extremely popular, and offer tourists a beautiful ride amongst the clouds to the Vaishno Devi temple. The services start from the foothills of the Katra and end at Sanjhichatti, and takes approximately 8 minutes. The temple is around 2.5kms from the helipad at Sanjhichatti. Around 5 to 6 passengers can be accommodated in one flight, and each one-way ticket costs INR 1005, while the round fare costs INR 2050 per passenger. Tickets can be availed at the heli-ticket counters, where valid ID proofs and travel documents have to be presented. The tickets can also be booked online.
The entire walk is decently covered with lots of stores selling food items, snacks, and numerous sacred goods. The pilgrims show their dedication and enthusiasm by shouting slogans and singing songs in praise of Maa Vaishnavi all along the road. Natural glories at its top can be experienced during the visit.
The Vaishno Devi Bhawan is open for devotees 365 days and the governing body of the Bhawan has made it probable to do the trek 24*7. The complete trekking pathway is lit up for devotees. The dazzling ignited path is visible from the Katra bus stand. Along the trekking path, there are many stalls offering food, comfortable sitting benches, refreshments, drinking water, tea, medical aid, toilets, etc. There are also police check posts at regular intervals. At the beginning of the trek, at Banganga check post, luggage scan and security check are conducted. The trek can be completed by horses, These horses can cover half of the trek.
By Air: Jammu Airport is well connected to major Indian airports and is just 50 kilometers from Katra. Regular taxis and cabs from Jammu to Katra are easily available.
By Train: Udhampur Railway Station is the nearest railway station, from where taxis to Katra are easily available.
By Road: Several Jammu & Kashmir State Transport buses, as well as private air-conditioned buses, operate between Jammu and Katra.
Located 30 km from Katra on the banks of the river Chenab, this historic gurudwara is dedicated to Baba Banda Bahadur, one of the Sikh leaders of Guru Gobind Singh. It attracts a large number of Hindu and Sikh devotees, especially during the three-day fair held at Baisakhi. The inside of the gurudwara depicts several important Sikh leaders, and houses ashes, weapons, and other relics of the great Baba Banda.
Dedicated to Bhairav Nath, this temple is only a 2 kilometers walk up from the main shrine. The picturesque views from the temple are worth the trek, but if you’re too tired to walk, ponies and even trolley are also available. It is believed that a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi is complete only after paying a visit to this temple.
Popular for its natural rock formations—the 4 feet high shiva lingam, and objects bearing similarity with Goddess Parvati, Lord Ganesh, and Nandi—this 200-meter long cave is a sight to see. The carved snake formations on its roof from which water trickles down on the lingam, make it even more spectacular.
Suggested Trek From Katra to Vaishno Devi
After taking the Yatra slip from the regional office near Bus Stand, Katra, go for the Darshani Darwaza, from where the long trek officially begins. You shall start with Ban Ganga and moving on, cross Charan Paduka. There on, you would cross Ardh Kumari, the turning point for many travelers. Visit the Ardh Kuwari Cave, located midway on the old route to the Bhawan. This narrow cave is popular not only for its religious significance but also as a pitstop for devotees undertaking the yatra. One has to crawl on the knees to get to the other side where the main shrine dedicated to the goddesses is located. According to belief, Mata Vaishno devi took refuge here while she was hiding from Bhairav Nath for 9 months. Upon reaching the Bhawan, a bath in the holy water of the bathing ghat is considered the ideal cleansing before the holy darshan.
Experience the famed aarti held at the Bhawan before sunrise and after sunset. This sacred aarti is performed by pujaris before the holy deity and then brought outside for the devotees. Darshan remains halted during this time. The Vaishno Devi temple also offers facilities for individual hawan/poojan for devotees, for which slots have to be booked in advance. Before heading down to the base, you should visit Bhairon Nath Mandir, which is the place where the demon overlord was beheaded. As per the boon was given by Goddess Vaishnavi, pilgrims must pay a visit to Bhairon Mandir before heading down, or else, their trip will remain incomplete. Once done, you can head back to the base, either on foot or by the helicopter from Sanjhichatt.
Mata Vaishno Devi is known as ‘The Wish-Fulfilling Goddess’ or ‘ Mann Mange Murad Poore Karne Wali’ in Hindi. this pilgrimage is a near-perfect amalgam of serenity and spiritualism. The view of the sunrise, as well as the sunset from the Trikuta Hills, is breathtaking. Not to forget, the charm of view the lighted Bhawan in the night, especially during snowfall will leave you astounded for sure. All in all, if you want some spiritualism and scenery combined, go for the holy site of Vaishno Devi.
Trekking uphill to the holy cave, amidst reverberating chants of ‘Jai Mata Di’ and beautiful views of the entire valley, the yatra to Mata Vaishno Devi’s temple is a spiritual journey like no other. Upon reaching the main shrine after the long arduous trek, the spirit of devotion and vibrant positivity around is truly mesmerizing, easing out all the fatigue and exhaustion of the journey. The shrine is open throughout the year, with Navratras being the peak season. For a comfortable trek, visit Vaishno Devi between March and October when the weather is cool and pleasant. For those who can brave the cold, snowfall during the winter months makes the experience even more charming.