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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

An Unforgettable Encounter

We were just leaving the Pampa Sarovar, when we were hailed by an old man wearing a dhoti and a saffron kurta. I wouldn’t have called him a saint or a holy man, but he wasn’t a tourist either. He wanted a lift to his hotel, and since our driver said it was on our way, we agreed. We started talking, starting with Shankar’s favourite question – “Where are you from?”

We have heard some interesting answers to that question, which usually leads to a conversation on anything ranging from the history of the place and lineage to the politics of migration, and even the current job scene. However, this time, we were in for a surprise. The man first started talking in Hindi, which then shifted to fluent Tamil when Samhith asked me a question – he had been born in Maharashtra (Solapur), shifted to Tamilnadu (Thanjavur) as a kid, lived there for the first half of his life, and then started wandering. He had travelled across the country from the Himalayas to Rameswaram, Dwaraka to Puri, and a number of times. He had finally settled at an ashram near Jamnagar, where he took in orphans and taught them. He lived for six months in the ashram and spent 6 months satisfying his wanderlust. It was he who told me about the four Sarovars in India. He had visited all of them – including Manasarovar – all by joining groups of religious travellers. He had attended the parayan at the Pampa Sarovar temple, been paid Rs.500, which was his average earning per day, enough to meet his needs, considering that he was fed no matter where he went, since he was a ‘wandering saint’! When he heard that we had visited lots of temples too, he was even more excited, and spoke about all the temples he had visited, the number of times he had been to Badrinath and Kedarnath, even to Mount Kailash and Amarnath!

We dropped him off at his hotel – actually a guest house run by a couple – and realized that it was a haunt of Italians! Amidst people lazing around in shorts, there was a small shrine dedicated to Ganesha. The idol was not one bought in a shop, but a pattern on a tree which resembled the elephant God. And it was this that bought him to this guest house, he said. He had stayed here earlier, and while here, he performed pujas to the Lord and was in return allowed to stay at a lower rate than the regular guests!

As we bid him goodbye, I thought of all the wandering saints of yore we have read of – Appar, Sundarar, and all the rest – those who walked from one temple to the other singing praises to the Lord. Was this man the modern version of these saints? He was surely not alone – there were many more like him, I am sure. I don’t know about the religious benefits of visiting all those temples, but surely the man knows to make the most of life. within his limited means, the man manages to do what I only dream of – just wandering from one place to another, living on what he gets, making do with what resources he has, praying to the Lord and subsisting on what the Lord gives him! If that isn’t saintliness, I wonder what is! We never learnt his name. we were just too busy listening to him, but he is one traveller I shall never forget!

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