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2023 - The Year That Was

Places impact you for a variety of reasons. And the same place impacts different people in different ways. This is especially true when it comes to spiritual experiences, where every single person’s experience is unique. And personally, every spiritual experience is unique, the same person can have different deeply spiritual experiences at different places, at different times. This thought has emerged because of my own experiences over the years, but especially so this year, with different and unique experiences at various places I have visited recently. I began this year with a visit to Baroda (Vadodara) with friends. It was meant to be a relaxed trip, a touristy trip, with our sons. We enjoyed ourselves to the hilt, but the highlight of that trip was a visit to the Lakulisha temple at Pavagadh. It was the iconography of the temple that I connected with, and I spent a few hours simply lost in the details of the figures carved around the temple. There was an indefinable connect with

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.



Hence, when the group I went to Pandharpur with, planned to go to Vaishnodevi, I wasn’t too excited. But Shankar hadn’t visited Vaishnodevi, and he was keen to go, and in some corner of my mind, the idea of singing bhajans with the group at the sacred site was an exciting idea, one that could possibly redeem my experience of the shrine. But I was uncertain. My 2nd semester exam dates had yet to be declared, and I couldn’t possibly risk it. But then, the university didn’t seem to be in a hurry to declare the dates anyway, so we decided to go ahead and book tickets, with the only provision that they be refundable, so that I could cancel, if necessary, at the last moment. So, it was planned – that we would head to Amritsar first and then to Katra, and the group would sing, either at Katra or at Vaishnodevi, depending on the permissions, on the 4th of June.

Our tickets to Amritsar had just been booked, when the university declared that our exams would begin on the 6th of June. Once again, I was in a dilemma. Should I still go ahead, or should I simply cancel the tickets and focus on studying? My risk-averse nature (as Shankar calls it) was all for cancelling the tickets. But somewhere deep within me, I knew that this trip could be something special. It would have its challenges (I didn’t realize just how challenging it would be!), but it would be memorable. Besides, I had a full day with me to return back to Mumbai in time for my exams. In any case, there was little chance of me learning anything in the last minute. I knew from past experience that the university would come up with the time table less than a week before the exams, and the hall ticket would probably be ready only the day before. Instead of sitting at home and fretting about it, I might as well go on the trip and enjoy myself. And so, it was decided. I booked my return by flight from Delhi, and resigned myself to doing what studying I could before I left.

The challenges turned out to be far more than I imagined. First, my son insisted on a family holiday before he came back home, so off we went for a week to Binsar. Returning home from that trip, we had about a week before we had to leave again for Delhi. In the middle of all this, the Go First fiasco happened, and our flight to Amritsar was cancelled. We had to rebook by train since the available flights didn’t work for us. Thankfully, we had quite a lot of our group with us, and the journey to Delhi by train was an enjoyable one. At Delhi, while the others went to rest, I decided to take Shankar to a Ganesha temple at Connaught place built by his grand uncle, Shankar Iyer, which he hadn’t visited so far. This is one of the temples I have been going to since I was a kid, while he had never visited, so we spent our time in Delhi at the temple, and making a quick visit to the National Museum.



The second half of our journey turned out to be way more adventurous. We had been booked in the Garib Rath to Amritsar. What we hadn’t realized, because this was a last-minute booking, based on availability, that this train was coming from Saharsa in Bihar. It turned out to the worst train I have ever been in…. and I have been travelling by train for the last 48 years, and have had some not-so-great experiences! The train was filthy – looked and smelt like a pigsty. There was a mix-up of the seats allotted to us, and there was a whole lot of confusion before the issues were resolved. Finally, about an hour into the journey, we managed to settle down, more than 4 to a seat, which apparently, is the norm for the Garib Rath. Added to this crowded confusion were RAC and waitlisted passengers, so you can imagine just how packed the train was. To add to the misery, in our adjoining compartment (where some of our friends were), a window was actually broken, the AC didn’t work, and the breeze wasn’t enough. I shudder to think how they managed! And to top it all, the train had arrived late, and continued to move at a snail’s pace. We eventually arrived at Amritsar close to midnight, the train almost 3 hours late. For the first time in my life, I was glad I was travelling with a group. If it hadn’t been for my wonderful companions, this journey would have been absolute hell, and I probably wouldn’t have lasted through it. Had I been alone, I would have given up somewhere midway, got off, and probably returned back to Delhi!

Only when we alighted at Amritsar did we realize that those among our group who had flown in, had their share of troubles. The hotel we had been booked in was a disappointment, and they had spent much of the evening trying to find a better place for us all. We all checked into our rooms way past midnight, and there was little chance of us getting to the Golden Temple by 4 AM as originally planned. We decided to grab a couple of hours extra sleep, and leave for the temple around 6 AM.



I have visited the Golden Temple at Amritsar a number of times, but never had I seen it so crowded. Besides, there was so much security at every corner because of the approaching anniversary of Operation Blue Star, that half the approach roads to the temple were closed, and autos weren’t easily available. A friend had visited just a couple of weeks earlier, and she had taken over 3 hours for darshan. We counted ourselves lucky that we managed in around 1.5 hours! Then it was time for langar, and head on to our main destination, Katra.

We trooped into a bus arranged for us, and proceeded to try to catch up on some sleep. We stopped en route for a late lunch and a short bhajan session somewhere near Pathankot. In the middle of all this, I developed a raging headache which refused to go away. I heaved a sigh of relief when we finally arrived at Katra and found our way to our rooms. I barely had energy to put my phone for charging before I crashed.

A few hours of sleep, and it was time for the big day. Shankar was going to walk both ways. I was taking the helicopter up, and planned to walk down with him. He left early with the others who had decided to walk, while I took some more time to rest, and have breakfast before heading to the helipad.



I was both, excited, and nervous about the helicopter ride. This would be my first time, and I don’t do too well with heights and sudden lift offs. But it was way better than the alternative, and so, I was all set to deal with it. My flight was among the earliest in our group, so I arrived at the helipad early, and found it extremely well organized, which lifted my spirits. First, we had to make our RFIDs, which was a quick process, then verify our tickets, get our boarding passes, and head to the waiting area in the helipad van. As I awaited my turn, my hands itched to click photos, but the huge No Photography signs were an effective deterrent, and I held myself back, choosing to enjoying the moment instead. Watching the helicopters land and take off was terribly exciting, and I loved the efficiency of the whole process. The rotors of the copter hardly stopped! They slowed down, while the existing passengers got out and the new ones got in, and the copter took off within minutes! I loved how they managed the weight, arranging people and bags, and I was hugely amused, as well as impressed, that they confiscated all our phones!

I had been worried about the lift-off, but it was so quick, that I hardly even realized it. As we gained altitude, my attention was immediately captured by the snow-clad mountains in the distance, and all my fears, as well as the nagging headache, simply disappeared! I couldn’t take my eyes off the snow-clad mountains for the entire duration of the flight, which, as it turned out, only lasted a few short minutes.


The temperature when we alighted was clearly far below that at Katra, and the bracing air only helped dissipate my headache further. I chose to ignore the dolis and horses, and decided to walk the 2 or 3 km to Bhawan from Sanji Chhat, which is where the helipad is located. To my delight, the path was empty, and I caught glimpses of the snow-clad mountains as I walked.



My spirits had been lifted by the helicopter ride, and they continued to be elevated as I walked alone along the path. I found it extremely ironical, that here I was, travelling along with a group, yet, once again, I found myself alone, something which I enjoy…. Even as the thought crossed my mind, over the loudspeakers came the sound of chanting of slokas, beginning with Aumkaaram Bindu Samyuktam, and a few others, followed by chanting of Vedic mantras, starting with the Rudram, and then many more suktams. This doesn’t seem especially significant, does it? But it does, because my connection with Swami is through Balvikas, where we begin our class with the Aumkaaram sloka. Similarly, my knowledge of Vedam comes entirely from my connection with Him. While my association with the group is through my husband who has a far closer connection to Swami, as one of his students, my personal connect to Swami is through Balvikas, and Vedam is something I enjoyed learning, the very notion of his, of women learning and chanting Vedam being a liberating idea which I love. As I walked down that path, chanting along with the loudspeaker, there was only one thought in my mind – that I was not alone. Never have I felt closer to Swami as I did then!


The chanting ceased as I walked into Bhawan, and I tried to find my bearings, figuring out where exactly to go, the queues of devotees being a daunting sight. Eventually I found my way to a locker, which took me almost an hour to get to, and deposit my belongings. Now I was faced with the dilemma of how to get into the never-ending queue before me. Eventually, I walked up to one of the CRPF officers and explained my situation. He probably took pity on me, seeing the state I was in, huffing and puffing from my long walk, and told me to come along. He led me along the path, and handed me over to someone else. This officer led me to another, and then another, until finally he opened a gate and allowed me to join the queue just before the climb up to the cave began. Thanking the gods, and the officers for their help, I joined the queue, but it still took me almost an hour more to reach the shrine. Meanwhile, I began talking to another fellow devotee in the queue, and both of us rued the fact that we would not be able to enter the main cave. Suddenly, the line that till then had been steadily moving, stopped as we turned a corner, and there, right in front of us, was the original cave entrance, covered in gold, and barricaded. As we stood there, someone was brought in, and allowed to enter the cave, evidently a VIP of some stature. For the next 20 minutes, we stood there, right in front of this cave. We might not have been allowed inside, but standing there, singing what devi bhajans I knew, chanting the slokas I knew, my heart was full. I was in the presence of the goddess in her original shrine, something I had craved for, as I had weighed my options about visiting the temple. Yes, I might have not been allowed inside the cave shrine itself, to see the goddess in all her glory, but this was the closest I could come to, as a member of the general public. And for the moment, this was enough.

Later, as I mulled over my experience, I wondered why I was so fascinated by the cave itself rather than the goddess, and realized that for me, it is her presence in the narrow, difficult to approach cave, hidden deep within the mountain, that fascinated me.  Her presence was signified, not by the stone idol in the shrine, but by her presence in the cave itself. Difficult though it might have been to access, experiencing that difficulty by itself represented the experience of the goddess. I had heard stories of how difficult it once was, to climb the mountain. Today, that has become far easier, with horses/ dolis/ helicopters. The cave itself was the only challenging portion, and that too has become easier. It is the effort that we put into going to see her, that defines our experience with her, and somehow, the new tunnel has only reduced that experience further for me. Standing in front of the original cave entrance, I put all my energy and thought into focusing on the goddess inside, and somehow, there was a connect far deeper than I felt later, during my momentary glimpse of her in the shrine.

As our queue began to move once again, I spotted a couple of people from our group ahead of me. They had been on a later flight, but had made it earlier because they had taken a doli, and had bypassed the locker queue by having someone wait with their belongings. As we walked into the tunnel, I caught up with them, and we had darshan of the goddess together. It was extremely satisfying to think that, alone though I might have been for most of the journey, at the culmination, I was with my group, with someone I had interacted with closely. We parted ways once again after darshan, since they were flying back, while I was still intent on trying to see how far I could walk down.

Meanwhile, I realized that my husband and his friends were way behind me, and waiting for them would be no use, especially since they had left their phones behind in the lockers. And so, I decided to start walking down by myself, hoping that someone would catch up with me.

My walk down was memorable in other ways than the walk from the helipad. For one, the route was way more crowded, and it was far more tiring, even though it was downhill. I had to take frequent rests, but even then, I was drained by the time I reached Ardh Kunwari. The experience was enlivened by multiple conversations I had with people along the way, especially when I had taken breaks. I was most amused at the curiosity people showed about me walking alone, without a group or even family members! Meanwhile, our bhajan had been scheduled at the Shrine Board office auditorium at Katra, and I realized that I had no way of reaching on time, if I decided to test my walking capabilities further. And so, I decided to splurge and hired a doli to get me back to Katra in time.

I remember taking a horse on the way down during my first visit to Vaishnodevi, and that was an experience I shall not forget. I almost wished I had continued to walk! My back and my hips ached for days, and the road felt like a perilous sight from atop a horse. Hence, the choice of a doli this time. But I underestimated how guilty it made me feel, to have four people carry me. I ended up paying extra to them, to cover my guilt, and made a mental note to book the helicopter both ways, in case I ever decided to do this again!

Despite the choice of doli, I didn’t have time to go to the hotel and freshen up. I headed straight to the shrine board office, where a few others were waiting. The only people who had arrived in time were those who had chosen to fly both ways, or some who left early and took horses/dolis and returned by air. The rest were still somewhere en route, at different stages of the journey back to Katra. As we exchanged experiences, people trickled in, and eventually we were able to start the bhajan.

The auditorium had a stage, which was the natural focal point, but far more attractive was the view from the windows, of the mountain and the Ardh Kunwari temple. There was also a photograph of the goddess, but the view trumped even the photograph. It was decided that we would face the mountain as we sang, and I couldn’t take my eyes off, for the hour and half that we sang along. While it was the mountain in front of my eyes, what I could actually see was the entrance of the cave, which was etched in my memory, from the 20 minutes of standing in front of it.


When it was time for the aarti, it was decided that we all would take the aarti, and that too, on the balcony, directly to the mountain. There could be no better conclusion to the trip!

As we finished dinner, headed to the railway station, and made our way back to Delhi, all conversations revolved around our experiences, which was as varied as the people. Someone had almost crashed along the way, and hadn’t even been able to make it to the bhajan, thankfully, they managed to reach the room, and the train, safe. Someone had tried to return by air despite no booking, and succeeded. Some had a hard time bargaining with horses / dolis for the official rates. A few had actually managed to walk both ways as planned, and remained energetic enough to sing at the end of it! And it turned out Shankar was the only one who managed to make it to Bhairav Ghati, completely by chance (according to him!)

Meanwhile, my worries had returned. The university had come up with the time table just the day before. My exams indeed were starting on the 6th as planned, and, as I had anticipated, my hall ticket would only be available on the 5th. What I hadn’t anticipated was that – a) I required a photograph, and b) I would only reach the university by around 4 PM, based on my flight timing (provided that it was on time and I managed to board, of course). The first thing I did on boarding the train was rummage frantically in my purse for a photograph, and thankfully, found an old one forgotten in some corner. Heaving a sigh of relief, I turned my attention to praying for everything else to go well.

The train reached NDLS just about 15 minutes late, and both Shankar and I rushed to find an auto, without even bidding our companions goodbye. Most of them knew by now that I had an exam, and they hopefully understood! A rushed auto ride later, we arrived at the airport, and checked in, and even had time for a quick breakfast before boarding our flight. I even had time to call up the department and request them to keep my hall ticket ready for me, and to hang on till I arrived. While Shankar headed straight for office, I headed to the university, picked up my hall ticket, and only then headed home.

And thus ended the non-stop adventure that was my Vaishnodevi Yatra. I managed to get through my exams, despite the return of the nagging headache, which seems to be the fallout from the trip. However, it was worth every minute of the adventure. This is one trip I would surely have regretted missing, had I decided to stay safe and risk-averse, as is my usual nature.  The people I met this time, including those I met again after the Pandharpur Yatra, every single one of them made this trip memorable in some way or the other. There are so many conversations that I shall remember, so many shared experiences that I shall treasure. This surely goes down as one of the most memorable trips of all time. 

Comments

  1. Indeed a knocking memory. MataRani keep blessing us always

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for sharing this blog, Keep it up!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Amazing ! Beautifully described

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  4. Absolutely mesmerizing account of your Vaishnodevi experience! Your words vividly captured the spiritual journey, making me feel like I was right there with you. And for those seeking a hassle-free trip, LugBee's (www.lugbee.com) luggage storage in Katra is a game-changer. Thanks for sharing this remarkable adventure!

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