Of the various shrines in India, a visit to the Vaishno Devi Mandir is the most desired. Hidden in a cave, nestled in the lap of a three-peaked mountain in Jammu and Kashmir, Vaishno Devi Mandir finds its first mention in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It is said that Arjun, one of the Pandava brothers, prayed to Mata Vaishno Devi for her blessings following their victory at Kurukshetra.
Millions from all walks of life make the arduous trek to the Vaishno Devi shrine every year. It is believed that the pilgrimage cannot be undertaken on a whim. It cannot even begin unless the goddess beckons.
Legend has it the first call went out to Pandit Shridhar–a staunch devotee of Shakti (a Hindu goddess and also a manifestation of power)–who saw the goddess in his dream telling him to hold a feast for those in his village and the neighbouring ones. A daunting task for a poor man, Shridhar nonetheless went ahead. The goddess appeared at his house as a young woman named Vaishnavi and helped Shridhar organise the feast. Despite not having the means to provide for such a large gathering, he miraculously did not run short of food.
Meanwhile, one of the guests at the feast–Bhairavnath, an occultist of ill repute known to have attained all siddhis (yogic powers) hounded Vaishnavi, trying to take control of her. This forced her to flee and take refuge in a cave in Trikuta, Jammu. But Bhairavnath found her using his powers. This infuriated Vaishnavi and she took the form of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and death. She threw her trident at him with such force that it decapitated him, and his head landed two kilometres away. With his life ebbing away, Bhairavnath begged for her forgiveness. Taking the mercy, the goddess forgave him and not only granted him moksha but also a boon. Today, the pilgrimage to the shrine is incomplete without a visit to the Bhairavnath temple which stands where his head fell.
Overwhelmed by the miracle of plenty at the feast, Pandit Shridhar prayed to meet Vaishnavi to thank her. He saw a vision of her guiding him to the cave. Upon reaching, he found a rock with three round stones (pindi) immersed halfway in the water. He then had visions of Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati (three manifestations of Shakti), and spent his life in the cave serving the goddess.
The journey spanning 12 kilometres is mostly undertaken on foot. It begins in Katra near Jammu and ends at Bhavan (the main temple) and takes around four to five hours. The long walk, although now over a paved road, was once arduous and treacherous with most devotees making the trek barefoot.
Today, the pilgrims also have the option of undertaking the journey in a palanquin, on horseback or in a helicopter. The road is well lit and has tea stalls and eateries which are always open. The atmosphere is one of fervent devotion as chants of ‘Jai Mata Di’ resound in the air, and red headbands with golden borders–believed to protect the pilgrims during the ascent–flash in the sun.
At the goddess’ residence
The main temple called Bhavan is where the divine presence is felt the most. It is believed the goddess resides here. On reaching the Bhavan, devotees take a purifying dip in the Banganga River and then enter the cave with the Pindi. The visit to the main temple comes to an end with a dip in the river again. However, the pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi is incomplete without paying obeisance to Bhairavnath. At 6,600 feet, his temple is at a higher altitude and the path to it is much steeper and the air much thinner. Many are not able to complete the pilgrimage just for this reason.
This pilgrimage is said to be nothing short of life-changing. Some wait their entire lives to be summoned but never are. For those who make the pilgrimage even once in their lives, it is a dream come true.