When you talk about religious tours in North, the trip to Vaishno Devi is the most voted option for all the religious devotees. One of the main reasons is also that it is located in Jammu, the heaven place and Jammu has lot of Scenic beauty. So, in case you want to add to your religious tour you have lot of options. You can either opt for Patnitop in Jammu which is the nearest to the Vaishno Devi Temple or you can think about moving a little further and explore the  state of Himachal Pradesh with places like Dharamshala, Kulu, Manali, etc. To give you a more deep insight, Himachal also has a lot of pilgrimage temple of the powerful deity by the name of Naina Devi, Chamunda Devi, Jwala Devi etc which are one of the forms of Maa Durga.

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Maa Vaishno Devi is one of the avatars of Maa Durga. Thousand of devotees visit this pilgrimage every year and submit their devotion towards this goddess. The pilgrimage is filled with immense peace and tranquility. Many devotees visit this place at least once in a year. However, this place finds its maximum crowd of devotees during the time Navratra which is held twice a year in the month of April and December respectively. It is believed that this place has the maximum energy and power during this period. People all over India follow the fast of Navratra for nine days to show their gratitude and devotion to Maa Vaishno Devi. Places especially in North conduct Jagrata (the Bhajan) and Langar( the noble deed of feeding the people with food in the form of Prasada free of cost) religiously all the nine days.

The History:

The history of the emergence of Maa Vaishno Devi dates back to the Treta Yug. It is believed that a girl (Maa Vaishno Devi) was born from Lord Vishnu's lineage in the home of Ratnakar Sagar (who was childless) in the southern part of India. She was named Trikuta and possessed supernatural powers, was born to fight the demons and put an end to injustice. She later became a devotee of Lord Rama. It was Lord Rama (who was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) who gave her the name of Vaishnavi and later married her as Kalki in the Kalyug.

When Lord Rama was fighting Ravana, Trikuta would meditate in the caves and gain power and eternal spiritualism. While she mediated deep, it were the monkeys and the Lions that would be her protector. This is the reason why Vaishno Devi temple is surrounded by monkey and Maa Vaishno Devi has lion as her chariator. Trikuta also conducted the fast for nine days there which later came to be known as the Navratra. Lord Rama later bestowed Vaishnavi that she would be immortal and would become famous by the name of Maa Vaishno Devi. The cave where Trikuta meditated came to be known as the cave of Maa Vaishno Devi.

Significance of Shakti Peeth

Maa Vaishno Devi is the divine form of the goddess to fight injustice and torments of the demons. She was created with the supernatural powers of all the Gods united into one and has immense power. Thus, the shrine of this goddess is also known as Shakti Peeth symbolizing immense energy and power.

Reaching Katra – the nearest halt to the Vaishno Devi Temple

To reach Katra, you first have to halt at Jammu station/Jammu airport if you are either coming by train or by flight. Later on you can hire the bus or a taxi whichever suits you. The distance from Jammu to Katra is approximately 50 kms., so a maximum of 2 hours will take if you travel by bus and a maximum of 1.5 hours takes place if you travel by car (considering the hilly region). The frequency of the buses and cars are quite higher so reaching Katra would not be a problem. However, there is no connectivity by train from Jammu to Katra.
If you are coming by your own vehicle and following the road, it is advisable to take the by-pass from Kunjwani, nearly 10 kms from Jammu. This by pass takes you straight towards Katra.

Katra –the base point

Whether you come by bus, car or by your own, Katra is the halt for stopping by and it is the nearest locality. It is located at an altitude of about 2500 feet above sea level. Katra is like any other locality that surrounds the holy places of different parts of India. The place is flooded with hotels, dharamshalas, restaurants and small shops for selling goods like clothes, bhajan dvds, prasads, souvenirs, etc. and above all you have crowds of devotees making their way for the darshan. The slogan of ‘Jai Mata Di’ can be heard every now and then.

Accommodation:

The whole journey of the Vaisho Devi takes about more than 1 day and it becomes an obvious choice to search for good hotels to stay. Staying at Katra is not that an expensive affair. You can choose from a variety of lodge and hotels according to your budget. The loge can be found from 300 INR to up to 1500 INR depending on the facility you opt for. There are also Dharamsalas which does not charge you anything for your stay, but you can contribute from your own will by either donating or buying prasads and stuffs from their shops.

Food:

The general North Indian food is readily available all throughout Katra. The famous Rajma Chawal can be found in almost all the restaurants. Overall, you get the conventional meals all the time. For those looking for something different like dosas, pizzas, burgers, etc. can indeed be found but you have to go for a bit of haunting and seraching. The food is also cheap and not that expensive. You can get a decent meal for as low as 40 INR and the taste is also not compromised at all.

Shopping:

You can find many shops which claims to be government registered. They sell woolen shawls, garments, suits as well as blankets. In fact, all the Kashmiri woven materials can be found here and prices are also not too much exaggerated. Apart from these, you can also buy souvenirs in the forms of key chains, photos, etc. of the goddess.

Starting the Journey for the shrine ……..

As soon as you reach Katra, you need to register yourself as a yatri (the visitor) to the Yatra Registration Counter (YRC) situated near the Katra Bus Stand. You are provided with a yatra slip which is distributed free of cost to all the devotees. Without the slip, you are not allowed to go beyond the first checking counter known as the Banaganga. A maximum of 9 people are allowed per yatra slip. You may wonder why is the slip required at all? Well the reasons are quite justified by the authorities. First of all, there is a need to track the number of people on board for the Darshan on a daily basis since the yatra is on a hilly region and thus an estimate of the number of people in case of any mishappening would be of good help. Secondly, the Vaishno temple is located in the hilly areas and as such the sustainability of the hilly area is not to be put at stake by overburdening it with huge crowd. That is why only a certain number of people are allowed the slip per day, the rest of them get a waiting slip. Not all the rush is allowed to go for the pilgrimage. Also, each devotee is assured an insurance of I,00,00 INR (25,000 for minors) in case any mishappenings takes place during the voyage and as such records need to be maintained.

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After going through the first checking of the yatra slip, you also have to go through several over checks which include the check for your baggage and belongings. However, right from the first checking point you would see various shops selling goods, studios and food stalls to both your left and right. So, you can do a lot of window shopping (and some serious shopping too) while covering your distance. The total distance to be covered from Katra to Vaishno Devi temple is around 13 kms and the first two kilometers can be easily passed. After a distance of about 2 kms, the aloofness of the place starts and you get to see the sight of the hills and its beauty.  You gradually tend to fall for the beauty of the mountains as the height goes on increasing with every kilometer. The scenic beauty is something which you would love the most. You could see the view of the clouds encircling the peak of the mountains. From the top of the hill, the whole ground looks like a tiny town. The view is more fascinating during the sunset time. If you happen to be lucky and reach there when it’s snowing, the very view of the hill tops ornamented with pure white snow is heart-warming. Such view just seems to look majestic.

By the time you reach the Charan Paduka, you are at a height of 3380 feet.  Historically, Charan Paduka was the bank of river Banaganga where the goddess, Maa Vaishno Devi, set het foot prints which is still present there till date. This place is a finish of 2.5 kms of the journey. From this place, the next stop is the Adkuwari. Here the devotees halt to take rest, bath, and drink and then refresh themselves to start again. You could find here food courts and a restaurant serving the ordinary meal at mere 20 INR. This spot also indicates the completion of half way of the pilgrimage covering around 6 kms. Adkuwari also has a historical importance. It is said that the goddess took shelter in a cave known as Garv Joon near this place and meditated for around 9 months. Garv Joon is now constructed in the form of a temple and the devotees bow down to the goddess here before setting forth. The energy around the temple is considered to be spiritually high and full of powers.

When you have rested and prayed there enough to get started again, you cross Himkoti and Sanjichhat before you reach the Bhawan (the temple of Maa Vaishno Devi). Himkoti does not have a religious history as such but it famous because from this place the beauty of the entire valley can be viewed in the clearest way. Reaching Himkoti covers around 8.5 kms of the whole journey. Sanjichhat is also famous for its picturesque beauty but here the uphill journey of the devotees stop and they now have to walk downhill for a distance of about 3.5 kms to reach the Bhawan. It is very obvious that by the time you reach the temple, you are almost exhausted and your legs start shaking. But the energy of the place is such that you reach the temple with more enthusiasm by praying Ma Vaisho Devi’s name.

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The best thing about the whole pilgrimage is that you would find people all around you chanting ‘Jai Mata Di’, to give you more energy and enthusiasm. The kind of hostility that you see here for each other is just immensely praiseworthy.

After taking the Darshan of Maa Vaishno Devi in the form of Pindis (head in the shape of a rock), you have to set forth your journey to Bhairav Ghati. It is another 1.5 km journey from the Bhawan. It is said that Bhairav tried to kill the goddess to attain salvation. But the goddess took the form of Maa Kali and beheaded the demon. However, Bhairav asked for forgiveness and was granted the wish that whoever would visit the goddess’s temple would have to visit the Bhairav Nath’s temple after her Darshan to complete his/her pilgrimage. The place where Bhairav Nath was beheaded is known as Bhairav Ghati and all the devotees who come to pay homage to Maa Vaishno Devi, do bow down here. This completes the whole journey of Vaisho Devi.

Although most of the people would cover the journey from Banganga to the Bhawan and Bahirav Ghati by walk, still service is provided to the people who cannot make up by walking. You can choose to trek on horses, ponies and palkis (as they call it) and these services are available at all the major spots all throughout the 13 kms journey. So, if at any point of time you feel too much tired not to walk any further, you can opt for any of these services.

However, if you are planning to hire a helicopter from Katra itself, your halt would be Sanjichhat (Both for to and fro journey). From here you can continue your journey either by walk or hire horses/ponies/palkis.

It is beyond any doubt that the journey from Katra to the Vaishno Devi temple is a tiring one, especially if you choose to walk. So, in case if you are finding a relaxing place nearby to get rid of your tiredness, Patnitop should be your obvious choice. It is the nearest tourist destination and worth seeing.

From Katra to Patnitop

At a distance of 41 kms from Katra, is the heavenly place of Patnitop. Patnitop is located in the district of Udhampur district of Jammu. It is actually a plateau, at an altitude of 2024 m, across which the Jammu-Srinagar highway passes. This place is particularly famous for its serene beauty. The sight of the whole place is surely going to allure you. The most amazing part is that the beauty of this place in summer and winter are quite contrary to each other. While in summer, you would find this place covered with dense forestry with huge pine trees enveloping the surrounding, in winter this place is covered with snow all over the mountains and trees. Henceforth, summer is full of greenery while winter is full of pearl white snow. In case you want to enjoy green, choose the month of May-September while for those willing to enjoy the snow, go in between December-March.

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How to reach there:

There are several buses that are available which you can take from Katra to Patnitop. You could also hire a cab or a taxi. The maximum time in which you could reach Patnitop is 1.5-2 hours, considering the sloppy hilly area.

Accomodation and Expenses:

As with any other tourist place, the hotels in Patnitop are also highly over-rated especially during the peak season. Nevertheless, there is a lot of scope for bargaining and if you are good at it; you might end paying just the fair rent. However, to give you an overview, the standard hotels charges comes out to be around 1500-2500 INR per night stay and it is exclusive of the food. Coming to the food, you wouldn’t face much trouble as the food that are served in the hotels are comparatively ok and you wouldn’t find much complain in that.

The Adventure of Patnitop:

Trekking:

This can be best done at the time of summer only. The Sundarani- Jungal Gali-Jasarkote-Sanasar route in Jangal Gali area is the place that is the most famous for trekking.

Skiing:

This is the adventure of the winter season mainly conducted in the month of January and February. This can be done at Madhatop which is just 6 kms from Patni top on Sanasar Road.

Aero sports (Paragliding): 

This is also a summer adventure. This sport can be found at Sanasar and Jammu. Apart from paragliding, many more aero sports are planned to be implemented in the days to come.

Shopping:

Not very much scope of shopping exhaustively, you could find some shops for souvenir. However, the best shopping can be done if you happen to find local people roaming to sell their things. We had once ended up with one of the locals and we got the phulkari embroidered suit pieces for a mere 250 INR. So, if you are lucky, you may have a chance to get one.

So whether you want a good picnic spot after the tiring pilgrimage or a peaceful walk through the plateau of the Chenab Basin ( FYI: the Chenab River flows very close to this place) , this place is worth giving the shot.

Image Source: Wikepedia and some by author


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