There is an odd kind of silence when the snow drips from the sky and settles on the slopes of the mountains. As though the world has come to an end and there is nobody left to tell the tales of mankind – it’s efforts and endeavors, its achievements and failures, it’s desires and fears, it’s towering creations and it’s irrevocable devastations – as though a chronicle is left unfinished, the writer having vanished in thin air on a whim of a childish prank. Such is the hushed song of Nature when snow falls, spreading a cottony sheet on the crust of the earth with delicate hands of a mother who has just tiptoed out of the room after tucking the child in bed with warmth and care. People make careful plans to witness a snowfall. I experienced it unexpectedly at the holy shrine of Vaishno Devi years back in the ‘80s, when the going was comparatively tough, the mountainous tracks treacherous, steep and not properly paved and the travel was bereft of exotic extravaganzas as our meager savings did not permit the same.
The trip till Katra was uneventful and nothing much to write home about. The only thing that caught my attention in the railway map was the rail tracks vanishing mysteriously somewhere into the foothills of the grand Himalayas. The Jammu –Tawi Express dropped us unceremoniously at the last railway station of the Northern tip of India – Jammu. It was early morning. We took a bus to Katra. The uphill ride was picturesque but I don’t remember much of it as I sedated myself heavily to prevent from being hill-sick during the winding journey. On reaching Katra, we fixed a local coolie to carry our luggage, had our breakfast in one of the road-side dhabas and proceeded towards the shrine in all earnestness. The experienced travelers had told us to continuously chant the holy name while trekking up so that the journey could be made smooth and easy by divine blessing.
The downhill trek was more adventurous. We were the last to come down in the snow with a frail old lady who looked as though she would get swept away by the stormy breeze any minute and an ill clad boy shuddering in the bitter cold like the shivering leaves of a young, supple tree on a windy day.
An ancient cave which was feared would crumble down any moment, even by the feathery press of a mere whisper, led the path to the sanctum sanctorum. There were constant admonishments from the shrine administrators to chant the deity’s name softly which the passionate devotees shouted out as loudly and forcefully as they could.
We were inexperienced travelers in our maiden trekking venture, enchanted by the mesmerizing beauty of Nature at every bend – going uphill, we were accompanied, for a short stretch, by the Baan Ganga, with its crystal clear water, the silver fish swimming carefree just beneath the gossamer sheen of the flow mirroring the pebble bed underneath arranged meticulously by the careworn hands of an unknown architect; but of course the green forests adorning the slopes luscious in its rich, thick foliage never left us alone. As I vaguely remember, the Devi had brought down the Ganga to these mountains by the prick of an arrow or baan. That is why the name Baan Ganga!
Haathi Mattha, a much required resting spot for the tired trekkers, where the mountain peak takes the shape of an elephant’s head; here we had crispy, garam jalebis with steaming cups of tea. And not to forget Ardh Kunwari or the divine womb where Vaishno Mata had hidden from the demon just like a fetus within a woman’s uterine cavity! It was customary to venture inside the womb, a slender slice of a rocky tunnel, but seemed interminably long for those who traversed it. It was pitch dark inside. I had to slither through the claustrophobic hollow saving myself from the jagged ends of the rocky interiors, almost hysterically chanting the holy name, till a sliver of light a few crawls away told me that I had reached the end.
The evening fell quietly while we were still on our way through the dark, desolate, undulating incline. Taking a turn, we had stared eagerly at the far away garland of lights of the shrine! It was still a few kilometers away! The night was spent in an ordinary Dharamshala on roughly hewn blankets a few layering the cold floors and a few dumped on our exhausted frames. The fashionable accommodations were deliberately avoided.
It was dawn as we emerged from our room. The locals predicted rough weather during the day. The snow had started gathering on the higher altitudes. We could see the tips of the mountains tinged with white and a teeth chattering breeze brushing past our sides.
Early in the morning, we had to take a dip in the holy water which turned out to be more of a kind of communal bathing, thankfully, separate for men and women. In a big hall where women without any visible embarrassment doused bucket full of freezing cold water on fully clothed bodies. The water gushed out in full force from open pipes jutting out from the walls of a number of door-less cubicles that the hall was divided into. Then they changed over to dry clothes with nimble fingers and dashed for the Darshan. We followed suit.
We were fortunate to get a Darshan after a long wait in a serpentine queue. By that time it had started snowing. It was December. Our frost bitten feet found solace in the stream coursing through the cave which strangely felt warm and luxuriant to our naked skin, though it was freezing cold. We never felt so vibrantly alive as the ripples caressed our swollen toes. As usual there was the usual quota of queue breakers who were in a mighty hurry even to earn the deity’s blessings. No one could make these passionate pilgrims understand that the divine blessing was the only thing which was always available in plentitude and did not diminish or suffer scarcity with the passage of time.
The Darshan was a quickie, over too soon. The cave priests did not allow the devout to linger long. We returned by another passage, a longish tunnel wherein a spring cascaded from an unknown source down one of its uneven sides and mingled into the stream below.
The locals had earlier advised us to leave as soon as possible because a snowfall indicated closure of the shrine which in turn meant an indefinite stranded existence at one of the Dharamshalas. But none was available as these were already full with incoming devotees and those who had decided to stay back. Trekking snow clad mountainous tracks was a novel experience for us. We were told to follow the footprints of our predecessors lest we slipped and fell. If we did, chances were our carcasses would never be found. Measure after measure we covered snow-white ribbons of pathways entwining the sage like mountains. As the sky sprinkled on us generous sheets of snow, our clothes fell short of requirement. I for myself was wearing three layers of clothing and it was the same for others. But these were not fit for a snowy winter. Our sole aim was to reach the foothills which we naïvely presumed would be snow-free.
But how wrong we were! As we were half way down, the snowfall gave way to torrential downpour. We had not thought of that! The snow melting into rains as the altitudes lessened. We were drenched and sure that our luggage was too as it was not waterproof. We passed by the Baan Ganga, which once a silver ballerina, was now a deep pink scurry of turbulent water, the mountain sediments adding colour and vibrancy to her fluid, buoyant, graceful prance.
We landed at a tea stall, unpretentious but welcoming. Till now, we had trudged alone, apart from our group of four, there was nobody trekking downhill unlike the evening before when we were accompanied by a throng of pilgrims. Such is life my friend! Sometimes a joyous caravan of multitude and sometimes just a lone tread with quietude. So, we were at this road side tea pub. A man stood there at the doorway, an old ordinary blanket shrouding his face and frame. The other two male members in our group went hotel surfing. The bad news was that all hotels, motels, inns and taverns were teeming with pilgrims who were not allowed to leave Katra for the uphill journey. Every possible type of accommodation was choc-o-bloc. It was quite probable that we might have to spend the night in that tea shop itself.
But we would not have minded that at all! The reason was simple. The masquerader blocking the doorway hummed an intricate tune, a meandering mesmeric rendition of Mian Ki Malhaar. The rain lashed outside breaking the mountains in rhythmic lunacy. The aqua drops looked like polka dots tap dancing on the rugged terrains and the stranger with his face hidden inside the dirty folds of a frayed blanket sang the joy of rains in deep resonance which hit the steep slopes, the far away peaks, the earthy banks of the mountain rivers, the misty sky, the thick jungles, the over laden clouds and bounced back in frothy wavelengths to be eternally ensconced in the memory banks of two agog minds. We could have spent the entire night listening to the melodious strains!
The rest is ordinary. The night was spent in one room obtained with crooked maneuvers - an admixture of feminine pleas and curtly dropping a few names here and there of the rich and the famous. Sleep was fitful with torturous dreams of the trek back to Katra coupled with acute body pain. The only redeeming factor being the oven hot rotis and delicious red rajma which was our dinner in an infamous roadside stall! But the taste of it still lingers on. Threads of smoke curled up from our bodies as the crackling heat of the glowing angeethi around which we huddled to keep ourselves warm seeped into our rain soaked attire. By that time, our muscles were so stiff in the bitter cold that we had completely lost control over our limbs. We had to hold the strip of a roti in both hands and take it up carefully to our mouth and shuffle it in. Left to the right hand, the rajma sloshed rotis went inside the left ear before finding its right course to the quivering mouth. The same fate awaited as we tried to wrench the dripping clothes now glued to our frames. We did not know de-robing could be such a tedious and time consuming affair!!
The next morning we reached Jammu Station much before time. By the afternoon, the sun shone bright and crisp enough to dry our wet clothes on the empty platform benches before boarding the train in the evening. That is how my sister’s post marriage thanksgiving ceremony to the divine deity drew to an end. Even on reaching home and a month later, many a night, I’d wake up sweating profusely tortured - revisiting the shrine and braving the blizzard in my dreams!! It is said that a divine call precedes a successful pilgrimage. After the fateful first visit, we never till now had a second chance of visiting the shrine again. So most probably the divine invite has not been posted as yet. But those were definitely the days when such adventures lent additional meaning to life, though it might appear a little foolhardy on hindsight.