Finally everyone in kashmir had finished asking me if I wanted to buy a shawl, and it was time to wind our way back down the mountain (via the last beautiful hill station called Pahalgam), to where life simmered away in 40 degree heat. Before we parted ways however we had one final destination on our whistle stop tour; the religious town Katra, to join the millions of pilgrims spilling in and out every year to visit the holy Vaishno Devi shrine, hidden 14km up in the Trikuta mountains.
Due to time constraints and to avoid the heat of the day it was advised to walk up over night. Having arrived at our hotel in the late evening (after an 15hour coach ride!!), this meant we were only able to snatch a few hours of precious sleep before embarking upon the pilgrimage.
It was a relatively pleasant and quiet ascent, which we realised on the way down would have been much different if we had been going during the day, and for this we were grateful. There was still music blaring from speakers, and the odd hassler demanding rupees in return for a push! (Often so persistent that they began pushing despite our forceful refusals). There were food and drink stalls, shops to buy the usual assortment of red and gold religious paraphernalia, and even medical centres offering to test for blood sugar levels, blood pressure levels and ECG en route! As we neared the top just before dawn, glimpses of the sparkling lights from the shrine above us enticed and encouraged us to come closer still.
Upon reaching the top, we were amazed to find that these twinkling lights represented such an established maze of buildings nestled in the mountain crevice. Hotels for pilgrims, shops and more food and drink stalls, were all engulfed in a sea bodies filling every available space. After shuffling around for half an hour or so we grasped that in order to visit the dozen or so shrines on offer, you first had to join a queue to obtain tickets, to enable you to join another queue for the shrine itself. A process, we estimated which could take days, and we hastily agreed we were ready for our descent. Unfortunately cameras were not allowed so I have no photos to share with you.
The way down was a rather different affair. Now that the sun was coming up, so were the masses, and we had to fight our way through the crowded narrow pathways, along with mules pulling carts filled with bricks and other building materials (which almost filled the entire path alone), with the same hasslers now offering massages instead of the push. It became an almost dangerous affair to dodge the vast number of unfaltering pilgrims on foot, horseback and even on ‘palanquin’, a chair usually containing a particularly elderly or large pilgrim, balanced on metal poles carried by 4 people marching in rhythm.
We had been told it would take 5-6 hours each way, so were quite proud of ourselves when we were up and back in a total of 5, including a stop at CCD (Cafe Coffee Day, the Indian version of Starbucks), a novelty to find on the pilgrimage pathway!
I was even more impressed to hear that my friend Utso’ dad, had not only queued 5 hours to visit the main shrine, but had then walked a further 5km up the mountain in order to visit another! When his father had not returned by lunch and with our phones not being allowed signal in the Kashmir area for security reasons, Utso was understandably concerned. His worry turned out to be unnecessary however when his father finally bounded in with a smile stretching from ear to ear.
Once back in civilisation, it was time to say goodbye to our fellow travellers as mum and I flew to Delhi for a few days respite (encountering an exceedingly thorough security check at Jammu airport, including having to identify our bags out a back door where the luggage was lined up near to the planes before being boarded), before we too parted ways sniff sniff.