When She calls, you with battered limbs and tireless voice answer. The climb to Vaishno Devi, 27 years pending for me and my parents took 2.5 hours on horses up the steep mountain face from the small foothill pilgrim town of Katra near Jammu. The view was breathtakingly beautiful, and I suppose the anticipation of finally seeing Her made it more so for Her ardent devotees. What was truly miraculous was the sheer number of people making the journey everyday, even in this so-called “off-season”. Thousands of men, women and children walk (mostly barefoot), limp, ride (on horses, ponies, mules & donkeys), sit atop a palki to meet their Mother, the Vaishnavi incarnate (and/or sister) of Goddess Durga. They pant, struggle for breath, gasp, marvel at the distance, question why She had to run so high into the mountain from Bhairo Baba. They sit and rest, they sigh, they sing, they chant. They chant for love, for devotion, for courage and strength. When one reaches the destination, there are still thousands more milling around, buying offerings, prasad, making donations in booths, lining up for the darshan, eating at the reasonably priced Bhojanalays, resting, making their way down again. It’s bustling with life 24/7 and at no time will you feel unsafe, alone or mentally weary. For me, a reluctant religious participant, it was an adventure. I absorbed the mountains, the pine trees, the monkeys the people and the sounds and interred into memory for safe keeping (mostly as clutching on to the horse and juggling with a bulky Nikon was unthinkable.) The darshan itself, albeit delayed (bhagwan ke ghar der hai andher nahi) because the shrine was closed for  two hours for the twice-a-day ritual aarti ceremony from 6pm to 8pm, was in itself beautiful. In an orderly fashion, the throngs of “jai mata di!” chanting fervent devotees were shepherded into lines, frisked, x-rayed and guided down mountain tunnels opening into the holy cave where Maha Kali, Maha Vaishno and Maha Saraswati sat fashioned out of the rocks themselves, resplendent, deceptively small and yet awesome, and then out in an extremely harmonious and business-like manner into the starlit, marbled platform, guarded by an imposing statue of Maa Kali, a presence of immense power & protection.


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