Pyar se bolo Jai Mataji! Zor se bolo Jai Mataji
Repeat the Mother’s name loudly and with love!
“Pyar se bolo Jai Mataji! Zor se bolo Jai Mataji”. “Repeat the Mother’s name loudly and with love!” The words were ringing in my ears as I trudged up the dark mountainside- the Trikuta Mountain on my way to the mysterious cave, the dwelling place of the Divine Mother. My nine year old son and fifteen year old niece were with me as we walked in the darkness. The track was lit only by a watery sliver of a moon and some desultory stars. There was not a soul in sight. A soft and soothing breeze fanned our hot brows. The mountain seemed to be holding its breath, so still and quiet it was and the Divine Mother alone walked beside us her anklets tinkling and gleaming as she showed us the way.
It is said that no one can go to Vaishno Devi without her special invitation. I must surely have been invited because out of the blue I was propelled from my humdrum life in the small town of Trisshur in Kerala to Delhi to meet my friend whose husband was in the army and had promised to arrange our trip to the sacred cave. I really knew nothing about the place and had hardly any experience of north Indian temples. To this day I don’t know what drew me to her and urged me to go despite all the problems that faced me. After that I have gone many times but the first time, forty- two years ago remains indelibly etched in my mind.
My friend had arranged our stay in Katra in the state of Jammu, which is the base camp for the trek to the cave. There was no road or helicopters in those days. I think there were some ponies but I didn’t want to try those. We were told that the best way to do the trek would be to start in the wee hours of the morning so as to reach the shrine in time for the morning puja. So I left with my son and niece and an unknown man who was also totally new to the path, completely surrendering to the divine. Someone thrust a stick into my hands, I’m not sure for what reason but it did come in handy for clambering up the rocky mountain trail. The Himalayas are notorious for grizzly brown bears and perhaps they thought the stick would be of some use, though I doubt if I could have fended off a bear and protected the children with a stick! My friend and her party set off on ponies and they promised to meet us somewhere in the middle of the trek where there was a small place to rest. Unfortunately we totally by-passed this point and simply trudged on chanting the ditty that I had heard others chant, “Prem se bolo jai Mataji! Bolo Bolo jai Mataji” which means “Repeat the name of the mother again and again with love.” Words cannot express the intensity of the feeling I had of going up a completely unknown terrain in pitch darkness- the ecstatic feeling of being totally dependent on the divine alone – not knowing if or when we would reach. We trudged up, bathed in an aura of compassion as of being cuddled in a mother’s arms. Only the children and I were there. Of the man there was no sign!
We reached the top of the hill just as the morning sun was beginning to peep over the hump of the hill. There were quite a few people already starting to queue up to go into the cave. I waited for some time and didn’t see the other party so we decided to carry on since the queue was increasing.
In those days the only way into the cave was through a tunnel in the mountain going steeply up through an icy cold stream that came tumbling down. There was no other way and one had to crawl up the slippery cascading falls, clutching at whatever hold was available on the rocky mountainside! Many years later they cut another tunnel for people to come out after darshan “holy vision” but at that time people were going up and coming down the same narrow, unpredictable bed of the mountain stream. I hardly felt my hands and feet that had turned numb and blue and I dared not question the children who never complained. I don’t know how a person like me who suffers terribly from claustrophobia ever managed it. Today there is a huge passage from the other side through which people can easily go in and out of the cave with the greatest of ease. A barrier has been placed in front of the cave and I was told that we had to pay money and get special permission to go through it. I was so thankful to Her for having allowed me to go through the original path on that fateful morning.
Without thinking of the pros and cons I closed my eyes and begged the Divine Mother to guide me. I girded up my sari and clutched my son and pushed him in front and told my niece to clutch my sari from behind and follow. My poor son was met with a gush of icy cold water as he jumped into the river and manfully crawled on all fours up the steep tunnel. My niece and I who followed were treated to the same fate. Since it was still very early, thankfully there was no one coming down as we went up. I don’t know what I would have done if there had been people coming down and pushing me from the back. Suddenly we were free of the inky darkness of the tunnel and projected into the brightly lit cave. It seemed very bright to me but actually there was no electricity at that time, only the light produced by a number of flickering oil lamps. I cannot describe the feeling of ecstasy that engulfed me. I just prostrated in front of the rock and sobbed my heart out. I was so grateful for this tremendous opportunity that had been unwittingly thrust upon me. What merit had I accumulated in past lives to be given this incredible darshan (audience)? I knew nothing about the place so didn’t even know what I was to look for? There was no idol only a flat rock on which there were three smaller rocks that had been decorated with red scarves and lighted up by the oil diyas (mud lamps). The priests pointed out the three pindis or mounds of rock which were supposed to stand for the three energies of the mother goddess – Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati – destruction, construction and maintenance. We sat for a short while with chattering teeth due to the cold, my wet sari sticking to me but I didn’t even think of the discomfort at that time. I have very little recollection of how the three of us got out of the cave through the same narrow aperture through which people were already pushing their way up.
In those days there were no mobile phones and my friend was getting quite worried at our absence and was delighted to find us all in one piece even though totally inebriated and exhausted by our ethereal experience.
It was many years later that I took the trouble to find out more about the temple and the nature of the goddess who resided therein. At that time it was only emotions and feelings that engulfed me. My intelligence played no part at all. My brain wasn’t functioning. My heart was bursting with love and gratitude. This was my first and most exhilarating visit to the famous temple of Vaishno Devi.
The temple of the goddess Vaishno Devi is in the state of Jammu. The cave is supposed to be at least a million years old. The mountain is known as Trikuta and has been mentioned in the Rig Veda. Of course we have to come to the age of the Puranas in order to know how and why the goddess took up her residence at this particular place.
Her story goes way back to the Devi Purana which narrates the legend of the two asuras (demons) called Shumbha and Nishumbha who were bent on destroying the world. They had ousted the gods from their heaven and the gods ran to the creator Brahma to rescue them. He begged the divine mother to come to their aid. The three shaktis or powers of the goddess known as Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati pooled their energies and produced an incredible incarnation of a young girl whose radiance outshone the brilliance of a thousand suns. She asked the goddesses why they had created her and they told her that she had been created to uphold the eternal dharma – the Sanatana Dharma which was in danger of being destroyed by the asuras.
They told her to take birth as a human child in the South of India as the daughter of a man known as Ratnakar Sagar who had been childless for many years. The goddess appeared to him in a dream and told him that she would become his daughter only if he promised never to thwart her wishes. He agreed and she was born the very next day and was called Trikuta. She was a strange child, hardly interested in any of the things that delight most young children. When she was nine years old she asked her father’s permission to go and do tapas (meditate) on the sea shore. The bewildered father was forced to agree. While she was meditating, Sri Rama passed that way during the course of his search for Sita He was accompanied by his brother Lakshmana and the whole monkey army.
She opened her eyes to find the beatific vision of Rama standing in front of her with a compassionate look in his lotus eyes. She knew him to be the personification of the fruits of her penance and begged him to marry her. Rama told her that in this incarnation he had taken on the vow that he would have only one wife and that was Sita but seeing her disconsolate face he promised that he would marry her in the yuga “age” that was to come – the Kali Yuga. He changed her name to Vaishnavi (one who is devoted to Vishnu), and instructed her to proceed to the Trikuta range in the Himalayas and pursue her meditative practices. He left a small company of monkeys and a lion for her protection and presented her with a bow and a quiver of arrows. Rama blessed her and told her that the day would come when the entire world would sing her praises and her shrine would attract thousands of devotees.
Vaishnavi now proceeded to the Trikuta hill and started doing severe penance. She was the first to keep the nine days vow for the Divine Mother known as “Navaratra”. She prayed for Rama’s victory over Ravana. “Navaratri” means nine nights and from that time onwards many Hindus keep this nine day vow in the month of October for the goddess, abstaining from any food except fruits and milk and chanting her names and reading about her glories. Since she had undertaken the vow for Rama’s victory, people continue the tradition and read the Ramayana during the Navaratri period.
After winning the battle Rama returned to Vaishnavi in the guise of an old sadhu (anchorite). She did not recognise him and was quite distraught when he revealed his true form. He told her that he would return to her in the Kali Yuga. In the meantime he told her to set up her ashram in the Trikuta hills. Soon she became famous and people started to flock to her. There seems to be a huge time lag between her meeting with Rama and the story that follows. Perhaps she meditated for thousands of years.
Historically speaking about seven hundred years ago there was a great yogi called Gorakh Nath. He had a vision of her meeting with Rama and desired to know more about her. He sent his chief disciple Bhairon Nath to spy on her. Bhairon started to follow her and watch all her movements. He was surprised to find that despite the fact that she was a yogini (female yogi) she always carried a bow and was also accompanied by a lion and a troupe of monkeys that had been given to her by her God - Rama. She was so enchanting that very soon Bhairon forgot the purpose for which he had come and fell in love with her and started pestering her to marry him.
There are many legends concerning the cave but the one closest to us occurred at this time and is woven into the story of a man called Pundit Sridhara. He lived in a village called Hansli which is very close to the present day town of Katra, at the foot of the Trikuta hill. He was a great devotee of Vaishnavi and used to pray to her all the time. Once Vaishnavi had appeared to him in a dream and when he woke up he decided to host a bhandara or feast for all the devotees of the goddess and invited many people even though he was very poor and could hardly manage a square meal for himself. He had absolute trust in the power of the goddess and invited everyone from far and near. He even invited Gorakh Nath and his attendant. On the day of the bhandara, Sridhara was sitting and praying to the goddess outside his hut. People began to queue up in large numbers and entered the hut even though there were no signs of a feast. Strangely enough everyone managed to seat themselves very comfortably inside his little hut. When Sridhara opened his eyes he was shocked to see the number of people who had crowded into his hut. Just then he saw the goddess coming out of his hut and when he went inside he found that miraculously all the people had been fed in a sumptuous manner.
Bhairon Nath had also come and when he saw Vaishnavi coming out of the hut he couldn’t resist himself and tried to kidnap her. She fought with him and escaped to the mountains to resume her penance. He gave chase to her.
There are three temples along the route to the Trikuta hills where Vaishnavi is supposed to have rested with Bhairon Nath following hot on her heels. These three places are known as Banganga, Charan Paduka and Adhkwari. Ultimately she reached the cave and took refuge there. Only very few pilgrims know about these holy spots and take the trouble of going there. Most people proceed straight to the holy cave.
Bhairon was adamant and followed her into the cave. At last she decided to kill him. She came to the mouth of the cave and cut off his head. The severed head of Bhairon Nath fell with a resounding crash on a distant hilltop. As he was dying Bhairon realised the folly of his life and prayed to the goddess to forgive him. The almighty Mother Goddess had mercy on him and gave him the boon that all her devotees would have to go to the hill top where his head had fallen and have his darshan after having visited her cave. Only then would the pilgrimage be considered complete. Meanwhile, Vaishnavi decided to shed her human form and assuming the face of a rock she immersed herself in meditation. She was never seen in her human form again. Thus Vaishnavi, in the form of a five and a half foot rock with three heads or pindies on the top is the ultimate destination of all devotees. These pindies are found in the sanctum sanctorum of the holy cave which is the shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi.
In the meantime after everyone had left the bandhara, Sridhara started to search for the goddess but she was nowhere to be found. He was quite distraught and frantically went around calling her and begging her to come back. At last one night she appeared to him in a dream and told him that she was Vaishno Devi and pointed him in the direction of the cave where he would find her. Sridhara now ran towards the direction. Whenever he lost his way, he would see the vision in the dream pointing out the right direction. At last he found the cave and surrendered at her feet. It is said that the three goddesses, Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati appeared before him and pointed to the three pindies or mounds into which they had disappeared. They gave him the right to conduct the pujas “rituals” in the temple and blessed him that he would have four sons who would continue his work after he died.
It is said that no one can visit the Vaishno Devi temple unless she herself invites us and it is also the truth that if she calls no one and nothing can stand in the way of their visit. They will have to go whatever the difficulties. Therefore devotees who desire to make the arduous trip have to pray fervently to her to allow them to make the trip and remove the obstacles in their path and grant their wishes.
Vaishno Devi is supposed to be the most powerful of the fifty one Shakti Peethas where the body of the goddess, Sati had fallen. Some say that her skull had fallen here, others claim that her right hand which holds the “Abhaya Mudra” or sign of protection and freedom from fear had fallen here. In fact it is claimed that the sign of a human hand had been found there a long time ago.
Today there are many ways of reaching the temple. There is even a super express to Khatra and from there a helicopter ride of fifteen minutes that takes you to within a ten minutes walk to the cave. Of course the ponies are still there and even a small train that chugs up the mountainside half way up the hill. Thousands flock to her every year. My last visit was half on foot and half by pony. Luckily she saved me the torturous journey downhill on pony back and we were miraculously given two tickets on the helicopter for the return journey. I must admit the aerial view of the hill from the helicopter was enchanting but embedded in my heart and indelibly printed in my mind is my first visit to her divine presence through the mysterious mountain track and up the icy mountain stream.
Jai Mataji Hail to the Mother!
The Holy Cave of the Mother
The Holy Cave of the Mother is situated at an altitude of 5200 ft. The Yatris have to undertake a trek of nearly 12 km from the base camp at Katra. At the culmination of their pilgrimage, the yatries are blessed with the Darshans of the Mother Goddess inside the Sanctum Sanctorum- the Holy Cave. These Darshans are in the shape of three natural rock formations called the Pindies. There are no statues or idols inside the Cave. Darshans are open round the clock throughout the year. The Holy Cave of the Mother is situated at an altitude of 5200 ft. The Yatris have to undertake a trek of nearly 12 km from the base camp at Katra. At the culmination of their pilgrimage, the yatries are blessed with the Darshans of the Mother Goddess inside the Sanctum Sanctorum- the Holy Cave. These Darshans are in the shape of three natural rock formations called the Pindies. There are no statues or idols inside the Cave. Darshans are open round the clock throughout the year.