En route to Vaishno Devi you cross Katra, a town that sees nearly four million pilgrims every year
I was glad that I did not get off the bus at Jammu on that soggy Wednesday morning, but continued to head upwards on the Jammu-Patnitop highway, snaking along the Tawi river.
The sun broke the banks of clouds midway, and Katra, the base camp for the trek to the hilltop shrine of Vaishno Devi, lay sprawled like a picture postcard on the slopes.
At 2,500 feet, Katra bustles with a life of its own. Every year, nearly four million pilgrims pass through the town that fuses a bit of the pahadi countryside with the modern trappings of civilisation.
It was well past breakfast time when I arrived at Katra. But the town, which plays host to devotees from across social divides, was not ready to take in an itinerant wholly dependent on plastic money. The hotels that I opted for either did not have provisions for hospitality-on-credit or their punching machines were out of order.
For a pilgrimage centre of such magnitude — pilgrims swear by the holy aura of Katra even before trudging up the hills for their trysts with Devi Mata — the town scored rather low on comfort hotels.
I stayed in a four-star property off the city square, Hotel Asia Vaishno Devi, the only one that accepted credit cards. A tour operator in the city’s main market informed me Hotel Asia’s punching machine was in order and hotel bore a ‘diamond’ tag.
It is not that Katra is a desert, sheltered from the rain-laden winds of the seas as school geography describes. According to the local tourism information cell, the town had 500 hotels, both big and small, including a few star properties. The Country Inn Suites runs a cosy retreat, five km out of the town, along the highway.
But the problem is Katra is the only way to Vaishno Devi; and those who are not willing to check into one of the better hotels in Jammu and hitch a chopper ride to the shrine have to stay somewhere near the city square. Most of the lodges there are the budget type: double storied matchbox like cubbyholes with ungainly facades, each one a replica of the other. They are full of pests, who are genial night-guests and keep lonesome souls company. The menu is standard — simple vegetarian because of the explosion of faith all around. And bland, a bit strong on the colours though!
Need a rub?
“Most of our guests require hot oil massages after the day’s climb. And sauna baths too,” the over-friendly manager with the bulging beer belly told me at the hotel.
Being a health freak, I was naturally curious to peep into the therapy and massage chamber.The experience tickled the cat in me. A cramped room, with a narrow bed and an even smaller sauna bath attached to it offered the services a young, slightly effeminate masseur. He claimed to be an expert in aroma oils. “Let me give you a thorough massage as you must be feeling tired,” insisted the therapist, in his late twenties. I wanted to know his list of clients before making up my mind. “Mostly women, the foreigners who come here. They can’t take the journey uphill. Sometimes, even families opt for body massages.”
But didn’t the health club have a woman to attend to the fairer sex? “No, I am good enough,” shot back the oil expert. A rather frightening picture crossed my mind: the lone woman, flush with faith, and the supple hands of the masseur.
The manager said such massages were passé; but I felt somewhat ancient standing in the overdone lobby of the hotel. I quietly retreated to my room, after generously tipping the masseur for the massage that never was.
It is the seamy underside of holistic holidays — especially religious and spa tourism, which have just joined the niche club. As the business of peddling sex gets bigger, fitness-cum-massage centres, five-star hotels and retreats are changing the “pleasure” codes.
Out of order
One reason why Katra has not been able to build nodal tourist infrastructure is poor-planning. Lodges stand cheek by jowl along the thoroughfare; the town has only one high street worth its name, which is an extension of the highway from Jammu that ends at the taxi stand and stables at the base of Trikut hills.
The Jammu and Kashmir government has not bothered to rope in top-of-the-line hospitality chains for branded stays, he alleges.
The few-odd luxury hotels are mostly private enterprises.
The local economy is in a shambles because there is no plough-back. The horse ride costs Rs 500 — to and fro. But the horse-keepers make only Rs 100 a day. The rest goes to the yatra fund.
The bazaars lining the track uphill have nothing special to boast of. It’s all available in Jammu at a much cheaper price. The revenue is split between the hotels — there’s no organisation to speak of — and the transporters. The city is probably left out in the cold.
A different view
But by then, my mount had already cantered up 1,000 feet and I realised the futility of being a resident of Planet Earth.
The heavens are a better refuge. The Vaishno Devi Shrine Board has done a wonderful job of maintaining the shrine, unlike the Katra municipality. Clean, disciplined and “no-litter”. It was almost 3 pm when I trotted through Sanji Chat, the highest point en route, after negotiating three smaller temples at Banganga, Charanpadhuka and Adhuwari on the way. A gentle breeze touched my face as I galloped down the Chat to the shrine, at a slightly lower elevation nestled like a pearl among the green hills, at Bhawan.
A canopied track took me to Mata Vaishno Devi in her damp little alcove inside the hills. The insurgencies and unrests of the world for once seemed galaxies away.
Jai Ma Bhavani!!!