I got married in Nov 2008 and as a family ritual, we left for Vaishno Devi Shrine after 3 days from Delhi. Clad in a salwar kameez with vermilion (sindoor) on my head and hands filled with ivory bangles (chooda), I looked like a newlywed bride. It was the same week of the Mumbai terror attacks 26/11, so there was a lot of check posts and security once we entered Jammu. We had already booked a cab through one of our relatives and the driver was familiar to him. He greeted us at the Jammu railway station and drove us to our hotel in Katra. Little did we know then, one dark night awaited us.
We freshened up, rested for a while, had a wholesome breakfast, packed our bag with a pair of clothes, a few eatables and water and started hiking towards the temple. It was quite cold but the sun was merciful. After taking many halts on the way, we reached the temple at midnight. We had dinner, rested for a while then took a bath, and again headed toward Ardhkuwari temple which is halfway to Vaishno Devi Shrine.
It resembles an elephant’s head hence also known as Hathimatha. This is the cave when the Goddess meditated for 9 long months when Bhairava was chasing her. When the demon finally entered the cave, the Goddess made a new opening with her trident and escaped from there. Ardh Kuwari cave is a symbol of the womb and has another name, “Garbha Joon”.
There was a long queue of devotees and after waiting for an hour, we finally arrived. It was an amazing experience inside the 15ft long cave. We had to almost lie down to go inside as it was quite narrow. People have to crawl to reach the temple as at many places the cave is as narrow as 2ft. It is believed that no matter how stout a person is, he/she will pass through the narrow path.
We worshipped the Goddess, took Her blessings for the new life and started for Charan Paduka which is around 4 km from there. From there we headed towards the main cave temple (gufa).
THE MAIN CAVE TEMPLE
Again, after one hour of staying in the queue, we reached the temple and had divine darshan of the Goddess Vaishno Devi. There was so much positivity in the environment that despite being so tired, we felt refreshed. We kept chanting “Jai Mata Di” along with the other devotees and soon after the darshan, headed towards the Bhairav temple.
Bhairav was an arrogant Tantrik (demon) who considered himself to be very powerful and went after Vaishno Devi. It was then the Goddess Vaishno Devi turned into Kali and beheaded him. In his last moments, he pleaded for forgiveness and as The Goddess knew his motive was to attain salvation, she granted him liberation. Also, she blessed him that every devotee will have to visit his temple too in order to ensure completion of Vaishno Devi pilgrimage.
We knew about this story hence decided to visit the temple. It was almost 4:30 am when we reached there. It was less crowded, so we had darshan in no time and started back to our hotel. We were awake for almost 24 hours by then and were totally drained out. It was still dark but we decided to reach our hotel first and take rest there only. We continued walking taking short breaks in between.
The route was mesmerizing. The first rays of the sun kissed us and we enjoyed the orange hues. The cool breeze touched our hair and soothed us. Everything around was so pure, fresh and beautiful.
We had our train to Lucknow from Jammu the next day. By noon, we reached our hotel in Katra. Had lunch, set an alarm and dozed off. In the evening, we stepped out of the hotel to the nearby market to buy some prasad and souvenirs for our families. After dinner, we packed our bags for the Jammu railway station. Our train at 11:30 pm. We booked the same cab and driver again but this time, that driver didn’t come and sent us a new driver. As we had no option, we trusted him and boarded the taxi towards Jammu.
We had enough time in hand so we were relaxed and were discussing how busy yet enjoyable were the last few days, sitting at the back seat of the taxi. It was dark outside and we were on a remote route. There was a dense forest around which was home to the wild animals. We ensured our windows and doors were locked and we slept on each other’s shoulder again.
AND THEN HAPPENED THE UNEXPECTED
Soon, our driver broke the news that the headlights of the car stopped working and he was driving without any light on the hills. There were risky hilly turns and we were driving “Bhagwan Bharose”. We were scared to death as we survived many narrow escapes when the driver had to apply the sudden brakes and stop the car. We could see our end very close to us. Getting down was dangerous as any wild animal could have attacked us and traveling in that sans light taxi was equally unsafe.
The station was quite far off and we had no option. After almost 40 minutes of crazy driving, we came across a petrol station but there was no one there. Our driver went out to seek help but no good. It was just two of us left in the taxi and were continuously praying for our safety. There were no signals on the phone too so we could not call or inform anyone for help.
After half an hour, our driver returned and told us that we have to continue in that car. We were highly agitated and frustrated by then. And when we lost all the hopes, we saw a bus coming. Our driver halted it and instructed the bus driver about us and asked us to board it. We thanked God and quickly entered the bus with high hopes.
Aasmaan Se Gire, Khajoor Mein Atke
We understood the meaning of this Hindi idiom after boarding the bus. It was full of local villagers who were badly drunk. A few of them had a gun too. Their heads and faces were covered with the blanket. There was not even a single lady except me. We knew we may not survive further, and meet our end soon. So, we held each other’s hands and kept playing silently. We told the driver that we need to catch a train and he clearly told us that we were late. Everyone including the driver was laughing loudly at our situation and we looked like helpless creatures.
We were just praying to reach the station and catch our train, we needed rest, sleep and our family at that moment. That dark night was quite long and we just wished that to end. The entire journey, people kept talking about us in a hush sound. We could make out that we were being discussed but ignored. We looked like newlyweds, though I took off all my jewelry before traveling still had a few. Newlyweds are more prone to be looted, we had heard many such stories still we tried to be cool and ignorant.
After almost 2 hours, the bus driver asked us to deboard the bus and take an auto to the railway station. In no time, we rushed out and got into an auto without even asking for the money and all. We just wanted to go away from that bus immediately. It was already 11:15 pm and still, we were en route the railway station. Both of us were absolutely quiet. Didn’t speak anything, just kept holding hands and looked at each other with teary eyes. Finally, we reached the railway station. Phew!!!
In micro milliseconds, we paid the driver, checked the platform number and ran towards it. It was when we heard an announcement that our train was late for 2 hours. We took a deep breath. We looked like zombies. Needed sleep but all the waiting rooms were already packed. We took out a shawl from the bag, spread it on the platform floor and literally slept there. We had to and we did. First time ever in our lives and hopefully the last time too. We were lying on the station platform. Tired, hungry, soiled, scared, but together. It was one dark night which we don’t want to remember again but can never forget either.
The next morning, we got up with the warm voice of my parents on the train, “Welcome to Lucknow”. We looked at each other silently and smiled. That smile was as the assurance of my safety throughout my life.