After breakfast we started our yatra, which I shall elaborate on after quoting a brief history of the temple.
Brief History of Vaishno Devi temple:
According to legends, at times immemorial, Mata Mahakali, Mata Mahalakshmi and Mata Mahasaraswati with their collective power and essence created a devi named trikuta and told her to live on earth to uphold righteousness there. Devi Trikuta was then born to Ratnakar who lived in south India. Devi Trikuta was inclined to spiritual practices and meditation from the very beginning and spent most of the time in practices of self realisation. When Lord Rama in Satyuga was going to Sri Lanka, he came across Devi Trikuta. Devi at once realised him to be incarnation of Lord Vishnu and asked him to merge her into himself. But Lord Rama knew it wasn't the right time and assured to visit her again from his way back to Lanka. He further said if she would recognise him then, he would merge her into himself. But on his way back, Devi wasn't able to recognise Lord. Lord Rama then told her to do sadhna on the trikuta mountains and bless mankind till the arrival of Kaliyuga. He told her that he would merge himself into her during his kalki avatar in Kaliyuga. Devi Trikuta went to the foothills of Trikuta and did her sadhna. She was worshipped by many. It is further said that about 700 years ago, she appeared in the dream of brahmin named Sridhar who lived in a nearby village and asked him to organize Bhandara. When Bhandara was organized, Devi herself became present there to serve all. It was when Bhairon nath, a disciple sent by Maha Yogi Gorakh nath in search of devi came across devi Trikuta who instantly became attracted to devi. Devi disappeared but Bhairon nath continued chasing her. Devi went following the route of Banganga where she shot an arrow and water was burrowed from earth. Devi quenched her thirst, passed by charanpaduka, ardhkuwari and finally reached the cave shrine. Bhairon nath did not give up the chase and was finally beheaded by devi. His head fell about 2 km away where current Bhairon nath Mandir is situated. Bhairon nath asked for forgiveness and devi blessed him with the boon that every devotee who came to Vaishno devi shrine will have to visit Bhairon nath temple to complete the yatra. Devi then merged into her subtle essence and assumed the form of three pindies (rocks) which are believed to be the three devis Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati whose combined essence is Mata Vaishno Devi, every pilgrims destination.
To know more about mythological legends click here
Part 1 of Yatra - From Katra to Banganga:
Autos are easily available from Katra to Banganga. At Banganga there is a check post with separate queues for men and women. There are multiple horse vendors who'll approach you to take the horse.
Part 2 of Yatra - From Banganga to Ardhkuwari and Ardhkuwari to Shrine Bhawan:
You may choose one of the three options depending on your fitness, zeal and determination levels:
1. Take the horse till the Shrine Bhawan
2. Take the horse till Ardhkuwari and walk from Ardhkuwari to Shrine Bhawan
3. Trek all the way from Banganga to Shrine Bhawan
The charges from Banganga to Ardhkuwari and Shrine Bhawan are fixed by the shrine board and paid at the counter just before the check post at Banganga. We chose to take the horse till the shrine Bhawan. We started our journey at around 9.45 a.m.
On the way to Ardhkuwari, there is Charan Paduka temple and many other small temples and idols of mother goddess where many pilgrims make a pitstop for selfies and photography. There are fruit and juice vendors also on the way. Trekkers are chanting Jai Mata Di every few meters. Horse person will be walking besides the horse and they will take one or two rests in between. As you will go further up, the bird eye view of Katra town will look beautiful from certain points. The entire trek to the Shrine Bhawan is paved and roofed. Though there is separate trek available for the horses and pedestrians but hardly anyone follows the separate trek. So, pedestrians have to be a little careful while walking. At Ardhkuwari, there is a cave where it is said that Devi had stopped and meditated for nine months. We, however, did not stop there but I would say if there's time, one should. From Ardhkuwari we reached the Shrine Bhawan around 12.45 p.m.
There are multiple checkposts from the point where horse will drop you till the Bhawan. There are washrooms available along the way which are okayish by the standards of public toilets. Before the Shrine Bhawan, you have to leave all your belongings in a locker provided enroute by shrine board. You can not take your phone or any metal object along. The only thing you're allowed to carry is Prasad. Again, Prasad can be bought at subsidized rate from shrine board's Prasad shop.
We kept moving in queue afterwards. First we passed through a mini hallway on the right side of which is the old cave entrance to the temple. This cave is the original pathway to the pindies in the sanctum sanctorum. This cave tunnel is narrow and is mostly close to the inrush of pilgrims in peak season. It opens only in lean seasons for specific periods of time in a day. It was closed at the time of our visit. Just after passing by the old cave as the queue moves ahead, there is a life sized statue of mother goddess crafted beautifully and with grandeur which marks the entrance to new tunnels constructed up to the cave Shrine of Devi. The queue will finally reach an elevated platform of white marbles, the highest point from where the mountains can be seen all around; This platform leads to the last stretch of tunnel which merges into the cave Shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi. When we visited, the temple was not crowded and hence we got a good two to three minutes in front of cave. The cave shrine is the ultimate destination of every pilgrim where three pindies can be seen which are, Mata Mahakali, Mata Mahalakshmi and Mata Mahasaraswati. The combined essence of the three is Mata Vaishno Devi. It is the place where Devi after all her Sadhna had finally dissolved into her astral essence and merged into the three rocks forever immersing herself into meditation. After coming out of the tunnel, we spent a few minutes on marble platform outside to let the vibe sink in and then headed back.