Devotion has never been easy. And if the sages of yore spent years alienated in the hills, modern day devotees don’t have a cakewalk either. Not only do they have to trudge up a formidable mountain, and wait in endless queues to pay their respects at the Vaishno Devi shrine, but also to negotiate the chaotic and jampacked town of Katra – the existence of which is entirely defined by the pilgrimage. But after all the travails and madness, once you’re on your way up the mountain, the crowds thin, and you’re privy to a moment that is as spectacular as it is holy. And the whole ordeal seems well worth the effort.
Essentially a base camp for the trek up to Vaishno Devi, Katra pulsates with the hubbub of a transit town. And the energy is infectious: pilgrims making their way up to Vaishno Devi scurry about the town, arranging porters and ponies, while those on their way back sit around on pavements getting foot massages. Katra Chowk is the mini-HQ of all activity – packed with pilgrims lining up at the registration centre and others beginning their walk towards Banganga, from where the trek commences.
Perched 1615m above sea level in a cave on Trikuta Hill lies the Vaishno Devi Shrine – a temple holding huge significance for Hindus. Millions of pilgrims make the 14km walk to the shrine every year from Katra, which for all practical purposes serves as a base camp for the trek. Don’t leave Katra without obtaining a registration slip (free) from the Yatri Registration Counter at Katra Chowk. Then you are free to walk or take an autorickshaw/taxi to Banganga (1.5km) at the foothills, from where the 12km ascent begins. Don’t expect wilderness: this is a pilgrimage, not a nature walk. You’ll be surrounded by pilgrims singing bhajans and a motley bunch of of shops selling everything from souvenirs to devotional CDs. The gradient of the climb is fairly gentle – stick to the path rather than take the steps which cut across. The stairs are much shorter, but a few flights will take a much higher toll on your knees.
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Halfway up is Adhkuari from where it’s possible to continue up to Sanjhi Chhat (1889m) and then stroll down to the shrine. Alternatively, you could follow a new track which diverges about half a kilometre before Adhkuari (if you miss the turn you can also join it after Adhkuari through a subway). The new route doesn’t allow ponies which means it’s cleaner and quieter.
Quick Facts & Tips
When to go: Although Vaishno Devi can be visited throughout the year, March to July is the best time to visit. After the onset of winter in October, the temperature drops below zero and there is some snowfall. In the monsoon (August to September), rains often cause mudslides.
What to pack: Pack a raincoat and umbrella if visiting in the summer months or rent a raincoat at Katra. Windcheaters, caps and gloves are a must in the winter.
Advance bookings: Book a place to stay before reaching Katra – either online or through a travel agent.
Options for the climb: For those who don’t want to walk, palanquins and ponies can be hired at Katra Chowk. Porters can be hired to carry luggage. It is also possible to hitch a ride on a chopper all the way from Katra up to Sanjhi Chhat (you will need to book in advance).