‘She khanik thake shunyer opor, khanik thake neere’ – Lalon Fakir
(thy prevails in the empty sky sometimes, thy sometimes prevails in the waters)
Katra was glistening before my eyes as we huddled along with all our spirits heightened to an ideal – an absolute peak. I was unaware of how much we needed to walk; rather I was just preoccupied with scaling the ragged heightening slopes of the hill for the divine Darshan. Nobody really warned us how tiring and tumultuous it would be, nobody told us about the long stretches of land, the enduring yet charming painstaking trek that we had embarked upon. We were carefree and almost dazed with the charisma of this hilly retreat of Jammu, tasting the flavour of cuprous wind in our tongues. There was a chilled affinity we felt for this place. A hiraeth fog wrapping us to seek a home within this place that had become our own even before we could fathom this.
My sister and I only had the simplest knowledge: that it was going to be a sparkling pilgrimage, just like when we visited Haridwar and Kalighat Temple or Dakshineswar back in Kolkata. We knew the eventuality; we were going to pray to the Goddess Devi Ma, the Durga, the Kali, the Shakti – having numerous names – the Mata Vaishna Devi, about whom Grandma reads scriptures during Anjali.
The night looked like purpling Jamun from our hotel window as we awaited auto rickshaws to arrive. We were standing in the big open verandah of our hotel room, looking down upon the alley as we gradually turned ecstatic, submitting to the overpowering night ambience. How mesmerising it was to sip syrup in the promising air.
Sister suddenly pointed towards a distanced mountain peak glittering as a soft moonstone. I remarked ‘That’s the shikhara of Vaishna Ma temple.’ It was breathtaking and we felt the excitement in the breeze.
Nearing the arena of the Vaishna Devi yatra entrance, I was almost blinded by the lurid, roaring colours. Everything was bright and cheerful as revelry. My sister remarked, ‘Is it Durga Puja here?’
We laughed hard at her innocence. Yes indeed, everyday was a celebration of the Goddess in this hilly town nestled in the heart of Jammu.
The hill slopes appeared steep. We bought sticks or lathis from the small stalls at the foot of the mount. Grandma said the lathis were to aid our journey while scrambling up the Mount.
Before setting off for the journey, I watched the space with an intent, extensive gaze as the huge microphone burst into songs of devotion.
We began the yatra at 9 a.m. Everything was fine until we finally caught a glimpse of the pinnacle, the temple where Maa resides.
My feet had turned reddish with weals by then, I was indolent and mossy from inside. For a moment, I divulged my anxieties upon everyone and almost yelled I cannot do this anymore, please take me back. Now, I finally realised it was a long journey and being psychologically unprepared, I really wanted to quit. But, after a lot of persuasions, I agreed to continue. Still, I was apprehensive about whether I would be able to reach the ultimate destination.
The zeal of the palki bearers, the horse riders, the shopkeepers around us amazed me, how they chanted the name of the Goddess as they carried old pilgrims in the palanquins. How could they be so tireless, so intrepid, I asked myself.
Throughout the journey, I confronted many stages within myself – with the heart pumping faster as the altitude increased and the intermittent restive periods on the shivery winter night, I witnessed an internal conflict. At times, I just wished I could be sans a religion, a traveller without a destination. I asked myself questions, pondered on what it really means to be a pilgrim but avoided seeking answers from others, as we were all perhaps discovering our own selves, bodies, faith and self-efficacy in this exasperating yet soothing journey. The initial questions that came to my mind: why are we travelling to Maa? What even is this religious ritual? Aren’t we pilgrims within, is God not within? I had heard of this wonderful idea of the entire universe in the body. Tagore said in one of his poems, ‘Debotar Bidaye’: God resides in the heart, the dance shloka recites Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya (the body is the entire universe). I recalled the infinity in God, and every bit of knowledge imparted in me by our Bengali and Philosophy teacher. While everyone was dozing off on a shady bench, I marinated these thoughts. Surprisingly, I also recollected the Gestalt that we are. That the wholeness of the spiritual, the simplest idea that Maa, the Goddess, is our very own mother, who is summoning us as who we are.
So, whenever I thought of quitting the pilgrimage, the recurring sight of the abode of Maa, the peak of the temple, the enthusiasm of my family as we resumed our journey again, inspired me to progress further.
Soon, the night melted into butterscotch sunlight. We ate breakfast, had some fresh coffee from a nearby stall. Now, we knew we were closer to the temple. Personally, that was refreshing.
The pin-drop silence of the temple drew nearer with the Ommm hymn, the sky unfurled in rangoli colours as we stood in the huge line of pilgrims for a Darshan. The marble stone ground felt as a shiver, the light fell like a shimmering spring on our countenances, the Goddess in her cave invited us in her garbhagriha. We could only behold the Murti for a split second as it was too crowded to stand there for too long.
And, then, upon reaching the destination, I was awestruck and almost choked with simple peace as if time had stopped; it felt like forever…
Now, climbing down the mounts was not so difficult anymore. We remained silent, too awestruck to express how we felt, but within my heart of hearts, I knew my questions were answered. My conflicts were resolved. I sensed the taste of faith in my tongue, my hair blew in the freezing air of morn, all my disbeliefs were smashed and transformed into some satori I cannot define. I was assured that we are, children of the Goddess, infinite, we are of the divine. Maa calls us uphill only for us to recognise this self, this drowning and divining.
S. Rupsha Mitra is a poet and writer from India. Her work has been published in Science for the People Magazine, Ekstasis, Blue Marble Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, Muse India, Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi), and more. Her favourite writer is Rabindranath Tagore.
Cover photo credit: Shriram Sanjeevi