“Religion,” says the 19th Century German philosopher Karl Marx, “is the opium of the people.” Not delving into any of the political or social connotations of that statement but just the pure English meaning of it, any religious place bears undying witness to Marx’s words. The most potent drug in the history of mankind, religion is the foundation of many-pronged, many-layered repercussions.
Katra, the little town located at the foothills of the Trikuta Mountains, bears testimony to the power of religion. Little known if its mightier precedent, Vaishno Devi, is removed from it, Katra is a town which thrives entirely on pilgrims who travel to the shrine of Vaishno Devi. Year after year, millions flock to the pilgrimage and on their way; making sure that Katra survives healthily. The trek from Katra to Vaishno Devi/Bhaironath Temple is a treacherously long, uphill task (literally so!); 14 kilometres one way. Once on the way, however, people don’t stop to look back. With sticks in hands and “Jai Mata Di” on their lips, people walk, ride horses or avail services of human porters on the way. And for old people, physically challenged and the ones who believe in short-cuts, the Jammu and Kashmir government has now launched Helicopter services from Katra to Vaishno Devi too.
Now to the less-devoted ones. Given the fact that our trip was a crazily, haphazardly (un)planned one, nobody actually went through the tiring process of booking Chopper tickets from Katra to Vaishno Devi. And no, none of my jugaads worked, sadly. As for walking for thirty kilometres in a period of time spanning less than a day and a half... let’s save us embarrassments of the highest order and not delve into those areas. Anyway, so once almost everybody in our group had left for Vaishno Devi, sticks and water bottles in tow, we walked out and explored the local market.
Rows of shops selling Puja paraphernalia and dry fruits are the ones which come across the most at the Katra market, occasionally punctuated by sweet shops and stationary ones. For people who love to gorge on the likes of walnuts, apricots and almonds, the Katra market has delicious ones to offer. The prices are mostly reasonable to badly-bargain-able.
The second day of our Katra stay had us travelling all over the town. The ‘sights’ that local tours operators advocate seeing are all temples. There are a lot of temples in the town, and people are, needless to say, more than what the word “devotional” can portray. The entire town is alien to the concepts of non-vegetarian food and alcohol, and anybody smuggling them into Katra is slapped with a hefty fine. Also, every single vehicle to enter the town is scrutinised for any sniff of the forbidden stuff. Anyway, after another lazy evening in Katra spent in roaming around the market, we finally wake up to the day which was to mark our journey to Srinagar – finally!
From Katra to Srinagar, is a bus ride of about ten/eleven hours. Situated at a distance of about 290 kilometres from Katra, Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is one which doesn’t actually need any beautifying epithet. The extremely scenic journey from Katra to Srinagar makes sure that one is not bothered by either nausea or fatigue of travelling for so long on a mountainous road. The valleys, through which the highway passes, are dotted with numerous, picturesque little hamlets. In addition, there are cleverly camouflaged bunkers of the Indian Army all along the mountains and the valleys. At places where the Jammu and Kashmir Railways are mapped to traverse through, there are tunnels being blasted through the mountains and roads being created to stretch habitable areas further. Before long, the highway entered the Jawahar Tunnel. At a length of about 2.5 kilometres, Banihal Tunnel (as it was originally called), is one that connects the towns of Banihal and Qazigund. Qazigund is fondly called the Gateway to Kashmir, and for laymen, the Banihal Tunnel holds the status of being the same.
Not very long after, we entered Srinagar. Since it was already night by the time we reached the city, we weren’t left with much scope of walking around Srinagar. Okay, let’s not talk about the exhaustion of the journey... to be honest, at that point, once we looked at the hotel where we were to put up for the next few days, all we wanted was to jump into bed and sleep. Nothing else seemed more important!
The next morning, we set off for Sonmarg... and the rest can find their space in the next blog. So keep coming back here!