Navratri, Dussehra, and Nostalgia
There are some memories that will never go away. Here is one of mine — of climbing up 13 kilometres to the Vaishno Devi shrine. And eating hot, sticky and crisp jalebis on Dussehra.
Nidhi Jamwal 23 Oct 2023 12:31 PM GMT
As I lay in bed, with the flu, I scrolled down my Twitter (now X) feed and came across visuals of the Vaishno Devi shrine in the Trikuta hills of Katra in Jammu, my hometown. I immediately started to feel better.
I recalled the large gate decorated with thousands of fresh flowers welcoming the pilgrims, who visit the holy site on the last day of Navratri to catch a glimpse of the goddess — Sherawali, Ambe, Jagdambe, Santoshi Maa… She has many names and avatars, and I have grown up listening to so many stories around her. Because the first 17 years of my life were spent in a hilltown, Jyotipuram, located just about 40 kilometres from Katra.
The visuals on social media were enough to transport me from my apartment in seaside Mumbai to the vast expanse of the three-peaked mountain, Trikuta, 2,000 kilometres away, where Sherawali’s darbar is situated at 5,200 feet above mean sea level.
Plans to visit the Vaishno Devi shrine, happened at the drop of a hat. Wake up in the morning, check with friends if they were free, pack your bag with a set of spare clothes, inform your mother about the last minute ‘plan’ (which was rarely planned), and badger my father to get us dropped at Katra.
Sitting in Papa’s jeep, with a pahadi driver uncle driving us up long winding hill roads from our sleepy town to the high-on-festivities Katra, was unforgettable.
Those were the 80s when T-Series’ Mata Rani bhajans by Gulshan Kumar loudly welcomed the pilgrims at Katra. The atmosphere was electric. In the blink of an eye we forgot about motion sickness and the number of times we had vomited in the one-and-a-half-hour long journey to reach Katra!
Before setting off for the 13-kilometre long chadai (trek) to Mata’s darbar, we made it a point to eat a sumptuous ‘Vaisho’ meal at a bhandara in the foothills which offered free food to anyone all day long and 365 days a year.
It was run by Gulshan Kumar, is what I remember hearing as a child. We hungrily devoured the hot meal of boiled rice, rajma, chana dal and ambal (a sweet and tangy Dogra dish). We ate the delicious meal off pattals and dona (plates and bowls made of leaves) sitting on a dhari on the tiled floor.
We always solemnly promised ourselves we would not eat too much as we had a 13 kilometre trek up the Trikuta hill. Papa’s driver would come the next day to pick us up from a pre-decided location at Katra, and on no account would we be late.
(Remember there were no mobile phones back then! We had to keep our promises.)
But, as soon as we sat on the dhari, and the hot rice and rajma was served, we forgot all our resolutions to eat wisely and ended up overeating. Later on, walking up the hill we took digs at each other — “I told you not to eat so much, see now you cannot walk fast and everyone is getting delayed…”
I wonder if it was the same me who walked those 13 kilometres without a single complaint. Now, I only have to step outdoors in Mumbai and I can’t stop cribbing about air pollution, lack of footpaths, dug up roads, reckless drivers, and so on.
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I hear that the road to the holy shrine has now become pucca. There are e-rickshaws, helicopters, and fancy restaurants, including famous coffee shops, to ease the pilgrims’ progress.
When we were kids, the road was kaccha with sharp stones and littered with horse dung. People who could not walk the distance to the darbar, hired horses or palkis (palanquins).
And then there were pithus, who were expert at carrying young children on their backs and they reached the darbar in half the time others took and patiently waited to handover the wards to their guardians. Trust was of the essence back then.
These men — horse walas, palaki walas, or pithus — were all from the Muslim community and left no stone unturned to ensure Hindu pilgrims had a comfortable journey. I remember them chanting ‘Jai Mata Di’ as they carried the heavy palakis on their shoulders with an old pilgrim, and trudged up the incline.
I long for that world of love, harmony and mutual respect…
Singing, dancing and chatting with strangers on the way, we friends would reach the darbar and after a quick shower (never beyond 20 seconds under icy cold water), we were ready for darshan.
Post- darshan, we would enjoy a meal of alu puri (super oily) and begin our descent even if our calves groaned for mercy. We had to make it down in time as the driver uncle was waiting there the following day.
On our way back, we saw people with cramps massaging their feet and legs. I am sure that if I now try and walk those 13 kilometres, I would need someone to do the same to me!
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Tomorrow, October 24, is Dussehra. And I cannot help getting nostalgic about that too.
Dussehra was celebrated at Mandir Ground, next to the only mandir (temple) in our hilltown. Dussehra meant the end of Ramlila and festivities and we as children were a bit sad as we stayed out till late at night wrapped in layers of sweaters and shawls, watching the Ramlila performance enacted by uncles and children (mostly vaanar sena, or monkey army of Hanuman) in our town.
I remember holding on tightly to my father’s hand and walking to the Mandir Ground to watch ‘Ram uncle’ set fire to several feet tall effigies of Ravan, his brother Kumbhkaran, and his son Meghnad on fire. It was always done just before sunset.
There was a scramble to collect the half-burnt bamboo sticks that were once the mighty Ravan as people believed keeping those sticks at home would ward off thieves.
And what is Dussehra without the garmagarm crispy jalebis. Every Dussehra, my mother told us the story of how her father, Baji as we called him, would bring home crisp, sticky and hot jalebis on Dussehra; it was a never-to-be-missed ritual.
And, this year, I shall bring some jalebis for my children so they can make their own sweet memories.
Jai Mata Di!
Nidhi Jamwai is Managing Editor, Gaon Connection. Views are personal.