American Pilgrim – Jammu and Kashmir, India

American Pilgrim

Vaishno Devi, Jammu and Kashmir, India

“Do you wanna go to Vaishno Devi?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Wait. What’s Vaishno Devi?”

And that’s how it started.

I moved to India three months ago to manage a small group of Indian developers for my company. Yes, that’s right, I’m helping Indians take over American jobs. I suppose when Judgment Day comes I’ll be sentenced to the fiery pits of hell. For now, though, I’d like to finish my story.

After agreeing to go, I learned that Vaishno Devi is one of many gods in Hinduism, and that it’s a 12-kilometer pilgrimage to see her most famous shrine, which resides in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

I traveled there by bus with a group of 14 people, a mix of coworkers and their family and friends. We arrived 12 hours and three bathroom stops later. Within the span of about four hours, we had checked into our hotel, cleaned up, and taken a rickshaw to the base of the pilgrimage.

As I started the trek, I looked around at the uniform sea of brown faces and black hair. Upon closer inspection, I saw more than just foreign faces – extended families, young couples with toddlers, newlyweds holding hands, some people dressed traditionally, others dressed in western wear, and bands of young men whose piercing stares sent shivers down my spine. In the United States, the only thing that can unify such a diverse group of people is the Super Bowl.

Two of the people from my group made the pilgrimage barefoot. No pain, no gain, I guess. Even with shoes I felt like I was playing hopscotch to avoid the horse manure lying in piles and stuck in the crevices of the road.

For the, ahem, less devoted types, a guide can be hired to take you up on a mule or you can hire four to six porters to carry you up on a chair. As you can imagine, these methods are politely frowned upon unless you are ill, elderly or otherwise afflicted.

For the hardcore types, the trek is made by stretching your body across the ground and then standing up where your hands were. It’s all on the honor system, of course. And I thought going barefoot was devotion.

The whole time I was walking, I heard chanting. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but my ears heard “Grandma Toddy”. Logically, I knew that’s not what was being said, but in order to process it, my brain had to turn it into something recognizable.

The trek was steep and relentless and I had no idea whether I was half way through or only a quarter of the way through. I had only been walking an hour, but I figured if the rest of the trek was anything like the first hour, it would be better to get to the top as soon as possible rather than drawing it out.

After about half an hour, I caught up to some other people in my group. I decided to ask them about the chanting.

“What is the chanting that sounds like ‘Grandma Toddy’?“

“Jai Mata Di – it’s an affectionate way of referring to Vaishno Devi. Chanting her name gives people strength to make it to the top.”

The higher I went, the more monkeys there were. I had heard stories about how monkeys are hateful bastards and throw their poo at you. The rumors were confirmed when a fellow trekker told a story that is best described by the tagline “Monkey Bites Boy on Head. Boy has good story to tell his drunk buddies at parties”. At this point, I decided that the monkeys are muuuuuch cuter behind cages. Dear monkey, PUHLEASE stay away from me.

I knew I was getting close to the top because I looked up and saw only two more switchbacks on the mountain. Judging from the distance between them, it was going to be steep.

F-I-N-A-L-L-Y, I made it, but before I could think about relaxing, I dashed towards the bathroom. Unfortunately for me, India is not a good place for people who have to pee a lot. Lines are long, disorderly, and the toilets are often filthy (even in holy places). Somehow I lucked out. There were no lines and the toilets were clean.

It was about an hour before the last person rolled in. By this time, the sun had gone down, my sweat was dry, and the coffee that I bought from a street vendor was long gone. It was cold enough that I decided not to participate in the ritual bathing that occurs before entering the temple. I figured I was going to hell for ruining the U.S. economy by helping to outsource more jobs to India, so it was okay.

While standing in line waiting to gain entrance to the temple, I listened to the Grandma Toddy chants and I realized that I was barefoot, I was freezing – I was definitely the only white person I had seen all day – and I was standing in an insanely long line to see an eight-armed god who sits on a tiger. For a moment, everything stopped and was frozen. I thought to myself, “Holy shit! I AM IN FREAKIN’ INDIA”.

In the last three months I had gotten used to the flies swarming around me, the buzz of mosquitoes, cows sifting through the mounds of dirt that lined the roads, and the constant begging. So much so that sometimes I forgot I was in India. Not that day.

I reached a security checkpoint where I stood behind a curtain and was patted down to ensure that I didn’t have anything made of leather. The woman patting me down got to my pockets, which were almost overflowing, and abruptly stopped. I have no idea what she found, but apparently, she’d hit the jackpot. She stuck her hand in my pocket, grabbed a handful of stuff, glanced at it, and then threw it into a pile of confiscated goods.

After hours of standing in line, I entered the cave where Jai Mata Di’s shrine resides. I bowed to a Barbie-doll-sized likeness of her. As I lifted my head, a pundit (equivalent to a priest) dipped his finger in a bowl of red goo and pressed it against my forehead, giving me the famous red dot. The line continued to move so I tried to absorb as much as I could before being pushed out of the cave.

“Wait, what just happened? I’m not done yet! Somebody hit the rewind button. I want an undo.”

As I walked away, I realized I had no idea what I had just bore witness to. I had come all this way to spend what I estimated to be no more than thirty seconds in front of Jai Mata Di. Maybe it’s the American in me, but I expected a grand finale, a bloody battle, something, anything. I felt cheated.

As I made my way down, I was keenly aware that my thighs and calves had taken on the consistency of Jell-O, and I could feel the blisters on my feet squishing around.

One of my fellow trekkers asked me for the cold medication that she had given me earlier in the day. I madly searched my pockets over and over, but I couldn’t find the tiny pills. After a few minutes, I realized that they must have been thrown out at the security checkpoint.

At every turn I thought to myself, This is it, I know it, and I vividly remember THAT shitty spot on the side of the road. But alas, my memory failed me because the road just never seemed to end. Somehow I made it to the end. I took a rickshaw back to the hotel and crawled into bed for four hours of sleep before starting the trip home.

It was later reported that some people in our group actually took a mule down. Truth is, I’m actually surprised that many of them even made it to the top. McDonald’s may have penetrated India, but the fitness craze certainly hasn’t.

Months later, I still have no idea what I saw in that cave. I’m left piecing it together from memories of other pilgrimages. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I mean, that’s how life is, right? You don’t know how you got there and you’re not even sure you like it, but somehow you have to deal with it. I don’t know how I got to India much less Vaishno Devi, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but somehow I have to figure it all out.

For questions or comments, you can reach me at brownwrites at gmail dot com.

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