To the Holy Mountain

Most of the subplot in The Case of the Love Commandos (Vish Puri #4) takes place at the site of one of the biggest Hindu pilgrimages in India, the shrine of Vaishno Devi. The shrine sits high up in the hills north of the city of Jammu in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Puri’s Mummy, his wife Rumpi and a few other family members climb the steep trail up Trikuta mountain to a cave where the mother goddess is worshipped. There’s an excerpt from the book below. But first here are some of my pictures from the visit I made last year with my family as research for the book. Anu was not overly eager to go; she had been dragged there by her parents as a child a couple of times. But in the end it was a fabulous experience. We set off from the bottom of the mountain at the crack of dawn, joining thousands of determined yatris, or pilgrims, (approximately eight million come every year) on the climb. Most walked, some went on horseback, others were carried on chairs by Muslim porters. Seeing some of the larger individuals prompted an idea that became crucial to the subplot.

 

Excerpt from The Case of the Love Commandos

“For once, all the Puris were ready on time. Mummy, Rumpi, Chetan and the other family members gathered at six in the hotel lobby, eager to begin their ascent. They found the shops and eateries along the town’s main drag shuttered. Sweepers armed with jharus were tidying away the detritus from the night before. Crows perched on overhead wires, ever vigilant for tidbits of edible refuse. Street dogs who’d battled over territory all night turned tail at the approach of the more dominant species.

Mummy relished the thrill that comes from being up before everyone else, of seeing the world as it is before the great director in the sky yells, “Action!” Yet upon entering the town square, this sense of privilege quickly gave way to one of fraternity. Hundreds of pilgrims, or yatris, who’d slept in the open overnight, were rolling up sleeping bags and bedrolls in a flurry of excitement.
Many wore red and gold bandanas, and as they set off for the entrance to the mountain—youngsters raised aloft on shoulders, elderly uncles and aunties striding forth with walking sticks—euphoric cries of “Maan aap bu- landi!” (“The Mother herself calls!”) echoed along the narrow street leading to the mountain pathway.

Mummy was heartened to see that the pilgrimage remained predominantly a family affair. The Puris were one of hundreds of families three or four generations strong, many of them singing and joking and helping one another along. She spotted honeymooning couples, the brides wearing henna designs on their hands, bunches of red, white and gold bangles on their wrists, and fresh daubs of sindoor in the parting of their hair. In spite of all the talk about the Westernization of Indian culture, countless young Hindus dressed in jeans and T-shirts, who appeared as caught up in the ritualism as the most pious sanyassis, thronged the way. There was even a group of widows from a village near Bhopal in central India who’d pooled their resources, hired a bus and traveled more than a thousand miles to be here.

It came as a relief, too, to find that the mountain path was paved. And for those unable to manage the climb of their own volition (this included numerous aunties with bad hips who wobbled), there were small horses, decked in bright, multicolored bridles and saddles, available, with a keeper leading them on.

It was also possible to be carried up in a sedan chair— although Mummy found something repugnant in the sight of people, some of them obese, being borne upon the shoulders of porters who were being paid at most a few hundred rupees a day.”

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