Unexplored Heritage Traditional Route to Vaishno Devi Shrine

S.M Sahni & Satwant Singh Rissam

The famous Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine in Jammu’s Katra town is visited by more than ten million pilgrims each year.
The economy of Jammu region is linked with this cave shrine and hospitality industry as well as many small traders, taxi operators, shopkeepers, pony wala, palki walas and vendors earn their livelihood from pilgrims visiting the shrine. However, during COVID-19 lockdown all the religious shrines in India were closed and now after staying shut for almost 3 months many shrines have reopened for the public. On the contrary, Vaishno Devi Shrine hasn’t opened yet and its impact these days is even visible on the empty shops of Jammu and Katra.
While across the world corona virus is being discussed and similarly in India along with it traditional ways of living, eating and old habits are also being propagated as a way to beat corona virus. As we are thinking of a post-lockdown India so interestingly here in Jammu it would be right time to highlight the traditional route to holy cave shrine from Jammu to Katra. Most of the pilgrims visiting the shrine aren’t aware of this route and even new generation of Jammuites lack its idea and importance. There was a time when this route was used by the devotees as the preferred primary route to reach the holy shrine. As times changed and with the construction of National Highway, a faster and more convenient motorable route to Katra is being preferred these days. This route starts from Kolkandoli temple (first darshan) Nagrota passing through Jagti – Pangali – Bamyal of Jammu district climbing up to Deva Mai temple of Reasi district and then to Nomain village 4 km short of Katra. Nowadays, this route is used only by local travelers such as nomads, businessmen from surrounding villages, ponywalla’s and pithoos etc who live in nearby villages and travel to Katra to earn their livelihood.
Besides, this route is very important from heritage point of view. It is a treasure of built, natural and cultural heritage which lies unexplored and ignored. On this route various villages showcase the rural life with natural beauty of indigenous trees, streams, nallahs, walkways, hilly as well as small plain meadows, agriculture and horticulture produce. Interestingly, many remnants of pre-partition era can be found on this route. While preparing vision document on this route for Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) by Jammu chapter we found temples, stepwells, pacca talabs (ponds), bowlies, resting shelters, drinking and bathing water sources, abandoned sarais etc constructed by the devotees who use to come from Lahore, Delhi and other parts of the country. We were also told by locals that the devotees on this route used to move in large groups and most of the infrastructure was built by them for their annual pilgrimage. The famous temples of historical value enroute are:
a) Temple at village Pangali with sarai shed, step well with chambers to store water, large size pond.
b) Shiv Temple at village Thandapani.
c) Kalika Mata Temple at village Gundla.
d) Remains of Thakurdwara at village Bhamyal near Bus Stand
e) Shiv Temple with wall painting at Upper Bhamyal.
f) Oli Temple at tail end of District Jammu(Bhamyal)
g) Shiv Temple with sarai building at Phayadya falling in Reasi district ( 500 mtrs from Oli Temple)
h) Deva Mai ji Temple at hilltop of Nomain village
After visiting this route, we were sure that the historical significance of this route with abundance of heritage points is likely to attract millions of pilgrims once it is promoted and developed on priority by the government, shrine board and host communities. This entire heritage should be conserved, preserved and restored to its pristine glory. The villages along 22km road are likely to get economic thrust and day won’t be far when this entire area could flourish as a part of yatra from Nagrota to Katra to Bhawan. It would also reduce the travel time as this route is 5 km short from the existing NH road to Katra.
It is the value system which acts as the backbone for any healthy society. For this immediate steps to conserve this heritage should be taken as because of neglect shown to this entire area all things have taken bad shape. With help of conservation steps we would be able to make aware our future generations about our traditional values. These rich heritage components have historical, architectural, social/ associational values which were given to us by the pilgrims visiting the holy cave shrine. The developmental plans as per the requirement of the pilgrims with self-sustained modules without compromising the original architectural features and designs should be taken up. At the same time, emphasis should be on local materials to preserve heritage character by minimizing use of cement and concrete with uniform facade, colour schemes for host community in association with departments such as Rural Development Department, Forests, Environment, Jal Shakti, Health, PWD, PDD, Flood Control and Irrigation, Housing and Urban Development Department, Housing Board, Jammu Development Authority, Agriculture, Horticulture, Handloom, Handicrafts and finally the Tourism and Culture Department. This route is old but could make new fortunes for numerous people once it becomes destination for tourists who want to experience rural life. The rural fairs, festivals, customs, rituals and celebrations could become added attraction along with traditional ethnic foods of the area.
The master plan as well as conservation plans with an integrated developmental approach needs to be got prepared through the expert agencies with uniform pattern for all the built-up area by the respective departments. Either JDA or RDD should be made as nodal department to prepare the development plan.
It is worthwhile to mention here that as part of nationwide efforts of INTACH to protect heritage of the nation, INTACH Jammu chapter submitted copies of prepared vision document to the authorities through the then MLA Nagrota constituency for advise to concerned authorities in the government as well as in Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board for revival of this traditional route. This crucial work should be started and completed within fixed deadline in order to make this route more enjoyable. Post lock down world would be different and we hope so for this route having tremendous tourism potential with ready-made market which is more than any other pilgrimage route of the region.
(The authors are (KAS Retd), Convenor INTACH, Jammu Chapter) and (Programme Coordinator, INTACH Jammu Chapter)