“Girls, my family is going to the Vaishno Devi temple this winter. Anybody interested in joining us?” my friend Richa announced that night.
This was the year 2000. We had just celebrated the beginning of the new millennium and in our Bollywood world, the new heartthrob Hrithik Roshan had just made us go weak in the knees with his debut performance in Kaho Na Pyar Hain (Say, you are in love).
While girls were not sure if they preferred baby-faced Rohit or hot-shot Raj from the movie (both played by Hrithik Roshan); boys were busy matching Hrithik’s dancing steps to popular song Ek Pal Ka Jeena. In short, we were all in ‘Kaho Na Pyar Hain‘ mode – or at least I was!
So, going to Vaishno Devi was the last thing on my mind.
To put this into context, Vaishno Devi is a religious destination where pilgrims walk about thirteen kilometers uphill to reach the caves in the mountain to pay respect to Devi Mata, who is a manifestation of the most powerful Hindu Goddess Shakti. She is believed to bestow any wish to the person who appears in front of her.
So, the idea of a religious trip did not excite me until my friend Maddy said, “This can be an adventurous trip,” which made sense to me.
In those days, I was infatuated with a boy, who – as per my friend – would break my heart if I did not stop fancying about him.
But I could not help it because he had the most gorgeous and expressive eyes. Every time he looked at me, I could feel his confidence, warmth, mischief, intelligence and innocence. He had eyes with soul in them.
“But he has wandering eyes,” my friend had often warned me. But that did not matter.
On the day I was leaving for Vaishno Devi, I saw him with his friends in the cafeteria. For some reason, he decided to come towards me and ask,
“I heard you are traveling. When will you be back?”
“I’d love to hear about your trip once you are back.”
He then looked deep into my eyes and said,
“I will wait for you!”
My heart skipped a beat there.
“The boy that I had a crush on would wait for me and listen to my travel stories,” I could not believe it. My happiness knew no limits when I left for the trip.
The next day, we reached Katra, a base camp for pilgrims who visit Vaishno Devi.
“Are you ready to climb up the hill?” Richa’s father asked everyone, “It is an uphill walk. In case, you cannot walk, you have an option to go up riding ponies and horses too.”
“We will walk,” all of us shouted in excitement.
“Okay, walk slowly, walk together, sing along, enjoy every moment. We will reach there by mid-night.”
“Let’s start singing. I can think of some devotional songs, Jai Mata Di,” Richa started singing.
“Really? Devotional song? I can think of one song,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Kaho Na Pyar Hain (Say, you are in love)!” I said, still thinking about the boy.
“Are you crazy? You are on a pilgrimage. Think about some devotional song. Jai Mata Di,” another friend Isai suggested.
I laughed and got back to my fantasy world thinking about the boy.
“It is freezing cold,” Nikki commented.
“What did you expect in the month of December?” Maddy retorted.
“Deepti, are you not feeling cold?” Richa asked.
“What is cold? I don’t feel anything except love,” I replied in a dreamy voice.
My friends stopped for a second, gave me a stern look, rolled their eyes and continued walking. It did not bother me as I was in my own world thinking about the boy and his eyes.
“This must be love,” I thought with a smile on my face.
I was so engrossed thinking about him that I did not notice anything around me. Just the thought that ‘he was eagerly waiting for me’ was keeping me up on a cold night even though I was tired of climbing up the hill. The verdant hills and cool surroundings, combined with my own romantic feeling, had made my pilgrimage remarkable.
By mid-night, we reached the complex of the temple. Richa’s father gave us the next set of instructions.
“We will rest here for a few hours, wake up by five in the morning to enter the Holy Cave to pay our respects to Mata.”
The next day was a ridiculously cold morning and we had to walk barefoot towards the holy cave.
“Jai Mata Di, Jai Mata Di,” we chanted in our shivering voices as we slowly walked to seek the Mata’s ‘blessing’. After two hours, it was our turn to enter the cave.
“Mata is very powerful. She grants everyone’s wishes,” someone reminded us again.
The cave was crowded and chaotic. As I was trying to figure out where those holy rocks were inside the cave, the priest hastily shouted, “Quick, hurry up. Leave.”
“Leave? I have just entered,” I thought.
“HURRY UP,” this time the priest shouted.
I had forgotten everything about ‘my wish’ in that confusion. I could not think of anything else, so I asked,
“O Goddess, if you are really that powerful, then make that boy fall in love with me.”
And I left.
The day arrived. We were in the cafeteria talking about my trip. I did not tell him that I missed him, rather I wanted to hear that from him.
“What did you do?” I asked him with a hope that he would say he missed me.
“Oh, I hung out with Tanya. We went out for a movie……and ….”
I was stunned with jealousy. I did not even hear what he said after the word ‘Tanya’. I did not even know who ‘Tanya’ was. All I knew was while I was busy thinking about this boy every second of my day, he was busy enjoying with ‘Sanya’ or ‘Tanya’ or whatever her name was.
I was not religious, but that day, I turned religious.
“Maybe I should have asked for a better grade in the final exam, campus placement, IT job – something better in life rather than this stupid love. Maybe Mata would have taken me seriously,” I shared this with my friend.
“Stay away from him, he is known for breaking hearts,” my friend warned me again.
A few days later, he saw me in the cafeteria again. He came towards me, looked deep into my eyes and asked,
“I have been thinking about you. Would you like to go on a date with me?”
“Should I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?” I thought for a moment.
‘Yes’ meant falling into the same trap of falling in love with a boy who would end up breaking my heart soon. And ‘no’ meant giving up something I so desired.
I decided to say ‘yes’ anyway! After all, no matter how much your friends warn you about that ‘one boy with wandering eyes’, you still fall for his words just because when we fall in love, we become partially brain-dead.
We were together for a few months; and I was happy as he had a way with his words, and I absolutely fell for it. We were planning on making things more serious, until one day, when we decided to call things off.
“You have not left your dark room for a week? This is not you,” my roommate reprimanded me that evening when I was reeling with the heartbreak.
She was right. I had been lying in bed for days and going numb from the pain. I had forgotten my own identify after my first breakup. The thoughts, the physical pain in my heart, and the reality that I could not escape. There was not a single place in the college that did not remind me of him. And every time I remembered him, I thought,
“Does he even remember me? Does he feel the pain?”
And those questions hurt me the most.
In short, I could not escape what he had done to my heart. He made me feel my heartbeat; and at the same time, he made me see the pain seeping from the crack in it. Those were indeed the darkest days of my life.
Fast forward 20 years – I look into my husband’s eyes – the same gorgeous expressive eyes and I still feel his confidence, warmth and innocence that I felt twenty years ago. How I ended up marrying the same boy is another story to tell (we have an epic love story); but even today, after almost twenty years later, no other experience has replaced that intensity, that fervor, that passion, and that sorrow that I felt when I first fell in love.
Today, I cannot imagine going to Vaishno Devi temple and thinking about my husband the whole trip. That would be utterly silly. But thinking that I once was obsessed about him makes me smile.
I guess, over the years, we evolve, relationship evolves and love too evolves. But I guess, every now and then, it is so important to remember that exhilarating experience of euphoria and exhaustion we once felt for someone. Whether it is the first kiss, making love for the first time, first traumatic fight, a deep sense of jealously or possessiveness, or our first big break up. Whatever it is, both positive and negative – those were the experiences that we felt so much only because we were in love.
Is not falling in love so beautiful?
So, going back to Vaishno Devi again. I do not know if Mata fulfills every visitor’s wish. Some believe in it; and some don’t – I am not going to comment on that.
Personally, I do think of that unforgettable trip and that lovelorn girl every now and then; and I ask her, “You listened to that silly girl, didn’t you?”
I hear a sweet and soothing voice from inside as she utters, “Yes, I did.” And I smile, thanking her in my own way!
If you want to learn more about Vaishno Devi Shrine, you can find detailed information here. I found this website very helpful.