Located at a staggering altitude of 5,200 ft above sea level in the Katra valley in Jammu and Kashmir, is the lofty abode of goddess Vaishno Devi. The 13.5 km stretch to the main bhawan (temple housing the holy shrine) is accessible via various modes of transportation, including ponies, electric vehicles, helicopters and, most popularly, its paalkhis (palanquins), operated by two or four bearers a time.
There are over 5,000 palanquin bearers in the area, out of which around 3,500 are Muslims, often seen chanting “jai mata di” on top of their voices during their steep trek to-and-fro the shrine. “I’ve worked all my life here and have never faced any problem,” says 55-year-old Mohammad Qasim, who has been a palanquin-bearer for the last 32 years. “So what if I’m a Muslim, the goddess protects everybody. I get my food from here, so, this place is my home,” he adds.
The famous Katra market wears a grim, desolate look these days, given the conflict in Kashmir that has brought to halt all forms of functionality. The ongoing curfew in Kashmir has seen a sharp drop in tourists. The shopkeepers and locals depend on the pilgrimage, which sees outsiders in throngs, for their daily livelihood. The last two months have been severe, say some of the locals, pointing at the empty roads. But the palanquin-bearers appear strikingly unperturbed.
Khushi Mohammad, 35, smiles as he recalls the last 20 years of his service at the shrine, facing neither any troubles from his own community for visiting a Hindu pilgrimage, nor from the devotees for being a Muslim at the shrine. “We trek even during our Ramadan fast. People are so nice to us, they wait while we read the namaz during our working hours,” he says.