Sunday, January 18, 2004

Yatra goes hi-tech
S.P. Sharma

THE pilgrimage to the holy cave shrine of Vaishnodevi in the Trikuta hills has been made high-tech as the number of pilgrims touched the record figure of 54,00,296 during last year.

An increase of 9,68,118 pilgrims over the figure for 2002 has been achieved despite the terrorists, for the first time, targeting Katra town where four pilgrims were killed.

Now one neednít go through a cumbersome process to make arrangements for the pilgrimage. One can book a room, a seat in a helicopter to fly to the shrine from Katra and even make a booking for the pooja at the click of a mouse, from anywhere in the world.

To cope with the increasing rush of pilgrims, the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) has put up its own website for online reservation of various facilities during the pilgrimage.

The SMVDSB has entered into an agreement with the ICICI Bank to enable donations through the ATM network so that a devotee can now walk into any ATM of the bank and make offerings between Rs 51 and Rs 11,001. A "Money2India" scheme has been introduced for the NRIs.

Some senior officers of the SMVDSB recently participated in the World Tourist Market at London to particularly target the NRIs.

The offerings of gold and silver are now being converted into coins and souvenirs which will be sold to the pilgrims or any one desiring to purchase these from various outlets. The pure gold and silver coins carrying the image of the deities have been manufactured in the denomination of 5, 10, 20 and 30 grams at the India Mint, Mumbai, and the Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation (MMTC).

There has been a phenomenal increase in the number of pilgrims ever since management of the shrine was taken over by the SMVDSB in 1986, when only 13,95,832 devotees visited the shrine. The number gradually increased to 43,35,432 10 years later in 1996 and has now crossed the mark of 54 lakh.

According to Rohit Kansal, Additional Chief Executive Officer of the SMVDSB, an investment of Rs 150 cr has been made by the board in creation of infrastructure and facilities. A sum of about Rs12 crore is being spent towards payment of salaries to the employees and Rs3 cr are annually being given to the Mata Vaishnodevi University for the past four years which will start its courses in information technology, bio-technology, management and ancient India thought in the coming session.

The board has invested in the construction of about 10 school buildings.

The Deccan Airlines has stationed two helicopters with a capacity of 5 passengers each at Katra to fly the pilgrims to Sanji-Chhat in six minutes. Thereafter it is a level walk of about 45 minutes to the cave shrine. One can perform the pilgrimage in just about two hours in case the helicopter route is adopted, for which the one-way ticket costs Rs 2000. Otherwise, it takes about four and a half hours to climb the 12-km long hilly path to the shrine that rises from 2800 ft to over 5200 ft. and almost an equal time to return to the base camp at Katra.

The growth in the number of pilgrims has resulted in boosting the economy of the area and a large number of luxury hotels have come up at Katra to cater to the needs of the pilgrims.

Kansal says that the SMVDSB has decided to set up a spiritual growth centre at Katra with an investment of Rs 5 cr. An institute is also being set up for training the pujaris.

Besides, a bed strength of 700 is being added by constructing a new serai at Katra and 200 beds will be added to the shrine, where a dormitory will be constructed this year. An economy accommodation for 500 persons has been added at the Sarswati Dham complex near the railway station at Jammu.

The shrine board has introduced a battery operated car service for the old and handicapped pilgrims between Adh-Kawari and the shrine that covers the distance of 6 km in 15 minutes.