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Katra

Also popularly known as Katra Vaishno Devi, the town of Katra is a hill station in Jammu and Kashmir. It is part of the Udhampur district, some 42 kilometers from the winter capital of the city of Jammu. Like most other hill stations, Katra is situated under the foothills of a mountain range, in this case, the Trikuta Mountains where the holy shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi can be found, hence the town’s other name.

Like other hill stations, Katra is elevated, although it is not as high as other stations found in Northern India. Katra is situated at a height of about 754 meters (roughly 2,474 feet) above mean sea level. Since the town is located near the holy shrine of the Vaishno Devi, it also acts as a base for the pilgrimages done there. As of the 2001 Indian census, the town has a population of about 7,569, with the males constituting 53% of that number.

Known as “Heaven on Earth”, Katra is identified with the famous pilgrimage spot that is the Vaishno Devi shrine. It is the second most visited shrine in India, right after Tirumala Venkateswara temple. Legend has it that a devotee of Lord Vishnu, Vaishno Devi, lived in that area some 700 years ago. She had taken a vow of celibacy but a demon-god, Bhairon Nath, chased her and interrupted her meditation. Mata Vaishno Devi then assumed the form of Maha Kali and cut off the demon’s head. The place where Bhairon Nath’s head fell is now Bhairon temple. The shrine itself is situated in a cave, some 98 feet long and is said to have been built by five Pandavas.

The thousands of pilgrims who visit this site every year crawl from the mouth of the cave through a tunnel up until they approach what is known as Launkra Beer point. From this point on, they have to wade in water for 23 more feet, after which they will reach the main part of the shrine. All of this is done at an altitude of 1,584 meters. The shrine displays a number of cave carvings depicting several divine symbols, such as Kamadhenu (the divine cow) and the triumvirate of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. The trek up the mountain to the cave entrance is possible by using ponies.

Much of Katra’s economy is derived from the pilgrimages done to the temple, although this is not, by far, the only site worth visiting in the area. Shiv Khori, a pilgrim site some 70 kilometers from Katra also has a holy cave complete with a naturally formed Shiv Ling at its inner sanctum. The temple of Baba Dhansar is also located just 15 kilometers away from Katra, while on the way to Salal Dam. The famous Hindu-Sikh shrine of Dera Baba Banda is also located 30 kilometers away from Katra, as well as the temple raised for the legendary hero Baba Jitto; his temple is located a mere 5 kilometers away.

Katra is well-connected to the city of Jammu as well as other major cities of the state of Punjab by road. For those visiting the town by air, the nearest airport is also located in Jammu.

Patnitop

Hill stations are among the places to go if people need to unwind, clear their thoughts and just commune with Mother Nature. They allow people to take in the fresh air, away from the bustle and pollution and waste of the city and urban life. Hill stations are a sanctuary and escape from the tiring modernities of life. Northern India is a part of the country that has plenty of hill stations, mainly because of its geographical location and its nice climate. More often than not, these stations have become local and international places of sanctuary and are becoming more popular every year.

Patnitop is one of the hill stations that belong in the Northern India territory, and it also happens to be one of the most popular and well-developed of the stations. Also known as Patni Top, it is found in the district of Udhampur, in Jammu and Kashmir. It is situated atop a charming plateau elevated at a height of 2,024 above mean sea level, across where the Jammu-Srinagar Highway passes. Patnitop is close to the Pir Ranjal, in the Lower Himalayan Range. From Udhampur, it is 35 kilometers away and some 112 kilometers from Jammu.

The name of the station is actually a distortion of the original name which was “Patan da Talab”. It is translated roughly as “Pond of the Princess”. This came about due to the fact that in olden times, there used to be a pond in the meadows of Patnitop where the king’s daughter would often take her bath. Now, part of that pond still exists near the youth hostel. It is said that when the British came and occupied India, they had a hard time recording an English spelling of the Indian name for their revenue records. Over the years, the name Patan Da Talab eventually changed to Patnitop.

The hill town offers beautiful scenic landscapes enveloped by lush, green forests. The place is perfect for families to hold their picnics, with beautiful spots found around the town. Sanasar in particular was chosen by the state tourism for major development, adding in spots specifically for picnics and expanding the 6-hole golf course to 9 holes. Backpackers and hikers can also enjoy pleasant walks in and around the station; Patnitop is actually a good starting place for many treks to the nearby mountains. A popular one among hikers and trekkers is a one-day walk to Shiva Garh, some 11 kilometers away from Patnitop, all at an altitude of about 3,500 meters. During the winters, the hill station is covered with a thick mantle of snow which makes it perfect for snow activities such as skiing. Paragliding is also a booming sport, with paragliding rides being offered at Dawariyai. The flight will take off at Patnitop and land at Kud, lasting about 7 to 15 minutes, depending on the wind conditions.

Getting to Patnitop can be done via land, with taxis and buses available at the cities of Jammu, Katra and Udhampur. It takes about 3 and a half hours if riding in a taxi while a bus trip takes about 5 hours. Accommodations include huts and tourist bungalows, all managed by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department.

Gulmarg

Several of North India’s hill stations have been treated as a resort in recent years, mainly because these places have beautiful environments and scenery one does not usually find in a bustling metropolis or city. Almost all hill stations offer a back-to-nature atmosphere, with lush and verdant greens and forests set amidst a backdrop of mountain ranges and sloping hills. Gulmarg is one of these hill stations and anyone who wants to break away from the hustle and bustle of city life to relax and just chill should consider this beautiful resort.

Gulmarg, whose name means “Meadow of Flowers”, is a town and a hill station in the Baramula district in Jammu and Kashmir, located 56 kilometers southwest of Srinagar. It is a notified area by the state government – that is, it is earmarked for future development. Being a hill station, the town has an average elevation of 2,690 meters above mean sea level. It should be noted that Gulmarg does not have any permanent residents. The 2001 India census states the total population of the town at 664, although this is very malleable as people are required to leave the area by nightfall due to a curfew imposed by the army in 1990. Only tourists and those who are in the tourism industry can stay overnight. Of the population 99% are males. Gulmarg is primarily a huge, cup-shaped meadow with an area of about 3 square kilometers long and about a kilometer wide.

Even before it was visited by both tourists and locals Gulmarg had already been considered as a resort for the kings. Jahangir and Yousuf Shah Chak used to frequent the area during their days. Back then, Gulmarg was known as “Gurimarg”, taken from the name of the wife of Lord Shiva. It was Yousuf Shah Chak who changed the name to Gulmarg. When the British came and made India a colony, Gulmarg became a favorite summer destination for the soldiers and officials who were stationed in India. During the uprising in Kashmir in the 1990s, the area surrounding the resort hill town became politically restive but since India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire in 2003, the atmosphere has become relatively peaceful and quiet. With the militancy in the area abating, Gulmarg has become one of the state’s most visited destinations. Since it is nestled within the Himalayan peaks, it receives heavy snowfall, hence becoming a popular ski resort.

In fact, skiing is one of the prime attractions of Gulmarg. When December approaches and the lush green meadows are covered with snow, the place becomes a natural slope for ski runs of all levels. The first ski club in India was set up by the British in Gulmarg in 1927. The slopes of the Afarwat Hills of the Pir Panjal Range boast one of the highest and longest ski slopes in Asia. The ski lifts cover a total distance of 5 kilometers, with the resort peaking at an altitude of 3,747 meters, which is accessed by an aerial gondola. During one of its annual summits, the Winter Games Federation of India declared Gulmarg as the winter sports capital of India and was also declared during the PATWA awards ceremony as the best winter destination of India.