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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.