Traveler

A pious journey into the heart of India

By Purva Bhatia

It's one of the harshest months on the year when the blazing hot sun makes it difficult to even step out of the comfort of your home, forget walking miles barefoot. But a look at the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain tells you a different tale. The burning floor, sweltering heat, long queues, pushing and shoving — nothing deters hundreds of Shaivites (followers of Shiva) who have thronged the shrine to seek blessings of the 'creator and destroyer'. The time is auspicious to offer prayers to Shiva and Mahakal, one of the most important of the 12 jyotirlingas in India. This one is believed to be born on its own (swayambhu), deriving power from within itself; the others are ritually established. The scenario is similar in other temples of such religious significance in Madhya Pradesh. Struggling to find little space for myself in the crowd, I smell intense devotion. I see women, evidently from Andhra, incessantly chanting mantras as they wait for hours for a minute of puja.

Indore sees an influx of thousands of devotees who make annual trips to the sacred sites of Ujjain, Omkareshwar and Maheshwar. To host these tourists, the city has several branded hotels like Country Inns and Suites, Ginger, Lemon Tree, etc. (apart from non-branded hotels). Radisson Blu Hotel Indore — which made an entry into the city two years ago — hasn't just added to the city's room inventory but is also working towards promoting the destination. The hotel, in association with MP tourism, is offering attractive packages that include the stay as well as visits to the religious sites as well as to Mandu. I am here to sample one of the packages, on invitation by the hotel.

Ujjain
My first stop on this sacred journey is Ujjain, about 70 km from Indore and about an hour and a half by road.

Hindu mythology holds that when the gods and demons churned the ocean of milk, a few drops of nectar fell on four places: Haridwar, Nasik, Prayag and Ujjain. Considered to be holy since time immemorial, these are the four sacred sites for the Kumbh Mela.

Surrounded by the holy waters of the Shipra River, Ujjain houses Mahakal, one of the twelve celebrated jyotirlingas in India. Called Dakshinamurti since it faces south — the only jyotirlinga to be so — the shrine, Mahakaleshwar Temple, is of great significance to tantriks. While visiting the temple at 3 am for early morning aarti might sound spiritually ideal, noon is a good time if you want to explore the five levels of the temple without facing the crowd.

One of the must-see rituals is the Bhasma Aarti, which takes place between 4-6 am. The lingam is smeared with still-hot ashes from the cremation grounds in homage to Shiva, the 'master of death'. Women are not allowed entry during the ritual.

Other major temples in the holy city include 'Bade Ganeshji ka Mandir' that houses the only 'panchmukhi' (five-faced) idol of Hanuman. There's also Harsiddhi Temple, where according to the Shiva Purana, when Shiva carried away the body of Sati, her elbow dropped here. The most interesting temple is definitely the Kal Bhairav Mandir, where liquor is ritually offered to the deity that is believed to have emerged from Shiva's third eye. The temple is believed to be associated with the tantra (black magic) cult. It is said that the liquor offered disappears pretty fast into the mouth of the deity. A state-sponsored research into the mystery has not yielded any results yet.

Mandu
The next day I make an early start to head for Mandu. Nothing religious about this legendary town but more is less when it comes to describing beauty of Madhavgarh (or Mandu) especially during the monsoons. Located about three hours from Indore, it can be visited as a day-trip from the city. However, you might want to spend more time in this picturesque town.

Originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa, it later came to be ruled by the Pathan Sultans of Malwa, who constructed exquisite palaces, tombs and gates. One can devote hours admiring the massive Jami Masjid, Jahaz Mahal and Hoshang Shah's tomb that provided inspiration to the main architect of the Taj Mahal. Centuries ago, the town was a monsoon retreat of the Mughals, who made several pleasure palaces and lakes here. In fact Jehangir is said to have written: "I know of no other place that is as pleasant in climate and with such attractive scenery as Mandu in the rainy season." The statement stands true even today.

Maheshwar
Home to the distinctive hand-woven Maheshwari sarees, there is more to this tranquil town (located close to Mandu) settled on the banks of the holy Narmada River. You can sense the sanctity of the air when you take a boat ride here and gape at the temples distinguished by their carved balconies and intricately designed doorways. There are numerous temples that commemorate different forms or 'avatars' of Shiva. The most remarkable structure, however, is the Ahilya Fort, residence of the erstwhile royal family (Holkar) of Indore. The fort is now converted into a heritage hotel. It also houses a statue Rani Ahilyabai, who is credited for the rise of the town, along with relics and antiques belonging to the Holkar dynasty.

Omkareshwar
With the island shaped like the holiest of Hindu symbols, Om, the place cannot get holier. (A valley divides the two hills on the island in such a way that it appears in the shape of Om.)  Or it can if it marks the confluence of Narmada and Kaveri rivers. Omkareshwar means the Lord of Omkaara or the "Lord of the Om Sound". There are different versions of stories about the origin and the history of the place.

The 'Omkar Mandhata' temple, dedicated to Shiva, shelters one of the twelve 'jyotirlingas'. Other temples, like the Siddhanath Temple, are fine examples of early medieval Brahminic architecture. This temple is well known for the fresco of elephants carved upon a stone slab on its outer perimeter.

PURVA BHATIA was a business journalist for four years with a top media house. She quit to become a travel writer and photographer and now writes on travel, lifestyle and hospitality. She is equally passionate about travel as much as she is about writing.

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