The second and the last installment has taken a long time and for good reasons. I have changed jobs again and now I am employed as a commissioning editor with a leading global travel guide publisher. So it took me some time to get used to the new job responsibilities and the trainings and the workshops that come as part of the deal. Oh and then the commute from Delhi to Gurgaon. The metro has made it much more comfortable, but it still take roundabout the same amount of time. But then again, for the first time in almost six years I will have a five-day week. Working Saturdays suck. Big time.
Coming back to Narmada, like I said in the previous post, the lives of the people of the region revolve around the river. When kids are born, they are bathed in its holy waters; a pot of the sacred water is essential for every marriage, the daily rituals happens on its banks; and when they die, their ashes are scattered on its choppy dark waters. The Narmada is the cycle of life. It was not unusual that when the but I was travelling on from Maheshwar to Omkareshwar hit a bridge on the river, almost all of my co passengers raised their folded hands to their forehead and chanted in unison Jai Mata Narmadae!! I could translate it for those who do not know what that means, but then the devotion would be lost in translation. So I’d rather not.
My arrival at Omkareshwar was very eventful as well. I caught the bus one evening from the main bus stand at Maheshwar and prepared for what was going to be a two and a half hour journey. But i was in for a surprise. You see, for those who are not accustomed to travelling in buses in India, you must know that there are several types of services – Super Express, Express and Local. The names of the services might differ from state to state but in essence they remain similar. The Super Express has very limited stops on its way whereas the Local service will stop anywhere, all you need to do is stick out your hand. So the thing is what i thought was a super express, turned out to be a local.
So we stopped at every village and finally after three and a half hours we arrived at Sanawad, 15 kms from our destination. To my surprise the bus emptied itself and for the last leg, I was the only person in the bus. So I moved up front to the driver’s cabin and started a chat. The terrain from there on was hilly and the bus had a pair of grimy 40 W bulbs for a headlight. Worrying. More worrying when a single bolt of lightning tore through the night sky and almost immediately conjured up a dust storm of Biblical proportions. Okay..ALMOST Biblical proportions. By the time we reached the bust stand at Omkareshwar, the heavens had opened up and it was raining by the bucket-loads.
Omkareshwar is a vehicle free town, and as a result the main bust stand is outside the city limits and you need top walk from there. Not good news for lazy people like me. We waited in the bus for the rain to slow down and in a while, the driver conjured up two bottles of country made whiskey! That eased the pain considerably. Half an hour and three drinks later the rain held and I was able to walk down to my hotel for the night.
Omkareshwar is located on the old volcanic rocks almost halfway down the Narmada’s course. Here the river passes through a narrow and deep gorge and in the process creates an island in the shape of the holy symbol ‘OM’. So technically it’s the island that’s called Omkareshwar, but just like the town, even its name has spilled over to both the banks.
It was these banks that i set about exploring the morning next. Being vehicle free (motorcycles not included) the lanes of Omkareshwar were easy to navigate. They were lined, much like any other holy city in India with shops selling colourful puja paraphernalia and other trinkets and a score of dharmashalas. I eventually found my way to the Gomukh Ghat, one of the busiest places in Omkareshwar, just when the first sunlight was touching the temple spires.
The narrow and plunging gorge that the Narmada cuts in the ancient rocks of Omkareshwar is known as Gomukh, meaning the ‘mouth of the cow’. Legend has it that, long ago, a demon went on a rampage killing sages and sadhus. The sadhus assembled at Omkareshwar and prayed to Shiva for protection. Moved by their prayers, Shiva fought the demon and killed him with his trishul (trident).
To purify the trishul stained with the blood of the demon, Shiva flung it towards the Narmada at Omkareshwar. The trishul landed a fair distance from the river and its impact gave rise to an underground stream that resurfaces to meet the Narmada at the Gomukh. The stream is referred to as Kapildhara and the ghat built around it called the Gomukh Ghat.
There are two bridges connecting the mainland part of the town with the island, but many tourists and pilgrims prefer to cross over by boats from Gomukh ghat. The boats moored on the ghats carry a maximum of eight passengers and charge Rs 10 per head. You could also hire a boat to take you on a joyride on the Narmada. The boats sport colourful canopies and even more colourful names like Titanic, Tu Chor Main Sipahi (You are the convict and I’m the cop), Jalpari (mermaid), etc. For the sinners among you, who want to attain redemption by taking a dip in the holy waters of the river, do be careful. The steps of the ghat are extremely slippery and as the Narmada flows through a gorge here, it is extremely deep. Also, crocodiles are known to stray here from time to time.
The ghat is located roughly midway between the two bridges. From here, another shop lined, colourful lane winds up and down the hilly bank towards the newly constructed suspension bridge. Incidentally, both the bridges are for pedestrian traffic only. Although the policemen are known to turn a blind eye towards bicycles and motorcycles.
Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple, also called Omkar Mandhata Temple, is the key attraction for pilgrims who visit the island. It is the ancient site of one of the 12 sacred jyotirlingas. Local legend holds that the linga, or cosmic pillar emblematic of Shiva’s procreative energy, arrived here as a result of the devotion of the mythological king Mandhata.
Omkar Mandhata Temple is said to have been built by the Paramaras in the 11th century and rebuilt by the Holkars in the 19th century. The temple is suffused with symbolism, much like the island. Its shikhara is said to correspond with Mount Meru, the axis of the world according to Hindu mythology, and to overlook the cosmic ocean, represented by the Narmada.
A series of steps from the ghats leads up to the mandapa of the temple, marking the entrance of the enclosure. The mandapa is decorated with heavily carved soapstone pillars with elaborate capitals in the form of yakshis, while niches on either side are occupied by images of Ganesh, Ram, Sita, and other deities. As one crosses the mandapa, one encounters Nandi, Shiva’s divine vehicle. From the first mandapa, one ascends to the recently built sabha mandapa or prayer hall.
A vast terrace above the sabha mandapa leads to a small door through which one can enter the upper levels of the shikhara. Inside are three shrines, one above the other, enshrining more manifestations of Shiva – Siddhanath, Kedareshwar and Guptanath.
The two approaches to the temple are lined with shops selling baskets of flowers, incense and other puja paraphernalia. There are also people manning little stalls where for Rs 1 you can deposit your foot-wear for safekeeping till you are done with your darshan. It is likely that you will be approached by several priests and chances are that the experience might not be your best. You have been warned.
The temple is the hub of all activity in the island. All roads seem to converge here and it is the starting point of the famous Omkareshwar parikrama. The 16-km parikrama or circumambulation of the island starts from the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple and proceeds clockwise around the island. Until a few years ago, the path of the parikrama was an unpaved road, making the journey quite arduous. Recently, a proper track has been laid. All along the road, painted on boards, are verses from the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and Hindi.
Along with temples old and new, ruins of ancient shrines and remains of fort walls, the path passes through a number of tiny villages. For generations, the villagers have served as priests and caretakers of the island’s many temples, and remain tied to this tradition even today. The route passes through a series of crests and troughs in the landscape and may be intimidating for those that are not used to long walks. The harsh Omkareshwar sun, which can be surprisingly hot even in winter months, is an added challenge. The best safeguard would be to drink enough water and rest when exhausted. I, for one was smart enough to start just at sunrise, to make sure that I was back in my hotel room by about noon.
In this journey, one encounters numerous langoors or hanumans. These monkeys are known to snatch food from people’s hands and it is a wise idea to carry foodstuff in covered bags.
The sacred and purifying Narmada meets the fast flowing Kaveri at the sangam, or confluence, of these two rivers. Located on the westernmost part of the island of Omkareshwar, this narrow projection of land at the meeting point of the streams is covered with stones of all sizes shaped like shivalingas. The Kaveri, actually is not another river, but a part of the Narmada itself that encircles the island on the north.
Legend has it that it was here that Kuber, the god of wealth sat here and meditated without food and water for 100 years. Satisfied with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before Kuber and asked him what he wanted. To this Kuber replied that he wished to be the king of the Yakshas and gain immortality. Like all good mythological stories, his wish was granted and he lived happily ever after in the photo-frames in many a temple and home.
Apart from its religious sanctity, the sangam is the perfect spot to cool down after the arduous parikrama. It is a good idea to take off your shoes and sit on a rock while the cool water plays around your tired feet. Pilgrims are required to take a dip in the waters of the sangam to cleanse themselves before heading on.
After the sangam, the parikrama route becomes even more interesting. The path takes a sudden turn and after a few climbs one reached the top of the island. For the next few kilometres, the road is level. Here you come across broken fort walls and ruins of temples and gateways which prove that at one point of time, the city existed only in the island. Many of the old temples have been built over and modernised, some of them wonderfully preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India, but most are still in ruins.
On a large clearing, on the highest part of the island stands the Gauri Somnath Temple surrounded by numerous smaller shrines and a number of ashrams. Built in the early 15th century by the Paramaras, the temple was once faced with a pillared mandapa which is no longer extant.
In the garbhagriha of the temple is a 2 m high, black granite shivalinga. It is believed that this linga once possessed the power of revealing to a person their previous and future incarnations. When the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was passing through Omkareshwar, he expressed the wish to verify if this was true.
The story has it that the emperor was much disturbed by the linga’s revelations and, in a fit of rage, had the entire temple burnt down. The linga cracked in the intense heat and its surface was scarred and since then it has lost its special ability.
The state archaeological department runs a site museum at the premises of the Gauri Somnath Temple. While the more intricate and delicate sculptures are placed indoors, many others have been installed on pedestals all around the temple.
After you leave the temple and proceed onwards, to left of the parikrama path runs a fallen wall which was once about 9-12 m high. At various places on the parikrama route you will come across ruins which at first glance look like a pile of stones. Closer examination reveals that these are actually remains of the ancient walls of older temples, and gateways.
While most of these temples are barely recognisable, interestingly, some sculptures have survived almost intact. Some of these sculptures have been painted a bright red and a few have been taken over by nature with creepers spreading their delicate tendrils across them. The atmosphere here is completely different from that at the main ghat. It is almost as if two different towns exist on the same space.
After descending through a valley, the road emerges on to the second plateau of the island, with the last destination on the parikrama, the famed Siddhanath Temple, perched on it. According to some historians, this is one of the oldest temples on the island.
A fine example of early medieval Hindu architecture, the temple is built on an adhisthana, or plinth, which is about 1 m in height. The sides of the plinth are embellished with an exquisite frieze depicting elephants in various postures. Legend has it that when the shikhara of the temple was still extant, lights in Mandu, 145 kms away, could be seen from it.
Recently a couple of silver Sheshnagas have been installed in the garbhagriha, shading the linga. Every day, a puja is performed here in which the linga is decorated with freshly picked flowers. The entire temple structure stands in the middle of a wide enclosure, which at one time could have been surrounded by high walls, though no sign of these exists today. The courtyard is filled with free-standing sculptures collected from this and other ancient shrines across the island. A walk through the courtyard reveals bharvahakas and chandrashilas along with numerous other temple fragments.
When you reach the Siddhanath Temple, it means that the parikrama is almost over. It’s all the was downhill from there. From one point in the descent, you are offered a fabulous view of the town with the suspension bridge in the foreground and the path snaking through the river bed, which has shrunk substantially since the dam has come up.
I had stared really early in the morning and had almost no breakfast. I had, however, stopped at many places on the road and rested or had nimboo paani. Times are tough for the villagers and to make the extra buck, many of them have opened up nimboo paani stalls. Please do stop at a couple of these stalls if you do the parikrama. The 10 rupees or so that you spend on this delicious and refreshing drink wont hurt you much, but to the villager, it is precious. Support the local economy, buy the nimboo paani.
Anyway, in spite of all the drinking and stopping, I managed to finish the walk by noon and headed to the MPSTDC rest house for lunch. It is on top of a hill on the mainland part of the town and offers a stunning view of the island with its temples and little houses and the Narmada in the foreground.
While most sites of tourist and religious interest in Omkareshwar are along the parikrama path on the island, the town itself, on the other side of the river, is home to a number of attractions, the most significant being the Mamleshwar Temple. It is in the mainland part of the town where most tourist infrastructure is concentrated. A walk through the narrow lanes of the town reveals a large number of dharamshalas or religious rest houses (dharma means ‘religion’ while shala means ‘sanctuary’). Many Indian communities, such as the Rajputs, the Agarwals, the Yadavas and the Jats, have their own dharamshalas in this town. All the markets, the police station, municipality offices, the main bus stand and hospitals are also located here.
Mamleshwar Temple is located barely 200 m from Gomukh Ghat. Also known as Amaleshwar, Mamleshwar is generally considered to enshrine one half of the jyotirlinga, the other half of which rests in Omkar Mandhata Temple on the island. Set in a walled enclosure and meticulously maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the east facing temple is five-storeyed with a shivalinga enshrined on each floor. The enclosure also has six other temples built on the lines of the main temple.
The long parikrama and the hearty lunch thereafter propelled me towards my hotel room where i spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping. At around 4 in the afternoon, relaxed and rested, I set forth again, this time to explore the Omkareshwar Palace. Commanding a wide view of the Narmada and the town, the palace is located on the island on a flat piece of land above the Omkar Mandhata Temple. A narrow lane leads from the bustling flower market at the ghat and winds up to the entrance to the palace. From the outside, the entire palace looks like a single structure, but upon entering it is revealed that it is actually a series of three large courtyards surrounded by rooms on two levels.
The most striking aspect of the palace is the central room or the durbar. It was here that the king would receive guests and preside over the affairs of the state. The circular ceiling of the hall was once painted and inlaid with glass. Although the past glories of the Holkars have since faded, traces of their grandeur are still clearly discernible. When you visit, the chances are that the bright fluorescent colours that you see in the photograph will still be there, but i can guarantee you that back in the good old day of the maharajas, it looked classier. Taste, you see, has taken a nosedive since then.
The southern wall of the durbar hall opens into three jharokhas (projecting balconies). These balconies with their superb view of the temple town make the perfect vantage points for observing life in the town below.
I couldn’t end my narrative on Omkareshwar without a mention of the daring kids that make a living from the waters of the river. They lead, what I call a recycle business. When devotees offer their prayers on the ghats, they usually throw a lot of flowers, colours and coconuts on the river. The kids, sometimes on boats and sometimes on inflated tire tubes venture into the river and pick up the floating coconuts and bring them to their parents who then sell them again.
Incidentally, I have seen the same thing in Mumbai. Lots of people offer coconuts to the dogs in marine drive. Following them are a group of youngsters armed with a basket tied at the end of a length of rope. Just as the devotees have turned their backs, they come out swinging their baskets with the same air that a cowboy would swing his lasso. eventually every coconut would be fished out from the sea and resold. We Indians are very inventive and innovative people, you see!
A travel writer’s job is not easy. You often have to talk the talk while you walk the walk. Omkareshwar was one such trip. In spite of the afternoon siesta, I was tired, so I headed off to a local barber’s for a wet shave and a nice champi. For the philistine, it is a sort of head massage with fragrant, mint infused herbal oil. If done right, it has the power to relieve you of any stress, mental or physical. My guy was good and before I knew it I was fast asleep.
Freshly massaged and feeling like a million bucks I headed off to the ghat for a cup of tea and a moment of quiet reflection. Dusk had just started to set in and one by one the lights started to come on. Before I knew it was dark and the temples on the islands were lit up. The waters of the Narmada were now forebodingly dark and on its choppy surface danced a million reflections of the thousand lights that shone on the island. I sat there until one by one most of the lights had been switched off and all the shops had closed down. All I heard as I walked the deserted streets back to the hotel were the distant chiming of the temple bells.
In the next post, I shall be talking about the road trip I took to a scenic hill station in the middle of the monsoon. That reminds me, unlike my other trips, this time I had used public transport. From Indore to Maheshwar, from Maheshwar to Omkareshwar and from Omkareshwar back to Indore, it was all on crowded buses, and how I loved it.
On my return trip, I shared a seat with a guy my age who was travelling with his two little daughters. The first thing he did after he sat down was to deposit the smaller of the two on my lap. Trust comes as a given. You are, on a long journey supposed to look after each other and their children. I guess to illustrate the point even further, halfway down the journey, he leaned his head against my shoulders and went to sleep!
Oh, how I love my India!