I have been itching to experience Madhya Pradesh for a long while now,finally managed to sneak out a 5 days at the republic day weekend this Jan 2015,kick-starting my wanderings for the new year by a very unlikely destination, Omkareshwar.
Omkareshwar,as evident from the name is one of the staunchly sacred pilgrimage destinations in India housing one of the 12 Jyotirlingas shrines of Lord Shiva.Many pilgrims visit the place enroute their circuit to complete all the Jyotirlingas they wish to visit in their lifetime in search of blessings and as penance.Added to this is the fact that the Main temple of Omkareshwar lies on an island formed within the supremely revered river Narmada. Narmada or Maa Rewa as its affectionately called has more religious significance than the Ganges,since it is regarded as a Virgin river and hence believed to be more powerful in its blessings and cleansing its devotees of their sins.
All the spirituality aspect aside,I on my part was more intrigued to witness the amazing location of the temple within the Narmada river basin.From what little I had managed to lookup through the web, that was largely glorifying about the Spiritual importance,I was more drawn to the place by the few amateur pics of the natural settings of Omkareshwar.
As I got off from the Bus at the bazaar bus stand, I glanced up the main road,thinking to myself ‘ Oh,its just like i anticipated’. You are greeted by a quintessential pilgrimage town with a main bazaar road leading to the temple precincts and lined up on either sides with a lace of small shop stalls selling vibrant stoles,framed Gods,Puja essentials , Brass & Copper paraphernalia,Mediation and devotion literature, all such and more. A walk of about 10-15 mins along this Main road takes you to the ghats of the Narmada river and the buzz of the market subsides at once.The mind seems to embark suddenly on a journey to serenity and stillness the moment you lay first glance on the serene waters of the river ghats.The visual delight of the contained basin ,lined by steep rocky edges and the beautiful ghats lacing the edges with a melange of colourful boats, eagerly waiting to take you to the pious island is actually more scenic than any tourist destination and yet has that splendid calming effect spiked by spiritual reverence. The senses totally hit a high as I remember thinking to myself ‘I have arrived’.
Suddenly you find perfect sync with the clutter of the colourful stalls, the haphazardly winding narrow lanes ,the awkwardly perched guest houses,the shabby yet somehow over flooding Dharamshalas winding into the network of the area surrounding the river ghats. I queerly noticed the array of the Dharamshalas around the Places, each named after some sect or other of Hindu religion.Its learnt they give priority for accommodation basis the sect you belong to.Although I felt weird of such pretext, over the next two days ,I realized that it is in tune largely with the mind set and ways of the rural population who flocks to this pilgrimage place is crazy numbers.
Ganesh Guest house, is the place you would come across from the web, rightfully since its perched on top of the cliff, giving you unobstructed views of the river basin and the temple island of Mandhata or Shivpuri. The.The green blue waters of the Narmada with the ghats are a treat from the spot. The place is best avoided by Indians, simply because they shall avoid you too.As I experienced to my shock that I could not be accommodated for some gibberish reason that seemed totally rehearsed. As learnt later the place is home to lot of hippies, permits smoking and I imagine would serve drinks which is not permitted in Omkareshwar and so are wary of Indian travellers.I did find an amazing stay at another such Maharashtra based trust, which was uniquely pristine in cleanliness and discipline.
Omkareshwar has many temples spread out over the expanse , the most significant being the Mamaleshwar temple, Kedareshwar , Ranmukteshwar , Siddhanath and Gauri Somnath temple.Most of these temples are constructed in the 10th-11th centuries and are still active with idols in their sanctum. These are hence visited and thronged by large number of devotees. I was clear of wanting to soak in the ambience rather than hop about at all the temples, juggling the persistent priests and stall owners.Although I did seek the blessings of the Main shrine at Mandhanta, I largely restricted myself to observe the charm and feed on the harmony of the place.
I started my stroll from the Mamaleshwar temple, which is a lovely old temple with stone work and intricately carved pillars. The temple houses the main Jyotirlinga and is duly swarmed by devotees to perform the linga poojan in the guidance for the multilpe priests who are eager to assist in doing the rituals.The Jyothirlingam here is mounted on an impressive copper cuppola within the main sanctum. Their are multiple smaller temples around the Main shrine devoted to different Gods and Goddesses. The Main shrine has some fascinating mythological stories surrounding it which links it to Srilailum down south.The architect in me was particularly drawn to a small temple beside the main shrine which showcased amazyingly unique carvings.The temple is dominated by black faced langurs who hover upon the structure looking for easy offerings. Outside the temple , is the stepped trail which leads one down to the Gomukh ghats or upwards to the Jhula Bridge.One can either go to the ghat and take one of the colorful boats across the water to Shri Omkar Mandantha or can walk across the Jhula bridge to the other side of Mandantha.I chose the ghats.
There are couple of locations along these steps which provide a vantage view of the surroundings and the entire expanse of the place.I came across an Akhara along the walk. It basically formed the base for a bunch of ascetics who come and reside here periodically.There are a number of such Akharas in Omkareshwar,comprising of older smaller shrines being adopted as habitable spaces by such group of sadhus. I walked inside one such Akhara to find a bunch of chilled out sadhus going about their pace. One of them invited me to have a talk, as i looked at him tying an impressively large turban. More intriguing was the basket in front of him, filled with earthen chillums of various sizes.He caught me staring at them and said in strong dismissal ‘ Tum ise nahi pina… ladkiyone nahi pina chahiye‘. I put up my most innocent face and nodded in complete affirmation.I spend an hour here witnessing the camaraderie between the group and ofcourse looking at them passing around a lighted chillum duly lit after some devotee send across a small stash of Ganja. How i envied their frugal Bedouin existence.
Moving out of the Akhara I took a boat across to the Omkareshwar ghat to get to the Shri Omkar shrine.The shivalinga here is not sitting on a cuppola but is immersed always in water.The huge temple is a mixture of newly painted old temple and some extensions over the decades.It is characterized by balconies floating out at various levels, giving you a wide angle view of the entire river stretch, between the dam and further beyond the Nagar ghats.The place gives lovely insight to the picturesque location with the bridges spanning across, the ghats , the colourful boats and stall sheds and the magnifient rocky terrain around the river expanse.There is a certain stillness about the setting despite the commotion of the devotees , I spend an hour unmindful of the afternoon sun , with my feet dipped in the cool waters, looking at life moving around.Priceless.
The temple is connected by the two bridges, across to the Main land, and its lovely to explore the edges of the waters walking around the ghats till one ends on one of the bridges and across. The Jhula pool refers to the more recent , almost 35 yrs old tensile bridgeway, while the old bridge is more older.Walking across these bridges is a delight, as you gape with increasing awe at the river basin.The crystalline rocks with their layered character continued to mesmerise me. The place is no less than any foreign destination.
Omkar parikrama is about 8kms of walking route circumabulating the Omkareshwar temple in a clockwise direction. Many pilgrims walk the stretch to seek blessings and pardon of their sins.The route is said to be very picturesque through smaller forested areas and having many temples along the way. Some other trip I need to witness this I say as I quickly scouted the marketplace and moved back to my lodge.
I completed Omkareshwar trip in two parts covering Mandu in between, and coming back to witness the annual affair of the Narmada Jayanti on 26th January. The celebration of Narmada Jayanti proved to be totally worth the ordeal.On return from Mandu, I spent the entire evening around the Gomukh ghat , soaking in the amazying vibrations of the Pooja and Mahaartis perrformed on the banks of the river. Omkareshwar has 4 main ghats, Abhay, Nagar, Omkareshwar and Gomukh GHats. Each of these ghats i learnt are adopted by different cults and royalties to perform the highly auspicious Aartis on the eve of Narmada jayanti and the Mahashivratri annually.The entire expanse was lit with twinkling lights and stage were set at each of the ghats. Small pandals alongside made the prasad and food to be doled out to the Sadhus arriving for the poojas from far off places.
The place was abuzz with crowd of pilgrims ,I was surprised to witness such large number of people in the place that i was so peaceful a couple of days back.As i waited for the aarti to begin , sitting at the edge of the ghats, I grew aware of locals habitually arriving at the ghats as evening came, to offer prayers to the river. They set afloat small ghee lit up ghee lamps , ricce puffs for the fishes which are revered here, a small offering of flowers and milk as they take a ritualistic dip into the Narmada offering their prayers. I sat around soaking the power of their beliefs brushing on to me as got a few diyas, lit them up and set them afloat.
As the evening grew darker,and the ghats started filling up with the crowds,the aura grew with mirth and positivity.Many pilgrims took their holy dips in the chilled waters as I watched on in fascination.I was fortunate to witness the celebration, which is marked by lighting of a 1 lac 25 thousand diyas that are lit along the whole island and read the words ‘ Om Narmadaye ‘ in glory of the river Narmada.The chants echoed that evening, with the drills of the aartis being performed by the younger priests.The Maha aarti was followed by a performance of various holy songs to the tune of the drums and flutes. The akharas were alive with bhajans reverberating the ambience.I was enthralled, drawn in by the emotions in the bhajans.I sat on with the devotees and sadhus well into the night, completely lost into the magnetism of this event.
The last day I joined in a few devotees to do the parikrama by a boat.The praikrama takes one around the island in about a 2 hrs time, wherein it halts for half hour at the Confluence of the rivers Narmada and Kaveri. The devotees visit this confluence to take their holy bath and offer their prayers at the island formed at this place.This is revered to be the most sacred spot, and every small pebble here resembles the oval shivlinga. Apart from the religious aspect the spot is truly astounding in terms of the location sandwiched between the huge mountains, and having tranquil clear waters.
I sat here witnessing the deep reverence in which people went about doing their ritualistic holy bath in icy cold waters and in the windy atmosphere. The men and women alike going about in absolute indifference to each other. Holy dip and prayers offered, the men joined in for a social chillum moment at the place. I followed suit to try a drag as i remembered the Sadhu defiantly forbidding me at the Akhara. It was an experience worth , which completed by trip to this Holy heaven.
The boat ride back grew more scenic it passed by the huge Narmada dam.I struck a lovely rapport with the simple bunch from Ujjain who accompanied me in the boat as I got back to the main land.In all means this experience totally unplanned turned to be quite enriching and spiritually connecting despite my ignorance.I feel lucky to have witnessed the powerful positivity that filled the atmosphere during the aarti of Narmada Jayanti.