Set on the banks of the river Shipra, the small town of Ujjain gets awakened by the spiritual calls of aarti bells. These bells seem to be the lingua franca of this place. It is one of the holiest cities of the country—a place of the dakshinmukhi (south facing) jyotirlinga Mahakaleshwar where all roads seem to lead to the deity.
The Skanda Purana describes the glory of Ujjain (Mahakaala Vana) in great detail. Ujjain was the capital of Avanti. It played an important role during the periods of the Mauryas and the Guptas.
Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Benaras, Kanchipuram, Dwarka and Ujjain are considered to be the seven Mukti Sthalas (pilgrimage centres) of India. Ujjain is also home to the Kumbh Mela, when Jupiter resides in the zodiac sign of Scorpio.
The first stop in Ujjain is always the Mahakal. Legend has it that demon Dushana tormented the holy province of Avanti and Shiva appeared from the ground and vanquished the demon and, then upon the request of the inhabitants of Avanti, took up permanent abode here as Mahakaleshwar jyotirlinga. Lord Shiva is not only the guardian and patron deity of this city, but also the ruler.
The temple has a lake in the centre to draw water for performing abhishek of Lord Shiva. The temple is known for its Bhasma aarti at 4 O’clock in the morning. Though now the temple has changed its ways and the aarti is performed from vibhooti (holy ashes), still this is an experience worth getting up at 4 am for.
Far removed from the bustle of the city is the Gadkalika Temple, a place where Kalidas is said to have received knowledge after being blessed by Goddess Kali. The temple is simple and an unassuming one. Ujjain boasts of myriads of such assets one can’t afford to miss. This is the religious capital of central India—a place of legends. On the banks of the Shipra stands the Siddhvat tree. This is the tree believed to be standing since thousands of years. The tree’s origins lie in the days of yore when Parvati meditated here. Aurangzeb is said to have ordered the tree to be uprooted and stumps burnt. In spite of all this, the tree grew and flourished again, and became a sacred entity.
Outside the boundaries of the city are the Bhartruhari caves. Bhartruhari was the elder brother of King Vikramaditya. According to legend, after realising the infidelity of the world around him, he became an ascetic and joined the Nath sect. The caves are situated on the banks of the Shipra and are, even today, an idyllic spot. A little turn towards the city and one lands at the temple of the guardian deity of the city, Kal Bhairav, a lord whose prasad is liquor. Pilgrims flock to the temple to offer wine to the lord. The temple has some paintings of the Malwa time but the only thing that will draw your attention is the deity into whose mouth liquor is poured. Inside the temple also exists Patal Bhairavi temple, and nearby an old temple is located in the forest where King Vikramaditya gained ‘Baital Sidhhi’.
Next on the ‘must see’ list in Ujjain is the Harsiddhi Temple, an abode of Goddess Parvati. The temple is one of the 52 Shakti Peeths situated all over India. Shakti Peeths are places where parts of Sati’s body fell as Shiva danced ‘Tandava’ after being enraged by Sati offering herself to fire at her father’s place. Two huge Deepasthambs (pillars for lighting lamps) stand proud, welcoming the devotees. At night the two Deepastambs being fully lighted give a majestic look.
One thing that has the potential to captivate any spiritual being is the evening aarti at the Ram Ghat. A long string of steps leading down to the river become witness to the evening prayers to the river Shipra. As the day melts into night, the vibes of the prayers increase. The steps are all cleaned for the daily rituals. Three priests take the centrestage and perform the aarti. The river water gets lit by numerous earthen lamps offered by the devotees. The mantras start resonating in the air. After some time the flames become the most glaring light on the ghats. This sight is enough to make your day. The numerous temples dotting the ghat also start their pujas around the same time. The aarti can very well be compared to the one at Haridwar or Benares but sans fanfare and the milling crowd.
Temples dotting every corner of Ujjain make it worth visiting. Not just for its spiritual value but also for the very beautiful views of the river Shipra that meanders through the holy city.