The creeping dusk has a marked flavour as narrow congested lanes leading to age-old temples echo with shlokas punctuated with ringing of bells. A heady fragrance of incense coupled with a subtle whiff of myriad flowers drowns the aroma of sumptuous delicacies ready to be served to the deities. Local worshippers and pilgrims congregate at the shrines bustling with activity for evening rituals as the waning light of day is supplanted by a soothing glow of lamps and diyas. This confluence of devtas and devotees is further heightened in tirthas located on the banks of rivers and lakes where silhouettes of drifting boats interplay with the golden glow of the setting sun that gently caresses the water illuminated with rows of bobbing diyas.
This distinct character is clearly visible in the temple town of Maheshwar where silent footsteps of nightfall are accompanied by fervent activity along the banks of maternal Narmada in Madhya Pradesh.
The weathered steps leading from daunting walls of Maheshwar Fort to the ghats are crowded with bathers gathered for their evening dip.
Visitors tread gingerly on wooden planks to board decked-up boats for a quick ride to the island temple of Baneshwar. In the quiet courtyard of Matangeshwar Temple overlooking the river, a solitary wrestler sweats it out while a calm sadhu removes cobwebs from deftly carved sculptures gracing its outer walls. Numerous temples on the shore spring to life with a steady flow of people seeking darshan of deities though bulk of rituals revolve around worship of the river-goddess Narmada.
The clack of looms weaving gorgeous Maheshwari saris, splashing of oars against the blue waters of Narmada, sound of music and dance on its ghats, and a thousand burning wicks in aarti offered to the gods, all bear testimony to the legacy of Ahilyabai Holkar, the 18th century queen. An able administrator, she ushered in peace and stability in an era replete with conflict and chaos. In contrast to her humble palace, the cenotaph of Rajmata Ahilyabai, known as Ahileshwara Temple, rises sharply from the ghats and is an impressive marvel packing myriad architectural influences.
Lofty doorways, intricately carved balconies and arches, oriel windows and emotive sculptures of deities and musicians grace the compound that houses the main shrine whose curvilinear shikhara pierces the sky. Detailed carvings of battle elephants, knotted serpents, floral designs, male and female warriors with armour and weapons many of which are sculpted into Vithoji Rao’s cenotaph facing the aforementioned temple have aged well.
While Maheshwar inspires a leisurely embrace of the sacred, its feisty cousin upstream prefers a rather direct approach to the divine. Among the twelve Jyotirlings, Omkareshwar is one of the holiest places in India and lives up to the onerous task of satiating aspirations of lakhs of pilgrims. Located in a valley chiselled between Vindhyas to north and Satpuras to south, on an island carved by the Kaveri river to the north and the Narmada to the south, this Shiva abode brims with energy and devotion.
Hidden in the maze of shops in mainland Omkareshwar that cater to diverse needs of visitors is the Mamleshwar group of temples. A few sculptures that remain on the outer walls of these towering temples that have suffered from neglect and apathy hark back to a glorious age of human expression.
Boats ply between mainland and island from smoky ghats covered with coloured canopies complemented by a couple of bridges to traverse the immeasurable distance between a longing born out of faith and attainment of this desire.
A small Shivling in Omkar Mandhata Temple is the centre of intense energy habiting these rugged cliffs hewn by a persistent river. Temples dedicated to Parvati, Ganesh, Adi Shankaracharya and Shiva in the form of Mahakaal are some other shrines in the complex. Subsequent to darshan at Omkar Mandhata many pilgrims undertake a complete parikrama of the island tracing the word Om with their steps and visiting several important shrines en route.
The Parikrama path runs west along the river from Omkar Mandhata to a sangam where the Kaveri flows back into Narmada at the western end of the island. Further the trail climbs a hill past small shrines comprising mainly of sculptures discovered here during excavation over the years until it emerges at Gauri Somnath Temple with its soaring curvilinear shikhara and a tall black Shivling.
Located nearby is a temple, known as Patali Hanuman, where the deity is depicted in a sleeping posture with his mace beside him. In earlier times, this path would have been peppered with temples evident from the sculptural wealth found here. Undoubtedly the most impressive remnant of yore along the path is Siddhanath Temple. The plinth, pillars and garbha griha are the only features of the original temple that survive but images of elephants, horse-borne warriors and maidens with finely carved pillars and fallen amalakas are tragically beautiful.
Centuries have passed into oblivion but the aura of Omkareshwar continues to mesmerise pilgrims and seekers alike. It continues to carve its path through the mountains of time akin to the compassionate yet resolute Narmada, on whose bosom it flourishes, flowing since time immemorial from hills of Amarkantak to the vast ocean.
The temple town, mentioned in Ramayana and Mahabharata as a glorious city, was known as Mahishmati. It was the capital of southern Avanti during King Kartavirya Arjun’s rule.
Apart from Maheshwar, this dynamic queen of the 18th century has her imprint in many religious places—Kashi, Somnath, Gaya, Rameshwaram, Badrinath—where she oversaw the renovation and reconstruction of destroyed temples and dharamsalas. Her modest palace displaying her personal artifacts has attained the stature of a temple rather than the residence of a bygone ruler.
One of the twelve Jyotirlings. Located in a valley chiseled between Vindhyas to north and Satpuras to south, on an island carved by River Kaveri to north and Narmada to south, this abode of Shiva brims with energy and devotion.