Ujjain: The holy city of intellectual attainment

The Harsiddhi Temple at Ujjain commemorates the site where Sati’s elbow is believed to have fallen.
Ujjain: The holy city of intellectual attainment

An interesting place of immense significance is Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. Time is held to have begun at Ujjain, for it was the prime meridian of the ancient world, millennia before Greenwich. The Ujjain panchangam or lunar calendar, is still calculated here and followed by millions.

An Indian creation theory goes, “Out of nothing came all. Creation came about through life’s longing for itself. Consciousness dawned and the cycle of life and death commenced. But with life was born a longing for liberation. And it was here in Ujjain that this longing found its first utterance. That is why Shiva, the Timeless Lord, chose Ujjain for his earthly abode.” Ujjain, by the river Shipra, was first called ‘Avantika’ as it contained the vana or forests of healing herbs gifted to earth. But then came the ambitious titan, Tripur. He performed terrible austerities and wrenched a boon from Lord Brahma that nobody could destroy him except by one arrow when the three planets he ruled were in alignment. Secure in his power, Tripur unleashed great cruelty on the world. All creatures flocked to Lord Shiva for help. “Mercy, mercy, Great God! We seek refuge in you,” they wept.

Lord Shiva assured them that Tripur’s end was close. Then they beheld the cosmos take on an unearthly glow. The earth became a chariot, the sun and moon its wheels. The mighty Himalayas became the bow. And on this bow, Lord Vishnu himself became the arrow. Thus, Lord Shiva destroyed the three planets with one arrow and with that, he destroyed Tripur. This feat was celebrated forevermore as ‘Tripurardhan’.

Tripur was less than a straw for Mahadev’s might. Nevertheless, he let this cosmic drama take place to bestow on mankind a sense of moral victory. This outstanding victory or ‘Uchhitam Vijay’ is remembered as the name ‘Ujjain’.

But Ujjain’s innate lustre made it a coveted prize. The next assault was by a demon called Dushan. When Lord Shiva saw Dushan advancing as Kaal or death on his devotees, he became ‘Maha Kaal’ and destroyed Dushan with just one fiery breath. ‘Maha Kaal’ means both ‘the death of death’ and ‘time’. It is a richly layered word, also meaning ‘immortality’ and ‘infinity’. Lord Shiva graciously agreed to abide forever in Ujjain in his form as Mahakaleshwar, the Lord of Eternity. Thus, he became a marvellous pillar of light, a Jyotirling. A naturally-manifested stone lingam represents this even today.

A lingam in heaven and a lingam in the netherworld are believed to be in alignment with earth at Mahakaleshwar. The Mahakaleshwar Jyotirling is thus considered the centre-point of earth. Moreover, this is the foremost of the Twelve Jyotirlingas that hold up the sacred geography of India from Kedarnath to Rameswaram.

The Panch Kos or pilgrim circuit of Ujjain, takes us through an energy field of 84 temples. When the stars are in alignment every 12 years for the Kumbh Mela, known in Ujjain as ‘Simhast’ or ‘Leo in the Ascendant’, it is believed the constellations are represented on earth by the city’s temple geography. The next Simhast at Ujjain is from Sunday, April 9, to Monday, May 8 in 2028.

Just as creation has no meaning without nature, Shiva is incomplete without Shakti. Her presence is consecrated at the Harsiddhi Shaktipeeth temple through one of the most poignant events in Indian belief—the death of Sati. The Harsiddhi Temple at Ujjain commemorates the site where Sati’s elbow is believed to have fallen.

Ujjain became known as a place of intellectual attainment. Thus, no less than Sri Krishna was sent to study here with his brother Balarama at Rishi Sandipani’s gurukul. Sri Krishna grew especially attached to a meek, timid boy called Sudama, who took him a gift of poha years later. Poha is the star Indori-Ujjaini dish today, as I was charmed to discover.

In 57 BCE, King Vikramaditya of Ujjain won a famous victory over the Sakas or Scythians. He founded a new era to commemorate this. Ahead of the Gregorian calendar by 57 years, the Vikram Era or Vikram Samvat, is still used as the ‘Indian calendar’. Vikramaditya was a noble king who set a high standard of excellence. 

Vikramaditya established a grand court at Ujjain. Mathematics, astronomy, arts and literature achieved new heights and his pick of eminent scientists and artists were collectively known as the Navaratna or Nine Gems. They included the great healer Dhanvantari, a master of Ayurveda and the author of an important medical treatise, and Varahamihira, the astronomer and astrologer whose fame spread to faraway kingdoms, as did the news of his specially-built observatory at Ujjain. Vetal Bhat, author of the still-popular Vetal Pachheesi or Twenty-Five Tales of the Ghoul, wrote elegant, witty stories that not only entertained but also served as lessons in character-building. Vararuchi, the great grammarian, wrote a formidable work on Prakrit grammar. The greatest was Sanskrit playwright and poet Kalidasa. Of enduring fame, author unknown, is the collection of stories called Singhasan Batteesi or Thirty-Two Tales of the Throne, about Vikramaditya.

In the third century BCE, young prince Ashoka was sent here as the governor of Ujjain. Ashoka married Princess Devi of Vidisha, and his son Prince Mahendra was born here. Ashoka went away to Pataliputra in Bihar but Queen Devi stayed on at Ujjain. When Ashoka embraced Buddhism, it was from Ujjain that he sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to the eastern coast and out across the sea as missionaries to Sri Lanka.

So, Ujjain is a landmark city in Indian history and culture, and well worth a visit.

Renuka Narayanan

(Views are personal)


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