by Anuradha Shankar
An island shaped like the most sacred of Hindu symbols – the Om (ૐ), a mountainous region covered with ancient temples, the sacred Narmada flowing on either side, smoothening the rough rocks into pebbles to be carried away by pilgrims and venerated as Shiva Lingams, Omkareshwar is all that and more. Home to one of the 12 Jyotirlingams, the island of Omkareshwar is venerated almost as much as the lingam itself.
There are two main temples at Omkareshwar, one on the mainland and one on the island. The island temple is credited to Mandhata, an ancestor of Rama, who installed the lingam and built the temple. While most consider this one to be the Jyotirling, the place abounds in myth and legend. According to one, this lingam is believed to have split into two and installed itself on the other bank too. According to others, it is the temple of Mamleshwar (also called Amaleshwar or Amareshwar) on the mainland which is older and the real Jyotirling.
Mamleshwar – the Jyotirling
While the island temple has received much attention in the past and has been renovated recently, the Mamleshwar temple certainly looks much older and more beautiful too. The Mamleshwar temple is also more endearing thanks to the absence of the pandas (priests) who are the most prominent feature of the Omkar Mandhata temple on the island. We visited the Mamleshwar temple at night before the final aarti was performed, and had to literally hunt out a priest to perform Abhishek to the lord, and the one we finally found was so thrilled by all the items we had brought for the puja that he happily did the elaborate puja with a smile on his face and asked for money only when we were done.
For a long time, the only way to approach the island was by boat. Now, there are two bridges, one connecting the boat landing area to the Omkar Mandhata temple, the other connecting the two temples – Omkareshwar and Mamleshwar. No vehicles are allowed on the island, so both are only foot bridges. The Narmada which once flowed fast and furious along this stretch is now a tame river, thanks to a dam mired in controversy, of which one gets a wonderful view from the bridge.
The entire island is a hilly area, and it is these hills which give it the shape of the Om. Just a few steps take us to the temple, which is visible from quite a distance.
At a lower level, just below the main temple is a small entrance to a cave. Today, the inner parts of the cave are no longer accessible, but at the entrance is an image of the sage who made this cave his home – Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada – the guru of Adi Shankaracharya. It was to this cave that the young Shankara came, having given up his home, seeking the preceptor who would lead him to the light. It is here that he came as a young boy, swimming across the furious waters of the Narmada, and left, a sanyasi with a mission! In spite of the rampant commercialization of Omkareshwar, this small cave has maintained its sanctity, the sanctity that can be felt at once as you enter the cave!
The roads are lined with shops, big and small, selling all the paraphernalia of Indian prayer rituals, but the main commodity in these shops are the Shiva Lingams. It is a belief that every stone found in the Narmada is a Shiva lingam, and every few yards sits a child or a woman selling stones picked from the depths of the river. Prices start from Rs. 21/- onwards and especially coveted (and expensive) are the black stones with a white line passing through, which signifies the Upavita, or sacred thread.
While it is for the temples that most pilgrims visit Omkareshwar, the most interesting thing about the island is the island itself. With its unique shape, the island itself has been venerated, and over centuries, scores of temples have been built on it. The ancients not just built the temples, but also made a path so that one could visit all the temples while circumambulating the entire island. This is called the Omkareshwar Parikrama, and has been recently revived by MP Tourism.
The Parikrama path starts near the bridge and moves along the Narmada till it joins its tributary, the Kaveri (so called, even though it is the same river, diverging from the main river at the other end of the island), passing through temples old and new, some standing tall and proud, others in ruins, winding its way along the mountains, now climbing to yet another temple, now descending to the banks of the river, finally culminating at the temple consecrated by Mandhata. The well paved road is about 9 Kms long, and takes, at the most, 3 ½ hours to cover, including rest stops at the various temples. It is quite an easy trek, considering that my son, who is six and my father-in-law, who is 70, both completed it without too much trouble!
There are many places of interest along the path. The first is the sangam or confluence of the two tributaries of the Narmada. This is, for a change, clean and perfect for a bath. The clear water with rounded pebbles forming the river bed invites us to sink our feet into it and enjoy a relaxed dip, while the more devout pilgrims (few, at the best of times, since it is almost an hour’s walk from the bridge) offer prayers.
An interesting custom is followed here. Big and small stones are collected from the river and piled up along the bank with prayers to the goddess of the river. One of the villagers there told us that people stacked these stones in the hope that they would be able to build houses as easily as they stacked these stones! We found these stacked up stones not just at the confluence, but all along the river bank, in fact, all over the Parikrama path!
Then there is the Gori Somnath Mandir, an ancient temple where the lingam is a huge one, jet black in colour. Legend tells us that this lingam was once pure white, and that one could see his past life just by standing in front of it. Then came Aurangzeb, who had already committed most of the sins possible, and as soon as he appeared in front of the lingam, it turned jet black!!! This is one of the few temples in the area still intact to a large extent. Though many of the beautiful sculptures have fallen down, it still stands tall and proud among the ruins of others which have not been as fortunate!
The most interesting of all the temples and ruins on the island is the Siddheshwar or Siddhanath Temple, said to be the oldest in the area. It is only the sanctum of this temple which is intact with its Shiva lingam. The rest of the temple is crumbling and in ruins, but the frescoes of elephants supporting the columns show how beautiful the temple must have been in its heyday! Even today, it struck me as the most beautiful of all the temples on the island, and also the one where I felt most at peace!
The Parikrama is not just about temples, though! There is much to interest the nature lover too. While the area containing the temple and the mainland are like any Indian pilgrim place, once we move away from them, we get a glimpse of the real identity of the island, which brought all those holy men and those seeking spiritual upliftment! Much of the forest seems untouched at the summit, though we know it really isn’t. Most of the dwellers here are those who have renounced worldly life. While there are some who still look for a way to make a quick buck, there are many more who simply live in their own world, oblivious to us.
As we climb down the final steps which lead us to the end of the Parikrama, our aching legs yearn for a rest, but we feel fresh inside, and can’t help thinking that we arrived at Omkareshwar to see one of the Jyotirlings, and were appalled with the rampant commercialization, but returned with so much more, an inner peace that comes from a truly spiritual experience!
Omkareshwar is situated about 65 Kms from Indore and 256 Kms from Bhopal. The road from Indore takes us through the mighty Satpura ranges, and winds its way along the Ghats before opening up into a plain covered with cotton fields and irrigated by the Narmada. The journey from Indore to Ujjain takes a little more than an hour by car and about 1 ½ hours by bus. There are plenty of buses available on this route, both, those run by the MPRTDC as well as private ones. They can certainly not be classified as Luxury, but they are comfortable and adequate for the short journey. A car hire for the one way trip costs about Rs.1200/- .
The recently built Omkareshwar Road railway station puts the small town on the railway map, but it is not a very convenient option, since it does not fall on any major line connecting the metros. There are, however, passenger trains which connect Indore, but the journey takes the same time as the bus, and moreover, you have to hire a car/auto to get to the island anyway. The standard charge for this journey is about Rs.500/-, which makes the bus a cheaper and easier option.
There are not many choices for accommodation at Omkareshwar. The best option is the MP Tourism run Narmada Resort, which can be booked online. The resort is good and clean, with huge rooms, a good restaurant, and great service.
Recently, the Gajanan Maharaj Sansthan, Shegaon has acquired a huge plot of land, and built rooms for pilgrims. Both, AC and Non AC rooms, as well as dormitories are available, and details can be collected from the Sansthan by calling them up on 91-7265-252018, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Apart from these, the only options for accommodation are the numerous Dharamshalas run by various sects from all over India.