Going on a holy day

For pilgrims in India, the sacred Om-shaped island sprawled across the Malwa plateau in western Madhya Pradesh at the confluence of two rivers, Narmada and Kaveri, has an all-time spiritual relevance.

temple circuit Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh. photo by Ssriram/wikimedia commonsThe pilgrim resort of Omkareshwar offers visitors a chance to commune with the spirit of the ancients, described as the Mandhata Omkareshwar. It also offers the urban dweller a much-needed, and welcome, break from the strains of contemporary lives.

When we were in Khandwa, we geared ourselves to travel up to Omkareshwar during Navratri. The journey to Omkareshwar is truly delightful, regardless of whether you head there via Indore or Khandwa. The road cuts through acres of soybean fields and land used for cotton cultivation stretches all the way up to the hills, and disappears into the horizon. The cradle of myth and tradition, Omkareshwar presents a very different world from the one we know and is best visited during Navratri. It is then that the sleepy town truly wakes up to a festive mood. Shopkeepers loudly advertise their wares — many essential for puja offerings — and devotees pour into the place. Its narrow lanes and bylanes come alive with the hum of crowds. They are matched, decibel for decibel, by the locals who welcome visitors with the warmth and hospitality for which they are renowned.

To us, the pilgrim destination of Omkareshwar appeared to belong to another era, one that has no connections with the modern age and where the trends of contemporary living remain a distant dream. The pilgrim town boasts of beautiful landscapes and has scores of temples with impressive architecture and has been the centre of attraction for pilgrims since the epic age. Recalling our pilgrimage trip to Omkareshwar, it’s difficult to mention whether it was our fascination with myths or the devotional spirit that took us to this holy town.

We walked to the shrine of Omkar Mandhata. The way to the temple of Shri Omkar Mandhata, located at the foot of Mandhata Hill, lies across the Narmada Bridge, which offers pilgrims a stunning view of the river. The shrine stands on an island and one has to cross the Narmada Bridge. Legend has it that King Mandhata, believed to be the ancestor of Lord Rama, had meditated on this very spot. Moved and impressed by such devotion, Lord Shiva is supposed to have placed his throne at this site, in the shape of a sacred symbol — Om. The throne of King Mandhata is still preserved within the temple precincts.

It is also believed that it was here that the Shankaracharya derived divine powers from his mentor Govindacharya. Before moving to the other side of the bridge, there is also the revered shrine of Mamleshwar at Mandhata that preserves the jyotirlingam and has been looked after by the Holkar Estate.

The ancient shrine of Omkar Mandhata stands on a tiny island formed by the fork of Narmada. The most striking characteristic of the temple are the figures sculpted from soft stone and the temple verandahs which are adorned with circles, polygons and squares. Some other temples in the complex include the Shri Batuk Bhairav Temple, the Pataleshwar Temple, and the Narmada and Navagraha temples.

The pilgrim’s circuit isn’t complete without a visit to the ancient Siddhanath Temple, located on a plateau atop the Mandhata Hill. Built in early medieval, Brahminic style with a frieze of elephants carved in stone on the outer walls, the temple lies at the end of a steep climb. The arduous effort involved in reaching it almost took our breath away, but it was still well worth the effort.

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