"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 7 - Mahakaleshwar

Mahakaleshwar!!! The name evokes a strong sense of Shiva, eternal as Kaal - Time. Today has to be the earliest we have ever started. We reached the lobby at 1:30 am, and left the hotel by 2 am to reach Ujjain by 3 am.

Standing outside the gate at 3am
And yet, there were at least 20 people in line before us. After about 45 minutes, the line started moving and instead of being in single file outside the gate, we were now in serpentine queues inside the temple compound. We had VIP tickets, purchased for us the previous day. Each Jyotirlinga has different rules, and one needs to find them out before visiting the temple. Whereas at other Jyotirlingas, the higher-money queue moves faster but all queues essentially merge at the sanctum sanctorum, a VIP ticket is a VIP ticket at Mahakaleshwar. These tickets need to be purchased by 2 pm the previous day to be permitted to go in the sanctum sanctorum at 4 in the morning and offer sacred water to the lingam before the morning worship rituals by the priests. Of the non-VIP queue, only the first hundred people get to do this, the rest can only go into the sanctum sanctorum after the morning rituals are done. For the jal abhishek, people need to follow a dress code - men need to be bare-chested and in dhotis, and women need to be in saris. Ashverya had prior experience of performing abhishek at Mahakaleshwar in a sari, so she was very comfortable.

It is my personal belief that the deity at Somnath is benevolent and easily pleased with devotion, and the deity at Kedar expects total surrender, but the deity at Ujjain is intimidating. It is like facing the school principal and you are sick to the pit of your stomach hoping you won't get detention. It is my belief that Mahakaleshwar has a very powerful potent presence that pervades this temple, it evokes reverence and awe. The hypnotic effect of the bhasmarti - the worship with ashes, has something to do with this feeling.

Mahakaleshwar is the only jyotirlinga where the deity faces south, as Dakshinamurti. Shiva, the ruling deity of Avantika (as Ujjain was then known) had appeared here to protect the kingdom against its enemies, and decided to reside eternally in the lingam that was created by the powers of Shiva and Parvati. The ancient temple built around the shivalingam was destroyed in the thirteenth century by the slave king of Delhi, Iltutmish, more famous in history as Razia Sultana's father. The royal family of the region, the Scindias, rebuilt this temple in the ninteenth century.

As we stood in line, we were each given a little kalash - pot, that we filled from the kund - tank, inside the temple to perform the jal abhishek - annointment with water. The temple priest had taken the Swamijis  inside the sanctum sanctorum for the bhasmarti - the worship with ashes, which is a unique feature at the temple of Mahakaleshwar. Many people believe that these are ashes from cremation grounds. Not true. These ashes come from crushing dried cowdung - an accepted form of Shiva worship, an operation for which machines are set up in the temple complex.

After the hurry-scurry through yelling securitymen and priests and hurried  jal abhishek - annointment with water, we found spots to sit in the arena seating that surrounds the sanctum sanctorum. "Sit" is not accurate, most of us were squished between people. There was a woman next to me who said she lived an hour away from the temple, and visited every month for bhasmarti. She had a book of chants with us that she read the whole time, her lips moving in silent prayer. She neither looked up to see the ritual nor was she perturbed by the jostling around her. Why not pray at home then? Perhaps she is one of the fortunate ones Shiva calls, and she can afford to take it casually. I kept prodding my little god every once in a while to watch the rituals, because she kept dozing off, looking super-cute in a bright pink sari.

The ritual of bathing Shiva, and decorating Shiva and finally the bath with bhasma - ashes takes more than an hour. At the time of bhasmarti, the priests asks the women to cover their faces, basically to be modest as Shiva is covered in ashes. Firstly, Shiva is my über-dad, I don't think of him as a man, I think of him as the Almighty. Secondly, I have washed the lingam in umpteen places without a need for false modesty. Thirdly, who is this priest to decide how I deal with Shiva? The sari was already draped me over my head, I draped it over my face and yet saw the ritual as I have always done. There were some people in my group sitting around me, asking aloud - Why are we covering our face? Will we miss the bhasmarti? Is that not what we have come to see? Reminiscent of school days, I whispered the message through - do not speak, and keep watching if you want to. Not everything deserves a protest, and some rules are just not meant to be followed. People craned their necks to see the sanctum sanctorum. There are comfortably large TV screens that show the entire ceremony, so nobody really missed out on the rituals.

The ringing of bells and the clanging of drums and the chanting and singing rose to a crescendo. What started as cacophony transformed into a body of sound with tremendous vibrations that became the heartbeat of the temple. Ten minutes into the ceremony, I caught sight of a young man blowing the conch shell. Please refer to youtube.com for conch-blowing lessons, it is not easy to get a consistent sound out of a conch shell, and here the young man was playing it like a whistle. He swayed with the rhythm of the chant, and even if he was not blowing the conch, his sheer joy and devotion would have been a sight to behold. And with the divine music that only a conch can produce, it was a captivating visual. I expected him to pause for breath, or miss here and there, but throughout the ceremony, his lung power matched that of the vocalists. The conch blower was not the only one with such devotion, the entire group of priests in the sanctum sanctorum were glowing as they focused on invoking the primal energy at Mahakaleshwar. If this were a movie, there would be a moment of pregnant silence and then a gigantic Shiva would appear in the midst of ear-shattering sound. Shiva did appear, though without the movie effects. I live in the world of sense-objects and I do not have the vision for the subtle realm. As always at Mahakaleshwar, I could not see him but I felt his definite, strong, immense presence. My eyes were full, and the tears flowed freely for a long time. I was so grateful for the change of plans the previous day that allowed us to see the bhasmarti today.

After the bhasmarti, we could go into the sanctum sanctorum again and perform the abhishek - the ritual bathing with the milk, the yogurt, the ghee, the sugar and the honey and touching heads to the shivalinga, and we were now out in the temple compound. Now, back to my own world, identifying with the body, I realized once again that my feet were swollen and turgid. It felt like any moment cracks would appear and blood would pour out. It had now been a week with swollen feet, I could feel the constant pain, but I was getting desensitized to the discomfort. Slow and painful steps to the car, and finally back on the road to Indore. Now that the sun has risen, I had time to take pictures.

A quick look at the holy Kshipra
The holy Kshipra flows behind the temple of Mahakaleshwar. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of shrines on this holy river. Ujjain or Ujjayini or Avantika is a very ancient city with a long history, and the river Kshipra has a long past. The Kumbh Mela - fair is held on its elaborate ghats - banks every twelve years. The river is much smaller than it used to be, and only flows for a few months in the monsoon. It joins the Chambal further south.

Some of the places that we have visited in the past are the Sandeepani Ashram where Krishna, Balarama and Sudama studied under the sage Sandeepani. Shiva himself visited Krishna here, and the anniversary of that date is celebrated as Harihara divas - when Hari met Hara. There is a Shiva temple in the Sandeepani Ashram complex to commemorate this, and the bull Nandi at the temple stands here, instead of the usual sitting position. This is because Shiva himself stood in deference to Krishna, so Nandi kept standing in deference to his master, Shiva. There is a Shaktipeeth temple in Ujjain for Devi worshipppers, and also a baithak of Vallabhacharya - one of the places he gave lectures, for his Vaishnava followers.

The most important place for me after Mahakaleshwar is the temple of Kaal Bhairav, but Swamiji had already said there was no time to see it. Kaal Bhairav, the army commander of Shiva, takes alcohol as offering. The deity is a rock, and the mouth of the deity is a crack in the rock that magically consumes all alcohol. Some excavation and research done in the time of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered no clues to where the alcohol flows behind the rocks. For me, the best thing in the temple is the dog that sits outside the temple, in rapt attention to his lord, Kaal Bhairav. I had always thought dogs were considered impure and not fit to enter temples, till I saw the dog deity being worshipped. Love it!!!!

Men in saffron are a common sight
It is a common sight in Ujjain to see people who have apparently renounced worldly life. What brought me back to this world was the sight of various pots and pans in each house. My childhood was spent in parched Rajkot, and people like me know instantly what this scene meant - water has just started coming out of the faucet and everything in the house that can hold water needed to be used to store water.

Town scene - water!!!

The map of India as I like to see it
As the car passed through narrow streets, there was an educational institute with a gigantic globe in the front yard. Each moment in life brings a pleasant surprise if one is ready for it. After a long time, I saw the map of India as I would like to see it - Kashmir with the Mickey Mouse ears.

We stopped for a very welcome chai break. It was eight in the morning and most people had been up for more than seven hours, and some like me had not slept at all. Yet, the group was excited and happy - the effect of bhasmarti stays for a long time, and the memory stays forever. The children in the group were a joy to behold - infectious in their laughter, always happy and enjoying each moment.

The journey back to the hotel was one contented ride. At one point, I remember Swamiji asking me if he should massage my feet. I am amazed at the Swamijis' eye for detail. In the middle of the turmoil that is our group - forty-two people running in forty-three directions, the Swamijis not only keep the grand plan in mind, but notice every little thing. And my painful hobbling is just one more thing. I could not even imagine putting my feet up in the car like I was dying to do, and here I was being asked if he could massage them, there is just no way that was going to happen, even though my the swelling had now become ridiculously huge. On this day last year, I was on an unbelievably dusty car ride from Paryang to Chiu Gompa. And at the end of that car ride during which I slept quite a bit, we had reached the divine Manas Sarovar at around four in the afternoon.

The car stopped, I woke up from sleep, and hobbled painfully into the lobby. Lunch was ready for us in the restaurant, and was even more lavish than the previous day's. Indore is a city for foodies.

A couple of hours later, we were in the lobby again to go to the airport. The flight to Rajkot where we would spend the night was through Mumbai. The change-over at Mumbai was fairly quick, so that I remember that whole journey as one long plane ride. Again at Rakot, there would not be a bus, we were in cars. Not that I drove much in the first nine years of my life, but somehow I had expected to recognize landmarks. Rajkot had changed drastically, I could not associate anything I saw outside with a memory. Finally, the car inched into what was the tiniest hotel we had seen so far. It looked like a house converted into a multi-storeyed hotel, we may have to walk sideways to get to our room. We had practically the same menu for dinner that we had had for the past week - warm, filling food.

I went out for a walk after dinner. The hotel did have some lawns, that they probably rented out for outdoor parties. Again, I could not walk on the sleeping grass, so I walked for an hour around the building, on the stone paths. It was close to midnight when I went to sleep. Ashverya was fast asleep. We had to report for breakfast at 7 in the morning and then leave for Veraval. 

Tomorrow, Somnath! I have waited, and I am blessed.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!


  1. Hi Neeraja,

    Your article on Mahakaleswar Yaatra is very good and nice to see it on your blog.

    When I visited Mahakaleswar, I touched my head to the Shiva Lingam. But after that, Priest told me not to touch head to Shiva Lingam as the Lord Shiva is the father to our father - meaning. That time I felt like I did a mistake and I've been thinking about it.

    In this article, you said you touched your head to the Shiva Lingam. If so, please explain the procedure to follow here in Maha Kaleswhar.

    Here are my doubts (or) questions:
    1. Is it ok to touch our head to the Shiva Lingam?
    2. If it is ok, why are we touching our heads to the Shiva Lingam?
    3. If it is not ok, why, in other Jyothirlinga temple, people are allowed to touch heads to the Shiva Lingams.

    Please explain if you have some free time. This is my personal email id - logic_sv@yahoo.com

    Thank you in advance.


  2. Mahakaleshwar is One of the 12 Jyothir linga temples. The temple is below the ground level. The lingam of the Mahakal at the Mahakaleswar Temple is believed to be swayambhu.
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  3. HI , Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience with us . It is really beautiful . Nice pictures . Mansarovar Yatra

  4. Glad you liked the blog, thank you!!