The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is not touristy like its neighbor Rajasthan. Who nevertheless goes to MP, will probably visit the erotic temples of Khajuraho or the famous pilgrim city Ujjain. But in the heart of Madhya Pradesh there lie two hidden gems, two small but enchanting and very holy places: Omkareshwar and Maheshwar. These two places are truly off the beaten path in India!
Omkareshwar – Mythology VS Modernity
Omkareshwar is a small town about 80 kilometres from Indore. It can be reached after a three or four hour bus ride through the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. When you arrive in Omkareshwar, you immediately realize that this is a unique and very special place.
Omkareshwar is situated on the banks of the holy river Narmada. The name of the town means “Lord of the OM sound”. The place is so named because the river island that forms the centre of Omkareshwar is shaped like the OM sign. Omkareshwar is an important pilgrimage site of Hinduism. This is due to the Jyotirlinga which is located here. Jyotirlinga are the twelve holiest Shiva temples in India. Others are located in Varanasi and in Kedarnath, for example. According to the legend, Omkareshwar is a manifestation of Shiva, who appeared here to fight demons.
There are only two or three hotels in Omkareshwar, all of which are not on the island but in the newer part of the town. There are also some cheap restaurants, tea huts – and of course a bhang shop. Bhang is a traditional cannabis drink, drunk by followers of Shiva and sold legally in all places associated with Shiva. Bhang is also consumed on Holi, the Festival of Colors.
From the bridge that connects the holy island with the rest of the city you can see the Omkareshwar Dam. It was completed in 2007 despite heavy criticism from environmentalists and Hindu believers. It is typical for India: the idyll is destroyed by ill-considered technical progress, by capitalist urge – but the very special spirit survives after all. So you don’t mind that a huge, ugly dam controls the waters of the holy river, that next to a centuries old temple stands a monster of modernity.
The Jyotirlinga of Omkareshwar
The heart of Omkareshwar beats on the river island Mandhata. Here stands the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple. Inside: one of the twelve Jyotirlinga of India. Linga are phallic stone forms that symbolize the god Shiva. The one in Omkareshwar is worshiped every day through elaborate rituals. Priests shower it almost continuously with water from the Narmada, which flows back into the river through an underground channel.
The contrast between unbridled modernity and old traditions is also visible in this most sacred of temples: numerous loud fans ventilate the otherwise probably musty walls, glaring neon light illuminates the statues, which used to flicker in the candlelight. Like at an airport, one is guided through the corridors of the temple. You only have a few seconds to admire the linga – then you are pushed away by the masses of pilgrims. One slips the priests one or two notes, follows the directions, and then is out in the open again. This is how efficient a visit to a temple can be!
Maheshwar – the Center of the Universe
Maheshwar is only two hours away from Omkareshwar. It is a small, sleepy place, which is also located on the Narmada river. Foreign tourists are rarely seen here. The few who do come are enchanted by the charm of this little beautiful town.
Maheshwar is famous for the Ahilya Fort. It was built about 300 years ago by the Holkar dynasty. The influential ruling family made Maheshwar their capital and the Ahilya Fort their royal residence. Parks and palaces were built, parties were held and distinguished guests were received.
Opposite the fort, in the middle of the floods of the Narmada, stands the ancient Baneshwar temple. In old Hindu texts it is mentioned as the centrt of the universe: an axis is said to run here, connecting the earth with the Polar Star.
Off the Beaten Path in India: Madhya Pradesh
Today there is little left of all this glamour. Although the Ahilya Fort still looks as imposing as it once, no royal families live here, no extravagant festivals are celebrated anymore. Instead, a few tourists walk through the old walls of the fort, taking pictures and selfies. Outside some goats stand around, saris lie to dry on the ghats of the Narmada.
When you have seen the fort, you have seen Maheshwar. Either you stay overnight in one of the few and very basic hotels in town, or you visit another of Madhya Pradesh’s holy places: Ujjain for example or Mandaleshwar, two other places off the beaten path in India!