It is the fifth day of Kashipath 2019.
We started early from Ellora. Downhill moved the vehicle. We were on our way to Ujjain. So today mostly it would be travel. The atmosphere was a bit relaxed.
Jones had been straining himself against all advice and concentrating on capturing every scene with his camera. Even he looked a bit tired and for the first time, we heard him say that he was hungry.
Otherwise, the only thing we have heard from him all through the journey has been “pass the battery”, “get the charger right” and “hand over the camera” – particularly when he was hanging half out of the window to get candid shots. It was nice at last to see him get some rest.
Our plan is to go and worship at Mahakaleshwar temple and then leave tomorrow morning for Bhimbetaka caves. We cross the Maharashtra border and enter Madhya Pradesh.
We cross the Narmada river.
Narmada is not just a river. She is, to the people around her, verily the mother. For millennia she has witnessed history. She has seen historical battles. For instance, the Chalukya Emperor, Pulakesi II had stopped the onward march of the great Emperor Harshavardhana on the banks of the river Narmada in the seventh century CE.
Indian memories are deeper.
According to the Vishnupurana, Gandharvas were attacking and killing Nagas. They had also occupied the land of the Nagas. The Naga princess, Narmada, decided to solicit the help of Purukutsa, a king of the Ishvaku clan.
She made him fight for the Nagas. Purukutsa married Narmada and fought against the aggressors and liberated the realm of the Nagas. The Nagas were so thankful that they decreed that anyone who venerates Narmada morning and evening every day would be saved from all venomous bites.
Just note here how this Puranic, age-old traditional account runs counter to the modern, fabricated narrative of the Vedic culture being alien and opposed to the Nagas and the depiction of Nagas as the indigenous, non-Aryan people.
In fact, this account shows that not only were the Nagas as much Arya as any other clan residing in Bharata but that Rama Himself was related to them.
There are many more such Puranic praises for Narmada in many important Puranas like the Skanda Purana etc. To this day people undertake to perform the Narmada Parikrama and this circumambulation of the sacred river covers a length of 2600 km.
Narmada Mahatmiya sets the time for completion of the parikrama at three years, three months and 13 days. Any person who undertakes the Parikrama clearly understands the different people, different customs and the common humanity and Dharma that unites us.
We decided to take an offbeat route and enter a village on the banks of the Narmada.
Thanks to Savaari Car Rentals, our trip partner: You can book a direct cab from Indore airport to Ujjain
The small shrine was that of Amarnath Shiva. On the banks, we saw boats, and men and women worshipping the river and sitting and talking. Narmada mother is an abiding presence here.
It is also marvellous to see how some red paste can transform a small stone segment into a divine art form. Suddenly the ‘stone’ jumps to life and breaths a vibrant reality that is more intensely real than one’s own limited self.
Perhaps this is the true art of India. Not the ones that hang in the drawing rooms of the rich and fabulous or in the exhibitions of the elite. This is an art that is at once rooted to the ground and yet transcendental.
It relates you to your immediate surroundings and yet connects you to the great source that is both beyond and yet permeates everything.
The camphor slowly sublimates in a flame placed before the Amarnath Linga being worshipped here in a small village on the banks of the Narmada. A couple has come for the first feeding of their child.
They carefully take the water, trying to collect as much as possible of the clean, sparkling water -- not polluted by discharges -- and they easily succeed. Then, a very few drops are ceremoniously placed on the head of the child. The child is fed before Shiva and then they go on their way. Meanwhile, an old woman makes oblations to the river.
In almost every village around here, one can find the vibrancy of the sacredness associated with Narmada. With modern times, secularization in its proper sense, economic orientation as well as compulsions of a dense population have wrought their own desecrations on the river.
So, what is the use of worshipping the river if you also discharge the village wastewater into her? The truth is one should think how much more would have been the ruthless exploitation and destruction had there been no such veneration.
In fact, the present degraded condition can be salvaged by appealing to people’s sense of the sacred. One can see the ‘Swacch Bharath’ campaign tap into this strong sense of sacredness people have for Narmada.
We reached Mahakaleshwar temple of Ujjain at night. Ujjain is a city beyond time. In a sense, every generation knows about Ujjain as the capital city of the legendary king, Vikramaditya. It is Vikramaditya, who, with his adventures and good governance, has captured the imagination of all Indian people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
On the way to the Kanyakumari Devi temple you will see a small, roadside ‘Ujjain Mahakali’ temple. In fact, small temples dedicated to Ujjain Mahakali -- the favorite Goddess of Vikramaditya -- are present throughout India in every small village and town.
Like the four Shankara Peethas, like the 51 Shakthi Peethas (of which Ujjain is one), like the twelve Jyothir Lingas, the Ujjain Mahakali temples are innumerable and present throughout India, uniting the nation spiritually.
The Indian state, for some reason, decided to promote Ashoka instead of Vikramaditya. Perhaps because Ashoka is historical while Vikramaditya is considered ‘mythical’. However, what they fail to understand is that, in a sense, Vikramaditya is more real than Ashoka in the civilizational memories of India.
Now there seems to be a growing quantum of new findings which indicate that Vikramaditya was not a ‘myth’ at all but a historical person.
His adventures told and retold -- not through official history textbooks but through grandmothers and village folk plays -- have imparted to generations a sense of wonder, justice, valour, intelligence and Dharma.
Thus for a South Indian Ujjain is always there in the imagination as the city that was ruled by perhaps the best king human history and imagination has witnessed.
Sure enough, the city, as we entered in the night, did not disappoint. It is still a busy city. The pujas for Mahakaleshwar go on till 11:00 pm. No cameras, not even cell phone cameras are allowed inside. At the entrance of the queue, the devotees are frisked before being sent inside.
The beauty of the temple has been praised by Kalidasa himself. Clearly, the temple was originally very old -- at least 1500 years old.
But in the 13th century, it was destroyed by Sultan Shams-ud-din Iltutmish. The Jyotirlinga was desecrated and thrown into a pond nearby. It was only with Maratha ascendancy that the temple was rebuilt.
In the 1730s, the Maratha general, Ranoji Shinde, not only freed the Malwa province from Mughal control but established Hindu rule with Ujjain as its seat. It was he who rebuilt the present temple. Clearly, rebuilding demolished temples has always been seen as a symbol of liberation by the Hindus.
Once inside the main sanctum the experience of touching Shiva and placing the flowers and the Vilva patras with one’s own hands is a soul-stirring experience.
In Tamil Nadu, and generally in South Indian temples, we stand outside the garba gudi (sanctum) and have a darshan of the Puja being performed by the officiating priest.
Here, we can ourselves touch and worship the Divine. For a Hindu, both these means of worship are not mutually exclusive nor is one superior to the other. Both provide us an holistic experience and both elevate our relation to the Divine.
Outside, there are quite a few small shrines dedicated to various forms of Shiva; there was one Mandir in particular that caught our attention. It was a small Shakshi-Gopal Mandir.
Shakshi Gopal – or ‘witness’ Gopal is a famous temple in Puri. The story associated with this deity is that of an orphan boy who was in love with a girl. The girl too loved the boy right from their childhood.
The father of the girl had promised the boy -- who had saved his life -- the hand of his daughter before Krishna in a temple. Yet, he had gone back on his promise, and had decided to get her married to a rich guy.
The boy was ridiculed when he contested this in the village panchayat. They asked the orphan boy to produce a witness. And the boy, in despair, decided to go and cry in front of Krishna’s vigraha.
Krishna told the orphan boy that He would come as a witness and He did so by following the boy. At one point, when the boy turned in doubt to check if He was following, Krishna turned into stone, right there at the village boundary. Fortunately, this much of a miracle was more than enough for the villagers to get the girl married to the boy.
So here we have a God – verily the Lord of the entire Universe coming down to stand as a witness for the love of a human youth in a village panchayat. Such are our Gods and Goddesses! And this famous Odisha Gopal has a shrine in the complex of Mahakaleshwar. What is more, the one who does His worship is one Sharadha Trivedi – a priestess!
The temple complex -- a bit unsettling for a South Indian -- looks like a grand exhibition of theo-diversity, quite different from the way the same is presented in South Indian temples.
Perhaps the invasions and destruction have brought about this change. Even the reconstruction that Ranoji Shinde did must have been done amidst tumultuous times between various wars.
But one thing is certain: if the grandeur of South Indian temples has been protected it is only because of the ceaseless efforts and sacrifices done by the Sikhs, Rajputs and the Marathas.
You can read the other Kashipath articles here.
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