Maha Shivratri 2024: The Allure Of Ujjain's Mahakaleshwar Temple

The Mahakaleshwar temple holds great religious significance as one of India's revered jyotirlingas, attracting followers and those with varying levels of faith. This Maha Shivratri, read how its sanctity and allure transcend boundaries
A devotee covered in ash outside the temple of Mahakaleshwar
A devotee covered in ash outside the temple of MahakaleshwarShutterstock

For the time of night, the streets of Ujjain at 3 am were a bizarre motley of empty and energetic. A partial carnival of sorts: some stretches made me feel alone in the world, and others were full of life, brimming with people, tea stalls, night markets, and groups of folks just dancing to chants of "Jai Shri Mahakal."

On my seat in the auto-rickshaw, I was warm from the nighttime bonhomie as the chilly breeze licked my skin.

"Do not forget to take your press card," Ajay Ranawat, protocol manager and guide at the Mahakaleshwar temple, had advised me. "You'll be admitted in a second and taken to the VIP viewing area." Once I reached there, the situation was different.

Clearly, everybody is "very important" in the eyes of God. Being in a queue to be blessed by a darshan of one of the 12 jyotirlingas is not the easiest of tasks. The ebb and flow of smoke and water as you keep pushing in, is by sheer force of will, or the call of the almighty, as some might say.

A couple was in front of me, with a two-year-old asleep on the father’s shoulder. Surprisingly, despite all the chaos going around the congested pathway to the main chamber, the baby seemed to be having the best sleep of his life.

There were two divergent lines—the VIPs and the not—both converging at the sight of God, intermingling to equality in his eyes.

The Mahakaleshwar temple spans five storeys
The Mahakaleshwar temple spans five storeysShutterstock

Walking Among The Gods

As I entered through the main gate of the premises, massive pillars etched with intricacies detailing each of Lord Shiva’s avatars and their significance stood organised at scattered distances. The Olympian figures of the statues gave me the impression of what it might feel like if someone were to walk through the gates of heaven. But I quickly dispelled the thought, choosing to marvel at the brilliant architecture and the meticulous details of the edifices.

Each looming structure had its plaque cataloging the event it was fashioned on—the Ardhanarishvara avatar, where Parvati and Shiva are merged as one, the Neelkantha avatar during samudra manthan, and the killing of the demon Tarakasura's three demon sons.

There are 108 pillars, all depicting some form of the "Controller of Time" and "Destroyer of All Elements" Lord Shiva, that line the Mahakal Path towards the main temple. The corridor, spread over 2.5 hectares, houses an open-air theater, a museum of mythology, and a lotus pond with a statue of Lord Shiva meditating at the center of it.

The jyotirlinga of Mahakal all decked up after the aarti
The jyotirlinga of Mahakal all decked up after the aartiShutterstock

Of Time, Space, And Divinity

Ujjain has held great spiritual and religious significance for Hindus since ancient times. A 4th-century text on astronomy claims that Ujjain is situated at the intersection of the Tropic of Cancer and the Zero Meridian, which makes several temples in the city bound by time and space. But even an auspicious location like this did not make it any easier for pilgrims to make their way to the temple before Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the first phase of the expansion of the Mahakal corridor in October 2021, to decongest and beautify the temple and its neighbouring area.

"It used to be very congested, and the only way one could get to the temple was from the back alleys," said Anil Dagar, who plies devotees to and from the temple in his auto-rickshaw.

With the PM’s nearly Rs 900 crore Maharaj Mandir Parisar Vistar Yojana, the footfall has increased, and the area has undergone a facelift.

"Since the inauguration of Mahakal Lok on October 11, 2021, the number of tourists in Ujjain has increased by 40-50 per cent," said Sheo Shekhar Shukla, Managing Director of MP Tourism Board. "Along with the hotel business, employment opportunities have also increased locally. Tourists visiting Ujjain also visit places like Omkareshwar, Mandu, and Indore, so these areas are also benefiting."

The stunning five-storeyed facade of the temple was constructed mid-18th century, and its famed marble walkways were restored towards the end of the 19th century by the Scindias of Gwalior. Now, when you walk amidst the Gods, you might imagine them coming alive at any moment, whispering a chant, or just peering down upon you with bottomless eyes. The Navagraha Mandal, dedicated to the nine celestial divinities in Hindu mythology, has been roped off to prevent the public from harming the figures.

The eternal lamps of the Harsiddhi Mata Temple in Ujjain
The eternal lamps of the Harsiddhi Mata Temple in UjjainShutterstock

Twist Of Faith

"It is rare for humans to be born in Bharat, and even rarer is the opportunity to worship Shiva," is the quote that greets you at the entrance to the temple. For an atheist like me, it is enough reason to scoff. But being surrounded by intense devotion emanating from everyone coming and going makes you question yourself.

One of the 12 jyotirlingas in India, the most important sites of Shiva worship, the Mahakaleshwar temple is the only one where the linga faces south, which is known as the direction of Yamraj, the God of Death.

People worship this version of Shiva – the master of death – for the life of their loved ones in peril. My mother was a staunch follower of Mahakal up until her death. My trip to the temple made me experience one of the most potent pulls of my lapsed faith. The feverish activity of the day slipped away from my tired mind as I watched, rooted in fascination, the majesty of the bhasma aarti.

I felt the guilt of my faith seeping into my atheist heart with every chant and every throw of the ashes.

Bhasma Aarti

"The Akhand Dhuna burns behind the Omkareshwar temple on the second floor, blessed with Vedic mantras and an immortal flame, which is never to be extinguished," said Sachin Pujari, one of the priests at the temple of Mahakal. "This temple has been here for aeons, and regardless of new developments and infrastructure, the most devoted have always come here, and we have provided them the best service we could offer."

Spanning the first three floors are the holy structures of Mahakaleshwar, Omkareshwar Mahadev, and the Nagchandreshwar, respectively. Each of the three temples has its importance. The Nagchandreshwar temple, which occupies the topmost floor, opens for only 24 hours in one year, and is accessible to devotees on the occasion of Naga Panchami. The self-manifested Mahakaleshwar lingam resides in an underground sanctum, where devotees queue up from midnight to visit.

In the chill of the wee hours, bare-chested men in dhotis and women in thin saris moved ahead in the queue, buoyed at the prospect of seeing their devotion come to fruition with a glimpse of their Bhole Baba (innocent god). I stood in a heavy coat, being the skeptic I still was. And then I was inside.

The bhasma aarti is a ritual where the ashes, made by kindling a fire using cow dung, branches of the amaltas, peepal and other trees, are used to awaken the conqueror of death, Mahakal. The aarti starts at 4 am, with devotees lining up to witness something they cannot describe with mere words. This time, I was one of those dumbstruck devotees sitting in awe amidst thundering damarus (small two-headed drums) and shankhs (conch shells). Women are asked to cover their eyes when the jyotirlinga is being inundated in ashes as then the Lord is believed to be in bare form and can only be seen by men.

A devotee with a "Jai Mahakal" locket
A devotee with a "Jai Mahakal" locketShutterstock

But beyond the binary of life and death sat the Lord, and I sat opposite, eyes downcast, wondering how easy it would be for me to find him here.

"We visited the temple when the corridor was still under construction," said Krishnapriya Pandey, a student and devotee. "Although our journey was laborious and not as easy as it is now for others, watching the bhasma aarti made all the pain and sweat worth it." This is the beauty of Mahadev’s towns—the rustic charm of its people and the raw call of its traditions.

You will hardly find a God so liberal he lets you in with no requests. I had brought a sari because people told me I wouldn't be allowed to watch the aarti in regular clothes. And yet, there I was, sitting at the Nandi Mandap with my eyes fixated on the ash-doused jyotirlinga. When it came to offerings, among the heaps and heaps of expensive, bejeweled saris and dhotis, varieties of sweets and savouries, there was a lone plate heaped with Cadbury milk chocolates right next to the Lord.

The stairs that lead you down from the temple open up in Koti Tirtha, a tank or a kunda, the path lined with images of the temple's original edifice during the rule of the Paramaras between the 9th and 14th centuries. After having to surrender my camera, I could only rely on my memory to preserve the mythological presence of Lord Shiva through the many murals and statuesque depictions of his existence.

The last night of my stay in Ujjain was spent sleeplessly, thinking about hope and happenstances. The next morning, as the sun slowly peaked over the horizon, I was weaving out of the city crowd as fast as the night dissipated.

Goodbyes overwhelm me, especially conflicted ones involving my faith. As the pink-tipped clouds turned to gold with the rising sun, I tried to escape this city that confused me. I bowed my head, and a silent sigh of prayer escaped me.

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