Ram ghat of Ujjain

We walked up to Ram ghat past a signboard saying “Balmukund Ashram”, through a lane, on one side of which were stalls selling religious parapharnelia, and a tall Maratha-era dharamshala on the other. My imagination of ghats is dominated by those of Banaras, and I was certainly not expecting the sight that met my eyes. Ujjain’s Ram ghat is more subdued, people come here in the normal course of their lives. There are many priests waiting for custom, but the commercial bustle of Banaras is not to be seen. The featured photo shows such a priest, quite relaxed in his silk kurta, but keeping an eye out for custom.

I walked out on the pedestrian bridge connecting to Narsingh ghat on the far side of the Kshipra river, the better to take a photo of Ram ghat. All ghats are made in the form of steps parallel to the flow of the river. In the middle of the monsoon, the river was quite high: about five or six steps led down from the promenade to the river. On the landward side of the promenade there are the main temples and their associated dharamshalas behind high walls. A couple of centuries ago they would have been the last barrier against flood waters. On the river side are smaller shrines, each with its own priests. There were many bathers here, including several extended families. It is hard to imagine the crowds that come here for the Simhastha Kumbh Mela.

The lady whom you see in the photo above had a bagful of bottles which she was filling one by one with the waters of the Kshipra. It is considered to be a holy river after all. Her lightly coloured salwar and kameez, with the white dupatta, perhaps means that she is a traditional widow. If so, a trip to a holy river is one of the few outings that she will treat herself to. She filled many bottles as I watched. I guess most will go to members of an extended family. Some perhaps will also be given to her neighbours.

The Maratha era building which you can see in the photo above dominated this portion of the ghats. It is hard to imagine that the pleasant Ram ghat I saw is the site of a Kumbh Mela held every 12 years (the next one is in 2028). The state transport ministry claims that 75 million people visited Ujjain’s Kumbh Mela in 2016. Even if the number were smaller, it would be a major feat of crowd control. In fact, if one searches for scientific papers on the Kumbh mela, one is overwhelmed by the number of studies of crowd behaviour, biohazard, and other safety issues. I used to wonder about the origin of the Kumbh mela in Ujjain. Kalidasa’s poem Meghdoot, from the 5th century CE, talks of Ujjain but not the Kumbh mela. Maratha sources from the 18th century CE ascribe the beginning of the mela at Ujjain to Ranoji Shinde. Since he was one of the main commanders of the Maratha forces which won Malwa, and he declared Ujjain to be his capital, this is not an unlikely history. It is possible though that many of temples here had their own melas, which they combined into a single mela at the urging of Ranoji. It has grown significantly since then.