The middle temple

From the car park at the edge of the town you do not see the pearl in the oyster: the temple of Omkareshwar. My host and I walked past a row of stalls selling material that pilgrims may need for their puja, including heaps of sindoor in many different shades. “This place can’t be too windy,” I said, but my companion did not answer. He was too busy fending off assorted priests who promised us quick access.

It was only while we were crossing the hanging bridge that I got my first glimpse of the peaked spire of the main temple (at the right of the photo above). The temple was high above the present level of the river, but would have been pretty far above the historical level as well. The hanging bridge made it possible to get there without any climbing at all. We’d shaken off the priests by the time we reached the place where we had to remove our shoes. From here it was a short walk to the entrance of the temple.

Interestingly, the linga, which is the main object of veneration, is located in a small alcove to one side of the temple. About ten people were enough to make it a tight fit. I began to understand the reason for the crowd control barriers I’d come through. On a day when a large number of people come here, there are genuine problems which could arise. But the fact that there was a female goddess in the main temple, under the shikhara, while the linga is off in a side chamber, made me wonder whether the function of the temple has changed in recent times. Was it originally a temple to one of Shiva’s powerful consorts?

In fact I could not find much historical information on the structure. There is a lot of material on the ritual and religious aspects of the temple and the island. The brackets around the tall pillars are beautifully carved representations of supernatural beings. They are made in a classic style, and my guess is that they were carved in the last millennium. Without the context of who the temple is dedicated to, it is hard to interpret the figures. The four-armed figure on the right holds a mace (gada) in one and a lotus in the other, and has two arms free. Is that an ayudhapurusha of a mace? If so, what is she doing in a Shaiva temple?

The figures belong to a different era in our history. The present management of the temple does not care for them much, as you can tell by the fact that there are electrical panels and cables threaded through them; and fans and lights haphazardly placed without consideration of the beauty of the carvings. I was short of time and could not explore more. I will have to read more and go back.

At the ancient boundary of Aryavarta

5th century Sanskrit poetry already contained detailed descriptions of parts of India outside the Gangetic core of what then was called Aryavarta. Somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, when the Adi Purana was written, the notion of Aryavarta had expanded southwards till the Narmada river. When my host in Indore proposed an early morning dash to Omkareshwar in the Narmada before the morning’s meeting, I was very happy. This temple town lies just across the southern border of the Aryavarta of the 8th century, and its most famous temple is in an island in the middle of the river. Near the middle of the featured photo you can see the northern branch of the river curve around the island. Beyond it you can make out a cluster of white buildings which is the town of Omkareshwar. Upstream of it, to the right of the photo you can see the barrage built in 2007.

The island was already a place for pilgrimage in the 8th century, when the philosopher-to-be, Shankaracharya, came here to meditate and learn from its scholars. The historical town was certainly here in the time of Ahilyabai Holkar, in the 18th century. It presents an interesting face to the visitor now. Seen from the island (photo above) windows appear high above massive walls. It took me a little while to recall that the level of the river would have been about thirty feet higher until the 20th century, so the windows might then have looked out on the water just below. The road that leads down to the boats must have been built much more recently.

Looking upstream you see the barrage immediately. Newly cut steps in the rock lead from the car park down to the river. Already this early in the morning people were going down for a dip in the water. You can see a small crowd at the water’s edge in the photo above. The level of water behind the barrage must have been about 30 meters higher than downstream.

The sacred island is called Mandhata. One can cross to it from the town using either of the two bridges, or by boat. From the car park it is easy to take the new suspension bridge. As we hurried across it, I paused to take a photo. The boats had already started ferrying people across the river. The morning light was nice and warm on the buildings. It was a comfortable temperature on the high bridge; most people around me had a light sweater on. I realized that there would not be much of a crowd in the temple. Our tight schedule had brought us here at a good time. Unfortunately, the same schedule would take us back much too quickly. I barely had time to see the temple, walking through the town was out of the question. I would have to make another trip in future.


You can see milkweed (genus Calotropis), called aak in Hindi, in most parts of India. There are supposed to be three species which grow in India: the giant milkweed or crown flower (Calotropis gigantea) which you see in the featured photo, the milkweed (Calotropis procera) which you see in the photo below, and a species called Calotropis acia which I’m not sure that I have seen. I recognize the giant milkweed flower by its well separated and pointed petals and the fact that it is odourless. The milky sap which oozes from broken stems of aak is poisonous when ingested. That poison is used by several butterfly species, notably the one called Common Tiger (Danaus genutia). Its caterpillar gorges on these leaves, and incorporates the poison into its body. As a result, the caterpillar, and the adult which emerges from it, become poisonous. I’ve also seen ants swarming over milkweed, and wondered whether they use the chemicals in some way.

The flowers of C. procera also have the fivefold symmetry, but the petals are not as long and well-separated as that of the C. gigantea. If the bushes are fully grown, then one can tell the two species apart from the fact that the C. gigantea can grow substantially taller than a man, whereas the C. procera is about the same height as a tall person. I’ve never dug up one of them to examine the roots. Since they grow in arid climates, I would guess that their roots are deep and far-ranging. Very often several bushes grow near each other. I wonder whether their roots are in communication.

The colours of the flowers are variable, although most of the time they are on the spectrum of purples: from blue to red. When I first saw the white or greenish white flowers I wondered whether they are another species. But apparently the colour of flowers is not a species marker amongst milkweed. I cannot quite identify the bush whose photo you see above, because the buds haven’t opened up, but from the size I guess it is more likely to be C. gigantea. There’s been a lot of laboratory work separating the toxins from milkweed and examining their action separately and in combination.

Of all the uses of the milkweed, I guess the most widespread is its use in religion: as an offering to Shiva. The iconography of Shiva sometimes shows him with the white variety bound into his hair, giving a possible etymology to the name crown flower. The photo that you see above was taken near the temple of Omkareshwar on the banks of the Narmada. There was a whole line of such stalls on the walkway leading to the temple. I asked the lady in front of the basket what the spiny pods were, and she told me they were fruits of aak, also used in devotions. The seed pods of C. procera and C. gigantea are not spiny. So I wonder whether I have finally seen something of the elusive C. acia.

Once there was a river

In the 9th century CE the Adi Shankaracharya crossed the Narmada river and met his guru. The foundations of modern Hindu philosophy can be traced back to that event. I decided to make a quick dash to this immensely historical place in early January, and drove across the Narmada. The experience is totally disjoint with the classic sanskrit poetry that one grew up with. As the car swept over the bridge, my mind played back the lines Maha gabhira niira puraa paapa dhutam bhootalam (Your deep waters which overflow the banks and wash away the sins of the earth). Those waters have been reduced to a thin stream.

Through the 1990s a protest movement against damming this river in the west was perpetually in the headlines. Now, crossing a bridge between Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, far to the east, I saw how limited was the scope of those unsuccessful protestors. Upstream barrages are much more destructive of ecology than dams downstream, since they affect longer stretches of the river. The Narmada is one of the main westward flowing rivers of India, but almost nothing about the barrage upstream of Omkareshwar, entered the public discourse.

I was not surprised when I read that this tells on the fish population in the river. The mahaseer and the hilsa which the Narmada was known for, even a generation ago, has been replaced by imported catfish and carp. The trickle of water below the imposing bridge is a reminder of the lost connection with history. Have people gained or lost? Talking to farmers around here, one has the feeling that the water diverted to irrigation has been a gain. But if you talk to fishermen, you hear a different story. If these problems were not complex, we would have solved them by now.