The Lord of Time

Mahakaleshwar is the main temple of Ujjain, dedicated to Shiva in his aspect of the Lord of Time. The temple is mentioned in the Skanda Purana, which dates from the 7th century CE. A version of the temple was destroyed by Iltutmish, Sultan of Delhi, when he sacked Ujjain in 1235 CE. The present structure was built in 1736 CE by the Maratha chief Ranoji Shinde. It is one of the few jyotirlingas in which photography is forbidden. I was disappointed, because a few months before I’d taken photos of the beautiful Paramara era sculptures in the nearby jyotirlinga of Omkareshwar.

The Family and I had a tea in the surprisingly quiet interior of a restaurant on the bustling street in front of the temple. “Do you mind if I get my camera?” I asked her. She said, “It’s a busy little street. Lots of photos to be taken.” We walked back to the parking lot and got my camera.

The street food looked good. As I took a few photos, a courteous middle-aged gentleman came up to me and opened conversation. “The poha that Indore claims is actually from Ujjain,” he told me; “Try it here and compare.” I promised to do that. He was a fount of information about small local things. He asked me whether I needed a guide. I declined, and he continued the conversation. My opinion of Ujjain went up after talking to him. This was a wonderfully civilized way to offer a guide’s services.

The conversation showed me how the lords of time must laugh at us. The poha was Ujjain’s, now it is Indore’s. We eat food which we think is traditional, and will last for ever, without noticing how fast it changes. An Oxford Don writing a story notionally set in a fictional early European universe constructed fictitious languages and a cosmic mythology with great scholarship, but had his characters eat “taters” and tomatoes, and smoke tobacco. None of these could have been seen in Europe before the end of the 15th century CE. We really pay little attention to food and its history.

I stood in this highly commercial street. The surroundings of any temple is like this. I loved the invisibility that I got from being an obvious non-buyer. As a result, I could see many little dramas play out around me. I hope you like the small gallery of photos here. As always, you can click on any one of the

Ram ghat of Ujjain

We walked up to Ram ghat past a signboard saying “Balmukund Ashram”, through a lane, on one side which were stalls selling religious parapharnelia, and with 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.