The sanctified island rock of Lord Shiva at Omkareshwar
Bright vibrant boats bob on the bountiful river, as half-naked kids enjoy themselves with a dip and swim in the waters nearby; saffron-clad and sacred-ash smeared monks roam around nonchalantly while devotees from near and far hustle to get a glimpse of the sacred rock on the Sanskrit OM shaped island of Mandatha. The free-flowing river is put in check by a concrete dam, yet it flows unabashed washing the sins of the devotees who have flocked on its ghats. I am in Omkareshwar. A town sanctified by the eternal presence of god Shiva.
Situated on the banks of the westward flowing Narmada-holiest of the five rivers, 78 km away from the cleanest city in India, Indore, Omkareshwar is a sacred town in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Home to Shri Omkar Mandhata temple that encloses one of the 12 jyotirlinga, this small town with innumerable temples, an old yet majestic palace surrounded by lofty hills and a cantilever type bridge reverberates with divinity and humanity all around the year, especially during Shiv Ratri.
The story goes that a fight over superiority broke between Vishnu and Brahma, and, Shiva played the role of a mediator. He transformed himself into an endless pillar of light that stretched across the three worlds, and, asked both of them to find the tag ends of this legion. While Vishnu flew downwards and conceded defeat, Brahma went in search upwards towards the north, but lied of finding the end. Thus, he was cursed by Shiva who manifested as a second pillar out of the first. This came to be known as Jyotirlinga, a supreme formless reality out of which Shiva appears as linga. According to ancient texts, there are 64 jyotirlinga, out of which 12 are supremely holy and sacred, and Omkareshwar is one of them.
There are again many narratives around the appearance of Shiva as a jyotirlinga at Omkareshwar. One of the backstories proclaims that Shiva appeared in the form of a jyotirlinga at Omkareshwar, pleased by the penance of King Mandatha, an ancestor of Lord Rama, belonging to the Ikshvaku clan. And, thus, the island that got created due to the forking of the river Narmada into two also came to be known as Mandatha island. Sometimes it’s also referred to as Shivpuri.
Shiva’s sacred rock
Shri Omkar Mandatha temple is a 5-storeyed modern complex with stairs and columns, while the main tower is built in the Nagara style north-Indian architecture with spires. Adorned with granite pillars and sculptures, the interiors of the temple ooze of old-world charm. The original temple must have been much smaller, although, subsequent additions and expansions may have been done by the rulers of Parmar, Chauhan and Maratha dynasties who had a hold on the Malwa region.
A narrow path followed by a fleet of stairs downwards leads to the sanctum sanctorum, where Omkareshwar blesses his devotees in the form of a sanctified rock on the floor that resembles a sort of shiva linga. This linga is always offered water through a pipe and its uniqueness lies in the absence of the cupola. A divine silver figurine of goddess Parvati is installed above in a niche and priests do advice to offer prayers to the linga before looking at Ma Parvati. Although a glimpse of the jyotirlinga is more of blink and miss when among the burgeoning crowd, the interiors undoubtedly resonate with divinity and sacredness that is explainable.
Around the OM shaped island
A visit to the jyotirlinga is incomplete without a Parikrama(circumambulation) around the OM shaped island as well as a visit to Mamaleshwar temple. The Parikrama could be done either by foot or by engaging a boat. A ferry ride that lasts close to 30 minutes makes a short halt at the Sangam, where the two tributaries- Narmada and Kuberi ( sometimes also called Kaveri) meet. An idol of goddess Narmada is installed here and devotees often take a dip in the river at the confluence. It’s said that a dip at the Sangam absolves one of all sins. The ride in itself is serene and the waters of the river- cool and clear. These 30 minutes are nothing short of a river safari with bird spotting and the thrill of riding through a gorge!
The curious case of two Jyotirlinga
My interactions with the local people revealed the fascinating story of two jyotirlinga in this town, one of Omkareshwar and another of Mamaleshwar or Amareshwar. While one lore says that Mamaleswar is the Shiva ling built by the Pandavas during their exile; another proclaims that the existence of Mamaleswar goes back to much older times, when Shiva manifested himself as a jyotirlinga, pleased by the penance of god of Vindhyas. Owing to the huge crowd of sages and devotees, he split himself into two on either side of the river Narmada, which came to be known as Omkareswar and Mamaleswar(Parthivlinga) respectively. Although there are conflicting stories and claims, both temples are revered, and, it is widely believed that a pilgrimage to Shri Omkar Mandatha temple isn’t complete without paying obeisance to the Mamaleswar temple.
The Mamaleswar temple complex in itself is beautiful and spotless with small shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses, adorned with carvings and sculptures. It is on the mainland, unlike the Shri Omkar Mandatha temple.
Sanctified by cleanliness
The wave of devotees who flood the sacred town of Omkareshwar has to be seen to be believed. Although it is a bijou of a town with rustic vibes, the sense of cleanliness among people is incredible. The whole circuit reverberates with an unbelievable fervour and faith in Hinduism, and, a belief in humanity isn’t lost when one sees a pristine garbage-free river and due respect is given to the elixir of life. If there is one place where God Shiva resides, then it has to be in the heart of India at Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh!
How to reach
By Air: The nearest airport is in Indore ( 78 km) which is connected by regular flights with Delhi, Mumbai, Bhopal and other cities.
By Rail: Nearest railhead is Omkareshwar Road( 12 km) on the Ratlam- Khandwa section of the Western Railways.
By Road: Omkareshwar is well-connected by regular bus services with Omkareshwar road, Indore and Ujjain.
Meenakshi J is a freelance writer and traveller, who documents cultural and travel stories through architecture, doors, art, heritage, vegetarian food, traditions, and lifestyle, intertwining with some soft adventure and social responsibility. She also loves documenting people who are passionate about handicrafts and collect heirlooms.