Spiritually Blessed

Omkareshwar is located on the old volcanic rocks almost halfway down the Narmada`s course. Here the river passes through a narrow and deep gorge and in the process creates an island in the shape o the holy symbol ‘Om’.

So technically, it is the island that`s called Omkareshwar, but just like the town, even its name has spilled over to both the banks. Omkareshwar is a vehicle-free town, and as a result the main bus stand is outside the city limits and youwill need to walk from there.

The island is also known as the Omkareshwar Mandhata Island; its terrain is hilly and undulating. The town has been revered for so long that it has acquired a personality. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the people sometimes refer to it as ‘Omkarji’.

Ghats on the Narmada

On both sides of the Narmada are ghats where, since time immemorial, the devout have come to cleanse their bodies and souls. Once upon a time, there were two towns – Vishnupuri and Brahmapuri – on the southern banks of the river. Together with Shivpuri on the island, the three are known as Tripuri and are said to symbolize the triad of Hindu cosmogony.

There are two bridges connection the mainland part of the town with the island, but tourists and pilgrims prefer to cross over by boats from Gomukh ghat. The boats moored on the ghat charge Rs 20 per head. You could also hire a boat to take a joyride on the Narmada. These boats sport colourful canopies and fanciful names such as Titanic and Jalpari (mermaid). For the sinners among us who want to attain redemption by taking a dip in the holy waters of the river, caution is advised. The steps of the ghat are slippery and as the Narmada flows through a gorge here, it is extremely deep. Also, crocodiles are known to stray here from time to time.
The ghat is located roughly midway between the two bridges. From here, another shop-lined lane winds up and down the hilly bank towards the newly constructed suspension bridge. Incidentally, both the bridges are for pedestrian traffic only. Although the policemen are known to turn a blind eye towards the occasional two wheelers.

Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple

This temple, also known as Omkar Mandhata Temple, is the key attraction for pilgrims who visit the island. It is the ancient site of one of the 12 sacred jyotirlingas. Local legend holds that the linga, or cosmic pillar emblematic of Shiva`s procreative energy, arrived here as a result of the devotion of the mythological king Mandhata.
The present temple structure is said to have been built by the Paramaras in the 11th century and rebuilt by the Holkars in the 19th century. It is suffused with sumbolism, much like the island. Its shikhara is said to correspond with Mount Meru, the axis of the world according to Hindu mythology, and it overlooks the cosmic ocean, represented by the Narmada.
A series of steps from the ghats leads up to the mandapa of the temple, marking the entrance of the enclosure. It is decorated with carved soapstone pillars, with elaborate capitals in the form of yakshis, while niches on either side are occupied by images of Ganesha, Rama, Sita, and other deities. As one crosses the mandapa, one encounters Nandi, Shiva`s divine vehicle. From the first mandapa, one ascends to the recently built sabha mandapa or prayer hall.
A vast terrace above the sabha mandapa leads to a small door through which one can enter the upper levels of the shikhara. Inside are three shrines, one above the other, enshrining more manifestations of Shiva – Siddhanath, Kedareshwar and Guptanath.
The two approaches to the temple are lined with shops setting baskets of flowers and other puja paraphernalia. There are also little stalls where, for a small fee, you can deposit your footwear for safe-keeping till you are done with you darshan. It is likely that you will be approached by priests. Be warned that they can be pushy, so if you do not want to participate in rituals, refuse firmly but politely and walk away.

Govindeshwara Gufa

Just below the Omkar Mandhata Temple is this cave. It is believed that the great 7th-century reformist savant Adi Shankaracharya halted here during his parikrama of the Narmada and met his guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada.
Born in a Brahmin family in Kelady in Kerala, the great saint reformed Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) was hailed as a prodigy from his childhood. Having mastered the Vedas and Puranas, he left home to travel north in search of a guru. When he met Govinda Bhagavatapada, he impressed the savant with his extempore rendition of a shloka that proclaimed his identity and outlined the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. It was here the Shankaracharya mastered the principles of nondualism as well as the most important texts of the doctrine of Vedanta. Today his idol greets visitors to the cave where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is said to have meditated.
With Govinda Bhagavatpada as his guru, Shankaracharya would go on to refine this philosophy, advocating the unity of the soul and creation. He would eventually gather a large following of disciples and establish centers of monastic education known as muths in the four corners on India. Till today, there centers thrive in Sringeri, Puri, Dwarka and Badrinath.
This temple os the hub of all activity in the island. All roads seem to converge here and it is the starting point of the famous Omkareshwar parikrama, the 16-km parikrama or circumambulation of the island begins from the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple and then proceeds clockwise around the island. All along the road, painted on boards, are verses from the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and Hindi.

Gurudwara Omkareshwar Sahib

Gleaming bright in the sun, just below the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple, are the golden domes of the Gurudwara Imkareshwar Sahin. It has been built on t he very spot where Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) stayed during his visit to Omkareshwar sometime between 1508 and 1514. While on the island, he, like millions of pilgrims before and after him, undertook the Omkareshwar parikrama. On this walk, he was also the head priest of the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple. Together, the holy men debated various aspects of spirituality and theology. These discourses were later compiled in a text called the Dakhni Omkar.

Ancient Ruins

Along with temples old and new, ruins of ancient shrines and remains of fort walls, the path passes through many tiny villages. For generations, the villagers have served as priests and caretakers of the island`s many temples, and remain tied to this tradition even today. To aid the comfort-seeking travelers of today, many enterprising villages have opened stalls selling cold drinks, lemonade and the occasional home-made snack. As a result, one sees a significant amount of litter by the parikrama path. If you find yourself there, please make sure that you have a garbage bag to put your litter in and then dispose it off at a designated spot.
The route passes through a series of crests and troughs in the landscape and may be intimidating for those that are not used to long walks. The harsh Omkareshwar sun, which can be surprisingly hot even in winter months, is an added challenge. It will be sensible to drink enough water and rest when exhausted. Another good idea to prevent exhaustion and a possible sunstroke is to wake up early and start the parikrama at sunrise. That way, you can complete the parikrama and retreat to the comfort of your hotel room by noon.
In this journey, one encounters many langurs. These monkeys are known to snatch food from people and it is a wise idea to carry foodstuff in convered bags.

Narmada-Kaveri Sangam

The sacred and purifying Narmada meets the fast=flowing Kaveri at the sangam, or confluence, of these two rivers. Located on the westernmost part of the island of Imkareshwar, this narrow projection of land at the meeting point of the streams is covered with stones of all sizes shaped like shivalingas. The Kaveri, actually, is not another river but a part of the Narmada itself that encircles the island on the north. Legend has it that it was here that Kuber, the god of wealth, sat and meditated without food and water for 100 years. Satisfied with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before Kuber and asked him what he wanted. To this Kuber replied that he wished to be the king of the Yakshas and gain immortality. Like all good mythological stories, his wish was granted and he lived happily ever after in the photo-frames in many a temple and home.

Apart from its religious sanctity, the sangam is the perfect spot to cool down after the arduous parikrama. To many of us, a holy place by the river is synonymous with dirty, polluted water. But this is not the case here. The water here is clean, so you can take off your shoes, sit on a rock and dip your feet in the cool water. Pilgrims are required to take a dip in the waters of the sangam to cleanse themselves before heading on.

This is also a great place to hunt for banalingas. These are pebbles found on the bed of the Narmada, believed to be the natural embodiments of Shiva and considered holier than any other iconic form of the deity. According to the Puranic text, Aparajitapariprchchha, banalingas are fragments of ‘Tripura’, the kingdom of the arrogant demon Banasura, which fell on the banks of Narmada when Shiva`s arrow reduced the kingdom to miniscule pieces. These pieces multiplied into thousand liga-shaped stones on the river`s bed. As they were parts of Banasura`s kingdom, they are called banalingas. A Hindu text, the Suta Samhita, mentions that the most auspicious banalingas are shaped like lotus seeds. These are sought after for worship by Hindus.

After the sangam, the parikrama route becomes even more interesting. The path takes a sudden turn and after a short climb one reaches the top of the island. For the next few kilometers, the road is level. Here you come across broken fort walls and ruins of temples and gateways which prove that at one point of time, the city existed only on the island. Many of the old temples have been built over and modernized, some of them wonderfully preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India, but most are still in ruins.

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