Mahakaleshwar temple at Ujjain, in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, is an important pilgrimage place for Hindus as it's said to be one of the 12 Jyotirlingas (most sacred abodes of Shiva). It's also regarded as one of the top 10 Tantra temples of India, and has the only Bhasm-Aarti (ash ritual) of its kind in the world. However, does it live up to its hype? Sujata Mukherjee tells us about her experience at the Mahakaleshwar temple.
Mahakaleshwar Temple Aarti
The first thing you hear when you tell locals that you’re planning to visit the Mahakaleshwar temple is that you must ensure you attend the “Bhasm Aarti”. The Bhasm Aarti is the first ritual conducted everyday at the temple. It's performed to wake the god (Lord Shiva) up, do “Shringar” (anoint and dress him for the day), and carry out the first aarti (an offering of fire to the deity by circulating lamps, incense and other items). The unique thing about this aarti is the inclusion of “Bhasm”, or ash from funeral pyres, as one of the offerings. Mahakaleshwar is a name for Lord Shiva, and means the god of Time or Death. This may be one of the reasons of the inclusion of the funeral ash. You will be assured that this aarti is something that you shouldn’t miss, and that until fresh ash is not brought in the aarti cannot start.
Entry to the Aarti
We were told that the aarti begins at 4 a.m. and if we were to offer our own puja (prayer) separately, we’d have to do it after the aarti and we might spend a couple of hours waiting.
There are two ways to gain entry into the temple to watch this aarti –- one is through the free entry line, where you don’t have to pay except for any offerings that you want to take in. The other is through a “VIP” ticket, which lets you into a shorter line and helps you gain quicker entry to the sanctum.
Furthermore, if you’re in the free entry line, you’re allowed to wear what you want, as long as it is appropriate. If you’re in the VIP line, men have to wear the traditional dhoti, and women must wear a sari.
Aarti VIP Tickets
While everyone told us that the VIP tickets are available at the shrine board throughout the day, it is actually available only between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. Since we arrived in Ujjain in the evening, we missed this window and had to opt for the free entry line.
The “VIP” ticket is a feature of most popular temples in India. However, the perks of the “VIP” ticket vary. In Tirupati (possibly the most popular shrine in India), for example, the free entry line has a waiting time of 12 to 20 hours, and sometimes days. Using a VIP ticket shortens the wait time to about two hours or less, essentially letting you jump the line. But, the free entry and VIP lines merge before you enter the sanctum, so that eventually there is no difference in the two entry types.
In Ujjain, however, we found that the VIP entry assures you really that -- VIP treatment.
Aarti Free Entry Line
Firstly, only a hundred devotees are allowed through the free entry line, so you are advised to join the line early enough to ensure you get through.
We were told that 2 a.m. was a good time to go to the temple to avoid the rush. On arriving at 2 a.m., we found a family of seven already there -- who’d been told to join the queue at midnight, just to be sure. Then ensued a long wait, in the bone-chilling cold. We were skeptical about the warnings of crowding until 3 a.m., when people began coming in and the line quickly grew to about 200 to 300 people behind us. There were no announcements, no signs of life within the temple, nothing to tell us that the aarti would even happen, until at 4.20 a.m. when the doors were opened to go through security check.
The waiting halls within the temple have been equipped with screens telecasting live from within the sanctum to allow people who miss the entry to watch the aarti. So while a hundred people are actually allowed into the main complex, the others are allowed to remain in the waiting hall and watch the aarti on the screen.
To avoid wasting time in security check, it is better not to carry anything except your offering into the temple. We passed through security check into the waiting hall to find that the aarti had already started, with the “VIP” entrants already in the complex. They were also allowed to participate in the first ablutions of the God.
Problems with Overcrowding
The sanctum inside Mahakaleshwar Temple is too small to allow more than 10 people at a time, so the shrine board has set up a viewing gallery just outside the sanctum. By the time the free entry line is allowed into the viewing gallery, the VIP line has already entered and all seats allowing a view into the sanctum are taken. There ensues a semi-stampede when the free entry line devotees scramble to get to a spot that allows them even half a glimpse of the Lord.
Luckily, we managed to find a spot from where we could see half the lingam. For the rest, we had to watch the screens set up within the viewing gallery as well.
This, I consider unacceptable. I understand the need to control the number of people allowed through the free entry line, and also offering the option of a VIP ticket to allow aged people, or people who can afford it, to shorten their wait time. However, both lines need to be allowed in together. And, like in Tirupati, the lines must be merged before entering the sanctum. After all, these controls are only introduced by mortals in the shrine board, and were not intended by the Lord.
Bhasm Aarti Process
The entire aarti lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour. The first part of the aarti, while the "Shringar" is done, is sublime and well worth the scramble. However, the actual “Bhasm” part -- which we had heard hyped to no end -- lasts only about a minute and a half.
Furthermore, during this crucial minute and a half that we’d waited to watch from 2 a.m., women are asked to cover their eyes. This part I found ridiculous -- why are women not to look at the Lord when he is adorned with the Bhasm, when we had already watched him being adorned with sandalwood paste?
Not to be considered disrespectful, I did sneak a few peeks while the Bhasm part was on, hoping that the lord understood this is what I’d come to see and had endured the biting cold for. Moreover, we learned that the Bhasm being used was no longer from funeral pyres but actually just “vibhuti” – the sacred ash used in most temples, sometimes made from powdered cow dung.
After the Lord is adorned in the Bhasm, the actual aarti begins, with the offering of the lamps. Aarti is usually accompanied by chants of praises to the Lord, and I’ve watched aartis at other temples where the chants are really beautiful and exhilarating. At Mahakaleshwar temple, the chants were a disharmonious cacophony of voices and clashing cymbals, which rose in pitch and volume until I’m sure even the Lord couldn’t decipher what was being sung.
After the Aarti is Over
Then began the second stampede of the day. Once the aarti was over, devotees were allowed to offer their personal prayers to the Lord. To do this, a second line had to be formed and people scrambled out of the viewing gallery to join the other line.
Inexplicably, the people who were already in the viewing gallery had to go all the way out of the temple, and rejoin the line that had been formed earlier.
Essentially, the people who had been held back in the waiting hall because they didn’t make the lucky 100 swarmed forward to form the second line. The people who’d already made it in had to rejoin the line behind them – resulting in utter chaos. It would have been so much easier to get the people already in the viewing gallery complete their prayers and leave, and then let the others in, in an orderly fashion!
While one is waiting in the line, the priests come out with the aarti plate to give everybody the sacred tika, and this is when they check out the line for prospective business. The moment they see someone who looks well-off, they immediately offer to escort you in to perform an “Abhishekham” (a ritual allowing you to personally bathe the lingam and offer your prayers), obviously in return for a fee.
The poorer devotees are completely ignored beyond the tika.
We made it into the sanctum, and while there are volunteers standing there shoving the people to allow the line to keep moving, we were able to stall it long enough to perform our prayers satisfactorily without being shoved. This was achieved by strategically producing two 50 rupee notes when we neared the main priest.
Mahakaleshwar Temple Overall Experience
The Jyotirlingam of Mahakaleshwar is the only temple I’ve seen where the entire business of seeing and praying to the all-powerful Mahadeva is treated really like a business. The devotees in the free entry line are ignored -- they are not let in well before the aarti begins, no one ensures they have a fair chance of occupying seats to view the puja, no one cares for the poorer devotees who do not have the money to ensure they spend a few minutes undisturbed with their Lord. This is disappointing and discouraging, and explains the apathy felt by those in the free entry line for those in the VIP line.
Sujata Mukherjee, the author of this article, may be contacted by email. firstname.lastname@example.org