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 provides input about her experience at the Mahakaleshwar temple.
Mahakaleshwar Temple's Bhasm 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 offering of fire to him (by circulating lamps, incense and other items).
The unique thing about this aarti is the inclusion of bhasm, which is 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 Bhasm Aarti
We were told that the bhasm 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.
The aarti is extremely popular and bookings need to be made to see it. This can be done online here a month in advance and is recommended. There's no cost. Bookings can also be made at the dedicated counter at the temple entrance the day prior. However, places fill up fast.
Do note that there's a dress code when attending the bhasm aarti if you wish to go inside the inner sanctum and participate in the jal abhishek ritual (offering water to the god) before the aarti starts.
Men have to wear a traditional dhoti and women must wear a sari. People start lining up at the temple from around 1 a.m. to gain entry, so you'll need to arrive early and wait.
Cell phones and cameras are not permitted to be taken inside the temple premises, and security checks are conducted. There's a storage counter where you can leave your belongings.
Seeing the Bhasm Aarti
The bhasm aarti commences shortly after the jal abhishek ritual. There are four halls outside the temple's inner sanctum from where the aarti can be observed, some of which have been newly constructed to accommodate more devotees. The differences are in their size and location. Allocation is based on availability when booking. Nandi Mandapam is the preferred hall to be in, as it's smaller (fits only 100 people) and closest to the temple's inner sanctum. The larger Ganpati Mandapam is situated beside Nandi Mandapam and is the next best option, with stairs to sit on for an uninterrupted view. It can fit 400 people. Kartikey Mandapam is a new hall above Ganpati Mandapam. Bhasmarti Mandapam is another new hall located the furthest away. The aarti is telecast onto giant screens while it's being performed.
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.
Paid Darshan Tickets
After the bhasm aarti is over, devotees may go inside the inner sanctum and offer their personal prayers to the Lord. Paid Darshan Tickets are available for those who don't want to stand for a long time in line. These tickets cost 250 rupees per person, and can be booked online here or purchased at the temple.
Sujata Mukherjee may be contacted by email. firstname.lastname@example.org