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Empire city

Empire city

Author: Piyush Roy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 3, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/268256.html

Built on the right bank of the river Shipra, Ujjain has seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms and rulers-from Vikramaditya to emperor Ashok and Iltutmish. Now the city sprawls on both sides of the river like any other Indian small town, its garish billboards grinning at squat concrete houses. But all roads in Avantika, one of the many names that the city has collected over centuries, still lead to the old town and its gallis of incense-filled flower shops.

On the streets, a quaint vehicle chugs past the curious traveller every few minutes. It's neither a jeep, nor an autorickshaw-more colourful and spacious than the former but slower and on three wheels like the latter-and it cannot but make you itch for a ride. And if your pondering stance has tourist written large over it, one of the garrulous tempo drivers will stop and offer you a ride. Like our driver, Ram Singh, who convinced us that a ride through the city couldn't be better undertaken than in his rattletrap. So our group of 10 trooped in for a leisurely journey-the tempo rides at about 20km/hr-into the temple town. For starters, Ram Singh throws us a challenge. "If you fill a sack of rice, and leave a grain each at the doorstep of every temple you visit, the sack will eventually empty, but the number of temples to see about town would still be far from over."

Indeed, Ujjain isn't only about its famed Mahakaleshwar Temple, one of the 12 Swayambhu jyotirlings (where, according to mythology, the lord voluntarily chooses to reside), in the country. Shiva is a common presence in most of Ujjain's temples, irrespective of the resident deity, be it as a lingam, an image or that rare sculpted idol.

But the one that would shock purists is the alcohol-guzzling Kaal Bhairav on the town's outskirts. A normal puja thali here is incomplete without a bottle of alcohol. The pundit empties half the bottle into the mouth of the Shiva idol, pours a quarter into his kamandal and returns the remaining quarter as prasad. The unique rituals can be sourced to the Kaal Bhairav's original devotees, the Aghoris, Kapaliks and their Tantric ways of propitiation. No visit to Mahakaleshwar is considered fruitful unless complimented by a worship of the Kaal Bhairav. So you better take your own bottle of alcohol along, unless you want to buy the exorbitantly priced liquor available off the temple.

Not far from the Kaal Bhairav's seat is the Bhairogarh village, home to the famous Bhairogarh prints. For an outsider they may look like another shade of Batik, but the signature Malwa prints have many a local tale to tell and style to preserve.
Medieval history finds an echo in the Persian architecture of the Kaliadeh Palace, surrounded by the Shipra and other man-made tanks with inscriptions recording the visits of emperor Akbar (who made Ujjain the capital of Malwa) and the 17th century Jantar Mantar built by Raja Jai Singh. Part of his five famous observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Banaras and Mathura, this one still works and is even used for weather forecasts. Do avail the services of an official guide and you will return back with your scientific temper reasonably enhanced on Ujjain's status as India's Greenwich from the 4th century BC.

But not every thing from the past is forever and even this ancient city too is changing. Our favourite mode of transport till now, the tempo is also on the verge of extinction having already made way for sleeker, environment friendly options in the bigger cities of Madhya Pradesh like Indore and Bhopal. "They are now just limited to Ujjain and Ratlam (in neighbouring Rajasthan), though here too they will be phased out by the end of 2008," informs Singh. "So click enough pictures to keep this ride for keeps," he laughs, as he drops us back at one of the many sweet shops at the city centre. We gorge on platefuls of rabri and gazaks which I bet they don't make any better anywhere. No wonder, so many gods have opted for Ujjain as their earthly abode.


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