Monday, 14 October 2013

HOLY RIVERS AND HAIRY SANDWICHES- Chitrakut, Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, India

We were greeted at Chitrakut station, off the overnight train from Calcutta, by a large group of young auto rickshaw drivers all keen to take us the 10 kilometres to the ghat area (ghats are steps descending into the water- there will be a lot of references to them in this blog entry!!). Bleary eyed, we agreed on a price, and were jolted in wakefulness by the appalling potholes in the dusty road, and Richard hitting his head on the rickshaw roof. We were disappointed to pass through an uninteresting hole of a town, and extremely relieved to arrive at the quiet and charming ghat area where we were to be staying, especially when we looked up and saw the huge, unique old building housing our guesthouse.

View of Chitrakut

Our guesthouse location, Chitrakut

 Chitrakut is sometimes referred to as a “mini Varanasi”, but really the only resemblance is the lovely grand old buildings towering over a ghat area. And it is ALOT smaller- really only the size of one of Varanasi’s bigger ghats. But the atmosphere is peaceful, with small numbers of pilgrims and sadhus (holy men who wander the country) mixing with locals performing their ablutions, mainly in the mornings and late afternoon. Goats, dogs, geese, monkeys, donkeys, and of course, cows also shared the space. 

The town is most famous as the place Rama went when he was forced to leave Ayodhya for 14 years (see here for a blog post about Ayodhya). Most people greeted us with “Jai Si Ram”, or just “Ram Ram”, and most of the temples are dedicated to Rama. As Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu, there was also a lot of Vaishites (holy men devoted to following Vishnu) around town- we find them particularly cool looking!

Holy man, Chitrakut

Holy man, Chitrakut

Holy man, Chitrakut

Our guesthouse was perched high above the activity, but close enough to watch the action, which we enjoyed. At night the row boats suddenly came to life with flickering coloured lights coming on, and, strangely, rabbits hopping around onboard. A nightly aarti (a prayer by the water, complete with flames, music and singing) was performed at various points along the river, and we loved sitting down on the ghats watching the bustle. One man with some English told us we were “Watching the India stage”. Well put!

Part of the nightly aarti celebrations

Although there were one or two other tourists around, the pilgrims were very interested in us, but unfortunately, our Hindi is practically non-existent, and this state (actually right on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) doesn’t teach English in schools, so there was a lot of staring, smiling and nodding! The food situation was strange, because the town caters primarily for poor pilgrims, there was an extremely limited choice for eating- a basic thali restaurant (a thali is a dish with a little bit of everything on one plate- usually as much as one can eat), or greasy fried noodles and snacks on the street. So we delved in, well recovered from whatever sickness we’d had in Calcutta, thank God!!

Local chai man

Thali for lunch (rice came later)

We somehow found out a few places nearby to visit, an started out with Kamadgiri Hill- a sacred hill with a pleasant 5 km path around the bottom, and shared the hike around the temples, old buildings, and stalls selling religious trinkets, with hundreds of pilgrims. The Macaque monkeys here, as everywhere we went these past few weeks, were an absolute menace. They are so aggressive, and are not scared of humans at all, and only run away if there is stones or a stick involved- we made sure we took one everywhere, We felt sorry for the locals, who would have to constantly be on guard against the little buggars. 

Doorway, Kadamgiri Hill, Chitrakut

Couple of cuties, Chitrakut

The Hanuman Dhana Temple was another delight, and we climbed the steps to a fantastic view, and watched the gorgeous, black-faced, lanky Langur monkeys playing and grooming. These monkeys have a completely different nature to the Macaques, and even when they are fed by hand, do not become violent. It was a fitting way to spend our time at the temple, with Hanuman being the monkey God.

Cute boys, Chitrakut

Love these mud and straw houses, Chitrakut

Lovely langurs, Chitrakut

One thing we disliked about Chitrakut was the greedy priests in many of the temples. We only had to set foot in the place before they were demanding donations. Whether this is due to Chitrakut being a poor area, or because it is a pilgrimage town, we don’t know. There were also a lot of beggars, but as fellow visitors to India will know this is something one has to get used to. Having said that, we also met some lovely, generous people, religious and other-wise, who were happy for us to sit with them and “chat” with no ulterior motives.

Hanging out with the holymen, Chitrakut

Pretty locals, Chitrakut


Our eventual arrival at Omkareshwar, involved an overnight train (late), a local train (late), a bus heaving with pilgrims(standing room only), and a lot of waiting in between. Never having been here before, we were expecting what Lonely Planet calls “a popular chill out destination on the backpacker trail” and Rough Guide calls “a favourite with hard core Western and Israeli dope heads”. Actually, at this time of year, we found nothing like that, with only a couple of other tourists, not many signs in English, or facilities for travellers. Omkareshwar is an island in the Naramada River, and a hugely popular pilgrimage place for Hindus, with most temples dedicated to the God Shiva, and most amazingly, is shaped like the Om sign- a very special and auspicious symbol for Hindus.

Omkareshwar shrine

Reflective man, Omkareshwar

Dramatic cliff scenery, Omkareshwar

View of ghats, Omkareshwar

We were lucky enough to coincide our arrival with a BIG day for the town- that of the dark moon. The sight which greeted us on our first morning visit to the ghats was both exiting and bizarre. Groups of people were waist deep in the river every few meters, with priests performing ceremonies that could only be described as extraordinary. It was mostly women being doused and dunked in the water by the priests, and their reactions range from screaming, shaking, babbling, falling down, fainting and waving their arms around- quite a spectacle. The priests were also on show, with much eye rolling and moaning, and some outlandish gear to attract the crowds.

Overwhelmed woman

The crowd gathers

Odd get-up on the preist

Another dramatic priest

Feeling the spirit

An intense experience

No-one seemed to mind us being there and watching and taking photos- actually people were smiling and pointing at us like we were the weird ones!! It was pretty hard to find out exactly what was going on, but most people told us the women were simply overwhelmed by being close to God during the ritual. It reminded us of strange kind of baptism, or an exorcism like in an Evangelical church.

Amongst all this were hundreds of other pilgrims milling around, and lines of beggars all sitting on their pathetic little plastic sheets waiting with their metal bowls for handouts.

Friendly pilgrims, Omkareshwar

Love the poses, guys!

Scene at the ghats, Omkareshwar

Scene at the ghats, Omkareshwar
Richard's really started to let himself go!

After that first day, most people seemed to disappear, and the town became quiet and transformed (and actually, not quite as interesting). We spent a few days here walking and relaxing- our guesthouse being a bit of a haven, with rooftop views of the ghats, and amazing food in the restaurant (until the last morning, when Richard’s toasted sandwich contained something that looked suspiciously like animal fur! The offer to prepare another was rejected by Richard, who, for some reason, had lost his appetite!).

An enjoyable activity was the pilgrimage walk around Omkareshwar Island, with signs printed with mantras (prayers) every few meters so we couldn’t lose the way. It was a long walk, an a mixture of atmospheric old ruined temples, mud brick villages, great views out over the river, bathing ghats, stalls selling drinks and trinkets and steps and more steps!!

Giant Shiva statue, Omkareshwar

Beautiful temple, Omkareshwar

View of river from temple, Omkareshwar

Surviving miniature painting, Omkareshwar


A three hour bus ride from Omkareshwar was the town of Maheshwar- by far the most beautiful and magical of the three pilgrim river towns we had visited since leaving Calcutta. Maheshwar also has a more interesting history- the fort was originally built by the Mughal emperor, Akbar, and finished off in the eighteenth century with a palace and several atmospheric temples by a queen of the Holkar dynasty. It sits on the banks of the Narmada River (the same river on which Omkareshwar is situated).

Boy flying a kite on ghats

Ghat area, Maheshwar

Nandis on ghats, Maheshwar

Boatmen, Maheshwar

The character of the ghats area in Maheshwar was so peaceful, with the huge fort/palace towering over the river one side, and green fields on the far side. Probably at times it becomes busy with pilgrims, but when we visited there were few people around- just a few ladies washing their colourful clothes, saris drying in the sun, a chai stall, a handful of sadhus, and men with boats- either fishing or taking out people to the tiny island temple in the middle of the river. The best surprise was no monkeys at all!!

Maheshwar ghats

Maheshwar ghats

Maheshwar ghats

Maheshwar ghats

Maheshwar ghats

Maheshwar ghats

Maheshwar ghats

Inside the fort area is mainly residential, with meandering laneways filled with little houses and families, but the biggest draw for us was the gorgeous main temple we’d seen from the ghats. Inside it was a plethora of intricate carvings, beautiful doorways and sweeping views down the river.

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Maheshwar fort

Also inside, we found several other less elaborate temples, and the small palace area, which as well as a ridiculously priced luxury hotel ($300 per night- how can people spend that on a room in India?!!), housed a small display about Queen Ahilya, who built and improved much of Maheshwar, as well as many other places, and was a much loved benefactor of the people.

The streets around the river area were charming with little balconies and heavy carved wooden doors, and we encountered the friendliest people so far on this trip in India, and we might have stayed a couple more days in this attractive town (not being ones to rush, after all!), were it were not for the very ordinary food situation. Not only are the Chitrakut, Omkareshwar and Maheshwar vegetarian towns, they are so holy not even eggs are allowed. We decided to get ourselves to the large town of Indore and have a good feed!!

Little girl, Maheshwar

Movie poster, Maheshwar

Back streets, Maheshwar