Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga — the presiding deity of Time, Lord Shiva, in all his splendour, reigns eternally in the city of Ujjain. The temple of Mahakaleshwar (a.k.a. Mahakal), its shikhar soaring into the sky, an imposing facade against the skyline, evokes primordial awe and reverence with its majesty.
Located in Ujjain, Mahakaleshwar Temple is set on side of Rudrasagar Lake. Mahakaleshwar Temple is one among the famous Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is also one of the twelve Jyotirlingas which are considered the most sacred abodes of Shiva. The presiding deity of the temple is Lord Shiva who is present there in the lingam form. The form is believed to be Swayambhu which is derived from currents of power (Shakti) from within.
The real establishment date/period of the temple cannot be ascertained, but earliest references to the Mahakal are from 6th century BCE. The temple, in its present form, was reconstructed in 18th century.
The temple is also regarded as one of the top 10 Tantra temples of India. It is the only temple where the ritual of Bhasm-Aarti (ash ritual) is performed. The aarti is conducted on a daily basis to wake up Lord Shiva. People from different corners of the world visit the temple to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva.
According to the legend, there was a ruler of Ujjain called Chandrasen, who was a pious devotee of Lord Shiva and worshipped him all the time. One day, a farmer’s boy named Shrikhar was walking on the grounds of the palace and heard the King chant the Lord’s name and rushed to the temple to start praying with him. However, the guards moved him out by force and sent him to the outskirts of the city near River Kshipra. Rivals of Ujjain, primarily King Ripudaman and Kind Singhaditya of the neighbouring kingdoms decided to attack the Kingdom and take over its treasures around this time.
Hearing this, Shrikhar started to pray and the news spread to a priest named Vridhi. He was shocked to hear this and upon the urgent pleas of his sons, he started to pray to Lord Shiva inside River Kshipra. The Kings chose to attack and were successful; with the help of the powerful danav Dushan, who was blessed by Lord Brahma to be invisible, they plundered the city and attacked all the devotees of Lord Shiva. Upon hearing the pleas of His helpless devotees, Lord Shiva appeared in his Mahakal form and destroyed the enemies of King Chandrasen.
Upon the request of his devotees Shrikhar and Vridhi, Lord Shiva agreed to reside in the city and become the chief deity of the Kingdom and take care of it against its enemies and to protect all His devotees. From that day on, Lord Shiva resided in His light form as Mahakal in a Lingam that got formed on its own from the powers of the Lord and His consort, Parvati. The Lord also blessed his devotees and declared that people who worshipped Him in this form would be free from the fear of death and diseases. Also, they would be granted worldly treasures and be under the protection of the Lord himself.
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.
We were told that 2 a.m. was a good time to go to the temple to avoid the rush. I woke up around 1 a.m. to get ready to go to the Mahakaleshwar temple since the driver warned about the queue to be very long as many people come to watch. We reached the temple by 2 a.m. There is a strict dress code: men have to wear dhoti and not even vest is allowed in such a chilly winter night and women have to wear sarees. There are shops outside the temple which rent dhotis and sarees.
After wearing the dhoti and angavastram, I stood in the queue of pilgrims and I found to my dismay that I was behind around 200 people already after going so early and it seemed that the people were gathering there since midnight!
Problems with Overcrowding
Then after waiting till 4 a.m. the people started entering the temple in small groups guided by the temple police. Then after a long walk when it was finally my turn to pour water on the Shiva lingam, they decided it was time to commence aarti and I didn’t get a chance for jalabhishekam.
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. I then thought there is still a chance and I would be able to watch bhasm aarti but when I reached the gallery, it was already full and all seats allowing a view into the sanctum are taken. They have capacity for only 200 but they just allow extra people so that they enjoy witnessing the aarti on the TV screen.
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. Mahakaleshwar is the only Jyotirlinga temple, where the bhasm-aarti is performed. Amidst vedic chants and stotras and sounds of cymbals, conchs and damru, the bhasm-aarti is performed every morning.
The bhasm-aarati is a lifetime experience to watch and especially it is the only temple where there is this practice of bhasm-aarti. During this crucial minute and a half, women are asked to cover their eyes and they have to cover their faces with the veil. This part I found ridiculous — why are women not to look at the Lord when he is adorned with the bhasm, when they had already watched Him being adorned with sandalwood paste?
I later on learned that the bhasm being used is 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, accompanied by chants of praises to the Lord.
Nityaya, Shudhaaya, Digambaraaya,
Tasmai ‘Na’kaaraaya Namashivaaya!
After the aarti is over, I returned to hotel and went on sleep. The shrine board and the temple authorities need to improve their pilgrim management and ensure proper queue management for the benefits of the pilgrims.