Omkareshwar is a river island in the Narmada about 4 km by 2 km in size. It is also a hill that is surrounded by waters of the Narmada on all sides. If you take an aerial view of the island, it forms the sign of OM – one of the many reasons why it is called Omkareshwar. Om is the primordial sound from which we believe everything emerged.
Home to one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, Omkareshwar is one of the holiest places or kshetras in India.
It is believed that in Satyuga when kind Mandhata of Ikshvaku dynasty, an ancestor of Sri Ram, ruled the island of Omkareshwar on the Narmada shine brightly. Puzzled by this, sage Narada asked Shiva, what is it. Shiva said the island would change appearance during every Yuga. In Satyuga, it is a giant sparkling gem, in Treta Yuga it would be a mountain of gold, in Dwapar yuga it would be copper and in Kaliyuga it would be a rock. So, rock it is today in our Kaliyuga.
Omkareshwar Island is a living island. The part of towns on the island is called Shivpuri. It is said that once upon a time there used to be towns of Brahmpuri and Vishnupuri. Together they formed the Tripuri.
Most important place on Omkareshwar Island is, of course, the Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga. However, that is not all. No temple in India exists in isolation, there are always subsidiary shrines of family shrines surrounding the main temple, a parikrama path or circumambulation path if it a holy kshetra or region. So, come with me to explore the sacred geography of this ancient and holy island.
History of Omkareshwar
The scriptures suggest a continued habitation of Omkareshwar since 5500 years at least. It gets a mention in Puranas that also indicates it was a living place as well as a pilgrimage place for a long time.
In the recorded history, Omkareshwar was under the Parmar Rulers of Malwa from 10-13th CE, followed by Chauhan Rajputs. Even during the overall Mughal rule, Omkareshwar was under the administration of Chauhans. In 18th CE Marathas took over and that is when a lot of temples were built or renovated. Eventually, it came under British rule until India gained independence in 1947.
Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple is located on the Northern bank of Narmada. You can access it either via a boat ride or the Mamleshwar Setu. Ideally, take a boat ride one way and walk the other. A series of steps from the ghats lead to the temple. You will pass through canopies of flower sellers to reach the base of the temple.
The mandapa of the temple is beautifully made of 60 solid stone pillar carved with Yakshi figures. Around the temple walls, you will find images of various Devi Devatas.
A unique thing about the Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga temple is that the main Shivalinga is not below the Shikara, it is on the side. I guess the temple may have been built later, and incline of the hill may not have allowed Shikhara over the Shivalinga. I could not gather any other reason for this. If you know, please do let me know.
The Shivalinga is in the form of a rock on which constantly water is offered. Three times a day the Abhishek is done with milk, curd, and Narmada water. Behind the Shivalinga in a niche is the image of Parvati in silver. Morning Puja is done by temple trust, day puja is done by Scindias and evening one by the Holkars. Shayan or the night Arti is quite popular here. A bed is laid out for Shiva and Parvati in front of the Shivalinga. A game of Chaupad is placed for them to play before they go to sleep. This Arti is open to the public and you can witness this around 8:30 PM every night.
This temple is also called Omkar Mandhata temple as it is believed that it was the devotion of the Ikshvaku king Mandhata that brought Shivalinga here. His gaddi can still be seen in the temple premises. There are many small temples surrounding the main temple like a Panch Mukhi Hanuman Temple, a Shani Temple and a temple dedicated to Dwarkadhish.
Take the stairs from the back of the temple towards the hill and you would see a tall white wall – this is the Mandhata palace of Omkareshwar. There are 80 odd steps that you have to take to reach the gate of the palace. A part of it is open to the public.
Inside you see open corridor surrounded by pillared corridors like a typical North Indian Haveli. At one end is the simple yet colorful Durbar hall. There is a beautiful round ceiling with remains of glasswork on it. However, the best part of this hall is the view from its Jharokhas or overhanging windows. You see the top view of Omkareshwar temple – in fact, this is when I realized how big the temple is. The Narmada flowing between the deep gorge it has created for itself with colorful boats plying between its two shores is a lovely scene to sit and admire.
The palace belongs to the Holkars.
A 16 km Parikrama or circumambulation path goes around the island of Omkareshwar. This is a common feature in most pilgrim places in India. Pilgrims not just visit a temple but they go around the holy Kshetra or the holy region. This Kshetra is usually full of temples, ashrams and may pass through villages.
I could not do this Parikrama, but I gather it is a relatively easy walk through at places it requires you to go up and down. The route passes through Khedapati Hanuman Mandir, Omkarnath Ashram, Kedareshwar Temple, Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Markanda Ashram with 12 meter high image of Sri Krishna, Narmada Kaveri Sangam where Kuber meditated to become king of Yakshas, Rin Mukteshwar Temple, Dharanraj Dwar, Gauri Somnath temple, Patali Hanuman temple, giant statue of Shiva & Siddhanath temple.
Alternatively, you can do this Parikrama by boat. The only condition is the river should have enough water to allow boats to go around.
The Mamleshwar temple, also known as Amleshwar or Amareshwar temple is one half of the Jyotirlinga at Omkareshwar. Located on the southern bank of Narmada, near the Gomukh ghat it is on the mainland. It is said that your Omkareshwar pilgrimage is not complete without visiting this temple.
Mamleshwar temple is located in a walled complex well protected by ASI as a complex of 7 different temples. In terms of temple architecture, Mamleshwar temple complex has an old world charm. When you walk around the temple complex you are transported back in time surrounded by mighty stone walls with carved sculptures. A Nandi Mandap outside the main temple is worth noting.
A unique practice of Lingarchana at Mamleshwar is the worship of thousand Banlingas that are placed in concentric circles around the main Shivalinga every day. I did not see it at Mamleshwar, but I did see it at Maheshwar.
Besides this, there is Kashi Vishwanath Temple and a Vishnu Temple that are frequented by the visitors.
The Narmada at Omakareshwar
Omkareshwar cannot be visited without paying your respects to the Narmada. The holy river that not just surrounds the Mandhata hill on which the main Omkareshwar temple is located but also flows between the two most important temples here – Mamleshwar & Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga.
At Omkareshwar, the Narmada cuts a deep gorge. The tall stones that she has cut through her waters overages can be seen when you walk on the bridge connecting the two shores. It reminds of the power of persistence when the water can cut the solid stone hills to make way for itself. When you look at the Google Maps image, it feels the water made way on either side of the tall hill making it an island.
Ghats of Narmada at Omkareshwar have their own life. The colorful boats ferry customers from one end to another, others take them for a circumambulation around the island.
Omkareshwar lies midway between the journey of the Narmada from its source at Amarkantak to its final destination at Arabian sea near Bharuch. Omkareshwar is believed to be the Nabhi Sthal or the navel of the river and a perfect place begin and end the Narmada Parikrama. For others who start from the source, it is still an important stop on the Narmada Parikrama Journey.
Adi Shankaracharya and Omakareshwar
Adi Shankaracharya was born in Kerala and in his short span of 32 years of life, he not only traveled across India but he also set up the 4 Mathas in 4 directions. This organized the philosophical thought process of India across four cardinal directions. However, the first journey that Adi Shankaracharya made out of his hometown of Kelady was to Omkareshwar to learn from his Guru Govind Bhagwatapada. This is where he mastered Vedanta and write commentaries for us to understand them. This is where he meditated to Ma Kalika in a cave below the temple.
The Govindeshwara Guha still exists with two openings leading inside. There is an idol of Adi Shankaracharya in the center. The pillars and the carved stones indicate that it must have been converted into a temple at some point in time. When? No one knows. On the right of the cave, a few steps through the ornate doorway lead to another small room. I wonder if this is where Adi Shankaracharya lived once. On the other side, extremely narrow steps go up, probably to the temple above.
Must Read – Adi Shankaracharya – Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker
My wish to sit in this cave and chant Lalita Sahastranama was fulfilled during this trip. I got to spend good 45 mins in the cave all by myself, trying to converse with the Devi as Adi Shankaracharya would have done once.
Travel Tips for Omkareshwar
- Omkareshwar is just 70 km from Indore. You can easily do it as a day trip from the city. However, if you would like to see the Shayan Arti and morning divinity, you must stay here for at least one night. If you want to do Omkareshwar Parikrama – I recommend two nights though you can squeeze it in one night stay as well.
- Omkareshwar an ancient pilgrimage site has stay options for all budgets. You can stay in Dharamshala’s for next to nothing. There are ample food options. I stayed at the MP Tourism’s Narmada Resort that has a lovely view of the temple and the river.
- No photography is allowed inside the Omkareshwar temple, everywhere else you can do photography.
- Omkareshwar is a holy place, so dress and behave accordingly.