The ancient city of Ujjain lies on the banks of the holy River Shipra, a tributary of the Chambal. It is popularly held that the number of temples in Ujjain is so large that if a pilgrim comes here with two cartloads of grain and offers only one handful at each temple, he/she would still run short of offerings. Here's our list of 10 places that you absolutely must see when you're in Ujjain.
Madhav Nagar Tower
Madhav Nagar Tower is a major landmark in Ujjain. This elegant clock tower was built in the early 20th century by Madho Rao Scindia. As the city got increasingly crowded, Madho Rao offered the land around the tower to new settlers. A post office now functions from the first two floors of the tower. Apart from this landmark, Ujjain has a plethora of temples that will primarily make up your itinerary for the city.
One of the 12 jyotirlingas, this temple, popularly known as the Mahakal Temple, is one of the most sacred Shiva temples in India. Located in the heart of Ujjain, it is also the best place to start exploring this ageless town. The market around the temple is also Ujjain’s commercial centre. Glass-fronted ATMs share walls with kiosks selling puja paraphernalia, while denim-clad young men jostle for space with naga sadhus. There is no way to ascertain the exact date that the Mahakaleshwar Temple was built. Ancient Hindu texts say that the foundations of the temple were laid by Lord Brahma himself. There is a reference in the Puranas of the appointment of Prince Kumarasena as the administrative head of Mahakala Temple by the erstwhile ruler of Ujjain. It is assumed by historians that the temple had no shikhara up till the Gupta period. This was probably why the great Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa, described the temple as a niketan (house) in Raghuvamsha. So taken was Kalidasa with this great temple that in the early chapters of Meghadoota, he would describe in length the beauty of the shrine. After the decline of the Guptas, Mahakaleshwar Temple came to be patronised by successive dynasties. It was said that no one could rule over Ujjain without first capitulating to Mahakaleshwar. Among the diverse works of literature composed in the ancient and early medieval period, many sang praises of the Mahakaleshwar Temple, including Harshacharita and Kadambari by the poet Banabhatta.
Bada Ganapati Temple
Located next to the Mahakal Temple complex, on the road leading to Harsiddhi Temple, is Bada Ganapati Temple. It enshrines a massive 4-m tall idol of Ganesha. In one of the chambers one can see a beautiful four-faced brass idol of Vishnu.
The Shipra forms the spiritual lifeline of Ujjain. Legends state that during the samudra manthan and the consequent fight between the gods and the demons, a drop of divine nectar fell near Ujjain and that gave rise to the Shipra river. A dip in its waters cleanses the soul and prepares one for moksha. For centuries, people have been thronging the banks of the sacred river not only for holy baths but also to perform life-cycle rituals. Ghats have been built all along the banks of the river for this purpose, the most important of them being the Ram Ghat. Flanking the eastern bank of the Shipra, the Ram Ghat stretches for almost a kilometre from the Pashupati Temple in the south to the road bridge across the river in the north. The wide promenade is dotted with temples and the air is full of the sound of temple bells. The best time to explore the ghat is early morning and late evening. The first rays of the morning sun illuminate the numerous temple spires along the banks and herald a new day of ardent worship. Devotees wade into the waist-deep water and perform the surya tapas, welcoming the new day. One can walk down the entire length of the ghat from south to north and also cross over to the ghats on the western bank, which are somewhat less crowded. Arguably the most spectacular scene on Ram Ghat is the sandhya aarti, a daily ritual, in which priests gather on both banks at sundown to worship the sacred river. Keeping rhythm with the chant of Sanskrit shlokas, and the clash of cymbals and drums, the river is worshipped with flowers, incense, sandalwood and vermillion. First, the camphor lamp and then the many-flamed aarti lamps are raised high and then arched back to the water, the dark river reflecting the golden flames as the Shipra accepts the worship. As the evening draws on, silence descends on those witnessing the aarti ceremony. Hands are folded, eyes are shut and lips quiver in prayer as the drummers beat with increasing intensity.
Temple of Gadkalika
It is said that the deity enshrined in the temple was once worshipped by Kalidasa. The legend goes that Kalidasa, whose verses were once quite ordinary, gained his literary genius through the blessings of Gadkalika. Gadkalika (goddess Kali of the fortress) is supposed to be one of the earliest deities to be worshipped in Ujjain. The fort does not exist anymore but archaeological evidence points to a flourishing settlement in the immediate vicinity around the 6th century BCE. Like many of Ujjain’s other shrines, the Gadkalika Temple has been rebuilt a number of times. The first recorded renovation was made by Harshavardhana of Thaneshwar in 7th century CE. Then following the destruction wrecked by the ruthless invasion of Iltutmish, it was rebuilt by the Paramaras in the 12th century CE. The temple was rebuilt yet again by the Scindias of Gwalior in the middle of the 19th century. In consonance with the Maratha architectural style, two deepastambhas flank the entrance on the inside. The temple is located 2 km away from Mahakaleshwar.
Kal Bhairav Temple
Crossing the bridge over the Shipra, near the Bhartrihari Caves, one reaches Kal Bhairav Temple, barely a kilometre away. The worship of the ashta bhairavs or eight fearful attendants of Lord Shiva is a part of the long and unbroken Shaivite tradition of Ujjain and, since the chief among these is Kal Bhairav, this temple is particularly significant to the town. The worship of Kal Bhairav is especially integral to the Kapalika and Aghora sects, for whom Ujjain serves as a key centre of practice. This temple is believed to have been built by King Bhadrasen of Mahismati (modern Maheshwar). The antiquity of the temple is attested by its mention in the Avanti Khanda of the Skanda Purana. Like most of the other temples in Ujjain, Kal Bhairav Temple was rebuilt during the Maratha period. It was surrounded by a massive wall pierced to the east by a gateway built on the lines of a Mughal naubatkhana. Inside the enclosure, the temple was originally flanked by two massive deepastambhas of which only one survives. Like Kal Bhairav temples elsewhere in the country, offerings to the deity include not only flowers, coconuts and incense, but also liquor. Shops outside the temple selling puja paraphernalia also sell both ‘Indian Made Foreign Liquor’ (IMFL) and desi (country) liquor to offer to the deity. In the garbhagriha, bottles of liquor are handed over to the priest, who proceeds to pour half its contents down a hole that marks the mouth of the idol. The remaining is given back to the devotee as prasad.
Away from the city lies this scenic palace. The serene environs of this sprawling complex on the Shipra river gives the traveller a fair idea of what Ujjain might have looked like in the height of its glory. The palace is located in a little island on the Shipra and man-made tanks and waterways inside the complex give the illusion that the entire structure is floating on the sacred waters. An inscription found in the palace complex says that it was constructed in 1458 CE during the reign of Mahmud Khilji of Malwa. One of Mahmud’s later successors, Nasiruddin Khilji constructed tanks and waterways around the palace to withstand the summer sun. The main durbar hall of the palace is crowned with a majestic dome, built in accordance with the Persian style of architecture. Two inscriptions in Persian were found in one of the long corridors of the palace which record that the Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jehangir visited Kaliadeh Palace. The palace complex suffered major damages during the war between the Marathas and the Pindaris in 1818. After the Pindaris were crushed, the palace remained uninhabited and neglected until Madho Rao Scindia restored it to its former glory in 1920.
This observatory was built in the 17th century by Sawai Jai Singh (1688-1743) during his tenure as the governor of Malwa. It is located on the Ujjain-Fatehabad road about 2km southwest of Mahakal Temple. The Tropic of Cancer, as per modern calculations, is just to the north of Ved Shala. Locals call it Jantar Mantar, a corruption of the Hindi words yantra (instrument) and mantra (formula). The purpose of the observatory was to compile astronomical tables, and predict the movement of the sun, moon and planets. Ujjain’s Ved Shala consists of four main instruments. The Samrata Yantra, measuring 6.7 m high, is used for calculating time. Equinoctial days are computed with the help of the Nadi Walaya Yantra. The Digansha Yantra is used to determine the position of stars and planets, while the Bhitti Yantra calculates the decline of the sun and the distance of the zenith. Additionally, the observatory also houses a planetarium and a telescope. Apart from Ujjain, Jai Singh built similar observatories at Delhi, Mathura, Varanasi and Jaipur. The observational techniques and instruments used here are said to have been far superior to those used by contemporary European astronomers. In fact, Jai Singh spent eight years observing the activities of the planets and making alterations to the instruments. The date of the construction of the observatory, however, is quite obscure. Virendra Nath Sharma in Sawai Jai Singh and His Astronomy states that, “there are reasons to believe that the observatory must have been constructed before 1730 as one finds its mention in texts written about that time”. After completion, the observatory remained in operation for a decade or so. Its operation ceased after Jai Singh’s death in 1743 , only to be renovated and revived two decades later by Madho Rao Scindia.
Located at Triveni Ghat, the Navagraha Temple (temple of the nine planets) attracts crowds of devotees on full moon nights. It is located 3 km from Nanakheda bus terminus on the Ujjain-Indore highway. The temple consists of a low rectangular structure divided into 11 chambers. In each are enshrined images of the solar system. Every shrine is crowned with a dome, painted a different colour. The largest dome, in red, crowns the shrine dedicated to Surya, the sun god.
Traditionally, banyan trees have been held in great reverence across India. The holy banyan tree of Ujjain, Siddhavat, is worshipped with the same devotion as a deity. The Skanda Purana mentions that Parvati, the consort of Shiva, used to perform her penance under this very tree. It is also from Siddhavat that the Saptamatrikas (seven mother goddesses including Chamunda, or Kali) are said to reveal themselves to the devout. This tree grows on the banks of the Shipra, where a ghat has been constructed for devotees to take holy dips in. An interesting story boosts the faith of the people in Siddhavat. Once, at the behest of a Mughal ruler, the tree was cut off and the site was covered with thick iron sheets. But in spite of this, even the tender saplings pierced through the iron and grew into a new tree.