RADventure 2023: Episode 4 - Heritage & Habitats (10 - 23, March 2023)

Heritage & Habitats 

Prayagraj <> Sanjay Dhubri National Park <> Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve <> Ujjain

      10 March - 22 March 2023

Mother, I bow to thee!

Rich with thy hurrying streams,

bright with orchard gleams,

Cool with thy winds of delight,

Dark fields waving Mother of might,

Mother free!

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

Looking at the map of India, I often struggle with how little I know about this great country and its intricate mysteries — a highly diversified sub-continent with often conflicting and divergent traditions, disparate beliefs and practices. Yet somehow, some magic holds all of these dichotomies together.

As India races ahead as the most populous country in the world, in contrast, India is also among the top 10 bio-diverse nations of the world. India encompasses many thriving biomes that host many endemic, unique and charismatic species of flora and fauna. Think about it: India's forest covers 23% of its geographical area despite the highest population. This quest to experience the divergence of heritage, habits and habitats motivates my drive across the hinterland to learn how traditions, development, and nature overcome conflicts and blend to thrive.

Leaving behind the blooming flora and the towns of Uttarakhand we headed towards the plains.

Continuing on our journey we left Incredible Birding Camp (IBC) Sattal, at 0530 hrs on March 10, 2023, before the break of dawn. Naresh, the 'Man Friday' (cook cum everything) at IBC, handed us packed breakfast of sandwiches and boiled eggs just as we finished loading our vehicle. Thank you, Naresh.... that was one hell of a big help on a day of a long drive!

Episode 4 Route Map (2245 Km) - Sattal > Prayagraj > Sanjay-Dhubri > Bandhavgarh > Ujjain

From the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, we drove towards the plains of Uttar Pradesh via Haldwani, Bareily and Hardoi. A soothing drive down the hills, with the daylight gradually lighting up our way, clearing the misty paths. We planned to quickly get past Haldwani, the first major town on our route and hit National Highway 109. Just as I though "this seems to be a lovely stretch of road". Alas! We hit a blockade at the Haldwani by-pass - a convoy of trucks, tractors, and bullock carts arriving from all directions, headed to the adjacent sugarcane factory — an ugly halt to our smooth and musical drive. No sooner than we stopped, quite a few tractors joined the queue behind us, thus completely blocked and locked from both ends. For a moment, I thought, this is it; getting out of this mess will take the whole day; it was a complete deadlock! However, the great thing about India is not to panic. For every dicey situation, there is a 'jugaad' (a crude way out). Reading our worried face, the tractor driver, behind our vehicle pointed towards a barely visible narrow, dusty and an unkept lane, wide enough for a bullock cart; without thinking twice, we somehow managed to wriggle our vehicle through the slimmest gaps between vehicles and got onto that track, not knowing where it led to. Phew! Pitching & rolling like a rickety ship we drove on what seemed like an ancient road. It took us past the village and into Haldwani city, 'out of the blue, into the black'  .... an orderly world ... back on track and on with our journey!


The undulating mountainous terrain gave way to swaying sugarcane, wheat, and mustard fields. The road network, too, transformed into wider, better roads with a sudden bump in traffic. Around 9 am, we stopped on the roadside and relished the breakfast provided by Naresh (from IBC), followed by a steaming cup of tea. Talking about tea, the folks in the northern part of the country make a different concoction altogether. Loads of sugar and milk boiled with tea dust and sometimes with added ingredients (masala). The tea stall fellows often frowned with a puzzled glare when we asked for tea with practically no sugar, a dash of milk, some water and then some extra spoon of tea dust. In their terms, who on earth would have tea that way? For them, tea is boiled sugary syrup in milk! After all "pasand apni apni, khayal apna apna (to each his own)"


Devbhumi' is truly gifted not just nature, its people, landscape, the stories and the wildlife all put together it is nothing less than a dreamland. Pic- Daybreak near Sattal.

Past Hardoi, a district headquarter, Google suggested a way through the old town as the shortest and fastest route. Many times battered by the Google Maps bug, I have realised that Google's algorithm gets messy, especially in remote locations and old cities. Driving in India, it makes sense to review the route suggested by Google well before starting and when in doubt, stop and seek local advice. In most cases, the local advice is worth it. This time too, a passerby whom we asked, suggested a route which appeared to be more smooth and eventually faster in comparison to Google's recommendation. The person even offered to hop into our car and show us the way. Fantastic gesture which we politely declined. Honestly we did not have any spare space in the vehicle and at times such a help could get dicey. 

After ensuring we got the directions and milestones right, we set off towards 'Bangarmau', a town in Unnao district, where we merged onto the Agra - Lucknow Expressway. The 6-lane Agra- Lucknow Expressway is one of the longest expressways and a state-of-the-art road with all modern provisions and public amenities, including automated fog warnings. It also boasts a dedicated 3 km airstrip for war-like emergencies. On its inaugural day, IAF fighter jets and transport aircraft landed on the airstrip, broadcasted on all prime-time TV news.

The Agra - Lucknow Expressway - Emergency Airtstrip and its runway markings

Driving on such a magnificent turf was bliss; it eventually helped us cut our travel time by almost an hour. Once the expressway ended, the traffic continued to be relatively smooth as we quickly crossed the city of Lucknow and stopped for a quick lunch at Mangalam Dhaba - the food was decent and the place seemed to be popular. Cleanliness and hygiene clearly was'nt their priority. The good thing is because these dhabas are popular the chances of contamination is minimal. 

620 km and 12 hours later (March 10, 2023 - 5:30 pm), we arrived in Prayagraj and checked into The Triveni Darshan (A UP State Government-run Hotel) located on the banks of the river Yamuna.

Sunrise on the banks of Yamuna (Prayagraj)



Apart from the historical prominence of this old city, this is a great place to observe the convergence of religion, faith & tradition. How mythology, spiritualism and belief transform the Sangam, the confluence of the rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati (an invisible river), to bestow liberation to all living entities upon taking a holy dip. Hindu religion consists of three main gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and three prominent goddesses, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati. Hence it is believed that Triveni Sangams, where three rivers meet, hold incredible importance everywhere in India.

Yamuna Ghat .... all the major ghats are getting a facelift in preparation for Kumbh Mela 2025

The boat ride on Yamuna towards Triveni Sangam - where Yamuna, Ganga & Saraswati rivers meet

In the wee hours of the following morning, we took a rowboat on river Yamuna and headed upstream towards Sangam to witness the spectacle. Even though it wasn't a religiously significant day, the bank near the Sangam was a sea of devotees.

There is a steady stream of pilgrims throughout the year who arrive from across the country in the hope of salvation.

In addition to the pilgrims, a large flock of Black-headed gulls makes Sangam their home during winter (Dec-Mar). Our boatman told me these migratory gulls arrive in thousands and remain there until the onset of summer. The public indulged in feeding the birds as a sacred activity on their way to the Sangam platform for their holy dip. 

The flight of the sinful soul. A symbolic image of a Gull representing the spiritually cleansed soul flying over Sangam bridge.

At Triveni Sangam, the confluence of Ganga & Yamuna  rivers, where the invisible Saraswati conjoins them, many pilgrims take boats to bathe, together with the migratory birds, gives a dramatic look to this age old ritual.

Where the rivers meet, a bamboo platform allows the devotees to alight from their boats and take the dip. There were pilgrims from all over India; there were pilgrims rich and poor; there were pilgrims from remote villages and towns; there were pilgrims old and crippled; there were pilgrims with children and grandchildren in tow; there were the newly married, and there were the ones who had come to immerse the ashes as part of the Niravapanjali custom. And then there were the boatmen, priests and middlemen all jostling for mind-share and wallet-share.

Bamboo poles are used to put up a platform in the middle of the Sangam where pilgrims arrive on boats and complete their religious ritual. The waters are not too deep at the confluence, neither the current strong, thus making it convenient for the holy dip, during this time of the year.

Having washed all sins, the clothes set out to dry as the boat takes the pilgrims back to the banks of the Yamuna River.

Filth or Faith .... growth in tourist has a direct fall out in terms of sewerage and garbage dumped at the holy site.

A garbage extractor at work at Triveni Sangam.  The National Mission for clean Ganga has roped in all stakeholders under its flagship programme "Namami Gange" and integrated effort to keep the river clean.

Watching over the Triveni Sangam is the Allahabad Fort. It is supposedly the largest fort among all the forts built by Emperor Akbar. There is an Ashoka pillar inside the main gate of the fort, which is a testament to the ancient Buddhist period of Indian history. Now a monument of national importance. Only some parts of the fort are open to tourists, the remaining part is used by the Indian Army. We however skipped a visit to the fort.

The Allahabad Fort as seen from Sangam. Constructed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1583.Akbar named the fort Illahabas ("blessed by Allah"), which later became "Allahabad" and thereby the name of the city. In 1600, Currently, a major part of the fort is used by the Indian Army as an Ordnance Depot.

We watched in awe the excitement, emotion and enchantment with which the crowd went about the tradition. How heritage and faith bind together a community's ideology and identity.

Amongst all this, I saw a person trying to scoop the mud below and panning the contents. I learnt that people from the 'Dom' community pan the ashes for valuables such as gold, silver, etc.

In the Hindu religion, there is a belief that putting a piece of gold into the mouth, nostrils or ears of the deceased at the time of cremation protects the soul as it passes over and enables it to get closer to God. Where there is gold & silver there are bounty hunters too... the Doms. According to Hindu mythology, the Doms were cursed by Lord Shiva when a member from their community named Kallu Dom tried to steal an earring of the goddess Parvati. To gain forgiveness, they agreed to become the keepers of the flame at the burning ghats.

Incredible indeed!

The Ganga Aarti at Ram Ghat (Prayagraj) is a spiritually uplifting ceremony performed every evening at dusk to pay homage to the River Goddess Ganga. The aarti symbolizes the five elements Ether (Akash), Air (Vayu), Fire (Agni), Water (Jal) and Earth (Prithvi). 

While at Allahabad (the erstwhile name of Prayagraj), we visited the historical Anand Bhavan, a testament to the Indian freedom struggle and Khusro bag, among others. After spending three (3) nights in this glorious city, we set off for our next destination, away from the madding and exuberant crowd and back into the serenity of the forest. We arrived at the MP Tourism resort at Parsili, on the banks of the Banas River, on March 13, 2023, around noon, our next pit stop.

Sanjay - Dhubri Tiger Reserve

My friend and naturalist, Animesh Manna, suggested visiting Sanjay-Dhubri Tiger Reserve, a happening forest in the Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh. It is a lesser-known reserve, gradually coming into prominence, consisting of Sanjay National Park and Dubri Wildlife Sanctuary. It is situated in the northeastern part of Madhya Pradesh and bordered by the Guru Ghasidas National Park on the south. Various perennial rivers flow through the reserve, i.e. Banas, Mawai, Mahan, Kodmar, Umrari, etc. The reserve is part of the Bandhavgarh-Sanjay-Guru Ghasidas-Palamau landscape. Animesh recommended that I connect with Shri Subhas Singh, a naturalist and activist who has spent most of his life at Sanjay - Dhubri.

Sanjay National Park (Dhubri Tiger Reserve) and its connected forests

In 2016, while I drove from Ranchi to Panna National Park via Singrauli and Rewa, I experienced the rolling hills of the Vindhya range and its dense sal and bamboo forests. I could visualise the scenario 50 -60 years ago when all the forests were interconnected, and wild animals roamed freely across the Vindhya Range from Madhya Pradesh into Chattisgarh and Bihar. Sanjay - Dhubri National Park was thus an attractive component in this disjointed landscape. Today, numerous ongoing initiatives exist to create connected corridors within these currently disconnected forests because that is essential for the long-term sustainability of wildlife. With the growing Tiger population, due to the success of Project Tiger, it is now imperative that protected areas are linked through protected corridors. A critical element in this conservation initiative is the rights and resettlement of the tribal. After all, the Gonds have lived in these forests for over 300 years and are, in a way, inseparable from the forests. Any conservation plan will only succeed if it is a win-win for all. Wherever there is exploitation there will be sparks & skirmishes.

MPT Parisili Resort. - on the banks of Banas River and adjoining Sal forest

Road leading to MPT Parisili Resort - a smooth drive through dense tropical forests of Sal, Mahua and Palash trees. During early spring the blooming trees, new buds, emerging new leaves fills the forest with an invigorating aroma 

We checked in at MP Tourism's Parsili Resort with many questions and apprehensions. Located amid green cover on the banks of the Banas River in Majhaulli (Siddhi District), the Parsili Resort is the best place to stay while visiting the Sanjay-Dhubri National Park (hereafter referred to as Sanjay-Dhubri). Upon arrival, after a short break, we headed to the river for a boat ride facilitated by the Resort and then went on foot to explore the opposite bank to check out the bird life. We were lucky to spot a Rock Eagle Owl, a couple of Ibis, and Rudy Shelduck, apart from a few Kingfishers, Peafowls and Wagtails.

MPT Rarisili Resort is situated amongst a lively forest. While the Banas River flows behind the resort (Inset - left top), for the adventure seekers, there is ample opportunity to explore on foot and on a boat. During the spring season blooming Palash add a speacial spectre to the forest (Inset - Left bottom and middle). The sand banks across the river have footmarks of birds and other wild mammals (Inset - peacock footmark on the banks - right above).  Arjun trees (Terminalia arjuna - known for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties) dot the forest patch (Inset - an H shaped Arjun tree - right bottom)

Our explorations were to begin the next day, i.e. March 14. Mr Subhash Singh, an author, conservationist, naturalist and activist who has lived his entire life in Sanjay -Dhubri had created an itinerary which covered most of the forest ranges Dubhri, Bastua, Giddha and Gulabsagar (Reservoir). The idea was to get a feel for the topology and hear from Subhash Ji about his experiences and challenges. Sanjay - Dhubri, being a vast forest ~ 2300 sq km (Core: 812.581 Sq Km; Buffer: 861.93 Sq Km; Bagdara Sanctuary: 478 Sq Km; Son Ghariyal: 209 Sq Km), I felt that getting a glimpse of the various ranges would be a good experience.

We started our trip at Dhubri WLS. The entry into the park was breathtaking; the forest floor was a brown carpet of fallen Sal (Shorea robusta) leaves, Tendu trees (Diospyros melanoxylon)  and interspersed with Mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) laden with fruits, the fragrance of which was sure as hell nostalgic. Add to that clusters of ornate blooms of Palas - the flame of the forest (Butea monosperma). A scenario that will make any heart go wild & crazy.

Carpeted Forest floor - the fallen leaves of Sal covered the forest floor with an end-to-end carpet. These fallen leaves account for up to 80 percent of the nutrients used by trees within a forest. Leaves decompose over the course of seasons, returning what nutrients they hold back into the soil. Fallen leaves also provide shelter and food for small crawlies (worms, millipedes, slugs, white-ants) throughout the forest. It is a relationship that is absolutely vital within a healthy ecosystem. Fungi and bacteria also aid in this vital recycling process.

Sub-adult tiger cub - Dhubri Tiger Reserve (Sanjay national Park)

We covered much ground the following two and a half days over five safaris. Amongst all the beauty, the railway tracks running through the national park with its inevitable consequence of accidents was a dampner. The more catastrophic aspect is the threat of commercial exploitation of the mineral-rich forest by business groups that hangs like a Damocles sword - a threat that activists like Subhash Ji are constantly fighting. The Dhubri range with its regular Tiger sightings is the main attraction for many. However for a true exposure of the terrain Bastua and Giddha, are a must visit. Due to a few human settlements still existing within Bastua mammal sightings are comparatively lower, on the other hand birds population is plenty. On our final trip, to Gulabhsagar dam (reservoir), we landed at a tribal village on the reservoir's banks. Subhash Ji using his good contacts, organised a boat to go birding. We also had a chance to meet at the village Shri Ramsharan - Mukhiya (headman) of Chunguna tribal village, an 80-year-old man who came to pay his regards to Subhash Ji. Despite Mukhiya's age and limitations, he was a gentle and a down to earth person. One could easily feel the love and respect the tribals have for Subhas Ji.

The Mahan (Gulab Sagar) dam constructed across river Mahan, a tributary of river Banas in Sone Basin near village Khaddi in Sidhi District of Madhya Pradesh. Situated on the fringes the Sanjay National Park. Migratory birds use this reservoir during winter.

With the Mukhiya of the Village adjoining Gulabhsagar Reservoir. From Left to right : Me, Shri Mahadev - our boatman, Shri Subhash Singh, Shri Ramsharan - the village Mukhiya, Runa (my wife), Arunava (my brother).

When one meets the tribals, far from the madding crowd and all the jingbang, you realise how simple life could be. Without formal education, I found them profoundly knowledgeable; they care and respect human beings, forest and animals alike; their literature and culture are as mature as any other advanced civilisation (reference: Songs of the Forest - the folk poetry of the Gonds by Shamrao Hivale & Verrier Elwin, published in 1935 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd). Sitting back and thinking through my experience, I feel humbled and enlightened at their simplicity and innocence. I salute people like Subhash Singh, who have dedicated their lives towards the sustenance of the forest and its folks. I always keep saying, ultimately, it is not about how many tigers you sighted or how many birds you added to your life list; it is all about what chords it plucks at the core of your heart. What feelings & learnings you carry home!

Subhash Ji has authored a book written in Hindi, "Jungle ki Kahani - Sanjay Tiger Reserve ki Jubanee" (Stories of the Jungle - narrated from Sanjay Tiger Reserve). While I could not lay my hands on a print version of the book since it was out of print when we visited, Subhash Ji shared a few scanned pages with me. It is an excellent documentation covering the Geography, Natural history, Tribal civilisation & culture, Jungle stories, Conservation, etc., of the Sanjay-Dhubri Tiger Reserve. Subhash Ji also talks about the Gharial Conservatory on Son River and the Blackbuck Sanctuary nearby, which we did not get a chance to visit due to lack of time.

To sum up, Sanjay Dhubri Tiger Reserve is worth a visit. It is yet to become a commercial hotspot like the other forests of Madhya Pradesh. A minimum 5-7 day visit would be worthwhile. Birdlife is equally fascinating; we encountered a good population of raptors: White-eyed Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk (crested) Eagle, Oriental Honey-Buzzard, etc. We also spotted a nesting pair of Lesser Fish-eagles. A White-rumped Vulture drying its feathers was an incredible sight. In the water bodies, we saw Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshank, Black-winged Stilt apart from Rudy Shelduck, Wooly-neck Storks, Cormorants, River Tern, etc.. The common birds were abundant such as the Coucal, Yellow-throated Sparrow, Crow, Myna, Bulbul, Pipit, Barbet, Sunbird, etc. 

Bandhavgarh National Park


After three (3) nights at Parsili Resort, late in the day on March 16, 2023, we drove to Bandhavgarh National Park (hereafter referred as Bandhavgarh). 85Kms away, forested hills and grasslands make the Bandhavgarh National Park a primary destination for its Royal Bengal Tigers. Once the private hunting ground of the Maharaja of Rewa. Bandhavgarh, initially, a 105 sq km forest that has gradually expanded to 1200 sq km with a rising tiger population. Tigers from Bandhavgarh have begun to outgrow the capacity of the forest, hence the need for connected corridors to allow tigers to migrate into newer territories. Due to its varied topography and dry deciduous tropical biodiversity, a wide variety of animal and plant life take shelter in the park. However almost every soul at Bandhavgarh, the guides, and the safari crew, is hooked on tiger sightings. The tiger hype is so enormous that all other wildlife are incidental encounters. Personally I prefer less crowded, peaceful forests where the rush to see and show is avoidable. Thus for me Sanjay Dhubri scores  over Bandhavgarh any day.

Chota Bheem - the Male at Khitauli Range. A dominent male aptly named after the legendary figure roams Khitauli and Magadhi ranges.

Chota Bheem in a pensive mood (Khitauli Range)

At Bandhavgarh, we had planned four (4) safaris over two (2) days. Tiger sightings on 3 out of 4 safaris. No sooner a tiger is sighted, a state of madness takes over. The message spreads fast amongst the safari crew, it then becomes a tussle for space, each vehicle jostling for the best view, with the poor fellow often scurrying for forest cover. There are a few bold personalities, who possibly have got accustomed to the hustle, scramble and rapidly firing camera shutters. These tigers have learnt the art of posing for the ever-so-eager peering eyes and shutter bugs. Due to its popularity and predictability Bandhavgarh gets fully booked in no time. Should you wish to visit,  plan early to avoid disappointment. At the park, you will find professionals, amateurs and novices, all enthralled and enamoured by the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigres), it has such a hypnotic charm.

Our abode at Bandhavgarh - Nature Heritage Resort. A nice place with great service, supportive staff providing value for money. It is close to  the Tala Gate. 

The bird population and diversity is no less attractive at Bandhavgarh. However birding trips & tiger safaris are a paradoxical cocktail. I have given up on bird watching on a tiger safari, it only gets frustrating. In addition in most of the National Parks in India, the entire unit of guides and drivers are focused on the glamorous cat.

Grey langurs, the Old World monkeys are native to the Indian subcontinent. Mammal Species of the World has now recognized seven Semnopithecus species, which were earlier considered sub-species of Semnopithecus entellus.

A Crested Serpent Eagle amongst the grasses, possibly with a prey.

We rolled with the tide at Bandhavgarh, and enjoyed the rides amidst the tigers and hapless and/or happy gypsies. Each crew trying to prove their mettle and making it worthy for their patrons.
Tigress Raa - Khitauli Range relaxes beside a water body probably getting ready for a siesta in the cooler shades of the forest. With day time temperatures reaching 32~35C in early March, most tigers spend the prefer cooler sots during the day, only stepping out to quench their thirst and/or a cool dip.

Moving on, we steered into the ancient city of Ujjain to witness an astounding display of devotion, faith and heritage.


Situated at 715 Km from Bandhavgarh, it took us close to 12 hours to drive into Maun-Tirth Ashram at Ganga Ghat Ujjain. Located on the banks of Kshipra river and the plateau of Malwa, this ancient city, also known as Avantika, was the capital of the Avanti Kingdom. With excavations that date back to 2000 BC, Ujjain gained prominence during the Mauriyan empire in 5 BC. Besides its historical significance, Ujjain was also a centre for Buddhists, Jain and Hindu religions.

The Mahakal Corridor - The Mahakal temple complex is spread across two and a half hectares and it includes Rudrasagar lake. A major makeover is underway. Only a part of the entire complex has been inaugurated.. Around 108 pillars with ornamental elements on top bearing a trishul-style design dot the corridor. As a result of the upgraded corridor the annual footfall is expected to go up from 15million to 30million.

In 1884, Greenwich became universally accepted as the prime meridian ( i.e. GMT - international standard for 0° longitude from where world time is derived). Before that, Ujjain was considered the central meridian for time in India. Even today, horoscopes, as per the Hindu almanac, are based on Ujjain time. As per the Surya Siddhanta, a 4th-century astronomical treatise, Ujjain is geographically situated at the precise spot where the zero meridian of longitude and the Tropic of Cancer intersect and thus considered the navel of the earth and also referred to as the "Greenwich of India". 


These facts and precious history made me drive through this ancient kingdom. Apart from its glorious history and geographical relevance, the most luring beacon are the temples of Ujjain. As a temple town, Ujjain has more temples than any other city in India, of which, we learnt from the locals, roughly 12 are most revered. Each of the twelve temples has a compelling motivation based on your faith & hope to attain spiritual awakening, fulfill cherished desires, or evade death. 

Among all the most popular and prominent temples is the God of destruction - Mahakal! - the Shree Mahakaleshwar Temple. Of the twelve (12) jyotirlingas in India, the Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga is believed to be swayambhu, i.e. originated on its own. Since kaal means 'time' and 'death', Mahakal, i.e. Lord Shiva, is called the Lord of Time and Death. It is the only jyotirlinga that faces south – dakshinamukhi because the direction of death is believed to be south. As Lord Shiva faces south, it symbolises that he is the master of death. Bhasma aarti (offering with ashes) is a famous ritual here. As the ash is pure, non-dual, imperishable and unchangeable, so is the Lord. All the other jyotirlingas in India face east.

Respecting administrative warnings we refrained from shooting images inside the complex. Few that we have shot were with prior permission. There are over 50 murals of Lord Shiva depicting stories from Shiva Puran

With this historical, heritage and scientific backdrop, we checked into Mauntirth Ashram on March 19, 2023. The Mauntirth Ashram, is operated by Moun Tirth Sewarth (MTS) Foundation, an NGO working to improve and care for Spirituality, Education, Wellness & Animal welfare. We stayed at the ashram, which interestingly had a gurukul, where boys between 8 - 16 years of age were undergoing education on the Vedas and traditional Indian culture through the centuries-old Indian education system. The recommendation to stay at the ashram was given to me by a candidate I was interviewing for one of the company off which I happened to be an advisor. Thank you, Gaurav Sharma, for the recommendation, this was perhaps the best way to get to know much about Ujjain from the upholders of Indian traditions.

My brother Arunava, who had travelled with us since the start of this journey (February 19, 2023), dropped off after arriving at Ujjain on March 20, 2023. He was with us for the entire month, a great source of encouragement, guidance and abundant humour. Runa & I thereafter continued our quest.

It was quite fascinating to watch these young kids at the gurukul. Dressed in the traditional attire, full of energy and devotion, starting their day at 4am. Little souls getting trained to be disciplined disciples of their Acharya (teacher). The accommodation at the ashram was very simple - no frills. Food was divine, home cooked and pure vegetarian. Farm fresh vegetables, grains, milk & ghee from their own adjoining farm. Gaurav's aunt who manages the kitchen & dining operation at the gurukul, personally attended and supervised each meal students and guests alike.

Next day, a 'To-To' (e-rickshaw), at our disposal, based on the recommendation from the ashram, we commenced our Ujjain exploration . The To-To driver doubling up as our guide.


Mountirth Ashram, our place of stay at Ujjain, is situated on the banks of River Kshipra at Ganga Ghat. River Kshipra is also called as the Ganga of the Malwa region. As per the mythology the river Kshipra's natural flow was turned towards the north by Lord Shri Krishna and hence the name Ganga. This ghat is also known as the Dashashamedh Ghat.

Young yogis enrolled at the Gurukul perform the evening aarti at the Ashram temple.

Wishes & desires tied up in knots - with 15 million annual footfall Ujjain is one of the most visited pilgrimage in India. Pilgrims come here for spiritual liberation and to seek fulfillment of their desires and needs. These desires are tied with specially made threads that are sold at the temple complex. At the Kalbhairav Temple every nook and corner around the temple had these knotted threads of desir.

The most significant advantage of staying at Mounttirth Ashram was our seamless visit to the Mahakal Temple. Usually, getting into the temple is a tedious affair unless you are a devout pilgrim for whom the serpentine queues in the brazing sun or queuing up in the middle of the night are all part of achieving salvation. Online ticketing wasn't an option as it showed 'sold out' for all our days there. Being a resident of the ashram, we had the privilege of getting an introduction to one of the protocol staff at the temple complex who coordinated our visit. Our plan was a simple darshan (distant glance of the Lord), and we had no intention to enter the Garbha Griha (sanctum sanctorum) because we had read and heard from many that it meant stricter rules of conduct like wearing attires as prescribed, queuing up early hours, etc. So we requested a ticket that would allow us to get a feel of the temple. We would have had no regrets if a visit was not feasible. For the demi-atheist me, my sole purpose was to perceive Ujjain's magic and what it means to be the most important site for Shiva worship.

The only permissible photography point as you emerge out of the main garbhabriha

Perhaps Runa's better deeds and staunch faith in Lord Shiva spelt divine magic. When I rang the person coordinating our visit to the temple, he asked us to come to the temple at the earliest. Soon as we landed, he directed us through the VIP gate to proceed for darshan; we went through many levels of pathways, stairs and corridors that led us amid bhakts roaring 'Jai Shri Mahakal' and 'Har har Mahadev' as the queue moved along. And lo behold, we seemed to be heading for the Garbha Griha! There in the sanctum sanctorum was the most revered Shiva Linga in the world. We were allowed to touch it, seek its blessings and thus achieve something unthinkable. Perhaps I now have a ticket to heaven!
😜 Who knows!

Incredible indeed!

For both of us (Runa & I) faith is a personal affair, rooted deep inside, and none of us believe in emancipation through temple visits or by prostrating. To both of us, this visit was more about a deeper understanding of culture, cult and conformity. In the process, it was admirable to observe the millions of ardent devotees from remote corners of India for whom such a visit is part of their existence. Also worthy of appreciation is the Mahakal corridor and the temple architecture. Its a pity though, that a common visitor cannot fathom much about the temple architecture since you are made to constantly move inside the complex, and photography is prohibited. The Mahakal corridor on the other hand is a meticulous lineup of edifices that depict some form of the Lord and one can spend significant time observing the creations.

Apart from the Mahakaleshwar Temple, we visited over a dozen other high-profile temples. Two of them stood out for their theme and influence.

Mangalnath Temple - located towards the north of Ujjain on the eastern banks of the Kshipra River, it is considered Mokshadayani (place for salvation). This is supposedly the birthplace of Mars, the son of Lord Shiva and Earth. Legend states that Mars was born from a drop of Lord Shiva's sweat, which fell on the earth during a battle with the demon Andhakasura. A person who suffers from Mangal dosh (born under the influence of Mars - Hindu Astrology) has to perform puja here. I listed this temple simply for the crowd that gathered at its gate. My guide cum To-To driver told me that all these folks are Mangliks and come to correct their congenital horoscope disability (birth defect)!

Weird? ....  Wait for the next one.

The Kal Bhairav Temple. As one crosses the Kshipra River driving past the Ujjain Jail, we reach the place of the boozy Lord! .... It is the ancient Kal Bhairav Temple. As per the common belief carried down through generations, God is pleased only by offering alcohol. The priest pours the alcohol brought by the devotees. Thousands of devotees visit the temple daily and offer alcohol to the drunken Lord. What happens to the overflowing alcohol that drains out?

Kal Bhairav Temple and its serpentine queue of pilgrims

Tradition says that Mahakal darshan is incomplete without the darshan of Kalbhairav. Another intriguing feature was the tying of coloured threads and lighting of lamps at the deep stambh (pillar) by the devotees towards fulfilling wishes.

From alcohol offerings, the Bhat puja (rice offering), to bhasma aarti (ash bathing/offering), the votive knot of faith, to the lighting of lamps, this list is endless. Ujjain presents a perfect harmony of faith & hope that manifests from the duality of fear and uncertainty bound by religion and heritage. Reminded of a poem I had read .... 

Born of the same mother, 

Hope and faith were brothers, 

But destiny threw them apart, 

God gave both a different part. 

Hope grown of pain and sadness, 

Faith nurtured in arms of holiness, 

Hope relieved low, dejected heart, 

Faith ignited belief in souls to art.

..... Aditya Raj Verma (Hope & Faith)

Aarti at Ram Ghat

Rounding up the temples through the day, we arrived at Ram Ghat on the bank of the Kshipra River at twilight. Ram Ghat holds immense religious significance to Hindus as it is one of the four locations where the Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years. Considered one of the oldest bathing ghats in the Kumbh celebration, Lord Vishnu is believed to have dribbled some of the Amrit (divine syrup that provides immortality) at Ram Ghat. The evening Kshipra aarti is one of the best attractions at Ram Ghat. Watching the sunset and the Kshipra aarti from the Ram Ghat is one of the most enchanting scenes we experienced at Ujjain.

Aarti at Ram Ghat

High on my agenda was to capture some intricate images of faith & fervour, which was impossible due to restrictions on photography around most temples and my self-imposed apprehensions. Should I get another chance, I would be better prepared.

The Mahakal Temple (left) - The 'Mahakal' effect (right)😛
Well the idea was taken from Pawan (who drove us around in Uttarakhand). Runa liked the idea of a bell in the car. Its chime not only indicating bad roads or rough driving, it is also a monotony breaker and has a positive effect. We found the right bell in one of the many shops along the path leading to the Mahakal Temple. Reinforcing ignited belief and divine blessings, every time the bell strikes!

Ujjain and Prayagraj are the pillars of India's cultural heritage and religious tourism. Centered around the scores of ashrams and temples, we witnessed the raw power of faith and its influence across generations. How the younger generation is coming of age straddling across classical traditions, modern education and cutting edge technology could be a good case study.

With the temple runs done, we packed & tanked up once again. And this time, a sojourn into the city of dreams - Mumbai, to spend some time with our son Anubhav, friends & folks. Arriving into Mumbai it would be 32 days on the road and having driven almost 4600Km from home (Calcutta).

P.S. ... apologies for the long post ...... comments are welcome......  feel free to share amongst friends & families .... THANKS!!



Debabrata Dutta said…
What a journey through the rich and varied roads of our country's culture and heritage. Envy your passion, inspiration and everlasting enthusiasm that shine through your photography, knowledge and writing skills. Keep it up AD!!!
ad0312 said…
Thank you DD2. Really appreciate you taking time out to read this.
Anonymous said…
What journey and narrative.. frankly it is an inspiring blog
DK said…
Terrific narration !!!
Sudip said…
You took me to a beautiful ride with you AD! Beautiful narration and highly informative. Loved it!
JKSEAL said…
A great narratives of travel with apt writing
ad0312 said…
Thank You All ... I really appreciate your feedback and encouragement.
Sabyasachi Nath said…
Made a complete trip with your narration and pictures. Waiting for more.