Saturday 18 Nov
We decided to go to Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh (Central India) on a whim, off the back of a recommendation from an Israeli couple we met in Southern China. They were seasoned travellers to India and had recommended Almora to us in the North which we loved, so we reckoned they were good for their word.
Omkareshwar is a small island at the confluence of the Narmada and Kaweri rivers and is a hub of spiritual life. It attracts pilgrims from all over India, who flock there to wash away their sins in the dangerously fast flowing ghats and to perform their pujas at the dozens of temples dotted around the island.
A footbridge connects the land with the island. At the far end a huge irrigation dam was under construction, towering above the burning funeral piles that lined the river banks and formed a perfect picture of India's past and present.
As we walked around the island we met a student from Indore, the nearest biggest city. He was bunking school to visit the pilgrim site with his father and uncle. When I asked if he would get in to trouble for missing school he looked surprised, and said of course he had the blessings of his teachers. Why wouldn't he? He was visiting Omkareshwar to pray to the gods for better exam results! They accompanied us as we walked 'clockwise' around the island visiting the Hindu temples. There were hundreds of them, from gaudy pink hole in the wall shrines, to medieval ruins with elaborate pillars, and a cave like Shiva temple with narrow tunnels and a stone staircase.
It was a pleasant 3 hour stroll around the island but I found the start of the walk quite daunting. We had to run the gauntlet of Langur monkeys who lined both sides of the path. They lay in wait like gangsters ready to pounce and mug you of anything that might resemble food.
There's not really a lot 'to do' in Omkareshwar but we spent a pleasant few days exploring the narrow streets and small bazaars. There were huge pyramids of red and yellow incense and tikka dye, stalls of flowers, and a whole host of other offerings and religious paraphernalia on display. In the mornings, washer women crowded the ghats beating clothes against stones, while bravado men and daring kids tested their luck against the fast flowing currents. Multi-coloured saris were hung out to dry in the morning sun, draped over the lotus flower fountain. It was a lovely calming place, and lacked the hectic chaos that so often accompanies India's other religious sites such as Varanasi. Of course there were the usual religious rip off merchants, ready to fleece unsuspecting visitors of exorbitant amounts of cash in exchange for performing pujas, but the majority of people were genuine.
We spent a lovely couple of evenings drinking chai with Baba, a frail Saddhu in his 60's who wore saffron robes. He had limited English but was incredibly kind hearted, and very keen on teaching us the various Hindu mantras. He was particularly careful about what he ate and drank but seemed quite happy to pack his chillem with hash and smoke himself into oblivion every night.
Being a holy state meat, eggs and alcohol are illegal in Omkareshwar, and the local people are devoutly religious. The owner of our guesthouse seemed deeply concerned about our spiritual well being. He thought we drank too much chai and warned us very earnestly that chai alone wouldn't bring us happiness or fulfillment. Peace and satisfaction only came from within. I think our joke that we were drinking so much tea in the absence of any alcohol disappointed him greatly!
We enjoyed our time in Omkareshwar and met some lovely people, but India's pilgrim sites do seem to attract a different type of traveller. 'Pseudo hippies' as Rob likes to call them. They are instantly recognisable because they pride themselves in dressing in worse rags than the street kids , and use the word 'shanti' (Hindi for holy) in every sentence. Topics of conversation are limited to Rudolf Stein and 'God' (both are interchangeable), and after 4 days of no meat, no alcohol and stinted conversation we both agreed it was time to move on.