Ujjain was another three bus rides away, and once again took the best part of the day to reach. More remote dry and dusty places Gerard’s discovered! A religious destination with many temples along the river, and where Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years. The town was significantly bigger and much more crowded than Maheshwar.
I had found a hotel on the internet, which seemed a little too far out of town, but had rooms available. The hotel was large with three stories of rooms. Our “standard” non/AC on the ground floor had no room to swing a cat, and only marginally acceptable in terms of cleanliness. The whole place was newly painted periwinkle blue and white giving it a fresh deceptively Mediterranean look. In the center was a large lawn where the hotel restaurant, which was pure veg, served dinner at night. The best feature of the hotel, and one of the highlights of entire stay, was the exceptional food this hotel served up. The guidebook had warned us, that food in Ujjain was “thin on the ground!” That was true, our restaurant seemed to have no competition.
Being on the edge of town turned out to be our good fortune because we soon learned the festival we had just left was not isolated to Maheshwar. According to Wikipedia, Maha Shivarati is a Hindu festival celebrated every year in reverence of Lord Shiva. The “Night of Worship” occurs on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna (Feb/March), and is when Shiva, The Lord of Destruction, is said to have performed the Tandava Nritya or the dance of primordial creation, preservation and destruction.
The festival continues through the following day. It also marks the last day of Khumbh Mela, although it was not celebrated in Ujjain this year. (Held every four years, the location changes among several holy cities. We passed through Haridwar when four years ago Kumbh Mela was held there. Memorable – but we didn’t stick around.)
Back in Ujjain, the place was jumping! We gave up trying to enter the main temple and pushed through the throng of pilgrims and visitors to the ghat where it was even more crowded. If this is just Shivarati Maha, thank God we weren’t here for Kumbh Mela!
Ujjain is supposed to be especially atmospheric at dusk when the temples rising above the ghat are majestic and ringing bells and incense fill the air. But on that day it was too crazy for us to wait and find out. A few hours were enough before we retreated back to the hotel and another meal. We’re definitely feeling our age! Throughout our brief two-day stay in Ujjain, amongst the tens of thousands of people, we didn’t see a single other western tourist. The only English spoken was by our waiter, and even that was touch and go! And as far as returning to Ujjain – been there and done it!
The following day we took the SLOW train to Varanasi. It meandered through the countryside stopping frequently at little stations with picket fences. All in all, a scheduled 40 stops over a 28 hour journey! Most of the train is sleeper class and there is no pantry car. A polite gentleman begins a conversation in halting English with me. He says he is a railway servant. Then when I’m lamenting the fact there is no pantry car, he asks if we like chai? Our response is obvious. At the next stop he beckons us to follow him to the platform. A man holding a tray with little decorated china cups and a large metal thermos is waiting. He pours tea for the man and his friends, including us. Sugar is offered to our liking in a separate bowl. Obviously this man is an important “railway servant.” We stand in the early morning sunlight on this pretty country platform sipping tea from cups that I immediately want to purchase and bring back to the US. Another golden moment in India! The man alights at the next station – to my disappointment. I’d already begun to anticipate lunch!