On the banks of the sacred Shirpa River, UJJAIN is one of India’s seven holiest cities. Like Haridwar, Nasik and Prayag, it plays host every twelve years to the country’s largest religious gathering, the Kumbh Mela, which has in the past drawn an estimated 30 million pilgrims here to bathe. Outside festival times, Ujjain is great for people-watching, as pilgrims and locals alike go about their daily business. Around the main temples, you see modern Hinduism at its most kitsch, with all types of devotional paraphernalia, gaudy lighting and plastic flower garlands for sale. At the ghats, women flap wet saris dry, children splash in the water, and pujaris ply their trade beneath the rows of riverside shrines. A mini-Varanasi Ujjain is not, but the temples rising behind the ghats are majestic at dusk, and with the ringing of bells and incense drifting around, this atmospheric place can feel timeless.
The Western Railway cuts straight through the centre of Ujjain, forming a neat divide between the spacious and affluent residential suburbs to the south and the more interesting, densely packed streets northwest of the station. Unless you spend all day wandering through the bazaar, sightseeing in Ujjain usually means treading the temple trail, with a brief foray south of the ghats to visit the Vedha Shala observatory.
Excavations north of Ujjain have yielded traces of settlement as far back as the eighth century BC. The ancient city was a major regional capital under the Mauryans (Ashok was once governor here), when it was known as Avantika and lay on the main trade route linking northern India with Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Hindu mythology, Shiva later changed its name to Ujjaiyini, “He Who Conquers With Pride”, to mark his victory over the demon king of Tripuri. Chandra Gupta II, renowned for his patronage of the arts, also ruled from here in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Among the Nava Ratna, or “Nine Gems”, of his court was the illustrious Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, whose much-loved narrative poem Meghduta (“Cloud Messenger”) includes a lyrical evocation of the city. (E.M. Forster visited Ujjain in 1914, determined to get an idea of what it looked like in Kalidasa’s day. He soon admitted defeat, declaring: “Old buildings are buildings, ruins are ruins.”)
Most of Ujjain’s temples were razed in 1234 by Iltutmish, of the Delhi Slave Dynasty. Thereafter, the Malwan capital was governed by the sultans of Mandu, the Mughals, and Raja Jai Singh from Jaipur, who designed the Vedha Shala observatory (Ujjain straddles the Hindu first meridian of longitude). Ujjain’s fortunes have declined since the early eighteenth century, except for a sixty-year renaissance between the arrival of the Scindias in 1750 and their departure to Gwalior. Today, nearby Indore dominates the region’s industrial activity, leaving Ujjain to make its living by more traditional means.