East of the main river crossing at Barwaha, the Narmada River dips southwards, sweeps north again to form a wide bend, and then forks around a 2km-long wedge-shaped outcrop of sandstone. Seen from above, the island, cut by several deep ravines, bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Om” symbol. This, coupled with the presence on its sheer south-facing side of a revered shivalingam, has made Omkareshwar, 77km south of Indore, one of central India’s most sacred Hindu sites.
Since ancient times, pilgrims have flocked here for darshan and a holy dip in the river, while the town’s remoteness and loaded religious feel also long made it a favourite with hard-core Western and Israeli dope-heads – though the town’s modernization has made it less attractive to that crowd in recent years. Despite its changes – and the contentious Omkareshwar dam (completed 2007), which led to the displacement of many thousands of people from nearby villages, the place manages to retain an authentic atmosphere among its temples, wayside shrines, bathing places and caves, which are strung together by an old paved pilgrims’ trail.