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 thirty 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.