The sanctum inside the Mahakaleshwar Temple is too small to allow more than 10 people at a time, so the shrine board has set up a viewing gallery just outside the sanctum. By the time the free entry line is allowed into the viewing gallery, the VIP line has already entered and all seats allowing a view into the sanctum are taken. There ensues a semi-stampede when the free entry line devotees scramble to get to a spot that allows them even half a glimpse of the lord. Luckily, we managed to find a spot from where we could see half the Lingam. For the rest, we had to watch the screens set up within the viewing gallery as well.
This, I consider unacceptable. I understand the need to control the number of people allowed through the free entry line, and also offering the option of a VIP ticket to allow aged people, or people who can afford it, to shorten their wait time. However, both lines need to be allowed in together, and like in Tirupati, the lines must be merged before entering the sanctum. After all, these controls are only introduced by mortals in the shrine board, and were not intended by the Lord.
The entire aarti lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour. The first part of the aarti, while the Shringar is done, is sublime and well worth the scramble. However, the actual “Bhasm” part -- which we had heard hyped to no end -- lasts only about a minute and a half. Furthermore, during this crucial minute and a half that we’d waited to watch from 2 a.m., women are asked to cover their eyes. This part I found ridiculous -- why are women not to look at the Lord when he is adorned with the Bhasm, when we had already watched him being adorned with sandalwood paste? Not to be considered disrespectful, I did sneak a few peeks while the Bhasm part was on, hoping that the lord understood this is what I’d come to see and had endured the biting cold for. Moreover, we learned that the Bhasm being used was no longer from funeral pyres but actually just “vibhuti” – the sacred ash used in most temples, sometimes made from powdered cow dung.
After the Lord is adorned in the Bhasm, the actual aarti begins, with the offering of the lamps. Aarti is usually accompanied by chants of praises to the lord, and I’ve watched aartis at other temples where the chants are really beautiful and exhilarating. At the Mahakaleshwar temple, the chants were an unharmonious cacophony of voices and clashing cymbals, which rose in pitch and volume until I’m sure even the Lord couldn’t decipher what was being sung.
Then began the second stampede of the day. Once the aarti was over, devotees were allowed to offer their personal prayers to the Lord. To do this, a second line had to be formed and people scrambled out of the viewing gallery to join the other line.
Inexplicably, the people who were already in the viewing gallery had to go all the way out of the temple, and rejoin the line that had been formed earlier. Essentially, the people who had been held back in the waiting hall because they didn’t make the lucky 100 swarmed forward to form the 2nd line, and the people who’d already made it in had to rejoin the line behind them – resulting in utter chaos. It would have been so much easier to get the people already in the viewing gallery complete their prayers and leave, and then let the others in, in an orderly fashion!
While one is waiting in the line, the priests come out with the aarti plate to give everybody the sacred tika, and this is when they check out the line for prospective business. The moment they see someone who looks well-off, they immediately offer to escort you in to perform an “Abhishekham” (a ritual allowing you to personally bathe the lingam and offer your prayers), obviously in return for a fee. The poorer devotees are completely ignored beyond the tika.
We made it into the sanctum, and while there are volunteers standing there shoving the people to allow the line to keep moving, we were able to stall it long enough to perform our prayers satisfactorily without being shoved. This was achieved by strategically producing two fifty-rupee notes when we neared the main priest.
Mahakaleshwar Temple Overall ExperienceThe Jyotirlingam of Mahakaleshwar is the only temple I’ve seen where the entire business of seeing and praying to the all-powerful Mahadeva is treated really like a business. The devotees in the free entry line are ignored -- they are not let in well before the aarti begins, no one ensures they have a fair chance of occupying seats to view the puja, no one cares for the poorer devotees who do not have the money to ensure they spend a few minutes undisturbed with their lord. This is disappointing and discouraging, and explains the apathy felt by those in the free entry line for those in the VIP line.
Sujata Mukherjee, the author of this article, may be contacted by email. firstname.lastname@example.org