Rediff Logo Travel Sports interviews Find/Feedback/Site Index


Swimming With Your Clothes On
... An unusual holiday in Ujjain

Ashok Banker

E-Mail this travel feature to a friend One Monday evening, bang in the middle of the telecast of the television serial Om Namay Shiva, the power went off across most of Ujjain.

Now, in any other city in India, this might have been cause for disappointment, even anger, amongst devout fans of Dheeraj Kumar's kitschy relgious opus. But in Ujjain, it caused a minor riot. The unfortunate Government employee responsible for starting the customary load shedding at that pious hour was caught and thrashed. The power was turned back on, just in time for the closing credits of that day's episode. Ever since then, even though load shedding is a commonplace occurence in the city, the power has never gone off on Monday nights.

This shouldn't surprise you. After all, Ujjain houses Mahakaleshwar Mandir, the residence of one of the 12 sacred shivlings of India. It's one of the holiest cities in our country. Historically rich in memories, it was the capital city of King Vikramaditya (it was called Ujjaininagri then), he of the Vikram Aur Betaal fame.

As a child, one of my favourite books was a collection of the Vikram Aur Betaal tales. I would read those stories very very slowly, wishing I could make the book last all my life. It saw me through one summer vacation. So when I discovered the same stories in Chandamama magazine, and later in Amar Chitra Katha comics, it was like second and third servings of a favourite dessert. In comparison, the television serial was a disappointment with its shoddy effects and even shoddier production.

But coming to Ujjain itself was an even bigger disappointment. Here was the tree, the very tree off of which King Vikram had taken the Betaal to try to complete his daunting task. But where was that mystery, that moody sense of mounting terror, the eerie atmosphere of the comic books and the stories? In the harsh light of a 1999 day, even the Betaal Pachisi Mandir is much like any other temple.

Of course, to the devout that probably sounds like blasphemy. No such intention, I assure you. In fact, to a cynical urbanite, Ujjain is admirable in its preservation of small town values. There's little doubt that the sense of piety infects the populace beyong the temple walls too. Although I remember reading someplace that Madhya Pradesh has the highest rape rate in the country, and one of the five highest crime rates, it's difficult to believe that these statistics apply to Ujjain. A small, rustic city, where bicycles, scooters, mopeds and the ubiquitous autorickshaws and tempos fill the streets with their honking and trilling, this simple town is more boring than anything else.

Mahakaleshwar temple There's not much to do in Ujjain, as my family and I soon found. Although my wife had relatives living in Sales Tax Colony -- one of the better areas of the town -- my children, addicted to cricket, satellite television, laser disc movies, caramel popcorn, video game parlours and the like, found life hard going even for two short weeks. But then, if you go to Ujjain expecting the luxuries and choices of big city living, you're in the wrong place.

Sure, there are movie halls. There's Regal, Ganesh, Kamal -- one of the largest theatres in M P. All the latest Hindi films hit Ujjain screens at the same time as the rest of the country. In fact, Ujjain probably has more movie theatres per 1,000 persons than any other place in India, barring Bombay of course.

We saw Janam Samjha Karo, Anari No 1 and Silsila Hai Pyaar Ka, films I would never have been caught dead watching back in Bombay, but which were the most "happening" entertainment events in Ujjain at the time. I would have gone for an English movie instead, but the only ones running were the obscure soft porn films and a B-grade dubbed horror movie, renamed Bhoot. No thank you. Surprisingly, ticket rates are now almost on par with big city prices -- Rs 40 for balcony, almost double of what they were just two years ago. But then again, it's the only entertainment in town.

When we heard that the old bageecha had been remodelled as a 'Park', the children leaped up with anticipation. Since few people in Ujjain own cars (not a single one in Sales Tax Colony, although some people have their own dish antennas), the only means of travel is by autorickshaw (about Rs 25 for a five km journey, if you negotiate sternly), or tempo (Rs 1 to Rs 5, but shared with as many as two dozen other people at times), or by foot.

On the way, slogging it along in Ujjain's searing dry April heat (in May, the loo blows in the afternoons, making it impossible to step out of doors), you're often tempted to stop at one of the numerous sugarcane juice stalls and sip a sugary sweet glass. But the big city fear of jaundice, hepatitis and assorted diseases makes you decline without much of a struggle.

The park turns out to be just what it says, a park. Yes, there's a little menagerie with a few monkeys, rabbits, maynahs, deer and goats. You can go for a boat ride on a pond filled with scummy dirty green water that must smell exactly like the swamps through which Vikram had to wade. Or you can ride the four or five unambitious rides that are the park's star attractions. A small train ride, a merry go round, a few lurching hippo slot rides, even a little video game parlour.

My wife's cousin proudly displays the proudest innovation of all: a Taran Taal. Taran as in swimming, and taal as in pond. So, literally swimming pond. But this turns out to be virtually an Olympic-sized swimming pool, complete with professional coaches. Getting the timings right takes some calculations -- there's one hour for women only, one hour for men only, and one hour for 'whole family'. This is probably essential because most of the women don't own swimming costumes and often wade into the water dressed in petticoats with stockings, or blouses and churidars and other assorted combinations that are quite a sight (my wife tells me).

Ujjain The swimming coaches at Taran Taal play it ultra-safe: they tie a rope to your waist and keep you on leash as you swim, to avoid any chance of drowning. Someone should inform David Hasselholf: they might want to try this out on Baywatch!

Freegunj, the main market in downtown Ujjain, is stuffed with readymade garments made in the factories of Ludhiana and Delhi regions. You can get the same garments back in Bombay for at least three times the Ujjain price tag. We return home with more clothes than we came with!

The only bookshops in Ujjain are little religious bookstalls near the temples. Don't even dare to ask for Shobha De's latest here! For that kind of fancy purchase, you'd have to make the one-and-a-half-hour drive to nearby Indore. In fact, that's just what the financially comfortable residents of Ujjain do. Especially when there's a wedding in the family or a special occasion. Anything you ask for, the answer comes pat: "You'll get in Indore only, bhaiya."

If you're a non-vegetarian, this doesn't sound very funny. Forget maacher jhol or chicken a la Kiev, it's difficult to get non-vegetarian fare at all in Ujjain. The best restaurant in town, which also happens to be the best hotel in town, Ashrey, is strictly vegetarian. The two or three non-veg restaurants -- Suraana Palace and the more downmarket Dhaaba -- are painfully slow on service, the airconditioning often goes off (except on Monday nights of course) and you're lucky if they have even half the items listed on the menu.

But if you're vegetarian, food's cheap and good and plentiful. And if you happen to fasting -- as most pilgrims and tourists visiting Ujjain often are -- the falahaar or fasting fare is eminently edible. The sabudana dosas are crunchy and delicious, the falahari wafers (they use rock salt instead of regular salt) are nice and snacky, as are most of the other items. Or you can try MP's famous Malwa cuisine, notably the daal-vati (baked lumps of dough soaked in daal), the churma ke laddoo, or the bafla (baked dough dipped in ghee).

Just don't make the mistake of drinking the water. Ujjain's water supply is horrendous -- like most other civic amenities. In fact, the common reply to most complaints -- bad roads, no streetlights, no public transport, load shedding--is likely to be "It will be seen to before Kumbh". That of course means that the problem will be rectified in time for the Kumbh Mela. Since that legendary event takes place once in 12 years, it's a long time to wait for a pothole to be filled or for a glass of clean drinking water! But what else do you expect in a town where even Government staffers routinely arrive for work at 1130 am when their workday begins at 10 am!

The other thing you should never do in Ujjain is have an accident or get seriously ill. The only full-fledged hospital is the Birla Hospital, and that only came up recently. Before that, if you had a serious medical emergency, you would have to...yes, that's right...go to Indore, bhaiya.

On the other hand, most people in Ujjain are well-educated. Ujjain University turns out truckloads of MAs and PhDs annually, and every second person seems to be sitting for an IAS, IPS, or ICS exam. You meet women who are doing computer courses, even business management -- yes, there's a special business management school too. In fact, the most sought after profession is civil services.

The ghats on the Shipra riverIf you're interested in politics, you'll find any number of like-minded souls here. But never make the mistake of calling our prime minister "Atal Bihari". It must be "Atalji" and nothing less. That's how loyal they are to Mr Vajpayee. Is it any surprise then that the most loved party is BJP? Or that the city most glamourized happens to be Delhi?

The only other thing that Ujjainites revere is films. Everybody sees every single new film released. If they can't make it to the theatres -- or even if they've done so -- they watch pirated prints on cable, the entire family crowding into one room, sitting glued to the screen for the entire duration. And if you miss even the cable telecast -- shame on you -- then you hire a VCR and colour TV for Rs 100 and hire a video cassette. Laser disc? DVD? VCD? What are those?

A similar anecdote to the one about the disrupted episode of Om Namay Shiva: While my family and I were in Ujjain, the film star Amrish Puri was rumoured to be visiting. A surprisingly large crowd collected in record time at the hotel he was rumoured to be staying at, Hotel Ashrey.

When it was learned that the rumour was just a rumour and Mr Puri wasn't coming, the disappointed film fans (grown men and women, most of them) grew rowdy with disappointment and smashed a few windowpanes, upset a few tables and chairs, then went home. Imagine what they would do if Shah Rukh Khan had failed to turn up?!

Fast Facts

Tell us what you think of this feature