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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 two-kilometre-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, but in recent years, the town’s remoteness and loaded religious feel have made it a favourite with hard-core Western and Israeli dope-heads. Despite this, and the contentious Omkareshwar dam, the building of 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.

From the bus stand at the bottom of the village on the mainland, Omkareshwar’s only street runs 400m uphill to a ramshackle square, where you’ll find most of the dharamshalas and chai shops, and a handful of stalls hawking lurid puja paraphernalia (including the excellent stylized maps taken home by pilgrims as souvenirs). To get to the island itself, cross the high concrete footbridge or take one of the flat-bottomed ferries that shuttle between the ghats crouched at the foot of the river gorge.

The prominent white shikhara that soars above the Shri Omkar Mandhata Mandir is a relatively new addition to the dense cluster of buildings on the south side of the island. Below it, the ornate pillars in the assembly hall, or mandapa, are more representative of the shrine’s great antiquity. Myths relating to the origins of the deity in the low-ceilinged sanctum date back to the second century BC. Another of India’s twelve jyotrilingams (“lingams of light”), it is said by Hindus to have emerged spontaneously from the earth after a struggle between Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

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