Ambaji is a temple town located in the Aravalli ranges of North Gujarat, just 10-15 km from the Rajasthan State border. The town gets its name from the Arasuri Ambaji Mata Temple or the Ambaji Temple, one of the 51 (or 52 or 64, depending on which list you follow) Shakti Peeths located in the sub-continent. The name ‘Arasur’ itself is derived from ‘aaras’, the local name for marble which is available in plenty. In fact, the ancient name for Ambaji was Arasan Nagar.
When I first put together a plan to visit North Gujarat in December 2014, Ambaji didn’t figure in the list. It was later, while checking road distances and connectivity between the various destinations that I intended to visit, that I discovered the fact that Ambaji was just 125 km from Mehsana, my base for the trip. Considering Gujarat’s excellent quality of roads, I knew that Ambaji could be visited as a day trip. And that’s exactly what I did.
It was a cold and windy December morning when I set off from Mehsana at 8 am. Since there were no direct buses to Ambaji around the time I left I had to break journey at two places.
First, I took a shared private jeep to Palanpur, and then to Danta, and finally completed the last leg of my journey to Ambaji in a Gujarat State Transport bus. It was a picturesque journey throughout along tree-lined roads. The change in landscape from flat to hilly, as well as the climb from Danta to Ambaji was particularly enjoyable.
It was around 11 am when I got off the bus at the Ambaji bus stand and headed straight for the Ambaji temple. I didn’t have to ask for directions; all I had to do was to follow the people shouting Jai Mata Di. Within 10 minutes I was at the temple gates and could see its golden spire beyond the entrance arch.
Due to security reasons, visitors are not allowed to carry their bags or any electronic item into the temple and lockers are provided for storing bags and valuables. As the caretaker of the locker room stored my backpack in the locker and handed the keys to me, he casually said: “I think you should hurry up. The temple closes at 11.30.”
I looked at my watch. It was 11.20 am.
The next 10 minutes passed in a blur. A security check, a mad dash down a long walkway, another security check, and finally another mad dash across the temple courtyard to join the queue of people waiting for a darshan of the Goddess. I was incredibly lucky as the security personnel closed the entrance a few seconds after I joined the queue.
After darshan, I walked around the temple complex, which was unusually clean for a temple and also considering the footfall it receives. I also found an unusually large number of panditjis or priests offering consultations on horoscopes and pujas from what I could make out. I found out later (from one of the priests) that the Goddess at the Ambaji Temple was known for sorting out matters of the heart or love. So those interested in marriage or relationship problems visited the temple. 😀
On my way out, I saw an announcement for a screening of Arasuri Maa Ambe, a film on the legend and story behind Ambaji Temple. The announcement also claimed that this was India’s first 3D mythological film. On a whim, I decided to watch the screening which, interestingly, does not have fixed timings. Once a minimum number of people wanting to watch the film gather (usually around 10), the film is screened. I didn’t have to wait long, and once the tickets were issued, we were ushered into the screening hall.
Arasuri Ambe Maa is a short film and it was terrible. Characterised by gaudy costumes, tacky sets, bad special effects, and hilarious dialogues, the only saving grace of the film, if one can call it that, was Amitabh Bachchan’s voice-over, and the leads it gave to visit other holy sites in Ambaji. One of them was Gabbar Hill or Gabbargadh, the original site of the Ambaji Temple and the place I headed towards next.
Gabbar is located about 5 km from the Ambaji Temple and a rickshaw ride got me to the base from where I took a cable ride to the hilltop. Though the ride was over in 5 minutes, it was sufficient to get a good look at the Aravallis, the oldest mountain range in India, and of course recall the story of Gabbar that I had just heard in the film.
Legend has it that the original temple dedicated to Arasuri Maa Ambe was built on top of the Gabbar Hillock and at the site where Sati’s heart fell (for the full story on how Sati died and the how the Shakti Peeths originated, please click here). The temple on the Gabbar Hill was a place of worship for millenia till one day the King of Danta, who was probably tired of climbing up the hill to worship Maa Ambe, requested the Goddess to shift to Danta. The Goddess agreed to the request with one condition: the King would not stop on the way to Danta and he would look back even once till he reached Danta. If he did, she would root herself to the spot where he stopped or turned to look back and never move again.
And so, as the story goes, the King led the way down the hill towards Danta. He heard the Goddess’ anklets tinkling from time to time convincing him that She was following him. After a while, the King realised that he couldn’t hear the anklets and doubts crept in. He decided to stop and take a quick look. And that was it. The Goddess didn’t come any further, and the King had to go away dejected..
The spot where the King stopped to turn and look back became the site for the Ambaji Mandir as we know it today.
The original temple site is still maintained atop the Gabbar hillock with a lamp that burns 24/7 in the garbha griha. Some devotees don’t consider a visit to Ambaji to be complete till they have offered worship at both the old and new temple sites. The views from Gabbar are stunning and I would like to spend a little more time, but the afternoon is a scorcher and in spite of the wind, it’s quite hot. After a while, I make my way down via cable car.
It is only a quarter past two in the afternoon and I have time to see some more temples in Ambaji before returning to Mehsana. I hire a rickshaw with the understanding that the driver takes me to about 4 temples before dropping me off at Ambaji bus stand by 4.30 – 5.00 pm.
Our first stop is the Kumbharia Jain Temples, which Anuradha Shankar, a friend and fellow blogger, had insisted was a “must visit”.
The Kumbharia Jinalaya or Jain Temples are a group of 5 temples located about 10 km from Ambaji. They are named after Rana Kumbha of Mewar who lent his protection to the area.
The main temple is dedicated to Neminath and the remaining four to Shantinath, Mahavir, Parshvanath and Sambhavnath. The Neminath temple is the oldest having been built in 1088.
The temples were ransacked in 1386, when Ala-ud-Din Khilji’s brother attacked the area. Thereafter, the temples lay in a state of ruin till the 17th century when they were repaired and restored, and made suitable to be a place of worship once again.
There was a sense of deja vu when I first saw the jinalayas. It took me a little while to realise why — the layout, architecture and building material (marble) were very similar to the Ranakpur Jain Temples that I had visited in 2013. As for the carvings, they were exquisite. See for yourself !
It was quite difficult for me to tear myself away from the Kumbharia Temples and after about an hour or so there I left to visit the next one, which my rickshaw driver said was the Kamakshi Temple. Soon a familiar looking temple spire came into view — that of a typical multi-coloured, pyramidal gopuram. Something that would not have been out of place in Tamil Nadu, but looked strange among the marble hills of the Aravalli ranges.
This was the Kamakshi Temple, which was built by the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. In addition to the main deity of Kamakshi, the temple also 51 Shakti Peeth shrines within the complex.
I didn’t stay long at the Kamakshi temple and left after saying my prayers.The next temple halt was an unexpected one in the sense that it was not dedicated to a god or a goddess, but to a sage — the Valmiki Temple and Ashram. Set amidst trees, the temple complex felt more like a garden than a temple. It was quite easy to imagine the place as a hermitage with discourses happening in the evenings and sages retiring to their huts for meditation or contemplation. Valmiki’s hut or rather the place he used to meditate is still preserved.
The last temple I visited was the Koteshwar Mahadev Temple. Though the temple itself is fairly recent, there has always been a temple on this site for centuries. Near the temple is a tank whose waters are considered to be holy. The tank is fed by a perennial spring is believed to be the waters of the River Saraswati.
The highlight of my trip here was not so much the temple, which was quite beautiful, but the priest’s antics. He had a rather colourful vocabulary which he exercised on a group of boys who had climbed a hillock near the temple. He jumped and shouted and cursed and… let’s just say that I learnt a lot of new swear words that I didn’t even know existed !
When the rickshaw turned towards Ambaji, I thought that we would be heading towards the bus stand. Instead, the rickshaw after twisting and turning through narrow lanes suddenly stopped outside an ornate gate. The rickshaw driver pointed inside and said that this was a holy tank and the place where the infant Krishna had his mundan (first head shaving ceremony) and ceremonial bath. According to the legend, Krishna’s foster parents, Nand and Yashoda had travelled all from Gokul to first worship at Gabbar and then to this tank for the ceremony.
The stepped tank must have been beautiful in its original state. In a way it still is, but the steps, now clad with polished stone, is not to my taste and that huge statue of Shiva in the centre of the pond is well… let me not say it. There is a little garden and shrines around the tank, and in spite of the many people around, it is like an oasis of peace.
After the visit to the holy tank, the rickshaw dropped me off at a nice little dhaba near the bus station where I had a delicious Gujarati thali for lunch. The good food put me in an equally good frame of mind to reflect on the day spent at Ambaji.
I must have visited only a miniscule percentage of temples and other holy sites in Ambaji. What struck me the most about Ambaji town was how clean, organised and pilgrim friendly it was with facilities to suit different budgets. Of course, my visit was during off-season and I don’t know what the town would be like during Navratri, which is when maximum people are supposed to visit the town.
Travelling in India always makes me realise how one is never far from a legend, a myth, or history. Ambaji had all three in good measure. I travelled from temple to temple, listening to the various stories that they had to say or legends that they were based on with increasing delight. It was just the kind of travel I like. I think I was smiling and humming to myself during my return journey to Mehsana. 😀
- Photography is allowed in some places and not allowed in others. Please ask before taking photographs. The Kumbharia Temple ask for a camera fee of Rs.100/-
- The return journey was a breeze. I was lucky to get a direct Gujarat State Transport bus to Mehsana. The bus left at 5.15 pm and at 8.15, I was getting off the bus at Mehsana right outside my hotel.
- If you require any further information or assistance in planning a trip to this region, please feel free to write to me as a comment or through the Contact page of the blog.