The early history of Ujjain is lost in the midst of antiquity. As early as the time of the Aryan settlers, Ujjain seems to have acquired importance. By the 6th century B.C. Avanti with its capital at Ujjaini, is mentioned in Buddhist literature as one of the four great powers along with Vatsa, Kosala and Magadha. Ujjain lay on the main trade route between North India and Deccan going from Mathura via Ujjain to Mahismati (Maheshwar) on the Narmada, and on to Paithan on the Godavari, western Asia and the West.
The Northern black polished ware – the NBP as it is often called which is technically the finest pottery of the time, with a brilliantly burnished dressing almost of the quality of a glaze in colour from jet black to a deep grey or metallic blue and iron, found their way to the northern Deccan from the Gangetic plains through Ujjain. The articles of export to the western Asia such as precious stones and pearls, scents and spices, perfumes, silks and muslin, reached the port of Brighukachcha from the remote north through Ujjain.
All this finds a detailed and interesting description in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, an account of an unknown Greek merchant who made a voyage to India in the second half of the first century AD. The Periplus talks of a city called Ozene to the east of Barygaza (Broach) which fed all commodities to trade like onyx, porcelain, fine muslin and quantities of ordinary cottons, spikenard , costus bodellium to this important port and to other parts of India.
The earliest known epigraphic record of the Paramaras, the Harsola Granth, issued at the beginning of the 10th century AD, maintains that the kings of the Paramara dynasty were born in the family of the Rastrakutas in the Deccan The early Paramara chiefs of Malwa were probably vassals of the Rastrakutas. The Udaypur Prasati, mentions Vakpati Vakpati I as the king of Avanti and it was probably in his region that the Rastrakuta Indra III halted at Ujjain while advancing with his army against the Pratihara Mahipala I.
Malwa was lost in the time of Vakpati’s successor, Vairisimha II, to the invading forces of Mahipala I who avenged his defeat at the hands of Indra III by invading the empire of Rastrakuta. Mahipala and his Kalachuri confederate Bhamanadeva are said to have conquered the territory up to the banks of the Narmada including Ujjain and Dhar.
The Paramara sovereignty in the Malwa ceased until AD 946 when Vairsimha II became dominant in the area. It is in his son Siyaka II’s reign that the independent Paramara rule in Malwa began. It is believed that it was this time that the capital was shifted to the area of the Mahakala Vana in Ujjain.From the 9th to the 12th centuries, the Paramaras became so identified with Ujjain that subsequent tradition has converted Vikramaditya into a Paramara. The last Paramara ruler, Siladitya, was captured alive by the Sultans of Mandu, and Ujjain passed into the hands of the Muslims.
Thus began a long era of misfortune and decay and the ancient glory of Ujjayini was lost in a morass of repeated inroads of attacking hordes. The invasion of Ujjain by Iltutmish in 1234 triggered off a systematic desecration and despoiling of temples. This tide of destruction was stemmed only in the time of Baz Bahadur of Mandu. The Mughal rule heralded a new era in reconstruction. Emperor Akbar put an end to Baz Bahadur’s hegemony over Malwa and had a city wall constructed for the defense of Ujjain.
The Nadi Darwaza, Kaliadeh Darwaza, Sati Darwaza, Dewas Darwaza and Indore Darwaza were the various entrances to the city. In 1658 took place a battle near Ujjain in which Aurangzeb and Murad defeated Maharaj Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur, who was fighting on behalf of Prince Dara. The actual scene of the battle is Dharmatpura, renamed Fatehbad by Aurangzeb, after the victory. The cenotaph of Raja Rattan Singh of Ratlam, who fell in the battle, still stands at the site. In the reign of Mahmud Shah, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh was made the Governor of Malwa, a great scholar of astronomy, he had the observatory at Ujjain reconstructed and built several temples.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Ujjain and Malwa went through another period of seize and invasion at the hands of the Marathas, who gradually captured the entire region. The Maratha domination of Malwa gave impetus to a cultural renaissance in the region and modern Ujjain came into being. Most of the temples of Ujjain were constructed during this period. It was during this time that Ujjain became the meeting ground of painters of the Poona and Kangra styles. The impact of the two different styles of painting is distinctive. The examples of Maratha style are found in the temples of Ram Janardan, Kal Bhairava, Kalpeshwar and Tilakeshwar while the traditional Malwa style can be seen in the Sandipani Ashram and in many large houses of the local seths.
In the Maratha period, the art of wood work also developed. Wood carvings were done on the galleries and balconies. But many excellent examples have either been sold as junk or destroyed. Ujjain finally passed into the hands of the Scindias in 1750 and until 1810, when Daulat Rao Scindia founded his new capital at Gwalior, it was the chief town of his dominions.The shifting of the capital to Gwalior led to a decline in the commercial importance of Ujjain. But the opening of Ujjain-Ratlam-Godhra branch of the Bombay-Baroda line corrected the balance. A considerable volume of trade mainly with Bombay, existed in cotton, grain and opium during the British Indian period.
There is much to demonstrate that in the perspective of India’s long history, Ujjain enjoyed great importance in the battle for the empire and the constant struggle for supremacy. Political importance was compounded by the economic factor of Ujjain being situated on the main artery of trade between the North, the South and the West. This in turn contributed to Ujjain acquiring a cultural splendour of its own which is equaled by very few other cities in India.
Today, Ujjain abounds in temples, hoary old tradition attached to each of them. But though most of them have been built upon sites of antiquity, none of them has survived in the original splendour. Desecrated and despoiled time and time again, the structures that stand today are of more recent date, renovated or rebuilt over the years. And yet, the temples form an integral part of the city and contribute to the continuity of Ujjain’s tradition of greatness.