Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Magnificent Maheshwar

The majestic fort and temple complex stands elegantly by the banks of the genteel Narmada. The structure is massive, and in very good shape belying its almost three-century-old existence. The steps leading from the ghats to the fort complex look imposing and stately. We are on a boat sailing along the Narmada in Maheshwar.

The drive from Indore has been comfortable, taking 90-100 minutes for the 91-kilometer run on a cool sunny morning in late January. The fields on both sides of the road are lush green, alive with cotton, wheat and sugarcane crops. The roadside shops in villages are filled with farm-fresh juicy red carrots, huge white cauliflowers and bright green peas.

Once in Maheshwar, the fort is the obvious destination. The 18th century structure exudes beauty, and charms you with its simplicity. Nothing is over the top here. The carvings, walls and domes in the complex showcase a grandeur that is subtle, understated. Perhaps they reflect the demeanour of the woman who ruled Malwa from these precincts from 1767 to 1795.
Devi Ahilyabai Holkar (1725-1795) was clearly way ahead of her times. Married into the ruling family of Indore, she took the reins of the state in her hands after her husband, father-in-law and son passed away. Her father-in-law, Malhar Rao was a visionary who dissuaded her from committing sati after her husband's untimely death, and trained her in administrative and military matters. She moved the capital from Indore to Maheshwar--an ancient city that finds mention in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata--and ran her kingdom efficiently, justly and courageously. An ardent devotee of Shiva, she built many temples and dharmashalas (guest houses for pilgrims) in several places. The present day Maheshwar owes its development to her.

The Rajwada (Royal Residence) is built around a central courtyard having partially covered wide corridors on all sides. These lead into rooms. Today, these corridors give us an idea of what life must have been like in the days of yore. There is a life-sized statue of Ahilyabai seated at the head of one of the corridors. The floor is covered with comfortable mattresses under clean white sheets. Maybe Ahilyabai gave an audience to her subjects here. She is known to have had regular public meetings during her rule. Her palki (palanquin) and some arms are also on display. Another beautiful sculpture stands tall just outside the building.

The fort overlooks the river Narmada. There is a point on the topmost part of the fort from where one can get a lovely view of the river flowing gently below. The colourful boats bobbing up and down the water, people worshipping the holy river and pilgrims bathing on its ghats add their own charm to the view. The fort houses the large Rajarajeshwar Temple. Its dome dominates the skyline. There are several temples in the town. Prominent among them are the Sahastrarjun Mandir, Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, Chaturbhuj Narayan Mandir, Chintamani Ganapati Mandir, Ram and Krishna Mandir, Bhavani Mata Mandir and Khedapati Hanuman.

Photos by Lata
Maheshwar is known for its superfine silk/cotton sarees. Adorned with distinctive borders, they look very classy. They are produced by local weavers on hand-operated looms. It was Ahilyabai who had sown the seeds of this cottage industry with a view to provide means of livelihood to her people. Once flourishing, it had begun to disintegrate with time. It was revived by Richard Holkar, a scion of the erstwhile ruling family. This industry now functions under REHWA Society, giving employment to many women. There is a small unit in the fort where one can see looms in operation, and fabric and sarees being produced by weavers. They are kept for sale in an adjacent shop. They are sold in other parts of the town too. Madhya Pradesh State emporia all over the country stock and sell these beautiful Maheshwari sarees.

Situated at a short distance from Indore - the industrial capital of Madhya Pradesh - Maheshwar makes for a good getaway either for just a day trip or for a relaxed stay over a few days. The state government runs a hotel, and there are some private hotels too. The fort houses a heritage hotel called Ahilya Fort. One can find five-star comfort in an ethnic setting here. As for us, we returned to Indore the same evening, drinking freshly squeezed sugarcane juice for the road. Laced with ginger and lemon, it was the sweetest, most delicious and refreshing drink I have had in a long time.

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