Vatsal is a techie and a coffee junkie. Most often he’s caught watching a film with Guinness for company. Preeti loves everything about the mountains. She always has her head buried in a book sipping tea.
We both love traveling and watching films so we decided to document some of it. Hope you enjoy reading as much as we’ve enjoyed traveling and writing about them 🙂
We were planning a short trip with our friend, Prabhu, who was visiting from London. We wanted something between a hectic trip and the laid back Goa. I did a fair bit of research and Maheshwar looked promising. We took an overnight sleeper bus from Mumbai and met Prabhu at Indore where we had Indori poha for breakfast. We were clearly the only outsiders, and in a short time were surrounded by a huge group of touts at the bus stop, each wanting us to get onto their respective bus. All of them started to argue amongst themselves and then two of them pulled Prabhu by each arm in different directions. It was a funny sight with Prabhu trying to free himself with his limited Hindi. We quickly overcame our amusement and went to his rescue.
The bus ride itself was an experience with old men in colorful twirl turbans for company and Vatsal losing his wallet! After a two-hour ride in that rickety bus we got dropped off in the town of Maheshwar. We walked up to the fort through the main market area and checked into a budget hotel right at the entrance of the fort.
Maheshwar is a small temple town on the banks of River Narmada.As legend has it, Narmada was born out of Lord Shiva’s teardrop and is worshipped as a mother by the people of Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. As you enter the ghats, you can almost hear the folk song ‘Maa Rewa’ playing in the air which was made popular by the Delhi band Indian Ocean and became an anthem for the Narmada Bachao Andolan:
The fort and the temples are majestic structures with lush green environs. The intricate stone carvings of animal, floral and human figurines speak of great craftsmanship. The golden spires of the temples, overhanging balconies and beautifully decorated doorways add to the beauty of the place. The fort has imposing high stone walls facing the river. The larger part of the fort has been transformed into a heritage hotel which is run by Prince Richard Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore.
While the town is famous for its Maheshwari sarees, if you go back a few hundred years back, one would find rich and interesting stories of its glorious past. It even finds mention in epics like Mahabharata. Most of the shops in the market sell pictures of a lady in simple white saree, the benevolent Queen, Ahilya Bai, who is also worshipped by the locals. We heard patchy stories about her life from the tea shop owner, some hawkers and austere holy men – a different version every time.
One of them was about Ahilya Bai’s husband. He lost his life on the battle field and she was to perform sati. HHer father-in-law pleaded with her to not give up her life, but help him run the kingdom. A little research shows that the local tale is a little exaggerated. She did not attempt to perform sati. Her father-in-law died 12 years later. She then petitioned to take on the administration but was met with objection. A year later she was crowned the Queen and ruled the region until her death.
We took a tour of Rajgaddi, the throne of Ahilya Bai, and were taken aback by the simplicity of a Queen who ruled for over 30 years. The corridor where she held assembly for her people is still intact. It is a simple structure built around a central courtyard with some of her belongings on display. It’s hard to imagine an Indian Queen sans all her fineries. Her life stories are full of valour, power and compassion. She clearly stands out as a leader who cared for her people.
The tradition of weaving Maheshwari Sarees
Ahilya Bai was also responsible for bringing the craft of handloom weaving to the town. It had gradually died over the years but was revived by Prince Holkar in the 70s’. Since then, the town has emerged as the weaving centre for the famous Maheshwari sarees. We went to the small unit, Rehwa Society, within the fort complex where the local women were weaving gorgeous sarees and dupattas with hand operated looms. It is a small room with a few units of handlooms and has a rustic and earthy feel to it with dyers hanging the dyed yarn to dry. The continuous clanking of wooden looms create magic with cotton and silk. The shopper in me couldn’t resist and I picked up a few gorgeous pieces from the store there.
We spent most of our time on the steps of the temple overlooking the calm river, watching life unfold. The Ahilya Ghat is dotted with small shiva linga and animal figures, women selling bead jewellery, hawkers selling lemonade, dreadlocked priests performing rituals, women washing their clothes by the river, some drying their colorful sarees on the stones, men practising yoga, some meditating, young boys diving into the river trying to outdo each other every time and shrines decorated with marigold. There is so much going on yet one can get absorbed into the tranquility of the place.
The temple at the centre of the Universe
The evenings are, however, the best. There’s a raw beauty to the place. As the sun was setting we hired a boat and set out on the river. It was a small wooden boat with cane chairs. With the sun rays scattering hues of orange and purple in the sky,the walls of the fort from a distance looked impressive. The temple bells with the birds chirping made the evening blissful and soothing. The boat took us to the Baneshwar Temple in the middle of the river. According to legends, Baneshwar is the centre of the universe connecting the axis of the Earth and the North polar star. After an hour long leisurely boat ride, we were back on the ghats for some more of the same. The evening prayers had begun, the lamps were lit and the smell of incense filled the air.
Maheshwar is a two-hour drive from Indore which is accessible by flights and trains from all parts of the country. Food options are limited with only a few restaurants. The entire town is vegetarian. We walked for about 40 minutes to a restaurant, ‘Indian Heritage Food’ which is outside the bounds of the main temple town and the only place which serves non-vegetarian food. They have individual cabins covered with a plastic curtain so that one can indulge in gluttony in secrecy. Another place which was highly recommended by the locals was Guru Kripa. It is a small and humble place where you need to share tables with other people, run by a Punjabi man.He served us simple home cooked Punjabi food with a lot of love and a good dose of interesting conversation 🙂
Maheshwar with its slow moving river and even its slow pace of life is a sensory delight. For us, the high points were the undisturbed walks on the Ghat and the boat ride in the calm river. Such simple joys make for an exceptional experience. This is not a place for the hurried traveller. Stay on at your leisure, at least for a night to witness the mesmerizing sunset or the sunrise with soulful chants for background music 🙂