The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
When I was planning to visit Indore, it was in my back of mind somewhere that I wanted to see the Narmada river. Maheshwar, a town situated on the banks of this holy river, lies at the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. From Indore, it takes merely 2 hours by car. Interestingly, this place attracts tourists as well as pilgrims. Pilgrims go for the spiritual search of Shivalingas, while tourists seek the remarkable history and exquisite architecture.
Abode of Lord Shiva
The meaning of Maheshwar is the Abode of Lord Shiva. In ancient times, Maheshwar was known as Mahissati or Mahishamati and was the capital of Avanti under the rule of King Sahasrarjun. The story goes that once King Sahasrarjun, who had 500 wives, stopped the flow of River Narmada with his 1,000 arms to make a playfield for his wives. It was at this time when Ravana made a Shivalinga on the riverside. Sahasrarjun seeing that his wives had played and were now resting, allowed the river Narmada to flow again. The Shivalinga was washed away when water was released, which resulted in war between the King and Ravana. The King defeated Ravana and he placed ten lamps on Ravana’s head and one on his hand. At present, 11 lamps are lighted in the Sahasrarjun Temple that keeps the legend alive.
Forts Echoes Past Stories
Although a sleepy old city, this place is a hidden gem. The 18th-century structure, Maheshwar Fort, is the main attraction here and was built by the famous Rani Ahilyabai Holkar. She ruled from 1765 to 1796 and built Ahilya Wada, her personal residences, offices, and a darbaar audience hall, within the fort. Undoubtedly, while walking through the grandeur of the fort, one realizes that life in Maheshwar revolves around the fort. This palace reflects the glory of Maratha architecture. What fascinated me most is that the palace has a weaver’s cooperative society in its premises, where I witnessed the weaving of world-famous Maheshwari sarees.
Ahilya Fort, or Maheshwar fort, has arched windows all over, carved entrance doors, and intricate works. The fort walls stretch themselves on either side of the main entrance beyond the bastions. I saw various Chhatris and the seat of the Queen. The life-size statue of Rani Ahilyabai seated on the throne welcomes you with a calm smile. Display of antiques and different possessions of Holkar Dynasty, can be found in the archaeological museum, which is located in the fort. It also consists of temples dedicated to several incarnations of Lord Shiva.
In 2000, Prince Richard Holkar, her descendant, and son of the last Maharaja of Indore converted the Fort into a hotel. The Fort, which overlooks the Narmada River, was more like a Rajwada kind of a house. I cannot resist clicking pictures of the panoramic view of the Narmada River as well as the ghat from there. I walked down a few steps to reach the Narmada Ghat. You can really experience the real life of rural India, touching the clean and cold water of the river.
The Narmada ghat is a wonder in itself. It was also built by Ahilya Bai Holkar in the 18th century. Narmada is considered the holiest of all the sacred rivers in India. Not only are there temples at the various points in the ghats, but I was also surprised to see big, small, of different sizes Shivalinga here. The legend goes that whenever Queen Ahilya bai went to bathe, Narmada River presented Shivalingas to her and these have been preserved at the palace temple where prayers are done every day. Even today, this practice has prevailed.
Sarees are Symbol of Culture
If Maheshwar means forts and ghats, then it also is the main center of the world-famous Maheshwari Sarees. These sarees have been created from the times of Ahilyabai but have been lately restored thanks to the Rehwa Society an NGO. It was an amazing experience to see the making of sarees on the looms. These bright color sarees are weaved with distinctive and intricate designs of stripes checks, and floral borders. If you have seen the movie Pad Man, then visualize the scene where Akshay Kumar was standing on the steps of some fort, romancing Radhika Apte. Yes, it is Ahilya fort at Maheshwar.
Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from English to Hindi.