Maheshwar: In the land of the divine
Where the Narmada River is most sacred, but so is the legacy left behind by the revered Queen Ahilyabai Holkar.Updated: Dec 01, 2018 14:09 IST
Maheshwar is a town you happen to stumble upon. Most tourists don’t seek to visit it exclusively; it’s a destination that one would prefer to just touch and go. But we decided to dedicate one entire day to unwind here and unravel all the mysteries that this tiny, historic town held within itself. A mere 90km from the capital city of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, Maheshwar is a town that makes for the perfect day trip. But for those looking to take in the surroundings and just immerse themselves in the vibrant culture that this town possesses, they can find themselves at home among the royals at Ahilya Fort.
The first place to head to here is the Maheshwar Ghat. Situated by the banks of the majestic Narmada River, with its waters glistening a soft golden in the mellow morning sunshine, you will notice how this place brims over with Hindu devotees, seeking holy blessings at this spiritual site. The clanging of bells, the lineup of priests and devotees offering their solemn prayers by the ghat, might look like a sight to the average city-dweller, but for the locals, it is nothing but part of their daily routine.
We hired a local tour guide, who would take us around the fort, shed light on the history and share some interesting anecdotes and cultural beliefs about this quaint little town. While a section of the fort has been converted into a hotel, the other half of the fort houses the ‘darbar’ where Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who ruled from 1767 to 1795, held a daily public audience. With the death of both her husband, Khanderao Holkar, and father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar, she took it on herself to rule the empire, and she did it par excellence. In fact, she was a highly respected Queen and locals, including our tour guide, still speak of her with the utmost reverence. Within the fort complex, lie temples and a museum, which houses artefacts from the time of Queen Ahilya. It’s only when you walk the length and breadth of Maheshwar, do you realise that the cultural impact of this royal family is visibly stamped all over this ancient town.
While Maheshwar has been home to the Holkars for just over 250 years, it is a town that is steeped with history that dates far back to the ancient times. It is believed by many, that Maheshwar was originally the ancient town of Mahishmati, with mentions found in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
This old town’s charms have worked its magic on Bollywood as well – with films such as Padman and Bajirao Mastani (2015), to name a few, being shot here. Other historically significant places such as Omkareshwar and Mandu (both in Madhya Pradesh), are an approximate two-hour drive away from Maheshwar.
The Maheshwari Sari
But when in Maheshwar, it is an absolute must to pay a visit to the bustling town markets, dotted with shops selling the famed Maheshwari sari. A hand-woven creation, it was first commissioned by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar. The original saris were all made of pure silk.
A 400-year old pattern, this sari was first designed by the Queen herself, for the royal ladies of her court. While today’s saris are a mix of cotton and silk, what is retained from its original design, is the motifs that distinguish a Maheshwari sari from any other. The lotus border and the ‘chattai’ (mat) border take their inspiration from the temples and forts of Maheshwar. The fabric is dyed in natural colours, giving them a vibrant look; zari and brocade enhance the sari’s richness and appeal.
It soon became a dying craft, only to be revived by the Rehwa Society, an NGO that was established by the Holkar family in 1979, to support the weavers of Maheshwar. It is said that about 70% of the people residing in this town are in the business of weaving these exquisite handloom saris.
- The locals believe that lighting a lamp beside a pot of water throughout the day for one month and 10 days, would drive away all the obstacles afflicting one’s life – they say it really works.
- Legend has it, that Raavan, the king of Lanka, was imprisoned in Maheshwar by then king, Kartavirya Arjun.
- Maheshwar is home to a number of temples, many of them built by Ahilyabai Holkar herself.
- This town has also been a popular centre of the handloom weaving industry since the 5th century.