Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh is a hidden gem for conscious travellers. Visit this small town for its handlooms, royal heritage, and languid pace of life. By Vinita Makhija
The day is February 1, 2020. There is massive excitement in the air. Congregations of devotees are on the banks of River Narmada in the town of Maheshwar, in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, chanting ‘Jai Narmade’ (salutations to River Narmada). Some are immersing saris, coconuts, rice, and turmeric in the water, and then removing them. Boats are ferrying families that have promised 1,300 metres of fabric (the breadth of the river, between two shores) as a ‘thank you’ to the holy river for prayers answered.
This extensive fabric (polyester, sadly) will later be cut into five-metre pieces and distributed to the needy as saris. We’ve serendipitously landed up in Maheshwar on River Narmada’s ‘birthday’. This fabric immersion ritual is especially meaningful in a city that earns its primary income from its handloom trade. The celebrations run all day long; in the evening, they culminate in singing, dancing, and lighting of diyas at the ghats. The village across the river plays Ma Rewa by the Indian Ocean. The popular Indian folk band wrote this song 20 years ago on River Narmada.
Through the afternoon, a group of women in orange polyester saris clean up the little mess made by the devotees. There is no plastic! This is thanks in part to these women, who refer to themselves as ‘sisters’ or ‘keepers’ of the Narmada. All the efforts by the government, the attention from the Narmada Bachao Andolan (a social movement running since 1985 to save the river), and the locals’ reverence have paid off. Among the five biggest holy rivers in India, Narmada is considered by some to be the holiest. Local legend goes that when Ganga feels unclean, she comes and cleans herself in the form of a black cow in Narmada.
If you’re a true seeker, the folklore around its inception is the most interesting titbit: Narmada came into being when Lord Shiva, deep in his meditative trance, dropped a bead of sweat. It is said that wherever the river flows, mahalingams of Lord Shiva will form, so the ghats are filled with small and big Shiva temples, some of them constructed by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar—a big devotee herself—and well over 300 years old.
Even though Maheshwar is often described as the Benares of Central India given its similarities—the ghats, temples, and its famous Maheshwari saris—it is much calmer, cleaner, and more distinctive. While Varanasi finds itself perched prominently on the top of pilgrim itineraries, Maheshwar so far has been considered a ‘passing-through’ town. But this reputation is quickly changing due to the growing awareness of Maheshwar’s hotel experiences and its textile traditions.
Maheshwar (literally translating to ‘the house of Mahesh’, another name for Lord Shiva) is mentioned in the Atharva Veda (one of the Hindu scriptures) with its old name, Mahishmati, the capital of legendary king and warrior Kartavirya Arjuna. However, its prominence can be credited to the great warrior queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who moved her capital here from the city of Indore in the year 1767—to be closer to River Narmada—and forever changed its landscape. She supported weavers who were already part of the town, using their products as gifts for royalty. Hence, there are temples and stores named after her, and people pray to a life-size statue of her at the entrance of the fort.
Prince Richard Holkar (a direct descendant of Ahilyabai) and his former partner Sally Holkar (famous for her tireless work for the upliftment of the weavers) were approached by the local weavers back in the 1970s for help with the revival of their dying looms and the business of Maheshwari weaves. Prince Richard Holkar recounts, “The weavers were concerned about their children leaving due to a lack of livelihood. We knew people like Martand Singh and Pupul Jaykar (prominent textile revivalists) from our urban life and asked them to help us.” They visited old royal houses and grandmothers’ trunks locally and pulled out the most authentic designs. Maheshwaris from the 1700s were traditionally woven in cotton-silk, with a simple zari (golden thread weaving) border, in nine yards and had two pallus. Now, they are smaller, with one pallu and motifs inspired by local things in Maheshwar.
The old designs were then revived at the government handloom centre. These new pieces sold out at an exhibit in Delhi, which led to the formal opening of Rehwa Society. Rehwa started with eight women. One of them, Chandra Bai, still weaves in the same compound and loom she started within the 1980s. Today, Maheshwar can boast of having over 2,500 weaver families, many of them trained at the Rehwa Society. While Fabindia may have been their first order, they have had successful collaborations with designers such as Meera and Muzaffar Ali, Roma Narsinghani, and Urvashi Kaur.
In 2002, with their primary mission fulfilled in a way, Sally Holkar started Women Weave, where women who acted as ‘shadow weavers’ and supplemented their male family members’ work were given an opportunity to rise to their full potential. Today, they count Good Earth, Anokhi, and WilliamsSonoma as regular clients. Consequently, the GudiMudi project, which focusses on khadi, was launched. In 2015, Sally started The Handloom School, which trains women in weaving and business acumen. At the time of my visit, there is a group from Northeast India honing the weaving skills from their own regions. It goes without saying that one should not leave the town without buying this historic textile from the weavers.
Another testament to the Holkars’ love for the town is The Ahilya Fort Hotel. It’s the fanciest feather in their cap. It offers what are undoubtedly the best views of the ghats, the river, and the city. The thoughtful boutique hotel was built by converting a section of the original fort. So, there’s abundant sunshine at the property, ancient trees still stand tall, and four puppies run amok.
My breakfast at the regal property is usually the Indori style of poha with farsan (Gujarati salty snacks) or masala akuri (spicy scrambled eggs, a staple in Parsi cuisine). The highlight of the breakfast table is the marmalades—in innovative flavours like kumquat and fig made by the prince himself. He makes them in Paris (where he stays half of the year) and carts them back for his guests. If you’re lucky and he’s in the mood, he’ll cook you an omelette; and you can go back home to narrate the story of when a prince made you breakfast.
Meals are an elaborate affair at The Ahilya Fort Hotel. While lunch is usually Western-style cold soups, tarts, and cheese platters, dinner includes something from each part of the country. The dinner location changes each night—any part of the fort could be converted to host a dinner table. A dholak-wielding gentleman and hundreds of candles lead you to the surprise location. Oh, the drama! You are always given an option to dine privately or with random guests. Their expat guests are known to return every year to India, to experience the lost art of conversation and the meditative trance of being a part of this experience.
The Holkars run the property like their own house, for they actually do live there. It is not uncommon to see their grandchildren taking summer school lessons from their tutors in the courtyard. If you’ve ever wondered how royalty lives, this is as close as you can get to it. Evenings include leisurely boat rides to a 300-year-old temple in the middle of River Narmada to watch the most spectacular sunset you’ve ever experienced.
Take a flight from any of the metropolitan cities to Indore. Maheshwar is around 90 kilometres away.
The Ahilya Fort Hotel has 19 rooms set in six buildings of the 18th century, each equipped with modern amenities and comforts. Guests can stroll through three acres of courtyards, fountains, and gardens (starts from INR30,000/ USD400 for two nights).
The perfect time to visit is between September to February.
Nature and culture trips, offbeat weekend getaways, solitary retreats, and pre-wedding events and shoots.
Mandu: Called the Hampi of Central India, its earth-hued Afghan- and Turkish-inspired architecture is breathtaking. While photographers and architects may want to spend more time here, it is perfect for a day trip from Maheshwar for the rest.
Omkareshwar: This tiny island is situated on the meeting point of two holy rivers, Narmada and Kaveri. The aerial view of the island makes it look like the Hindu symbol ‘Om’, hence the name.
Local Weaves: There are a few famous weaving patterns for Maheshwari saris that you could buy.
Jhala-Pala: An extra weft technique. It’s a complex design, woven only by Rehwa Society’s most experienced weavers.