Film Director Mani Ratnam is a genius when finding the perfect location for romantic duets in his movies. Its like as though the beauty of the place plays a major quotient in bringing out the best in romance. And when the famous Snehithane Snehithane song from Alaipayuthe went popular, I was drooling looking at not only Madhavan but also the beautiful location where they were romancing at. I did not know where the song was shot back then, but when I visited Maheshwar I immediately recognized that this was where the song was shot! I visited this place in December 2016 but then I treasured it like few moments should belong to only me, something am possessive about that I did not want to share pics or write about it. 😀 Yeah, I am that selfish! But then I recently saw Pad Man movie trailer of Akhsay Kumar and he was also standing on those steps of Ahilya fort at Maheshwar and was romancing Radhika Apte. I immediately got carried away to me standing on those very steps and enjoying the sunset as the slow life of Maheshwar was passing by. And so, here are some memories of this beautiful place, pictures and places to visit in Maheshwar
Maheshwar had loads of surprise for me. This was a trip I did with my friend and we had it in our itinerary because it was equidistant to Mandu and Omkareshwar. So we had decided to have Maheshwar as base to cover these places. Until I visited the place, all I knew was that there is a highly luxurious property to stay called Ahilya Heritage hotel which I cannot afford but can only drool looking at the pictures. I did not know about Ahilyabai or Holkar dynasty or about the Maheshwar fort itself. In fact my return ticket read, flying out of Indore from Devi Ahilya Airport and I did not even realize it or lookup to read about her. I was too excited about touring Madhya Pradesh that I did not give heed to other details. Driving into Maheshwar, the first impression was that it is of a small town with shops and markets clustered in couple of streets and the town tried to wing away from it. There was not even many options to stay at Maheshwar. Luckily we had the best option to stay at Kanchan Recreation. It is a home that has been converted into a hotel which I would still like to call it as homestay. Home cooked food, friendly staff, good service, spacious rooms like that of your house, needs to be called a home stay right! It was noon by the time we reached and we decided to visit the Ahilyabai fort and palace before heading to the ghats.
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Little bit about Devi Ahilyabai and Holkar Dynasty
Ahilyabai Holkar – the epitome of woman empowerment much ahead of those times! I quickly became a fan of her after reading about her history and life and also felt bad that I was ignorant about this queen for so long. We might have known queens for their bravery and valor or for their beauty but here is a queen who is known for her humbleness and simplicity as well showing immense courage, bravery and sensibility. She was not a born princess. She was born in a village yet educated by her father in those yesteryears itself, this is somewhere in the 1700s. It was by mere accident that Malhar Rao, founder of the Holkar dynasty, found her and brought her with him to the Holkar territory to make her the bride for his son. Ahilyabai was just an 8 year old when she got married to KhandeRao Holkar. Her husband dies in a battle when she is just 30yrs. And unlike the traditions of the past, Malhar Rao, her father in law, prevents her from performing Sati. He starts involving her in the court affairs and he starts encouraging her to lead army troupes. When Malhar Rao passes away, the grandson takes the throne but unfortunately within eight months he dies too. Now Ahilyabai after losing her husband, only son and her father in law, decides to take the reign in her hands, her army roots for her leadership and she becomes the ruler of Malwa (the region of central Madhya Pradesh is called Malwa). Having capital as Maheshwar she starts ruling Malwa region in the most peaceful and enlightened manner for the next thirty years.
A staunch devotee of Lord Shiva and clad in a simple white saree; her pictures and photographs portray a motherly figure filled with radiance. She is known for building many temples, dharamshalas and supporting many charity work throughout India. I was surprised to see even Rameshwaram listed under one of the temples that she has helped with. Under her reign one can see how the villages and towns developed into cities and how prominent kings, Britishers and poets have commended her work. Her regular public audience hearing to grievances is also something talked about. When I saw her palace, which is actually a humble home, I could immediately relate to whatever I read about her and what she was known for.
AhilyaBai Fort and Palace
The main attraction at Maheshwar is the Ahilyabai’s palace and fort. Parking the vehicle at the entrance and walking towards the palace, I can hear the sound of weavers going tipatty tap with their hand loom machines. Like I said, the Rajwada is actually just a home and revered like a temple by the people of Maheshwar. I removed my slippers and went into the rajwada. A courtyard with greenery in the middle and few rooms above just like those old style houses with tiled roofs welcomed me. One side is the durbar hall which is the ministerial affairs proceedings corner, it has diwans and a seat for Devi Ahilyabai, which I cannot even call as a throne. On the other side are some of the artifacts and paintings. Photography is strictly prohibited inside her home, however cheeky fellows were taking pics. Adjacent is another small museum kinds which include her pooja room and a small golden swing, the swing must have essentially been used to place God figurines during festivals or in her pooja room. And other simple items of yesteryears.
It is a very simple place to see, nothing pompous or architecturally awing you, in contrast to the Ahilyeshwar temple just adjacent to the palace. Her history, poems written on her, her work throughout India can all be seen adorning the walls on the building. Ahilya fort comprises of this Rajwada, Ahilyeshwar temple and few other structures but the majority of it also includes the luxurious heritage property for people to stay. The heritage property is concealed from the views of the public. What we can see is the wall of the fort from the ghat. Otherwise from outside it looks like cut off from the palace, the high walls and shut doors give no glimpse of how the property looks inside.
Ahilyeshwar Temple aka Akileshwar Temple
Walking down the fort steps leads to the Ahilyeshwar temple by the Narmada ghats. Maheshwar is actually a temple town with tiny shrines found around every other corner. With the queen being a staunch Shiva deity, the Ahilyeshwar temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is also the chhatri of Devi Ahilyabai meaning the memorial of the queen. There is a Shiva idol in the inner sanctum and it is a functioning temple even though it is a centopah. The entrance to this temple is a beautiful carved arch. Notice the Ganesha in the middle, the guardians on the side and the work further up. From here on you can spend hours looking at the distinct carvings and figurines.
The steps leading to this centopah complex has unique carvings like below. This one below, though it looks like link of chains, it was written that it is the intertwined body of snake and that it is one continuous thing.
Just opposite the chhatri of Devi Ahilya bai is another very elaborately done chhatri. This is that of Vitoji Rao holkar. It is more elaborate than the chhatri of Ahilyabai. Not just the outer walls and the plinth but even the inner sanctum is beautiful to observe the carvings.. Am gonna let the pictures speak for itself..
By the Narmada Ghat
Walking out of the Ahilyeshwar temple door leads to a flight of steps leading to the Narmada ghat. It is the pattern with which these steps are made that makes this fort unique, picturesque and a popular movie location spot. This is also one of the gates to the fort called Paani Darwaza as the entrance is from the Narmada river. The Narmada ghat that is immediately outside the Ahilya fort is popularly called as the Ahilya ghat. This is like the happening ghat with vendors selling stuff and boats plying to take you for a ride around the river. There are also normal row boats that seems to be taking people between the banks of the river.
Narmada is a very sacred river flowing all around Madhya Pradesh and the people give so much respect to it that you as a tourist too automatically start feeling the same. Sitting on the ghats one can see people constantly coming in to take a dip, or feed the fish, or do some pooja, or light lamps. At a distant bang in the middle of flowing river is the Baneshwar temple. When the tide is high the boat can go around the temple and you can get a glimpse of Baneshwar Mahadev. Apparently there is a celestial line from the Northern Star passing through this temple to the center of the earth. Though it sounds like some greatest heavenly alignment or so, the temple is not maintained so well, could be because of the different levels of rising water. Our boat could not go very close to Baneshwar temple as the water was low and we could see stones around.
From the boat the Ahilya fort looks amazing. True to what people say, Maheshwar is the Varnasi that people do not know about. Sitting by the steps of the Narmada ghat and watching the sunset behind the Baneshwar temple was the highlight! I mean, there is so much aura to the entire place. Imagine this, you are sitting on the steps of the ghat, a bright reddish sun setting behind an ancient temple, the golden hues spreading on the river and it looks like gold is flowing down, egrets and lapwings flying above you, tiny sparrows trying to peck the corn left over by kids, opposite bank somebody doing aarti to the river with a huge lamp, this side of the river many tiny lamps are floating around, it is just an awesome experience to sit and watch the simple things.
Walking a little to the left of the Ahilya ghat leads to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. You heard it right! The one in Varnasi was also rebuilt by Ahilyabai and this one it like its replica. However this Kashi Vishwanath temple had none other than me and Shiva! I mean literally none! The temple priest comes down to the ghats to perform aarti at 7pm in the evening. But this one is very simple, he brings a small aarti and shows it to the river with people playing bhajan. I was constantly inquiring to the shopkeepers for the aarti timing right from the time I came to the ghats and was happily sipping tea, unaware that the aarti was being performed. I mean I was watching it and I thought it was some common man doing pooja to the river. When he finished the aarti and came around for everyone to take the blessings that is when the tea seller called the priest and said, “give to her too, she has been asking for aarti from evening!!” #Facepalm. Bewildered me gave a is this all look and took the blessings..
With darkness falling in, I was amazed to see so many people finding spots and sleeping by the ghat. Some looked like families who were sleeping there like some devotional prayer that they had to keep up with, some like nomads and the rest looked just lost. I decided to the retire for the day but there was one more thing pending! Shopping!!
What to Buy at Maheshwar
Maheshwari Sarees – The Rehwa Society
One cannot miss the Rehwa Society in action while visiting the Ahilya fort. It was again Ahilyabai who made Maheshwar as the center of India’s finest hand loom fabric collection. She brought weavers from around the Malwa region to design the Maheshwari saree. It is originally a 9 yard sari called Kasta sari or Nauvari. Nauvari is like the Maharashtrian style draping with the pleats tucked in the back and pallu draped around the shoulders. The most comfortable one for the queen to ride horses or get into the war field, the Kasta sari is believed to be designed for that. However now with modernization the Maheshwari silk is all about normal saree, salwar kameez or kurta. The Rehwa society was founded by the Holkars in the late 1970s to revive the tradition that was once the pride of Maheshwar and to give employment to women. Maheshwari silk is part cotton and silk or sometimes pure silk. The patterns are simple and elegant and the material is extremely light weight. The beauty of these patters are it is weaved in such a way that the border is reversible and you can wear the saree both ways. If you find Rehwa society to be expensive, there are many local house holds that you can find around the town who have hand loom at home and sell sarees in shop adjacent to their place. But purchasing a Maheshwari silk is something not to be missed.
The other curious and interesting subject you will see in Maheshwar and more along the river Narmada is the Banalinga also known as the Swayambu Lingam, meaning formed by itself. The river in its due course leaves behind polished pebbles in the shape of Shiva Ling which is bought by people to pray at home. There is a legend behind this too. Narmada as I said before is a sacred river believed to have originated from Shiva and she has an alternate name as Shankari. And so it is no wonder that the pebbles that she touches takes the form of Shiva. Shiva Ling or a pebble whatever it may be, I was amazed with this stone creation and the pattern it leaves behind on the stones. On inquiring the shop keeper said, they collect the stones and polish it but the shape is cylindrical by nature and no alteration is done to it.
Though the fort and adjacent ghats might take only half day or so to see, I would recommend at least spend a night or two. The town has a character to it and it is best seen in by spending at least couple of days by the ghat..
How to Reach Maheshwar
The closest airport to Maheshwar is Indore. It is about 100km from Indore by road. The roads in this part of the state is good. I had hired a cab from Indore and covered Maheshwar, Omkareshwar and Mandu.
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