The small town of Maheshwar, bordering the North bank of River Narmada in Khargone, is a legacy bearer of Chakravartin Samrat Sahastraarjun kingdom. Located two hours from Indore in central India, Maheshwar is assumed to be constituted atop the ancient site of the Somvanshya Shastrarjun Kshatriya, as suggested in the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. It is also the site where Sahasrajuna pinned Ravana to the ground and planted ten lamps on his heads. Years later subsequent classic war of Mahabharata, the triumphant Yudhishthira convoyed a Yagna by winning every one. In the late 18th-century, Maheshwar served as the capital of the glorious Maratha queen Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar. And so came the Ahilya Fort!
Even to this day, the Sahasrarjun temple at Maheshwar illumines eleven lamps in the worship of Lord Agni, the kingdom protector. It’s arduous to not get fascinated by the prowess and wisdom of Ahilya Devi Holkar, who, during her reign, decorated Maheshwar with countless public works, including a palace, a fort, a few temples and Ghats with broad, stone treads marching down to the river. Maheshwar is an illustrative rendition of her journey, mingled with legends, heritage and popular beliefs. In her story, Ahilya Devi Holkar is a rebellious protagonist who embodied the then feudal rulers. Even though I have visited Maheshwar several times, visiting Ahilya Fort is a renewed experience each time.
Every time I am at this fortress, I am left mesmerised by its sculptured artwork bathing in natural sunlight. The Fort entrance is marked by the label “Rajwada Pravesh Dwar,” implying entry to the 4,000-year-old Royal Residence. Those touring Ahilya Fort for the first time must start by visiting the Ahilya courtroom, or as they call it, the Rajgaddi. Marked by antique cannons and a cow mural, this small courtroom near the main entrance is often neglected by visitors. Photography is not allowed in Ahilya Devi’s courtroom, but, it’s important, you pay her homage before you begin to tour her residence. This partially-uncovered courtyard is designed, with a horseshoe-style seating arrangement, placing Rajmata Ahilya Devi’s Rajgaddi at its crown.
Rajgaddi, however, is a simple Diwan-turned-throne, set with white cylindrical pillows and a framed picture of Queen Ahilya Devi. The centre of this inner courtyard features, a Tulsi plant, something very typical of a traditional Hindu home. A short walk from beneath an arched leafy pathway will bring you to the long flight of stone stairs. Though the aerial view of the Ahilya fort from the uppermost stair is rewarding enough, climbing down surprises you further with some of Madhya Pradesh’s most magnificent architectural spectacles. A few steps down, a railing-free trail shows up Rehwa Handloom Factory on the left.
From its onset, 300 years back, Ahilyabai Holkar inspired traditional weaving in Maheshwar, now known as the Maheshwari handloom. In the late 1700s, the queen selected a handful of weavers from Surat to establish autochthonous textiles in Maheshwar to empower women. Even though the weaving craftsmanship was put to practice within Fort premises first, but later on, the skill went on to be adopted by many households. The legacy of weaving continues to grace the premises.
Rehwa Handloom Factory provides a glimpse into Ahilya Devi’s love for finest Maheshwari sarees with incomparable designs, be it Chatai print, tiny checks, striped Pallas, Eent, Lehers, Rui Phool, Diya, Tara or an arrowhead V design. Each of these hallmark designs is a trademark of elegant Maheshwari weave. Symbolic of Maharani Ahilyabai’s rusticity, poise and elegance!
Walk past the handloom factory, and you will be greeted, by the inner area of the Ahilya fort dotted with sculpted walls and embellished doors. Madhya Pradesh is home to some of India’s most-celebrated forts, amongst them, Ahilya Fort stands apart, not because the fortress itself is notably impressive (which it is), but because of the sculptured wall that environs and shields it. As for the doors, most remain closed, except the ones leading to River Narmada. It’s quite a sight if you ask me! From arches to domes, from carved walls to engraved doors, and from multicoloured boats to likeable locals, each element of this citadel foretells the history written by Queen Ahilya Bai herself.
Temples dwelling within the Ahilya Fort complex are a significant attraction in Maheshwar. Legend has it that Jagat Guru Kripaluji Maharaj, in his early years, visited this site with Krishna devotees to perform Akhand Sankirtan on the banks of the Narmada river. Narmada Ghat allows firsthand insight, into the lifestyle of locals, seen bathing, boating, praying or swimming in the river. I couldn’t have come this far and not taken a river-boat-ride to visit ShahstraDhara waterfall. On our way back, the boatman stopped by the small Shiva temple in the middle of the river. Despite its smallness, this temple was crowded, by men chanting Narmadey Har, meaning hail Narmada.
On one of my other Maheshwar trips, I also took a boat ride to the tiny island of Baneshwar. This isle with a temple, they say, is positioned on the centremost axis of Earth implicitly, connecting it to the North Star. A 15th-century shrine on that very exact spot has been popularised, as a sacred site. As we were returning from Baneshwar, the boatman also showed me around the Kashi Vishwanath temple, where Ahilya Bai has built rooms for sadhus and other holy men. In recent times, Prince Richard Holkar, one of the descendants, have been living in and maintaining a part of the Fort since 1971.
The section where Richard Holkar stays truly epitomises the royal Maratha era with its centuries-old teak furnishings, lion skin rugs and royal kitchen that still prepares the royal family’s royally acclaimed pomegranate duck. The commoners typically conclude the fort tour by getting coffee and local snacks at the on-site Labbooz Cafe.