We started for Maheshwar- the historic town of Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar. It was a 3 Hrs drive from Bagh caves (116km), upon reaching Maheshwar, we had a speedy lunch & searched for a medical shop as my ankle pain was on peak. Lastly, we got one shop-bought Volini & bandage, to relief my ankle. I was eager to explore the Larger than life fort, which retains the aroma of Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar. She ruled the princely states from Maheshwar driving here strength from her trust in Lord Shiva & Ma Narmada, & that’s the only reason she shifted her capital from Indore.
Maheshwar is mentioned as Maheshmati in many ancient scriptures. In a literal sense, it means the abode of Lord Mahesh (another name of Lord Shiva). It has been one of the twin capitals of the powerful Avanti Kingdom then ruled by Hihayas King- Sabasrarjun. Being a prosperous city, Mahesmati became the famed centre for spiritual, religious, administrative, literature & cultural activities. It is a small ancient temple town with a fertile history. Ruled by Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar, an extraordinary ruler, pious & widely respected queen of the 18th century, had Maheshwar as it states capital. The massive fort stands tall carrying splendour of the past alongside the banks of Narmada. She reigned from 1767 AD to 1795 AD, & after the defeat of Holkar in 1818 by the Britishers in the Third Anglo-Maratha War Holkar kingdom became a part of the British Empire shifting the capital back to Indore.
Maheshwar city revolves around the historic fortress, & the pious deeds of Rani AhilyaBai Holkar, with the Narmada flowing on one side & the other side the city emanating from the gates. As I entered the fort, the architect gives a glimpse of Mugal style built-in 16th century. A section of this fortress is now converted into a heritage hotel; however, key places are still open for the public to visit.
It was surprising to witness the place crowded with locals, who visit to pay deference. The first thing that caught my eye was the larger than life image of Rani Ahilya Devi in a pink Odhni, and I was amused. Walking past the idol is the Rajwada, which is like a courtyard area in the house, upon recording it you see an idol of Lord Krishna flanked by two cattle.
An open space in the middle filled with greenery gave me a feeling that it’s still a living place. I saw portraits of various Holkar kings, & signboard mentioning the pious deeds of the benevolent queen. A small museum nearby housed with royal possessions, including silverware, Ahilya Bai’s Palki which is still taken out every Monday in a procession, wood carved brackets – some in the shape of elephant trunks. Along the corridors, there is one open corridor where the queen used to have her Gaddi or court. The spot where she used to sit with a shiva linga in her hand, listening to the local’s plea & did justices.
The seat is still well maintained, surrounded by a wooden pillar with a cotton mattress along with a life-size statue of Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar; & on top portraits of various Holkars. But the murals on the walls caught my interest; it depicted the Maheshwar fort from the Narmada, & the simplicity of the queen who ruled this place was reflected. On the outer courtyard, there is a life-size bull represents the Shiva’s vehicle, Horse the Kuldevta of Holkars and Elephant a sign of royalty. Simplicity is the word that comes to my mind after exploring Ahilya Bai’s Rajwada.
Rani Ahilyabai Holkar was a pious devotee of Lord Shiva so, during her regime, 108 Brahmins used to create 125,000 Shiva Linga’s every day from the blackened earth, worship them & then immerse in the holy Narmada. This rite is still followed by 11 brahmins who create 15000 ShivaLinga’s daily worship them & then dip in the Narmada. This puja can be witnessed between 8 am-10 am, though I was not fortunate to view it, or participate as assigned Brahmin can make this puja. Inside the synagogue, there is a small room with a collection of precious ShivaLinga’s of various shapes & size. Along with a Hindola or swing for Lord Krishna made of gold. Unfortunately, it cannot be photographed you can only see.
Besides from the ramparts of the fort just outside the Rajwada.I got a splendid view of Holy Narmada, & a long flight of steps leads down to the temple complex & further down to the river. I was thus absorbed in the simplicity of living, rich history & splendid view that I forgot about my injured ankle. Until a sting of pain, while climbing down the stairs reminded me of my injured ankle, it was taken charge of by a painkiller & spray as I had finished touring.
Along the left of the stairway down towards the temple complex, are the reward weaving centre of Rehwa society. Set up in 1979 as an NGO to keep the slowly dying art of Maheshwari weave alive. At the same time help the local women earn a livelihood. The modern weaver has diverse in weaving dupattas, scarves, stoles, dress fabric and home linen, along with working on traditional looms. These Maheshwari saris are ideally known for its beautiful weaves, fine, airy clothing, light texture & colours. I bought some fabric from Rehwas is an NGO run by Richard Holkar and his wife, or you can try Tana-Bana and Pawar Shop in the city.
As I climbed down a few steps more, my eye got fixed along with the magnificent structure on the right of the stairway- the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya. I was mesmerized looking at the architectural grandiosity of the imposing complex with exquisite, intricate carvings, & elaborate overhanging.
It was built as Chaatri or Cenotaph of Rahi Ahilyabai by her daughter Krishna Bai. A typical Nagar style architecture with a towering Shikhara and a small statue of Lord Ganesha perched on top of the temple’s main door flanked by two Maratha Dwarpala There is Shivlinga in the Garbh Griha, along with Ranji Ahilya bai’s portrait. I likewise saw a small temple dedicated to Sri Ram & Hanuman in the temple complex. Besides, two tall Deepastambhas, a typical Maharashtrian style stand on either side of the temple.
The pavilion of the temple is located parallel to the ghat, overlooking the deep blue water of Narmada. Just opposite in the large courtyard stood two dommed shaped Chhatri or cenotaph with a fine carving on them of Vithoji Rao Holkar & Maharaja Yashwant Rao Holkar. In and around the temple complex, there are detailed carving of elephants & scenes from everyday life of Holkar era. Multiple sculptures of dancers, the musician is playing the stringed, wind & percussion instrument.
As I walked through the gateway towards the ghat in the sweltering heat, my eyes caught lime juice and spicy treats sold by some vendor, and I set up one for me & Mom. While sipping my lime soda, I studied the elaborate work in the complex, flanked on either side by three Dwarpala (doorkeepers) statues & above it, a row of corbelled statues and a beautiful pavilion it’s breathtaking. And the signature frame of Maheshwar, the fan-shaped staircase leads to Ahilya Ghat creating attractive and signature facade of this heritage place.
The Narmada is the force of life in Maheshwar, this topographic point is also referred as “city of Ghats”, with twenty-eight of them extending over two kilometres along the river; among them, the Ahilya Ghat, the Peshwa Ghat, the Mahila Ghat and the Phanse Ghat is the prominent one. Since she was birthed out of a teardrop of Shankar the Narmada is also known as Shankari, & a natural dividing line between North India and South India.
While walking along the ghat is seeing the ghats was dotted with many little shrines of Lord Shiva, each worshipped lovingly with a fresh flower. Other ghats have Chhatri dedicated to departed kings or kings or any beloved of Holkar Family. I found numerous Shiva Lingas on the shores of the Narmada; in fact, the banks of the Narmada said to be filled with cylindrical stones resembling the sacred shiva linga known as Bana Lingas. And these are rare to get these days.
The tradition of centuries ago is still pursued, where people throng to the ghats at daybreak & dusk to take a dip in holy water & offer prayers. While evenings the ghat is lit with ghee lamps, & some afloat in the river. This place is an essential point for pilgrims doing Narmada Parikrama, & I was amused to see a higher number of women in this yatra. Although there is more than a hundred ancient Shiva temple in Maheshwar, few caught my attention for specific causes.
The foremost is the Baneshwar Mahadev temple located in the middle of the Narmada, which is accessed only by boat. Built-in 5th century AD by Parmar dynasty, this small shrine is believed to be sited on the axis connecting the centre of the earth with the Dhruv Tara or the North Pole. I could not visit the temple as the water level was high, but I did see a small shrine jutting out into the river from the ghats. The other one was the replication of the Kashi Vishwanath temple along the ghats. Lastly, the Narmada temple, a mid-sized temple located on the Mahila Ghat, has an anthropomorphic image of Narmada in the Shiv Mandir with a Shivaling. The Narmada looks even more beautiful, from its pillared arches.
A lot of brightly coloured boats moored alongside the bank. But it was not the right hour for a boat ride. A boat ride on the Narmada gives you a panoramic panorama of the stunning Maheshwar riverfront. If you have time take your boat to the other end of Narmada. And symbolically in South India is the village of Naodatodi. There is an ancient Shiva temple called Shivalan. A typical central Indian town with a vast ashram. Do take a leisurely walk around the village before you head back.
Though I wanted to linger a little longer at the ghats. But also desired to visit the Rajrajeshawri temple. Not too far from the Ahilyeshwar Shivala. There is an interesting fact related to this tabernacle. It said that 11 lamps in the shiva temple have burned since prehistoric times in honour of Agni. Only it’s not a Maricle as devotee been donating ghee to keep the lights burning forever. As each lamp can take 1.25 kg of Desi ghee to burn for 24hrs. I found out a small temple in the complex dedicated to Sahastraarjun. The mighty king who prisoned Ravana here for a couple of months.
Sitting on the stair of the Rajrajeshawri temple, I could sense the calmness & was the Narmada flowing alongside. Equally, I was running out of time. Hence was unable to visit the Sahastradhara. Here the river passes through many big and small rocks. And a boat ride needed can see it. While sitting I sank my hand in the water. It was cold, despite the sweltering heat. Due to lack of time, I was unable to sit back. Though wanted to bask in the awesome architectural grandeur of the fort. Along with the incredible beauty of the glittering blue Narmada.
Maheshwar is a broad confluence of art, culture, religious reverence and architectural splendour. Apart from the spiritual aspect, Maheshwar has an irresistible charm. And you don’t give birth to be spiritually inclined to experience it. Sigh! I wish a night’s stay would have been great to enjoy the ethereal sunrise and sunset along the Narmada Ghat with the Ahilya fort as a backdrop. Nevertheless, I headed back with eyes full of pictures.
How to reach :
The nearest airport Indore is the nearest airport for Bagh Caves; 95.1 km away. This airport is connected to many cities in India so that they can take a cab after that.
From Indore, Maheshwar is 95.1 km, 153.5 Km from Ujjain, 66 km from Omkareshwar & 116 km from Bhag caves. Several buses services that connect Indore, Ujjain, Omkareshwar & Dhar ply frequently. You can drive too, and the distance is 890.3 km from Gurgaon.
The nearest railway station is at Barwaha; located about 39 km from Maheshwar, however, Indore is the nearest junction which is well connected with other major cities of India.