I had a late flight back home, & I had ample time to tour nearby places on my last day. Then our tour guide advised us to visit the Bagh caves- famous for wall painting & Maheshwar- the historic town of Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar. We booked a touring car – an air-conditioned Santro hired for 3000 rupees which will drop off us at the airport post covering chosen destination. We set out our trip early morning, as we had 123 km to cover, a driving time of 2 hours, 27 minutes approx. The road was smooth to Bagh caves, southern slopes of the Vindhya ranges could be reckoned along the drive with lush greenery to dry patches of the cotton field.
It is an example of ancient Buddhist art found in remote, collapsing Bagh Caves. They are a group of nine rock-cut monuments, from a sandstone cliff – where major found is basalt. Bhag Caves is located at a distance of 97 km from Dhar town amidst the forest in the vicinities, with the river winding below, & the traditional rural landscape. The cave paintings here are contemporary of Ajanta Caves, an acceptable illustration of rock-cut human-made caves on the banks of the Bhagini river. The Bagh caves date back to 5th-6th AD, which was the late Buddhist period in India. It was conceived that the Satavahana dynasty builds these caves during the 5-7th century. ASI has restored these caves in 1982, & of the nine caves, only five have survived. There is a belief that a Buddhist monk named Dataka established Bagh Caves, which are known as ‘viharas’ or resting places of monks & a small room, usually at the back, forms the ‘chaitya’, the prayer hall. With the fall in Buddhism, by 10th CE or so these caves were abandoned. After this these became the abode of tigers of the region, thus getting the name Bagh.
Walking across the bridge over Bahgini, which was constructed to ease the year-round access to the caves, I was amused to see caves carved high up on a tall sandstone rock in a neat row. As I mount the stairs to reach the cave, the first thing that caught my attention was the Shivalinga carved on the ground on my right & a pair of feet next to it. It is hard to say if it exists since the initial days of caves or sculptured later, the critical fact is its a living part of these ancient caves. And it’s still worshipped as I saw fresh flowers on them. Walking past the caves I realized, the reason to excavate these caves was the quick availability of freshwater.
The use of tempera technique is the prominent feature of wall paintings & frescoes in the Bagh caves. The walls & Ceilings were firstly covered with a thick mud plaster in brownish-orange colour; later, lime-priming with a vegetable fibre layer was done before the painting was laid. The murals of Bagh expressed vivid imagination and talent of creative people being lively & beautiful. These paintings are materialistic rather than spiritualistic. The sophistication and richness of these paintings surpass even the images in Ajanta, Ellora and Karla Caves. Murals of Bagh indeed represent “golden years” of Indian classical art. A similar technique utilized in Armamalai Cave in Tamil Nadu.
I commenced with my tour, with cave two, also known as Pandava cave which is the largest & best preserved. I saw the base of the massive pillar that would have carried the weight of the rock. Along the right side of these pillars is Ganesha, & the left side is challenging to decipher. As I stepped inside the cave, I was surrounded by 24 substantial circular columns in a parallel line, with a floral design carved on the ceiling & bottom showing signs of restoration. The lighting inside the cave is negligible; you require to use the mobile torchlight to navigate through the uneven surface of the cave.
Due to no light or dim light, I happen to fall on the firm, the rough surface of the cave injuring my ankle. And this happened as I was busy identifying the figure on the wall as Buddha in origin or Bodhisattva too. So suggested carrying torches in the cave to avoid such an accident. Well, at the back of these caves is a Chaitya Griha with a narrow, tall stupa touching the roof of the cave. You get to see a glimpse of the pattern of the paintings on the caves, but most of the walls they are patched up. An inscribed copper plate was found in this cave, that mention the donation made in the 5th century AD for the repair work of these Viharas by Maharaja Subandhu.
The cave three also known as the Hathyakana is a bit better preserved, as figures can be witnessed on the outer wall, though it’s been eroded with time. I discovered a row of a restored pillar at the entryway of the cave, along with some carving on the doorknob & remains of painting on the walls & columns. I saw a varied contrast in the paintings, one of the walls are colourful, but on pillars, dark & white geometric shapes are carved. The geometric pattern in Buddha caves seems out of place, but there was no one to confirm or contradict. Considerably, there was similar Stupa in the Chaitya Griha, as in cave 2.
Yet, the exciting fact of the Stupa in the caves is these are narrow & ceiling touch tall, with hexagonal base & rounded top, unlike the inverted semi hemisphere Stupa in Sanchi & Ajanta. There were several small empty rooms around the principal hall, which might have been used for meditation. I discovered water dripping in & around the cave, which can be the significant reason for decay & erosion of the texture of the cave. The most crucial cave is the fourth cave, known as RangMahal, as the wall been decorated with beautiful murals. It includes paintings of Bodhisattva Padmapani, Mushroom paintings which are a feeble glimpse of vibrant frescoes embossed in the cave. But the sad part is, there is information or documentation about these murals & frescoes. No Local guides are available, nor any booklet at the ticket counter.
The 5 & 6 caves are long & narrow, generally used as a discussion chamber by the monks. The caves together now constitute a single cave, dominated with two rows of pillars facing each other. I also found an underground water channel, clueless of its source, even if recently made or an old one. The 7, 8 and 9 caves were in dilapidated condition due to their collapse & could not be visited. While crossing back the bridge, I saw an arrow directing towards the modest museum. The museum takes in some mural & paintings of the cave preserved & displayed, while few are in the Archaeological Museum at Gwalior. The museum shares factual information about the images, like Bagh paintings, are dominated with the rust-red tone, as seen Bodhisattva Padmapani, geometric patterns, Jataka tales, flora and fauna paintings. Only it would have been great if a guide explained these ancient and exquisite paintings.
While driving towards Maheshwar, we ran, by many cotton fields. Also saw the Bagheshwari Devi temple on a small hilltop. The Bagh is also a paradise of hand block printing, where still ancient techniques are practised. Since there were no hotels or eating houses in & around Bagh, so we had to wait for lunch till we reached our next point, though we were lucky to get a cup of tea & some biscuits. 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, its cannot be photographed you can only see. Besides from the ramparts of the fort just outside the Rajwada, you get 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 as 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, take a leisurely walk around the village before you head back.
Though I wanted to linger a little longer at the ghats, 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 temple, I could sense the calmness & was the Narmada flowing alongside. Equally, I was running out of time was unable to visit the Sahastradhara, where the river passes through many big and small rocks, a boat ride needed can see it.
The water felt cold as I sank my hand, despite the sweltering heat. Due to lack of time, I was unable to sit back and 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 :
By Air: Bagh Caves
The nearest airport Indore is the nearest airport for Bagh Caves; 151.6 km away. This airport is connected to many cities in India so that they can take a cab after that. Indore Airport is well connected with other major cities of India.
Maheshwar: 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.
By Road: Bagh Caves
Bagh Caves around 97 km from Dhar and hence, are easily accessible by road. Several buses services that connect Indore plies on frequent. You can drive too, and the distance is 880km from Gurgaon.
Maheshwar: 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.
By Rail: Bagh Caves
A direct train to Indore Junction, and hire a cab to Bagh Caves its 160 km from the railway’s station or take private buses for Dhar. And if you take the bus from Indore to Dhar, they pick the option of a private taxi from Dhar to Bagh caves as there is no public transport available for caves separately. Indore junction is well connected with other major cities of India.
Maheshwar: 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.