It is said that of the five most sacred rivers of India – Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri, Narmada is the holiest. It is also said that when Ganga herself feels unclean, she takes the form of a black cow and using the darkness of the night as her cover, comes to cleanse herself in the waters of the Narmada.
She is known by many names, one of them being Shankari, or the ‘daughter of Shankar (Lord Shiva)’. It is believed that she was borne out of a drop of tear that fell out of Shiva’s eyes. Narmada’s connection with Shiva does not end here. Anyone who has travelled to any town on the Narmada has heard the saying ‘Narmada ke kankar utte Shankar‘, meaning ‘Shiva lives in each pebble on which the Narmada flows’. True to the legend, the banks of the Narmada are replete with cylindrical pebbles, looking rather similar to the shivalingas worshipped across India. Banalingas, as they are better known are collected by tourists and pilgrims and taken back to their homes.
The Narmada, for most of its course flows through Madhya Pradesh, a state that has always amazed me. Owing to its sanctity, there are many temple towns on the river. Amarkantak, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the river originates is one of the holiest places in India, and so is Omkareshwar, which is located roughly midway through the river’s course. And then there is Maheshwar. This tiny town on the banks of the Narmada is known not for its temples but for its benevolent queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar, considered by many as a goddess. Also, there is the famed Maheshwari saris, a dying weaving style which has now, fortunately, been revived.
I set off from Delhi for Maheshwar and Omkareshwar on a rainy November night from Hazarat Nizamuddin Railway station. My train would take me to Indore from where I would continue by bus, first to Maheshwar and then to Omkareshwar. I reached Indore station at 5:30 in the morning and then caught an auto to Sarwate Bus Terminus. Maheshwar is 92 kms from Indore and depending on the bus you take (express, super or local) the journey could take you anywhere between 2.5 to 4.5 hours. Luckily for me I managed to get hold of an express bus which was scheduled to leave at 8:00 am. The bus followed the beautifully laid National Highway 3 till the town of Dhamnod from where it diverted off to a charming double-laned road for the last 15 kms to Maheshwar.
After alighting in the main square at Maheshwar, I realised that staying options in this town was very limited. There was the Fort Ahilya, a very expensive heritage hotel and a couple of tiny lodges. After some asking around, I was shown into a very basic, yet clean room for Rs 400 a night. Since I am not fussy about accommodation, provided it is clean, I took it. A quick shower later, I was all ready to explore Maheshwar.
The landscape around Maheshwar is typical of the Nimar plains which are drained by the Narmada. Scorchingly hot in the summers and warm during the winters, this undulating land is composed of red soil, which itself is derived from the ancient lava rocks that once covered the region. One afternoon during my trip, I borrowed a moped from the owner of the hotel I was staying in and drove for around 75 kms on the small roads leading out of the town connecting it to the tiny villages.
As instructed by the owner of the hotel and the moped, i drove around 5 kms on a dirt track to the top of a hill west of Maheshwar town. From there one could see the Narmada tumbling over a rocky bed giving rise to thousands of tiny streams. It is for this exact reason that this cascade has been called Sahasradhara (Sahasra, in Hindi means ‘a thousand’ while dhara means ‘stream’)
Surroundings visited, I turned my attention to the town itself. All there is to see in Maheshwar is located inside its fort, and to get to the fort, one has to walk two kms through the busy market. Although it was November, the afternoon soon was burning in all its fury and the temperature was hovering around the 40 degree mark. It was as if the entire town had gone for a collective siesta. The shops were open but there were no shopkeepers. The customers too were absent. Every know or then I would spot a stray canine, a dusty kid running after a rolling, used bicycle tyre or a housewife making a quick trip to the grocer.
Very soon, the north gate of the fort, Ahilya Dwar was visible. Previously known as Gadi Darwaza, it is the largest gate and the only way to enter the fort on a vehicle. Just as you enter through the gate, to your right is the quaint Laboo’s Cafe. Stop here for some much-needed lemonade or if hungry, a home-made lunch. The café also offers rooms to travellers, which in my opinion was a little overpriced.
As you enter through the gateway, you also step into the old, walled city of Maheshwar. Although people continue to live here, the main city and its all-important market lies outside these walls.
Straight ahead of Laboo’s Cafe is a small gateway which is the entrance to the Rajwada, or the palace. Half of the palace has now been converted into the luxurious Fort Ahilya Heritage Hotel, while the other half has been converted to a museum and is open to the public. The first thing that strikes you about the palace is its simplicity. If you have travelled to historic destinations around India, you would have noticed the opulent palaces that the rulers used to live in. This is a complete antithesis to the seemingly vulgar pandering of wealth, often accumulated over the blood of poor farmers. It is not that Ahilya Bai, the Holkar queen who constructed much of this fort or the palace was the queen of a small dominion, unable to muster money for such luxuries. At the height of her rule, she controlled over half of what is now Madhya Pradesh.
She spent the money instead on building temples. The famed Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi was built by her. She constructed temples, dharmashalas (guest houses) and baolis (wells) in Haridwar, Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Kanchi, Jagannath Puri, Pushkar, Nasik and Pune. She is, even today depicted wearing a simple white sari, the same costume she used to wear while she was the queen. It is said that she possessed only three of these saris, all of which were woven by her.
The simplicity of the queen can be further seen at her so-called durbar hall, where she conducted the affairs of the state and held audiences with the average person. Located on the verandah in her wing of the palace, it is nothing but a white mattress covering the floor with a low, wooden throne at one end of it. These days, a white marble image of the queen can be seen on the throne.
From the simple to the plush. Here are some snapshots of the Fort Ahilya Hotel in the palace:
A double storeyed gateway, directly opposite the main entrance to the Rajwada leads to a flight of steps leading down to a cluster of buildings on the banks of the Narmada. It is from this gateway that you get your first glimpse of this holy river, which at this point is over a mile wide!
At the foot of the flight of stairs, to the right is another gateway, which opens into a compound at the centre of which lies the Chhatri (mausoleum) of Vitoji Rao Holkar. He was the younger brother of king Yashwant Rao Holkar (1798-1811). Built on a high plinth and sporting two bulbous domes, this chhatri is known for its exquisite carvings, especially that of a row of caparisoned elephants on its side.
Facing the entrance to the Chhatri of Vitoji is a gateway to yet another enclosure which houses the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya. Although it sounds like a Shiva temple, and is definitely built like one, it is actually the chhatri of Ahilya Bai Holkar. Built by the queen’s daughter Krishna Bai, this towering structure combines the north Indian nagara style of temple architecture with the Maratha style.
From the enclosure that houses the two chhatris, another gateway leads to yet another flight of stairs that forms the main ghat of Maheshwar. Almost two kms of the riverfront of Maheshwar has been paved in stone to give rise to a series of ghats. Of a total of 28 ghats, the most important are Ahilya, Peshwa, Phanse and Mahila
Just like a couple of centuries ago, the lives of the people of Maheshwar revolve around the ghats. At daybreak, people throng to the ghats to offer their prayers. The morning air resounds with chants of Om Namah Shivay as people brave the morning chill to take a dip in the holy waters of the Narmada. Locals believe that the waters of the river have purifying properties and hence a morning dip ensures success in the day’s endeavours.
After the initial stream of devotees have taken their dips and have gone on their respective missions, come the tourists. Colourful boats lie moored on the ghats to take the tourists for a cruise on the waters of the Narmada. There are two kinds of boats available at the ghat – row-boats and the ones powered by modified motorbike engines. While the latter is definitely faster, they create one hell of a racket, which can effectively ruin the ambiance of a quiet morning. So it is advisable to take the row-boat. Oh, and do bargain beforehand not only about the price, but also the duration of the ride. I hired a row-boat which took me around the river for a good hour and I paid Rs 150. Also, if you can, do tip!
Many of the temples and ghats of Maheshwar are best viewed from the boat. I shall describe them as we go along:
As the day rolls on and the devotees and tourists have long vacated the ghats, come another group of visitors. Predominantly women, they do most of their cleaning and washing on the waters of the Narmada.
On my long walks across Maheshwar, I was accompanied by a local boy, Chhotu, who was acting like my guide. He used to work as a waiter at the Fort Ahilya Hotel and as a result had picked up a spattering of English which he was more than eager to advertise. On the last day at Maheshwar, which I had left for visiting the weavers, he tells me ‘saar, mere paas one more temple hai. Chalein?’.
‘Chalo’, says I
So he leads me on this dusty track by the side of the Narmada. Very conveniently, he had forgotten to mention that we would be walking for around 3 kms, one way. So I did not bother to carry water with me. The river water was full of all kinds of rubbish and was undrinkable. So I walked on in the 40 degree heat without water or shade. We finally stopped at the base of a steep hill which had a small ghat and seven small shrines on it. The shrines, Chhotu says are to the ‘seven mothers’, but refuses to explain further. Their identity remains hidden forever. What I did learn was that this site was called the Sapta Martuka Mandir. On top of the hill in the background, however is a 17th century pre-Holkar Shiva temple known as Jaleshwar Mahadev Mandir. The priest of the temple was kind enough to save mu life with some water.
This is also the point where a smaller river, called Maheshwar, after the town, joins the Narmada. At the point where the two join is a small hill surrounded by water. On top of the hill is another, even older temple which, interestingly, is heavily fortified. Sadly though, there were no boats here to take us across , so we had to give it a miss.
With barely hours left for my bus to Omkareshwar, Chhotu and head off to the weavers’ colonies. A few decades ago, the art of weaving a Maheshwari sari was almost at its deathbed. Richard Holkar, the current scion of the royal family and his wife Sally, while on a visit to Maheshwar realised the need to revive it. So with a paltry grant from the Indian Central Welfare Board, in 1979, they started a weaving project involving the local women and called it the Rehwa Society. Rehwa, or Rewa, is another name for the river Narmada.
Over the next three decades, the number of weavers has gone up to 250 and they operate over 1,500 traditional looms. Inspired by the success of the Rehwa Society, individuals have also taken up weaving and now within the walled city, the stillness of the sir is broken at all hours by the click-clacking of the wooden looms. Though the weavers, back in the day produced mainly saris, the modern weavers have diversified into dupattas, scarves, shawls and dress material.
Maheshwari saris are usually coloured using vegetable dyes, though to bring down prices some weavers do use chemical dyes. The most popular colours used in Maheshwari saris are angoori (grape green), dalimbi (deep pink), gul bakshi (magenta), jaamla (purple), tapkeer (deep brown) and aamras (golden-yellow). The pallav or aanchal of a Maheshwari sari is distinctive with five alternating stripes of which three are of different colours and two are white. The use of zari and kinari is used to embellish the saris which often have a rich golden border and two gold bands on the pallav. The unique feature of a Maheshwari sari is its reversible border. The border is designed in such a way that both sides of the sari can be worn. An original Maheshwari sari can cost anywhere between Rs 1,500 to Rs 5,000. The fine, airy cloth is perfect for hot Indian summers while the blend of silk and cotton makes the cloth float above the skin.
My two days in Maheshwar has been extremely rewarding and at the end of it I was off to Omkareshwar. Predominantly a temple town, the vibe of Omkareshwar would be completely different from Maheshwar. On top of that, this particular trip was planned on a shoe-string budget, which means that all the travelling was done on buses – another experience.
Watch this space for the Omkareshwar chapter of this series. Till then I leave you with two images of the sunset on the Narmada.