Situated a short 1 ½ hour drive from Indore, on the banks of the serene Narmada river, is the erstwhile seat of power of one India’s greatest but often neglected royals–Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar. Ruling in the late 18th century, she was far ahead of her times in terms of her prowess in administration, foresight in diplomacy, selflessness in caring for her people and even military strategy. After being saved from the dreaded practice of sati by her father in law, she vowed to spend her days in the service of society and God.
She has left her mark across the length & breadth of India by restoring, establishing and expanding scores of Hindu temples, including the Benaras Vishwanath jyotirling which was destroyed by Aurangzeb. True to her character, she executed these stupendous achievements from her humble living quarters tucked away in one corner of Maheshwar fort.
Maheshwar fort continues to cherish the memory of this great queen by retaining a gentle, warm, pious yet purposeful character. Upon entering the fort through a stone arch, you notice the absence of ostentation in the wood & stone “Rajwada”. Ahilyabai’s living quarters are still preserved, though without the stateliness of its heydays. Even her prayer room with its preserved black & white checked flooring, stone Shiva-lingas encased in silver and golden “jhula” of Lord Krishna speaks of a devout, simple and practical person.
Step out of the living quarters into the fort and suddenly you are hit by the grandeur of fine stonework all around. The awe inspiring Kashi Vishwanath temple overlooks the expansive Narmada ghat. Standing at the entrance of the temple is a beautiful sight – straight ahead are the rising steps to the massive Shiva temple with its tower of lights (diyas)and to the left you can see the flowing Narmada through the gate going down to the waterfront.
The temple complex is replete with finely crafted arches, well preserved statues, beautiful reliefs and intricate lattice – all made of solid stone. It is a perfect example of “just enough” of everything – art, architecture, town planning and piety – brought together to create serene beauty. The high point is the river front stone ghat just below the temple complex. The sight of the fort from the ghat is just as spectacular as the river from the top of the fort.
Maheshwar fort is still alive. Temples, small houses, cloth handlooms, art workshops and hotels still continue to carry on at their own unhurried pace. The inhabitants seem to uphold the memory of their favourite queen through their charming friendliness and warmth. You will never feel like a stranger or an intruder here. As you walk down its narrow lanes, a greeting, smile and friendly enquiry is likely to come your way from the locals.
Enclosed within the Ahilya Wada is a plush, very private andexclusive hotel, aptly named Ahilya. Owned by the royal Holkar family of Indore, this “Guest Residence”, with just13 rooms and tents was opened in 2000 to lovingly preserve the royal heritage. There are no restaurants and menus here – every meal is an epicurean experience suited to your mood, including where you would like to dine. A royal dining experience will be set up just where you feel like on the premises. With its in-house kitchen garden, bakery, open lounges and arched windows overlooking the Narmada, rich yet unostentatious suites and a trademark warmth, Ahilya makes for a once in a lifetime experience.
For the budget traveler, MP tourism has a wonderful property right on the banks of the languid river. You can select from Swiss tents right on the river bank to self contained cottages and clustered rooms.
This small town, known more for its famous cotton-silk weaves, hosts unspoiled natural beauty and is a birdwatcher’s delight. It’s a must visit for nature and wildlife photographers.
Maheshwar has an experience to offer for every disposition, wrapped in warmth – just like how its most famous Maharani would like it to be.