In Shiva’s abode

While shopping for saris Tanushree Podder discovers the temple town of Maheshwar near Indore

The Maheshwar temple is said to have inspired the motifs of the famous saris, which are named after it
The Maheshwar temple is said to have inspired the motifs of the famous saris, which are named after it

A panel at the Maheswar temple, which is known for its exquisite sculptures
A panel at the Maheswar temple, which is known for its exquisite sculptures — Photos by the writer

THE gossamer texture of the Maheshwari saris, lauded by the hoi polloi, became a reason behind the visit to an exotic but dusty little town on the banks of Narmada. "Maheshwar is just an hour’s drive from here," said an Indore shopkeeper when asked about where the beautiful saris were being made.

The road to the Maheshwar wounds through the Vindhya Ranges. A peek from the top of a hill range shows the Narmada meandering in the distance. Almost an hour’s drive later, the temple town, promoted by Queen Ahilya Bai, approaches, shaking off the remnants of slumber.

Ahilya Bai’s fort

The fort or the ‘Rajwara’, as the Queen’s residence is known, is a modest affair with red-tiled roof and a central open courtyard. A life-size statue of Ahilya Bai sits on the rajgaddi within the fort complex. Strewn around the central courtyard, under the covered veranda, are some of the heirlooms of the royal family, including a few ancient palanquins with their faded upholstery and lots of shiva lingas.

Within the complex is a small temple, a traditional starting point of the ancient Dussehra ceremony. The deity is carried down the steep fort road, in a splendid palanquin, to the town below to receive the homage from the locals. The practice continues till today. The shrine also houses a collection of silver shiva lingas and an exquisite gold cradle for gods.

The mellifluous notes of bhajan fill the small temple. Laxmi Narayan Pathak, a 70- year-old pujari, has been singing here for the past 30 years.

Shiva temples

A little distance away from the fort is the beautiful Maheshwar temple that is said to have inspired the designs of the famous saris, named after it. Situated right on the riverbank, the temple is a repository of exquisite sculptures, which are all over the place. The many-tiered temple of Maheshwar, with its carved overhanging balconies and intricately worked doorways, is an art lover’s delight. The ornate jharokhas lend it a royal touch.

Like other temple towns, Maheshwar has dozens of temples. Since the name Maheshwar means the abode of Mahesh (Shiva), there are umpteen temples named after the different avatars of Shiva. Kashi Vishwanath temple, Raj Rajeshwar temple, Omkareshwar temple, Kaleshwar temple etc. Some of them are over a hundred years old.

Ghats of Narmada

The ghats at Maheshwar are surprisingly clean and the water seemingly more pristine than most riverside temple towns. Dozens of men and women were bathing, praying, or simply watching the gently flowing Narmada. Decoated boats with colourful canopies, seeking customers, were lined up at the ghats.

Ethereal saris

Apart from the fort and the temple complex, saris are another major attraction for visitors to Maheshwar.

At the workshop of the Rehwa Society, which was founded by the Holkar family a large number of artisans at looms were spinning out the ethereal material in a gamut of colours. Most of the looms had been sponsored by NGOs and social activists.

The colourfully decorated boats, bobbing on the Narmada River, were the next temptation after the saris, which was irresistible. Also it was the only way to reach Baneshwar temple, which stands in the middle of the river. According to ancient Hindu texts, it is the centre of the universe. It is believed that the axis, which connects the centre of the earth and the North Polar star, passes through this modest temple.

Nearby attractions

There are many chhatris (cenotaphs) in and around Maheshwar that mark the resting place of many Indore rulers. At Rauera, a small village between Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, lies the Chhatri of Baji Rao Peshwa-I, a powerful ruler of the Peshwa dynasty.

On the southern bank of the Narmada, just opposite Maheshwar, is the historically and archaeologically important site of Navdatoli. Five km from Maheshwar is Mandleshwar. Founded by Mandana Mishra, it has a stone fort and a ghat with 123 steps. There is also a palace constructed by Tukoji Rao Holkar II.

Omkareshwar, also called mini Varanasi, lies just about 15 km away from Maheshwar. Here the river splits into two and forms an island, which comprises two lofty hills. It is divided by a valley in such a manner that it appears like the sacred symbol of ‘Om’.