Chandrakala, Baingani, Beli and Parbi — the names roll off the tongue like poetry. They are all designs that are a part of an ancient tradition. In the weft and warp of the gossamer Maheshwari saree, there are pages of history. Long ago there was a royal tradition of gifting turbans as a sign of friendship. Ahilyabai Holkar brought the first weavers from Surat. They say that the Maheshwar weavers drew their inspiration from the fort and its architecture — there are no floral motifs; instead it draws on patterns like bricks, mats and diamonds. The incredibly light Maheshwari saris come in jewel tones and rich colours of blue, mauve, dark pink, greens with gold-thread zari borders.
Flowers, incense, chants and oil lamps. A landscape that could fit into medieval India, Maheshwar, situated on the banks of the Narmada, one of India’s holiest rivers, in the large state of Madhya Pradesh, is caught in a time warp. During ancient times, Maheshwar was called Mahishamati, one of the twin capitals of Avanti kingdom and the King Kartivirarjun, who dammed the river with his thousand arms, He is mentioned both in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In 1601, Maheshwar came under Akbar’s rule and in 1741 the kingdom passed over to the Holkar dynasty.
The story of Ahilyabai
is unusual. Groomed to be a bride at the age of eight, widowed at 29
and saved from being a Sati by her father-in-law, she became one of
India’s most revered women rulers. Ahilyabai made Maheshwar her
capital in 1766. During the next 28 years, Maheshwar emerged as a
centre for art and culture. Ahilyabai was a prolific builder — she
not only built temples in Maheshwar, but across the country.
River Narmada is the focus of the town — the people, their lives and genealogies are wrapped around this river, which is considered a ‘virgin’. All along the ghats are temples dedicated to Shiva. Brightly painted boats ferry devotees. Cattle and people populate the ghats like centuries byegone. Elegant honey coloured temples with shikara towers, chattris or the cenotaphs of the Holkar maharajas stand out against the backdrop of the craggy fort. The town looks like a sepia-toned picture of medieval times — cows in the middle of the street, colourful bangles stacked in neat rows, bedraggled kids run after cycle tyres and ascetics in orange robes on roadsides.
A part of the Ahilya Fort has now been turned into a heritage hotel by Richard Holkar, a descendant of Ahilyabai, with 14 rooms set in a courtyard gardens with balconies facing the Narmada.
The old palace, the
Rajwada, is a plain building devoid of any carvings and lavish
decorations. There is a gallery with a gaddi like a throne from where
Ahilyabai dispensed justice. It has a life-size sitting statue of the
queen in marble. The manager of the palace is a simple man called
Basant Maheshwarkar, who has been here for more than 20 years and is
writing a book on Ahilyabai.
Under the shade of old neem trees, is the rhythmic click-clack of looms and skilled hands churning out masterpieces. This is the Rehwa unit in the fort, started by Richard Holkar and his former wife Sally, to resurrect the Maheshwari saree. It’s not the saree and the borders that are time consuming; it’s the ornate pallu that takes almost eight days of hard work! The silk is used in the warp and the cotton in the weft; cotton yarn comes from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, silk from Bangalore and tussar from Bhagalpur. Rehwa today has two designers and caters to an elite market.
Maheshwar can be used as a base to explore the region. There is the Baneshwar temple in the middle of the river, which locals claim, lies on the axis connecting the earth’s centre with the pole star. Mandu, the medieval Muslim Kingdom, is a short drive away. It is a surreal world of elegant palaces, magnificent mosques, crumbling towers and medieval reservoirs with tales of love and death, victories and losses weaved in. Mandu even has Hoshang Shah’s tomb which is said to have inspired the building of the Taj Mahal. Come evening, the sun bathes the river and the ghats in an orange glow and the river comes alive with floating diyas and the chants of "Narmadey har". Sitting on the steps, watching the river, the colourful boats, and listening to the strains of devotional music, it’s easy to time travel.