Central India, Pt.5: Maheshwar

 

After a large and tasty Indian-style breakfast we set off from Dhar for a two-night stay at Maheshwar. We had not intended to stop anywhere en route, but changed our mind instantly when we spotted an enormous pink sandstone quadrangle by the side of the road. There was a sign by the entrance gate which identified the site as the 'Luneraki Sarai', but the plaque by its side was only in Hindi. Our driver was not able to enlighten us either.

The gate was locked. However, eventually a friendly old man showed up with the keys and let us in. It became clear that the place was undergoing extensive restorations, but it appeared that much of the actual building work had been completed. The walls, staircases, and the countless arches all looked more or less finished.

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Inside the quadrangle, work on (re-?)creating a large garden had been started. Judging from the layout it was going to be a classical Islamic garden divided into four quadrants.

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We probably spent some 45 minutes wandering around the place, but in the end left none the wiser about what we had actually been looking at. My subsequent attempts at using internet sources to find out more have also been completely without success.

Maheshwar lies on the north bank of the Narmada, one of India's seven holy rivers. It is a major Hindu pilgrimage destination and numerous temples, cenotaphs, shrines, and ghats line the riverbank. The larger temples are situated within Maheshwar's fort, the massive walls of which also run along the riverbank. The fort is the town's historical centre and our hotel, somewhat confusingly named the 'Ahilya Fort', was situated within it. However, when we arrived we found that there were huge crowds everywhere and all the access roads had been closed. After several phone calls to the hotel and some negotiations with the police manning the barriers, we finally managed to get to the hotel entrance.

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The manager told us that we had come at a particularly busy time in the town, because it was the weekend and also a new moon – the beginning of the month in the Hindu lunar calendar and apparently an occasion of wider religious significance for some pilgrims.

The hotel was an oasis of peace and quiet after the noisy mayhem outside.

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When we looked at the visitors' book, we discovered that we were, once again, travelling in the footsteps of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had stayed here a few days earlier. It appears she had liked the place, and so did we. It is owned by Prince Richard Holkar, a member of the family who, as Maharajas of Indore, once ruled this part of the world. He apparently does not like 'normal' hotels and is very keen for his to be a genuine home from home. I think he succeeds, at least to some extent.

 

IMAGE5_5 As the hotel is perched high above the river, we were able to watch the goings-on below from the comfort of an armchair on the terrace.

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By mid-afternoon the crowds had thinned a bit and we felt relaxed enough to venture down. Hindus believe that bathing in the Narmada washes away your sins and, as the photo below shows, many avail themselves of the opportunity. (The photo at the top of the article was also taken at the riverbank, with the steps leading up into the fort in the background.)

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Whilst the men generally strip down to their underpants or wear swimming trunks, the women tend to go in wearing their colourful saris or long shirts and trousers – which obviously get wet. 

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Luckily the climate is warm and the various sets of steps by the walls of the fort provide ample space for drying one's clothes.

As I said, there were not many people left when we went down to the riverbank and I even managed to take a photograph of one of the temples within the fort without anybody standing in front of it. 

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The hotel offers its guests a free boat ride on the Narmada. The manager suggested 17:30 so that we could see the sunset from the river. By that time people had started returning to the riverbank. It was a very colourful scene. 

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The photo below shows the whole of the fort complex, with our hotel more or less directly in the centre of the shot. 

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We did get our sunset photos. The temple in this picture is the Baneshwar Mandir, located on a small island in the middle of the river. 

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The next day we ventured out exploring in the morning, before the midday heat. Just around the corner from the hotel entrance is a small square containing a statue of the woman who lent her name to the hotel – Queen Ahilya. 

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Ahilya was a member of the Holkar dynasty. When her husband died in battle in 1754 she was ready to commit ritual suicide, but her father-in-law prevented her from doing so because he saw in her his natural successor as ruler of the kingdom. After the death of both her father-in-law and her son, and lengthy struggles against political opponents, she eventually succeeded to the throne in 1767. What is now the Ahilya Fort hotel formed part of her residence. Queen Ahilya's reign lasted almost 30 years and she is widely revered to this day by the people of the region, particularly women.

When we got down to the river, the festivities were already in full swing, as the next few shots illustrate. 

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We enjoyed the friendly atmosphere. Dozens of people asked to take selfies with us. I have never really understood what the motivation is, but we were happy to oblige. After all, we were also taking photos. 

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When we entered the actual town, we met a procession coming the other way. As many of the men were brandishing swords – albeit tipped with limes – we thought it best to get out of the way quickly. 

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We returned to our hotel for a relaxing afternoon by the pool. In the early evening we went back down to the temples at the lower level of the fort to take a few photos.

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You can see why Maheshwar has been used as a setting for a number of Bollywood movies. We very much enjoyed our short stay here.

 

To be continued with Pt.6: Aurangabad and environs

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