I had never heard almost anything about Maheshwar until a couple of days ago when I visited this small town in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh in India. Maheshwar used to be the capital of Ahilyabai Holkar, ruler of the state of Indore in the late eighteenth century. Believe me, this tiny city has captured my imagination and, a full two days later, when I am writing this, sitting in Indore, eating away a double plate of poha; I am still in the awe of Maheshwar. What a place it is!
Maheshwar is located about 90 km from Indore. I took a car from Indore and went to Maheshwar via NH3. By the time I had arrived there and checked into the beautiful Narmada Cottage right on the banks of Narmada river; dusk had already descended. I had no time to lose if I wanted to get a glimpse of sunset. So, I quickly settled my belongings in a tent room facing the river and went out to see the sun taking a plunge into the waters of Narmada. As I reached at the river bank; sun had become all red and the entire western sky was decorated with shades from red to yellow. It was a mesmerizing moment.
After sunset, I went to the ghats of Narmada opposite the Maheshwar fort. The atmosphere on the ghats was that of pure peace and bliss. I don’t have words to describe the feeling of taking a walk on the ghats and then sitting on ghat steps listening to the music of kirtan emanating from a nearby temple. The expanse of Narmada is more than one kilometer in Maheshwar. These ghats were built hundreds of years ago. On one side of these ghats, you see huge Narmada and on the other side rise the walls of the Maheshwar fort. There history is mixed up with nature so seamlessly that it feels as though both were compensating each other and if one is not there the other will also lose a lot of sheen.
When the night had covered the surroundings in darkness I came back to the cottage with my heart filled with an inexplicable calm. The cottage restaurant offered a good menu for dining. I ate heartily before retiring to my tent. Living in a tent was also a truly amazing experience. I must congratulate Madhya Pradesh Tourism for maintaining such a nice boarding and lodging facility.
I slept sound through the night despite of sleeping inside the erected cloth sheets in the name of walls. I wanted to wake up in time in order to witness sunrise. Waking up at 5:30am easily served the purpose. In no time, with anticipation of seeing a spectacle, I got ready for a long and exciting day. I descended on the river bank and had to wait just for less than five minutes and there it came. Sun had begun to rise on the eastern horizon. This experience was so magnificent; it even bettered the last evening’s experience of sunset. From my stand point sun was rising from behind a little temple. A couple of men were bathing on a small ghat as another was swimming in the river close to the bank. A boat was sailing in the middle of the river and there were mildly fogged trees on the other side to complete a hypnotizing picture. I stood there alone in silence absorbing the beauty of nature around me. When the sun had risen and its brightness was gaining intensity —I decided to return to my tent. Then I put a chair in the entrance of the tent and drank a self-made excellent cup of tea while watching the flow of Narmada. The river is massive in Maheshwar and it flows with a very calm, serious and steady mood. But the fury of the same Narmada river hits Maheshwar quite badly when it floods.
People of Maheshwar have two mother goddesses; one, the Narmada river and the other is Ahilyabai Holkar. It is difficult to fathom who they revere more. Almost all rivers in India are worshiped; so it came as no surprise for me to find Narmada temples and deep devotion for the river in the hearts of people of Maheshwar. As for Ahilyabai Holkar, well, I had read about her only in history text books. These books merely tell us that she was a popular ruler. But in Maheshwar I noticed that people love and respect her to the point of worship. No one refers to her as Ahilyabai Holker; she is called Ahilya Devi or Ahilya Mata to point to her piousness, love for her people and her welfare works. Ahilya Devi was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. All of her portraits have been made with a Shiva Lingam in her hands.
After my morning tea I left the cottage and went back to the Narmada ghats in front of the Maheshwar fort. Sun was quite hot —so the ghats did not feel as good as the last evening. But to fill the gap there was fort to be seen. I ventured into this little but beautiful fort. A temple of Lord Shiva is situated in the middle of the fort. The Rajwada (palace of Ahilya Devi) is just like a big house as there is no grandeur in the palace that we usually associate with rulers. This is just one of the signs of the simple lifestyle of Ahilya Devi.
In Rajwada, I met and talked for quite some time with the manager of the palace. A man in his seventies, Basant Maheshwarkar, is a very nice person who is devoted for the upkeep of the palace for last 24 years. His sincerity for his work reflects on his wrinkled face with mouth sans denture and lovely watery eyes. Basant ji said he was so happy to be with me even though we were strangers and meeting for the first time in life!… and from his face I knew he did mean it. He was happy that I asked questions about the palace, Ahilya Devi, his work and his personal life. Basant ji spoke really good English and had a baritone voice. He answered all my questions and was impressed with me for my eagerness to know. To show his happiness he gave me three presents. One, he offered me a portrait of Ahilya Devi. Two, he allowed me to take pictures of the insides of the Rajwada. I will not disclose about his third present because I feel that it was his real happiness and admiration for me because of which he offered something like that by going out of his way. I will collect this present from him on my next visit to Maheshwar —which, I hope, I will make soon.
It was already around noon when I took leave of Basant ji and came out of the fort. Thereafter, I reached a friend’s house where his mother had very endearingly invited me to have lunch. The lady, who I addressed as Ma, just like Basant ji, is very old and looked like a typical dadi ma. I must tell you that the lunch I had there was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. It was divine. There were many delicacies; a couple of which I was tasting for the first time in life. I licked my fingers, stuffed food in mouth, felt puzzled what to eat first; all the signs of a great meal with love as the main ingredient. The face of Ma was all lit up and smiling as she made pooris while coaxing me to eat more and more. That was the real zayka India ka!
After lunch, I left Maheshwar for going to Ratlam. Going away from such a serene place and such sweet people; I was feeling heavy hearted.