Maheshwar for me is the city of Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar. She moved the capital of Holkar’s from Indore to this place on the banks of Narmada River. This is where she ruled from, driving her strength from her faith in Shiva and Narmada. At this place, you are never far away from the Narmada.
Since the time I read the biography of Ahilya Bai Holkar, I wanted to visit Maheshwar. It was a dream come true when I got to stay in her palace which is more like her home that is a heritage hotel run by the Holkars.
We drove from Mandu to our destination. My first sight of this place had its colorful Saris all around. We entered the fort through a gate to reach Ahilya Dwar that is the simplest of the gates. As soon as I stepped out, I had a larger than life image of Rani Ahilya Devi in a pink Odhni. After a quick breakfast, we set out to explore the fort and the town that still reverberates with the name of Ma Saheb Ahilya Bai.
History of Maheshwar
It is an ancient town on the banks of the Narmada River. In ancient Indian scriptures, it is mentioned as Mahishmati. Yes, the same name you might have heard in the blockbuster Bahubali. This is supposed to be a place where Ravan was held prisoner for 6 months by king Sahastrarjun. His temple can be seen at the RajRajeshwar temple complex. Both, our epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata mention Maheshwar. It was also a part of Avanti that we better know as Ujjain.
Sages Rishi Jamadagni, Rishika Renuka Devi, and Sri Parshuram also lived at Maheshwar or its vicinity.
In the recorded history, we know it was under Mauryas, Guptas & Harshvardhan before falling to Delhi Sultanate and Akbar. It came back to Marathas in 18th CE. When Ahilya Bai Holkar took over the Subedari of Malwa, she shifted the capital from Indore to this place. I think more than anything else Ahilya Bai wanted to be closer to the Narmada River.
Must Read – Karmayogini – Biography of Ahilya Bai Holkar
Places to Visit in Maheshwar
It is a small town, you can potentially do it in a day or two. The city revolves around the Maheshwar Fort with the Narmada flowing gently on one side and the city emanating from its gates on the other. So, let us start our journey from the heart of this place.
Rajwada of Ahilya Bai
Ahilya Fort or palace sits on top of the 16th CE ramparts that were potentially built by the Mughals. The palace is now a heritage hotel which means the residential part is open only to the guests staying here. However, the key areas are still open to the public. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many locals visit the place to pay their respects as if visiting a temple.
Rajawada area is like a courtyard of a large house. As you enter you see an idol of Sri Krishna flanked by two cows. The open space in the middle is full of green plants, giving you a feeling, it is still a living space. Various boards in white and red tell you briefly about Holkars, Ahilya Bai, and her works to restore temples across India.
Rani Ahilya Bai Gaadi or the Court
In one of the open corridors or veranda is where Rani Ahilya Bai used to have her Gaadi or the court. This is where she sat with a Shivalinga in her hand, listened to her people, and did justice. The place is maintained as it used to be. Surrounded by wooden pillars with a cotton mattress, there is now a life-size statue of Ahilya Bai. On top are the portraits of various Holkars. What I liked the most was a long mural depicting the Maheshwar Fort from the Narmada. What remains with you is the innate simplicity of Maheshwar Rajwada, which is a reflection of the simplicity of the queen who ruled from here.
The premises of Rajwada of Ahilya Bai has her Palki which is still taken out every Monday in a procession. There are statues in marble. What I found most interesting was the wood carved brackets – some in the shape of elephant trunks.
Outside there are life-size images of an elephant, a horse, and a bull. The bull represents the Shiva’s vehicle, Horse the Kuldevta of Holkars, and the Elephant a sign of royalty. Simplicity is the keyword at Ahilya Bai’s Rajwada or palace.
Shivalinga Puja at Ahilya Fort
At Ahilya Fort, my biggest discovery was a unique ritual that was put in place by Rani Ahilya Bai herself and that continues till date – unbroken or Akhand as we say in India.
In her days, 108 Brahmins used to create 125,000 miniature Shivalingas every day from black earth, worship them, and then offer them to the Narmada River. Today, 11 Brahmins create about 15,000 Shivalingas every day, worship them, and then offer them to Narmada waters. Every day between 8-10 AM you can witness this Puja.
I was totally fascinated by it. I wanted to participate in the process, but it is only done by the assigned Brahmins. However, you are welcome to witness it and join in chanting the mantras as I did. Do watch it, if you are visiting this place. Watch a bit of it in this video.
Video of Maheshwar – City of Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar
In a small room next to the temple are the collection of precious Shivalingas and a Hindola or a swing made of Gold. It is a lovely collection, but you can only see it & not take any pictures.
Temples of Maheshwar
This place can well be called a temple town, for the life here revolves around temples and Narmada. It may not be possible to see all the temples where people believe that every stone found in the Narmada bank is a Shankar or God. Let me share a few temples I visited during my short stay at this place.
This is a beautiful temple in stone that combines many architectural styles in its stone walls. Built by Krishna Bai, Ahilya Bai’s daughter it is called the chhatri or cenotaph of Ahilya Bai. It is built like a temple in Nagar style with a towering Shikhara. It has a Shivalinga in its Garbh Griha along with a statue of Ahilya Bai Holkar.
Two tall Deepastambhas, built in the typical Maharashtrian style stand on either side of the temple. There is a small temple dedicated to Sri Ram and Hanuman in the complex. I would consider Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya as a temple rather than a Chhatri as there is another Chhatri dedicated to Ahilya Bai on the banks of Narmada.
Bhajans are sung on every full moon day at Ahilyeshwar temple.
Raj Rajeshwar Temple
This is an ancient temple located not too far from the Ahilyeshwar Shivalay. The unique aspect of this Shiva temple is the 11 lamps that are supposed to be burning since pre-historic times to honor Agni. No, there is no magic involved here. They have been kept burning by the people. Each lamp can take 1.25 kg of Desi ghee to burn for 24 hours. Devotees have been donating ghee to keep it burning forever. You can see these fairly large Diyas or lamps when you visit the temple.
This temple complex has a small temple dedicated to Sahastraarjun – the mighty king who held Ravana prisoner for many months here. At Raj Rajeshwar temple, you have to sit for a few moments and imagine there was no fort and this temple stood next to the Narmada River. Rishis meditated here in their ashrams close to the Narmada.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
This temple is a re-creation of the original Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Kashi.
This is a mid-sized temple located on the Mahila Ghat close to the Narmada. It is essentially a Shiv Mandir with a Shivalinga in it but it also has an anthropomorphic image of Narmada. From its pillared arches, Narmada looks even more beautiful.
This is a small temple, or at least it looks small from a distance, in the middle of the Narmada River. It is believed that Baneshwar is located on the axis connecting the center of the earth with the Dhruv Tara or the North Pole.
Vindhya Vasini Temple
Located close to the town’s bus stand, this temple was closed when I visited. The Shikhara in grey stands tall surrounded by the everyday life of the place.
Chhatris are memorial or cenotaphs typically built for royal families. Bang opposite the Ahilya Shivalay is this lovely Chhatri dedicated to Vithoji, It has an exquisite elephant panel running around its base. Inside the hexagonal structure are the carved stone walls. In the complex are ornate pillared corridors with arched windows overlooking the Narmada River.
Vithoji was the son of Yashwant Rao Holkar – the ruler who succeeded Ahilya Bai Holkar.
The signature frame of Maheshwar, the fan-shaped staircase leads to Ahilya Ghat. The landing on these stairs creates the most beautiful and signature facade of this heritage place.
Gates of the Maheswar Fort
This fort is one of the few living forts, and its gates are still in use. The most important gate is the Ahilya Dwar that leads to the Ahilya Fort. It is a rather simple gate and is the only motorable gate. Kamani gate is interesting as it was probably made for elephants to go through. The wide ramped gate is now used by pedestrians to enter the fort area.
Pani Darwaza is located close to Kashi Vishwanath Temple and was probably used by those visiting the city through the water route. Next to it is Mandal Kho Darwaza also on the waterfront.
The Narmada & It’s Ghats
The Narmada is the life force of Maheshwar that is located on its northern banks. They say that the Narmada is also known as Shankari as she was born out of a teardrop of Shankar. It is the natural dividing line between North India and South India. The rounded stones found at the base of Narmada are called Banlingas. It is difficult to find them these days. The ones you find in the market are made in a village nearby.
The Ghats of the Narmada here are lined up with some small temples and Chhatris that you can see from a distance or from the top of Ahilya Fort. It is when you walk on the ghats that you would see big and small Shivalingas all along the ghat. In all, there are 28 ghats on the Narmada in Maheshwar but the prominent ones include Ahilya Ghat, Peshwa Ghat, Phanse Ghat & Mahila Ghat.
In the mornings and evenings, you can see pilgrims taking a dip in the Narmada and praying to these Shivalingas. It is also an important stop for pilgrims doing the Narmada Parikrama. On my morning walk, I met a lot of women who were stopping here as part of their Parikrama. Some were doing it on foot and others were using a vehicle. What intrigued me was the sheer number of women who were on this yatra. It seems we women have always been travelers just that no one saw as one.
In the evening, Narmada Arti is a small and intimate affair. There is no big show like Ganga Arti at Kashi, and only a few people gather for this. However, when you walk on the ghats of the Narmada in this town, the sacred chants would serve as background music at any time of the day.
Boat Ride on the Narmada
A boat ride on the Narmada can give you a panoramic view of the stunning Maheshwar riverfront. It is arguably the most stunning riverfront of India or maybe the world. You can also visit the Baneshwar temple located in the middle of the river. As you go towards this temple you will see small temples in the river that mark their presence through the flags on top of them.
On the other bank of Narmada, and symbolically in South India is the village of Naodatodi. Here you can see an ancient Shiva temple called Shalivan, a typical central Indian village with a huge ashram. Take your boat to the other end and admire the panoramic view of the riverfront – the most beautiful riverfront in India. Take a leisurely walk around the village before you head back.
Maheshwari Weavers & Colorful Saris
The biggest living legacy of Rani Ahilya Bai is Maheshwari Sari. The town has become synonymous with the weave. Weaving sustains the majority population of this town. Wherever you walk in the town, colorful handloom Saris are never out of sight. In the weaving quarters, you hear the rhythmic sound of handlooms as the weavers weave thread by thread.
Where to buy Maheshwari Sari?
To see the handlooms, the best place is to visit the Rehwa Society looms. Rehwas is an NGO run by Richard Holkar and his wife. As you would expect their prime target market is foreigners and so their designs and range cater more to them. You can definitely buy Saris, stoles, shawls, and fabric from them.
If you want to see the experimental work with Maheshwari weave, visit the Gudi Mudi workshop in the city. They are extremely expensive to buy but I liked their experiments and the earthy feel of their weaves.
To buy regular Maheshwari Saris try the Tana-Bana and Pawar Shop in the city. They have all kinds of ranges for all types of users.
To buy a typical traditional Maheshwari Sari, the kind Ahilya Bai Holkar wore, go for the off-white Sari with a golden border.
This is a small poorly maintained museum little away from the main city or the fort. We had to ask quite a few people before we could locate it. It has a good collection of antiquities from Khargone district under which Maheshwar falls.
Around this destination, you can visit the Sahastradhara. You can visit it by boat ride where the river passes through many big and small rocks. I could not visit it as it was raining and everyone advised us against visiting it.
It is a small quintessentially Indian town in the heart of India on the banks of the oldest known river.