Long before the programme started, people had started occupying the broad stone steps that led up from the river bank to the massive fort that loomed overhead. In front was a huge decorated stage with government officials of all denominations hurrying here and there, getting ready to welcome the VIPs who were about to enter. If I had any doubts about finding a seat, it was soon amended as strangers made way and helped me settle down too. I was in the pilgrim town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh, waiting for the official inauguration of the Nimar Utsav (Nimar Festival). In its 28th year, the festival was a huge draw, especially since it had to be cancelled last year owing to the pandemic.
Having arrived the same day from Indore, the nearest airport city, a little over 90km away by road, I checked into Narmada Resort, the tourist lodge operated by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation, and rushed to the long row of Ghats stretching along the Narmada River flowing beneath the 18th century fort, the royal seat of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, who reigned between 1767 and 1795. Although various claims date the original fort to old times, the present structure was largely designed by the queen when she moved her capital here. The eastern gate of the fort leads to the highly sculpted cenotaphs (‘chhatri’) from where you can go down to the bank of the river.
The first day of the festival (November 19 to 21 this year) had coincided with Kartik Purnima, an auspicious day celebrated across India, including observing the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
As I walked along the length of the river bank (there are a number of Ghats here of which the Ahilya Ghat is the most popular), I found people taking holy dips in the river followed by prayers offered to the many Shivlingam dotting the upper tier of the Ghats. Some dispersed to sightsee around the town, some hired the local boats for a sail up and down the river, while others – mostly women- settled down on the steps to fashion small lamps made of flour. Tiny clay lamps were also on sale.
The official inauguration of the Nimar Utsav was scheduled for the evening but the events had begun since morning at different venues. The Rangoli contest had already begun by the time I arrived after an uphill walk to the fort. Local people, mostly students, participated in the contest. Although messages regarding how to contain the COVID-19 virus appeared to be the common theme, only few among the participants and the spectators wore masks. Local welfare organisations had also set up stalls in the cenotaph complex in the fort.
In the late afternoon, there was a competition themed on the best decorated boats. As the sun went down, the crowd regrouped along the bank to set the lamps afloat in the river. Meanwhile the fort was also illuminated with coloured lights.
A snatch of holy tunes over the microphone reminded me that here too an evening ‘arati’ was organised daily. While the priests raised the huge lamps and offered prayers to the river goddess Narmada, the crowd too joined in the chanting. After a bite of some home-made local savouries at the food kiosks set up by local women, I traced my way back to the main venue. The state’s tourism minister lit the ceremonial lamp to launch the programme, which was followed by a martial arts demonstration, an awards giving ceremony and cultural programmes.
Next day, I chose to spend the morning joining a Handloom Walk. Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board had launched several events as part of the Nimar Utsav and this was one of them. The walk started from the Rajwada, led by a guide approved by the state tourism board. Standing in the shadow of a tall statue of the queen, the guide narrated the history of the textile.
According to records, Rani Ahilyabai had invited weavers from neighbouring Malwa (from Gujarat according to some) to teach the art of textile weaving to the local people as part of her plans to ensure employment for her subjects. She would gift the exquisite handwoven pieces to her royal guests. With royal patronage, the fame of Maheshwari saree spread far and wide. Even today, the fabric is made on handlooms using hand spun threads. Sadly, like many other hand-made traditional products, the Maheshwari saree was also faced with uneven competition from machine-made textiles. Thanks to the REHWA Society, today it has got a fresh lease of life.
For the handloom walk, the town has been divided into several zones and our guide led us to Zone B, past a decrepit but richly sculpted Chaturbhuj Narayan Temple. We went through a few narrow lanes before emerging at the Ahilya Vihar Colony. Most of the workshops were located in a part of the weavers’ homes. They further enlightened us about the manufacturing process, adding details such as the motifs used on the saris are mostly drawn from the surroundings – the fort, the river and the flora. It was amazing to watch them at work, expertly operating the loom even when they looked up to talk to us.
Interestingly, to make guests aware of the handloom legacy of Maheshwar, the tourist complex has named its dining hall/restaurant as the Handloom Café. The interior decoration has been executed with different objects used to hand weave the famous Maheshwari saree.
Between watching the morning activities (a wrestling contest, malkhamb demonstration, a kayak race, etc.) and enjoying the cultural programmes at the Ghat in the evening, I visited the Rajwada located in a part of the palace, and some of the temples. At the Rajwada, the life and times of the queen have been exhibited through a display of artefacts associated with her. It was interesting to find people coming to pay their respects to the queen with as much devotion as they for the river bank and the temples. A section of the palace has been converted into a luxury hotel.
Before returning to Indore, I decided to pay a quick visit to Ujjain. Located on the bank of the Shipra River, it is both a pilgrim and a historical site. Throughout the year, pilgrims arrive from various parts of the country to pay their respect to Mahakaleshwar, a manifestation of Shiva and one of the 12 ‘jyotirlingas’. It is also one of the four places where the Kumbh Mela takes place. The city is also associated with the famous poet of India, Kalidasa, noted for his Sanskrit compositions, including Kumarasambhavam, Abhijnanasakuntalam, Raghuvamsa, Meghaduta, among others.
I was lucky to catch the last day of the Kalidasa Samaroh, a cultural festival which began its journey in 1958. The week-long cultural festival usually begins on the Kartik Shukla Ekadashi (falls in November) and includes theatrical, musical and dance performances, discourses, art and sculpture exhibitions, etc. The Kalidasa Sanskrit Academy has been organising the festival since 1979, with support from the state’s department of culture and other organisations. Musical band Dhruvaa, who specialises in singing in Sanskrit, gave a rousing performance to a packed audience. This was followed by a play in Sindhi language. There was also an exhibition of sculptures and paintings based on interpretations of the poet’s Abhijnanasakuntalam by modern artists.
As I returned to Indore (a little over an hour’s drive from Ujjain) to catch the flight home, there was just enough time to pay a visit to the famous street food corner known as Chappan (56) Dukan. A long row of food kiosks arranged along one end of a well maintained square. However, now there are many other restaurants and cafes along the opposite arm of the square adding to the variety. Finally, armed with a few boxes of the famous sweet of Indore, ‘gud gajak’ (made from sesame and jaggery), I headed for the airport.