Perched high above the ghats of Maheshwar, 250-year-old Ahilya Fort watches over the languid Narmada like a sentinel. Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar made this town her capital, and ruled from here between 1766 and 1795. Her wada (residence), set amidst gnarled neem trees, was beautifully restored into a fort hotel by her descendant Richard Holkar.
Princes and dukes, Mick Jagger and Ralph Fiennes, Fort Ahilya has hosted many eminent personalities. Within minutes of entering, it’s obvious why this hotel is such a draw. We were just in time to catch the spectacular sight of the sun setting on the Narmada from the hotel’s Mandap Terrace. The view of the ghats and river was stirring.
Kuntabai, who has worked with Richard for three decades, welcomed us with garlands and led us to first-floor rooms, Kachnar and Gulmohar. Ahilya Fort’s 17 rooms are spread across seven buildings, most named after plants that grow around it— Imli, Elaichi, Champa, Badam, Haldi, Kesar. The Maharajah Tent lords over the fort’s ramparts in a private garden. But, the most coveted rooms are surely the opulent river-facing Narmada Suite and the Nagarkhana Suite, a riverfront palace gateway that once served as a drum house overlooking the Ahilyeshwar Temple.
Decorated with brass curios and antique trunks set amidst wooden pillars, the hotel’s hallways are lined with black-and-white photos of Indore’s royalty and their opulent edifices. There are also stunning paintings of Maheshwar by Harry Holcroft, who was artist-in-residence for many years.
Conservation runs deep at Fort Ahilya. Richard Holkar and his former-wife Sally revived the centuries-old tradition of Maheshwar weaving, which until the 1970s was a dying craft. We drop by Rehwa Society (open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) where dexterous weavers create exquisite cotton and silk Maheshwari saris. Next door, children study at Ahilya School, founded in 1979 for the children of weavers.
Quite like its location, the food at Ahilya Fort is superb, personally curated and perfected by Richard over the years. He often joins guests for conversations over a drink or meals. Breakfast is served on the terrace or poshak wada (try the Maheshwar scrambled eggs). Customized menus are printed for lunch and dinner, and announced with a drum beat. There’s plenty on offer: grilled mahi mahi or baam (a local river fish); chilled soups of carrot, ginger, and sweet lime in the afternoon; fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden made into salads; homemade walnut and sunflower seed bread; banana upside-down cake; cardamom and citrus preserves; and the legendary Batteesee Chatni (a secret recipe of 32 ingredients that Richard guards like a family treasure). Over dinner, we coax him to tell us stories of Maheshwar and the food. Richard talks of a variety of dishes: Kathal biryani and duck cooked in pomegranate from the Dogra court in Kashmir; Chicken survedar, a favourite of Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar.
Between meals, time is unhurried, flowing placidly like the Narmada. There are several nooks and a lovely pool to laze around, and the ghats and temples are a just short walk down the steps.
The hotel has a broad schedule of daily events. The Lingarchan puja conducted in the courtyard at 8.30 a.m. is a practice initiated by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1766 for the well-being of her subjects. River mud from the Narmada is ritually shaped into a thousand miniature Shiva lingas on a wooden board, before being immersed back in the waters. Maheshwar Rajwada, her gaadi or seat of power serves as a museum on the Holkar lineage, and a map marks out her sacred deeds at India’s holiest sites. Visitors often pay tribute at her statue nearby before continuing to the ghats below.
The hotel has many vantage points, and it’s mesmerizing to watch the unending procession of pilgrims, wrestlers, and locals on the banks of the Narmada. But there’s plenty more to do as well. Take an evening boat to Baneshwar Mahadev, a temple located on an islet midstream, and return by sunset. (Sunrise and sunset times are updated daily near the front office). Catch the Kashi Vishwanath arti at 7.40 p.m. and Narmada maha arti at 8 p.m. on the ghats. For a more leisurely exploration, try “Slowly down the Narmada,” an eight-kilometre boat ride from Mandleshwar to Maheshwar (₹7100 for 6 guests), or a drive to Mandu and Omkareshwar, just 1.5 hours away.
Ahilya Fort is in Maheshwar, 95 km/2 hrs southwest of Indore airport.
Address: Ahilya Wada, Maheshwar, West Nimar 451224
Tariff: Double room ₹26,000 per night and up; inclusive of all meals and taxes; minimum stay 2 nights.
Festive time: Ahilya Fort hosts “The Sacred River”, a three-day celebration of the Narmada each year in February, featuring classical music, dance, and vocals performed against stunning backdrops. Pilgrims come for a dip in the Narmada on Mahashivratri (February) while Muharram in September-October is observed with processions and colourful taziyas (tomb replicas).
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