Driving through the main road of Maheshwar, which also serves as a state highway, there are no visual cues that set this place apart from the thousand other small towns spread across central India. Its famed fortress, long and well-documented history and rich tradition of weaving become evident only if you get off the main road and venture into Maheshwar’s bustling bylanes. But before you go any further, know that the key to comprehending any destination lies in tapping into its life force and understanding that first, in this case the River Narmada.

THE NARMADA

It is said that of the five most sacred rivers of India – Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri – Narmada is the holiest. It is also said that when Ganga herself feels unclean, she takes the form of a black cow, and using the darkness of the night as her cover, comes to cleanse herself in the waters of the Narmada.

Narmada is known by many names, one of them being ‘Shankari’, or the daughter of Shankar (Lord Shiva). It is believed that she was born out of a teardrop that fell out of Shiva’s eye. It is believed that Shiva lives in the very pebbles on the riverbed of the Narmada. True to the legend, the banks of the Narmada are replete with cylindrical pebbles, which look rather similar to the shivalingas that are worshipped across India. Known as banalingas, they are collected by tourists and pilgrims.

Historically, the river has formed the boundary between north and south India; and has thus stopped many an army and many a migration. The rulers from one side who crossed over and conquered lands on the other were given the title of a chakravartin. Few attained it. Many died fighting for it.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Most of Maheshwar’s attractions are located inside its fort, and to get to the fort, one has to walk 2 km through the busy market. Usually abuzz with activity in the mornings and evenings, the entire market shuts down by noon as most of the town retreats indoors to beat the Malwa sun, which can be severe even in the winters.

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Ahilya Dwar, gateway to Maheshwar Fort
Ahilya Dwar, gateway to Maheshwar Fort

The serpentine road eventually becomes a somewhat steep incline and eventually the north gate of the Maheshwar Fort emerges. This massive fort stands on a hill with the languid Narmada on one side and the modern town of Maheshwar on the other. Excavations conducted here by the Archaeological Survey of India reveal that the area of the fort has been fortified for over a thousand years. Historians have, so far, not arrived at a conclusion as to who first fortified the hill at Maheshwar. Some scholars believe that it was the Paramara ruler Munj Deo, an uncle of the famed King Bhoja (r. 1000-1050). Other historians date the origin of the fort as far back as the 5th century. Yet another group of scholars trace the creation of the fort back to the Mauryan period (4th century BCE).

While the ancient history of the fort is veiled by a mist of conflicting theories, the present structure (thanks to surviving documents) can be attributed to Malhar Rao Holkar. He captured Maheshwar in 1733 and immediately set about repairing and expanding on the existing structure. The work was continued by Ahilya Bai Holkar who commissioned most of the recognisable structures inside the fort, including the numerous ghats as well as the temples.

Antiquity aside, what strikes you first about the fortress (especially if you were to look at it from across the river) is the sheer height of its walls. The walls on the north and the east, where the fort borders the modern town, are around 35 ft in height. This figure rises to around 50 ft on the western side of the fortress. Dwarfing everything on the southern side along the Narmada, the walls soar to over 100 ft in height.

These formidable walls of Maheshwar Fort are pierced by five gateways, the main one being the Ahilya Dwar. Previously known as Gadi Darwaza, this the largest gate and the only way to enter the fort on a vehicle. As you enter through the Ahilya Dwar, you leave the modern world behind and step into the old, walled city of Maheshwar. Although people continue to live here, the main city and its all-important market lies outside these walls.

The grand entrance of Maheshwar Fort
The grand entrance of Maheshwar Fort

The other important entrance to the fort is through the Kamani Darwaza on the northern side. It does not have a motorable road running through and is now used only by pedestrians. A third gateway to the fortress is the Pani Darwaza (water gate), located immediately to the east of Ahilya Ghat, next to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Mostly ornamental in nature, it thus was the entrance used by the select few who came to Maheshwar via the water route. Further east of Pani Darwaza is the Mandal Kho Darwaza. Both the Pani and Mandal Kho Darwazas are along the southern walls of the fort and open on to the wide expanse of the Narmada flowing past the town.

Just as you enter through the Ahilya gate, to your right is the quaint Laboo’s Cafe. Stop here for some lemonade and a home-made lunch. The café also offers rooms to travellers. Straight ahead of the café is a small gateway, which is the entrance to the Rajwada, or the palace. Half of the palace has now been converted into the luxurious Fort Ahilya Heritage Hotel, while the other half has been converted in to a museum and is open to the public. The first thing that strikes you about the palace is its simplicity. The length and breadth of the country is dotted with opulent palaces of the royalty but this is a complete antithesis to the seemingly vulgar squandering of wealth. One reason for the simplicity is that Ahilyabai, the Holkar queen, spent all the money on building temples. The famed Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi was built by her.

Rajwada is mostly constructed of wood and rests on a stone platform almost 3 ft in height. Next to the main entrance of the palace are statues of an elephant, a horse and a bull, each carved out of a single block of wood. The elephant signifies the grandeur of the Holkar kingdom while the horse is the symbol of its military might. The bull is representative of Nandi, the divine vehicle of Shiva, the tutelary deity of the Holkars.

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Courtyard in Rajwada
Courtyard in Rajwada

Courtyard in Rajwada

This main entrance opens into a wide central courtyard with rooms surrounding it. The entire palace is two-storeyed: the first floor housed the rooms of the queen herself, members of the royal family and the household staff while the ground floor had guest rooms and offices. At the centre of the courtyard is a small pool with a platform for the tulsi tree on one end and an image of Lord Krishna flanked by bulls on the other.

The simplicity of the queen can be witnessed in her so-called Durbar Hall, where she conducted the affairs of the state and held audiences with the citizenry. Located on the verandah in her wing of the palace, it is nothing but a white mattress covering the floor with a low, wooden throne at one end of it. These days, a white marble image of the queen can be seen on the throne.

The pillared verandah that runs all along the palace is dotted with souvenirs from the Holkar era. A carelessly placed palanquin here with a film of dust covering it is the one which was used by Ahilyabai, as is the slightly larger howdah (a canopy used to travel on an elephant). To the left of the main entrance, on the inside is a low wooden chair covered by a silk canopy. Unbelievable as it might sound, this was the throne from where the humble queen ruled her vast empire.

A visitor admiring the intricate façade of Ahilya Fort
A visitor admiring the intricate façade of Ahilya Fort

Just behind the throne, a smaller door leads you to Ahilyabai’s room of worship, also known as the Devpuja. The centrepiece of this room is a small swing made of solid gold on which rests a golden image of an infant Krishna or Gopal.

A double-storeyed gateway, directly opposite the main entrance to the Rajwada, leads to a flight of steps that bring one to a cluster of buildings on the banks of the Narmada. It is from this gateway that you get your first glimpse of the holy river, which at this point is over a mile wide.

At the foot of the flight of stairs, to the right is another gateway, which opens into a compound at the centre of which lies the chhatri of Vitoji Rao Holkar, the younger brother of King Yashwant Rao Holkar I (r. 1798-1811). Built on a high plinth and sporting two bulbous domes, this chhatri is known for its exquisite carvings, especially that of a row of caparisoned elephants on its side.

Facing the entrance to the chhatri of Vitoji is a gateway to yet another enclosure, which houses the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya, the chhatri of Ahilyabai Holkar. Built by the queen’s daughter Krishna Bai, this towering structure combines the north Indian nagara style of temple architecture with the Maratha style.

From the enclosure that houses the two chhatris, another gateway leads to yet another flight of stairs that forms the main ghat of Maheshwar. Almost 2 km of the riverfront of Maheshwar has been paved in stone to give rise to a series of ghats. Of a total of the 28 ghats on the riverfront, the most important are Ahilya, Peshwa, Phanse and Mahila.

Chhatri of Vitoji
Chhatri of Vitoji

Colourful boats lie moored on the ghats to take the tourists for a cruise on the waters of the Narmada. There are two kinds of boats available at the ghat – rowboats and the ones powered by modified motorbike engines. Most of these boats ply from the spectacular Ahilya Ghat, arguably one of the most scenic ghats in India. The beautiful symmetry of the steps descending from the intricately sculpted gate-way, the colourful boats moored to it, the looming walls of the fort and the relative absence of milling crowds adds to its unique charm.

While standing on the ghat, one structure that is bound to intrigue is a tiny little temple straddling an island right in the middle of the Narmada. Baneshwar Shivalaya, accessible only by boat and that too if the currents are just right, is of great cosmological significance. It is believed that this temple is located on the meridian connecting the centre of the earth with the mathematically significant Dhruva, or the pole star.

To the right of Ahilya Ghat is the much busier Mahila Ghat. On Mahila Ghat is the Chhatri of Lakshmi Bai constructed by Ahilyabai. A road leads straight from the city to this ghat. Apart from religious rituals, this ghat is used for everyday activities by the local people.

A little ahead of the Mahila Ghat is the Siddheshwar Ghat, supposed to be the dhyan sthal (place of meditation) of Ahilyabai. Steps from it lead to a door-way, beyond which lie two chhatris. On the left is the chhatri of Mukta Bai, wife of Holkar king Yashwant Rao I. It is built like a temple along the lines of the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya and Chhatri of Lakshmi Bai. The smaller chhatri to the right is that of Mukta Bai’s husband. A pathway leads from here to the smaller Siddheshwar Temple.

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River Narmada, as seen from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple
River Narmada, as seen from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple

To the left of Ahilya Ghat is a smaller ghat, whose steps lead to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The original Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi, one of the 12 jyotirlingas, was rebuilt by Ahilyabai in 1780. Built on an artificial terrace overlooking the Narmada, the mandapa of the temple houses an exquisitely carved Nandi. This temple is not as busy like its namesake in the holy city of Varanasi.

A short walk on a lovely, stone paved path from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple leads to Rajrajeshwar Shivalaya. This important shrine is said to stand on the site where King Kartyavirya Arjuna was cremated. The temple features ashtadhatu idols of Shiva and Parvati enshrined in its sanctum sanctorum. It also has 11 nandadeeps (holy lamps) which have been kept lit for centuries.

Beyond Kashi Vishwanath lies the Parashuram Ghat. From this ghat, a dirt track leads eastwards for about 2 km to the Jwaleshwar Mahadev Temple. Located on top of a small but steep hill, its white spire can be seen from miles away. At the base of the hill is a small ghat with seven shrines dedicated to the seven mothers (Brahmani, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda), popularly known as the Sapta Matrika.

Next to the Jwaleshwar Mahadev Temple is the sangam (confluence) of Narmada with the Maheshwar river. Separated by the sangam is another hill on top of which is a temple surrounded by high walls. The Kaleshwar Temple, as it is popularly called, is dedicated to the manifestation of Shiva as the destroyer. Slightly inaccessible, the only way to reach the temple is if there is a boat at the confluence.

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Sapta Matrika, located on a hill
Sapta Matrika, located on a hill

Those who wish to explore the immediate surroundings of Maheshwar, will definitely not be disappointed. A 4-km boat ride from Maheshwar Fort brings one to Sahasradhara. Here, Narmada flows over a hard rock bed, which the river has carved into a thousand (sahasra) channels (dhara) over the years. The river rushes in myriad cascades and chutes from here. It looks magical at sunrise, specially from March to June when the water levels are low and the flow of the white water through the maze of brown rocks creates quite a hypnotic effect. However, do be careful about the river current and mossy rocks.

WHERE TO STAY

One of the best options is the luxurious Ahilya Fort (Delhi Tel: 011-41551575; Tariff: 14,200- 44,700 with meals), which is located on the riverside. Other good options are Hansa Heritage (Tel: 07283- 273296, Cell: 09827857097; Tariff: 750-1,450); Chandan Guest House (Cell: 09754552273; Tariff: 500-800); Narmada Retreat (Cell: 08349994784; Tariff: 1,990-3,990), run by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation; Hotel Panchwati Palace (Cell: 09893673357; Tariff: 1,600-2,450); Hotel Sanginee (Tel: 273662, Cell: 09039432333, 09406632333; Tariff: 550-1,550).

WHERE TO EAT

You could try Laboo’s Café, a lovely spot as you enter the fort, the humble Guru Kripa Food & Hotel or head to Indian Heritage Food for their nonvegetarian dishes.

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The peaceful and lush courtyard of Ahilya Fort Hotel
The peaceful and lush courtyard of Ahilya Fort Hotel

AROUND MAHESHWAR

Mandaleshwar (7 km)

Founded by the Hindu philosopher Mandan Mishra, Mandaleshwar is situated east of Maheshwar, on the banks of the River Narmada. It is believed that Mandan Mishra had his famous theological debate with Adi Shankaracharya at the Gupteshwar Mahadev Temple here. This is where he firmly established his Mayavada philosophy. The town’s main attractions include a palace built by Tukoji Rao Holkar II and a stone fort built by the Mughals. Mandaleshwar served as a British cantonment from 1819 to 1864.

There are a series of temples on the Ram Ghat here. A flight of 123 steps leads down to the wide ghat. The Rama, Hanumana, Dattatreya and Chappan Dev temples here draw thousands of pilgrims each year. Interestingly, an annual abhisheka (ritual anointation) is performed in the Dattatreya Temple in the name of Albert Einstein, and another in the name of Lenin, but no one seems to know when this practice started!

When to go October-March Location On the northern bank of the River Narmada Air Nearest airport: Indore Rail Nearest rail: Barwaha

THE INFORMATION

Tourist/ Wildlife Offices

Tourist Office

Room No. 3-4, Hotel Janpath

Janpath Road, New Delhi

Tel: 011-23366528, 32599000, 23341187

Telefax: 23347264

Chanderi

MPSTDC

Hotel Tana Bana, Chanderi

Tel: 07547-252222

Cell: 07725896140

MP Tourist Information Centre

Tansen Residency Complex

6A, Gandhi Road

Gwalior. Tel: 0751-2234557, 4056726

STD code 07547

Maheshwar

MPSTDC

42, Residency Area

Opp St Paul School, Indore

Tel: 0731-2499566

STD code 0731

Burhanpur

MPSTDC

Tapti Retreat

Burhanpur-Ichhapura Road

Burhanpur. Tel: 07325-242244

STD code 07325

Bhimbetka

Bhopal Tourist Office

Paryatan Bhavan, Bhadbhada Road

Bhopal. Tel: 0755-2778383

Bhopal Tourist Office

Railway Station, Bhopal. Tel: 2746827

STD code 0755

 

THE INFORMATION

Ratapani WLS

MPSTDC

Paryatan Bhavan

Bhadbhada Road

Bhopal

Tel: 0755-2778383

Superintendent

Obedullahganj Forest Division

Cell: 09424790712

STD code 0755

Pachmarhi

Pachmarhi Regional Office

Amaltas Complex

Near Tehsil

Pachmarhi

Tel: 07578-252100

Pachmarhi Tourist Office

Bus Stand, Pachmarhi

Tel: 252029

Pachmarhi Tourist Office

Railway Station

Pipariya

Tel: 07576-223499

STD code 07578

Amarkantak

MPSTDC

Holiday Home

Amarkantak

Tel: 07629-269416

Jabalpur Regional Office

Rani Durgavati

Paryatan Bhavan

North Civil Lines, Jabalpur

Tel: 0761-2677290

STD code 07629