About 500km Mumbai, on the banks of the mighty river Narmada, lies the old city of Maheshwar. Many historians identify Maheshwar as the ancient town of Mahishmati. It is believed Maheshwar was build on the ancient city of Somvanshya Shastrarjun Kshatriya and was the capital of the King Kartavirya Arjun, who is mentioned in the Sanskrit Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Much later, it became the capital of the Maratha Kings, the Holkars. Maratha Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar (1725-1795) took over the reigns of Maheshwar after her young son Male Rao Holkar, heir to the throne died, soon after her father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar’s death (her husband Khaderao Holkar had died almost 12 years earlier).
Ahilyabai Holkar led her armies to battle. She also transformed Indore from a small village into a magnificent city. However she herself made Maheshwar her capital and developed the fort, ghats and temples of Maheshwar, as well as many roads, wells, ghats and rest houses.. She developed many temples all across India, the most significant being the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. They say the sites where Ahilyabai Holkar built include Kashi, Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar and Jagannath Puri. She also supported merchants and farmers and helped them lead lives of peace and prosperity.
Ahilyabai Holkar’s Maheshwar was flourishing with art, music, literature and business enterprise. She entertained and patronised poets like Maropant and Anantaphandi, as well as scholars like Khushali Ram. Craftsmen, sculptors and artists received salaries and honours at her capital and she established a textile industry in Maheshwar.
Her efforts can be seen even today. Maheshwar is famous for its textiles, and no visit is complete without shopping for some exclusive handwoven sprees, stoles and fabrics. In fact ‘Maheshwari’ is now a coveted genre in Sarees. Rani Ahilyabai Holkar’s support to architecture and sculpture can be seen in the fabulous fort and ghat temples in Maheshwar itself. The exquisite carvings and design speak of the vibrant and rich culture of its times. Maheshwar has to be seen to be believed.
We haven’t been to Madhya Pradesh much, a fact we want to change this year (if the Covid19 situation improves). So on our way towards Maheshwar we were apprehensive of the stay and food. All searches suggested Labbooz Cafe and Lodging as the place to stay and we promptly booked it. However, our maps app and road conditions suggested we may reach just around 8pm, a time when Labbooz is scheduled shut. So we called the Cafe and requested them to take our dinner order. The Cafe manager was however very sure that we would have to place our orders immediately (it was only 5 pm or so) since the staff will start preparing the shut down at 7 pm. He said our food will be left out for us. We weren’t keen to have a cold dinner so cancelled the dinner order, getting anxious at the kind of place we have booked ourselves into. Whoever closes kitchen at 7pm? But upon arriving and the following day we realised not every town moves at the speed and schedules of a major Indian city. Even though Labbooz staff close the kitchen at 7pm, they are genuinely warm and hard working people.
We stayed at Labbooz Cafe and Lodging, a quaint stay made from the erstwhile Fort Entrance Gate Guards’ Quarters. It is said Labboo is a driver to the descendent of the Holkar dynasty. The selected their premium room, which has two terraces, on in the front and one behind. The small room was very tastefully appointed and clean and dry. What more can one ask for?
The family of the Holkars still live in the fort and continue to patronise the arts, especially weaving. Sally Holkar started the Women Weave Initiative, where women are empowered as handloom weavers, trained and supplied with equipment, thread and designs, and their creations are sold nationwide. Within Maheshwar too, look for a store called Rewa which sells textiles and sprees made by the ladies in Women Weave.
An interesting thing I observed was the development of an indigenous fashion aesthetic amongst the youth who hung around the ghats. Fashionably dressed, with funky and coloured hairstyles, almost every young boy was wearing a stole and had the look of a carefully put together fashion statement. From Fresh Green Blazer with an embroidered Gold Eagle and colour fur shoes to styled hair with various shades of brown dye. The young men had taken pains to put together a fashion statement and spent as much time photographing and posing for each other, with much confidence and elan. What is their inspiration? The styles didn’t look ‘Bollywood’. Mainstream movie actors are much more conservatively fashioned. I wish there were more young ladies too, but I guess the patriarchy in the society doesn’t let them move around as freely.
Our charming room with a private terrace at Labbooz Cafe and Lodging. Although small, the room was very clean and comfortable.
A view of Maheshwar town from the terrace at Labbooz Cafe and Lodging.The Women Weave Initiative.I can’t get over how charming Labbooz Cafe and Lodging is. The fort walls with plenty of greenery and charm.The entrance to Labbooz Cafe.The Entrance Gate at Maheshwar Fort.A side view of the entrance gate to Maheshwar Fort.The town of Maheshwar is quaint and best experienced walking in the early mornings.The bylaws of Maheshwar have many old houses. And amidst the old houses in Maheshwar, you spot a shop selling hand woven Sarees and fabrics.The undulating roads leading to the ghats of the Narmada.The entrance to the ghats and temples is adorned with these beautiful arched doorways.The Ghat Temples at Maheshwar are again, best experienced early mornings before the crowds fill in.Stepping down towards the Ghats, with River Narmada, also known as Maa Reva (Mother Meva). On the left is Akhileshwar Temple.Beautiful figurines of musicians at the Maheshwar Ghats and Fort Complex speak of a rich and vibrant culture full of arts and music. The magnificently carved and designed Maheshwar Fort Complex at the ghats.Akhileshwar Temple in morning light.In the rising sun light at the ghats. With the Fort walls on the left and the steps leading to Maa Reva, there is something very spiritual about this place.The fort front, designed and carved elaborately. I wish we would do more to protect this for posterity. Notice the Swift birds in the sky.Life in the ghats. Morning walkers, bathers, holy water dippers, people praying or just talking selfies.As the sun rises, so does the crowd. I noticed plenty of local youngsters.Nandi, the bull, waiting next to Shiv Ling. Maheshwar is another name for the Lord Shiva.Local youth spend hours photographing themselves. Will these photos end up on Instagram or Facebook?Hip young locals posing and photographing each other. I noticed very few girls and women here. A rather patriarchal society, I guess.More youngsters taking selfies. This is the new cultural phenomenon of our times.Very interesting to see a sculpture of this couple, perhaps royalty, for their clothes. The woman seems to be wearing something that looks like a ‘choga’ or long gown with figure hugging ‘leggings’ or like churidaar salwars.
The main fort is open to tourists. We couldn’t go in as we had little time.The main fort complex has a super expensive hotel too, where rooms cost close to 20k per night. I am sure they are amazing to experience.In this shot of fort notice the Queen’s Palanquin. Also note the elaborately carved wooden brackets to the pillars.The charming Labbooz Cafe. Sit in these gorgeous dappled light drenched cafe and have delicious vegetarian snacks and tea coffee.A great place to idle away your day, waiting for there sun to come down, Labbooz Cafe has an eclectic but very affordable menu. Our room in Labbooz Cafe and Lodging was charming, clean and dry. We loved it, despite the small bathroom.
How To Reach : Maheshwar is some 500km from Mumbai. 90km from Indore (which has busy airports and railway stations). The nearest train station is Barwaha.
When To Visit: Maheshwar is located in Central India which gets very hot in the summers. Since most of the town needs to be visited on foot, summers (March – July, then September and October) isn’t the best time to visit. Winters are better (November till February) and monsoons may also be nice (July and August).
Source and image : Macrotravel – Paramvir Singh