Maheshwar: A glimpse into the old town by the Narmada

Sitting serenely on the banks of the Narmada, the little town of Maheshwar is known mainly for two things: the famous Holkar queen Ahilyabai, the most popular ruler of the Malwa Maratha dynasty and the intricately woven Maheshwari sarees. It’s not one of your typical tourist places in India and usually gets the regular clutch of pilgrims and a few foreigners who come to stay at the luxurious Ahilya Fort for a couple of days before moving on. However, give it time and Maheshwar slowly grows on you.

We spent a few days in the former Holkar capital, soaking up sunsets by the ghats, strolling through its bylanes, admiring the eclectic Holkar architecture and exploring its bazaars. Remembered as an exemplary politician and great leader, Ahilyabai, who was never meant to rule, ascended the throne after the death of her husband and father-in-law. A gentle ruler she was a great patron of the arts as is evident in Maheshwar, built up the Malwa region with forts, roads, and necessary infrastructure and ruled for almost 30 years with a firm hand. Her legacy is seen throughout Maheshwar and a few days in this tiny ghat town is worth your time. Oh, and don’t forget to buy a couple of beautiful Maheshwari Sarees; we certainly did!

Ahilya fort Maheshwar
The Ahilyabai Temple with the fort in the distance as seen from the mighty Narmada. Almost everything is named after the great Queen and over 200 years later she is still the most revered ruler of the Holkar dynasty.
narmada maheshwar
Every evening the ghats come alive as locals and tourists alike dive into the cool waters of the Narmada. Unlike other religious spots like Benares and Ujjain the mood here is less solemn and more carefree.
Ahilya fort Maheshwar
The ramparts of the fort are a great spot to watch the world below surrounded by the unique temple architecture with the setting sun in the far distance. We spent our evenings here watching the tiny world of Maheshwar converge along the banks of the river. We happened to be there during the filming of an upcoming movie, the very interesting sounding Padman, and the place had a buzz of excitement in the air.
Ahilyabai Temple Maheshwar
The temple built by Ahilyabai is rather unique and different from other Hindu temples we’ve seen around the country. The original temple she built is simple and has been added to over time by subsequent Queens. Ahilyabai built and restored several temples in the Malwa region and around other important pilgrim spots in Central India, and is remembered for her deep piety. The strange figures with their pointy noses are all over the temple, and wear the similar style of clothing as the Holkars and other dynasties from the region.
Rehwa Maheshwari Sarees
Not far from the temple enroute to the fort is the Rehwa Society, an NGO that works to revive and promote the centuries old hand weaving tradition of Maheshwar. Keeping in line with the sentiments of Ahilyabai, the current head of the dynasty Richard and his wife, set up the society to place income directly into the hands of the craftsmen. We suggest stepping into the society to understand the time and skill required to produce a beautiful Maheshwari saree, woven by hand, with designs inspired by their history and heritage. While the town is not lacking in shops and beautiful sarees, you know the ones sold at the NGO are all hand woven and with great care.
Ahilya Fort Hotel Maheshwar
Ahead of the temple is the Ahilyabai Fort, now the home of Richard Holkar and an upmarket heritage hotel. While we didnt stay at the hotel, we were fortunate enough to meet the very interesting Richard and share a meal with him, over stories of the fort, the Holkar dynasty and the state of the union today. The meal, with traditional Malwan dishes, was extensive and yummy and served in style in a silver thali. We had a lovely evening on the roof of the fort overlooking the Narmada and the quiet ghats.
Old Town Maheshwar
In old town Maheshwar the streets are lined with shops and homes that have stood the test of time and accounts are kept by hand the way they have been for generations.
Maheshwar, not unlike other smaller old towns in India, moves at its own languid pace. Evenings are spent around the ghats or exchanging stories with neighbours, and a walk around the old bylanes and alleys reveal a part of India that has remained unchanged, far removed from the din of modernisation and big city life.
narmada ghat maheshwar
We chanced upon this beautiful lady when walking by the ghat on our last morning in town. There were very few people about and the air was cool, despite the beginnings of summer. A lifeline for Maheshwar and other cities across MP, the Narmada has become closely intertwined with daily life. We’d had a lovely time in Maheshwar, a town that is an interesting amalgamation of old and new, history and modern life, clinging on to its heritage and past glories, not unlike India itself.

Some Useful Information:

How to get there: Maheshwar is located in southern Madhya Pradesh and is about 2 hours from Indore by road.

Where to stay: The most stunning place to stay in Maheshwar is the Ahilya Fort, the heritage hotel located in the old fort overlooking the Narmada ghats. However if you are looking for something less expensive but similarly atmospheric, we suggest you check out Laboos Cafe where the Holkars have converted some of the old guard rooms in the fort walls to charming little guest rooms. Also check out Hansa Heritage, located down the road from the fort which has very nice rooms and an excellent Saree shop to boot.

Dont Miss: A full thali meal at the Ahilya Fort is highly recommended (you will need to call ahead as entry to the fort is restricted), as is a visit to the Rehwa Society where you can see the famous Maheswari Sarees being woven.

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