Google maps suggested that the tiny, ancient town of Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada was just an hour away from Indore. But, at the bus stand, I learnt it’s three hours away! I looked at the tin bus with battered seats and then at the afternoon summer sun blazing mercilessly on the hot, tin roof and shuddered at the thought of taking the painful trip. No more depending on google maps next time!
But the vision of spending a tranquil evening by the ghats of the Narmada, triggered me to finally take the daunting trip. As I covered my face with a dupatta to buffer against the unforgiving gusts of hot wind slapping me on the face, I wondered if there was a possibility that the ghunghat system in some of the hotter areas may have originated due to climatic conditions and then degenerated into a patriarchal norm. No sun hats or shades could compare with the comfort of staring out into the harsh, summer heat through a light coloured, cotton dupatta. Additional aids were eye pads, endless packets of electral and refreshing sugar cane juice sold by vendors during a brief halt.
The hot, tin bus finally chugged to a halt in the sleepy town of Maheshwar. Feeling a bit less like a cast iron pan on fire after devouring glasses of cold Badam shake and lassi, I took an auto rickshaw to a lovely guesthouse called Hansa Heritage located near the fort. A couple of Spanish backpackers lounged around the sit out near the reception overlooking the fort, browsing through a much used copy of Lonely Planet India. Looking at them, I felt that familiar sense of ‘passing through’ that I have felt in hostels while backpacking versus ‘checking in’ at regular hotels. Once I saw the room, I realised why it was a retreat for foreign backpackers. The walls were plastered with cow dung and straw and painted with beautiful tribal art reflecting a quintessentially, rural lifestyle. The stained glass windows opened out to a choice of fort view or street view from where one could watch the world pass by.
Maheshwar has been identified as the possible ancient town of Mahishmati that may have flourished till the end of 13th century, by several scholars. Other competitors in this category being Omkareshwar and Mandla. Mahishmati finds mention in Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Pali texts etc and was the most important city in the southern part of the Avanti kingdom and later served as the capital of the Anupa kingdom.
In the late 18th century, Maheshwar served as the capital of the great Maratha queen Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar. After a breather from the heat, I set out to explore the Ahilya Fort. Ahilya Bai was the daughter in law of the Holkars. Her father in law prevented her from committing Sati after the death of her husband and convinced her of her great potential to help him in running the affairs of the kingdom. Ahilya then proceeded to not only becoming a great administrator, but led her army to battle against Muslim invaders and built several noted temples and dharamshalas in Somnath, Dwarka, Ujjain, Nasik, the Kaashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi etc. Her capital was at Maheshwar, inside the fort that I was now exploring.
Entering the fort is like entering another era that is jostling for space with modern Cafés, men on bikes and a Bollywood shoot starring Akshay Kumar that had set up camp within its precincts.
The main living areas are now converted to a luxury hotel for primarily foreign tourists who want a slice of the real India. Walking past the exclusive hotel and camping grounds with canopied tents, I visited a temple housing a famous golden swing placed amongst an array of tumble washed stones resembling Shivlings that were recovered from the Narmada.
A short walk away was a wide staircase leading down to a couple of ancient temples and beyond that the inviting, ghats of the Narmada. The entire scene was grand in composition and paid tribute to the excellence of the architect.
On the way down I stopped by to see some artisans spinning gorgeous Maheshwari saris and marveled at the singular dedication of the artisans to their art.
The temples were stunning in design and conception and faced each other, beautifully framing the other when viewed from the opposite side. Unwinding, I watched a herd of goats ambling up the stairs playfully and locals relaxing and chatting amongst themselves.
Walking on the ghats by the Narmada, I realised that Maheshwar had a rythm of its own. It did not have the rush and frenzy of Ujjain or Varanasi. There was no hurry to attain salvation or temple hop till you drop. Here, one just succumbs to the unhurried charms of the gently flowing river and taking a breather from the metropolitan rush to just observe the world passing by.
During a leisurely boat ride at sunset, the boat man pointed out to women praying by the river and told me that the Gangaur festival was being celebrated in Maheshwar that day. The festival gets its name from Gana or Shiv and Gaur or Parvati, who represent marital bliss. It’s believed that Parvati returned to her parental home during Gangaur to bless her friends with marital bliss. This is a largely women centric festival where unmarried women pray for good husbands and married women pray for marital bliss.
While disembarking near the temple dedicated to Narmada, I had a rendezvous with a group of Gangaur celebrating women posing for selfies while walking down to the river, carrying stalks of tall wheat grass on their head. Later in the night, while feasting on some Indo Chinese food cooked by an enterprising tile trader by day and hobby chef by night, I noticed more and more women were emerging from the woodwork dressed in finery and dancing to the beats of feet tapping music. The chef’s wife told me that Gangaur was one of their most important festivals and I was lucky to be visiting on the most ‘happening’ night in an otherwise sleepy town.
Next day, I visited the temple of Kaaleshwar built at a height. Standing by a windy back door overlooking the temple of Jaleshwar on a cliff on the other side, with a bird’s eye view of the Narmada, I knew I could just get used to this vibe forever.
The temple priest walked up to me for a chat. He turned out to be a Naga sadhu who had been living a nomadic life for several years and was currently helping manage this temple. Over a cup of kadak chai, we chatted about symbolisms in temple art and he shared interesting snippets from his esoteric, nomadic life.
Bidding goodbye to him and taking a break from understanding the transcendental, I went forth to embrace materiel reality in the form of clothes made in Maheshwari style. Maheshwari cloth is a certain mix of cotton and silk embellished with temple inspired art. I bought some lovely scarves and dupattas and then rushed back to the bus stand just in time to take the ‘cool’ evening bus back to Indore.
Maheshwar meant many things, but most importantly, it will remain forever etched in my memory as a ‘head space’ I can tune into whenever I need a break from the hyper world that we live in.