Gerard saw a picture of Maheshwar online and decided it would be worth visiting. Built next to a river, with a 16th C fort, the town is way off the tourist trail. It took three bus rides and most of the day from Khandwa (where we spent one night) to reach there. Finally getting down at the bus station, we were not impressed. Another busy and dusty town….we wondered if we’d made the right decision to come. There was no sign of the river or fort, and no rickshaws or taxis in sight. No one seemed interested in giving us a ride to our guesthouse.
But like not judging a book by its cover, first impressions are not always right. Maheshwar turned out to be so much more than expected! We stay on a side road leading to the old town, in a charming little guest house run by an elderly man. The place is immaculate; the rooms tastefully decorated and furnished, fresh linens on the bed each day, a new cloth napkin and different set of decorated china at each meal – such elegance all for a budget price! But what distinguishes this guesthouse most from all the other ones we’ve stayed in was the way we were served – like kings! Two smiling young men were there for our every beck and call – one cooks our meals ordered in advance and individually prepared, while the younger boy serves. And it is some of the best dishes we’ve eaten in India. After every meal the elderly patron appears and asks, “Is everything satisfactory? Any complaints?” To which we reply, NO, Everything is perfect! The day we leave, the young boy hands us a flower picked from the garden sprayed with perfume.
Maheshwar is famous for its 16th C fort with an 1802 temple next to it. But most interesting are the quarters built within the fort in 1766 for the residence and administrative center of Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar, who was the daughter-in-law of the Maharajah of Indore. After her husband was killed in battle she was going to do sati (burn herself on his funeral pyre) but her father-in-law persuaded her not to because he needed her diplomatic and administrative skills to help him rule, while he enlarged his domain through battle.
In 1765 the Peshwar confirmed her as overseer of the Holkar domain and her rule for the next 30 years was “a unique period of peace and prosperity, while the rest of India was wrecked by turbulence.” Ahilya made efforts to repair the damage done to her Hindu faith by the Moslem tyrant, Arungazeb and Ahilya supported the restoration of temples and dharamshalas around the country. She took great care to ensure her Muslims and Hindu subjects were treated equally, and was revered throughout India.
The town is also famous for its handicrafts. The Rewa society was founded 250 years ago to promote the local craftspeople here. Cotton and silk cloth is still handspun and woven just as Gandhi encouraged.
For a day and a half, we wander around the old town beside the fort. There is little traffic in the lanes and many of the houses are old, and wood framed. Stopping outside one of the most impressive, Gerard pulled out his camera. Simultaneously the head of a man appeared in the upstairs open window and acknowledged us. Raju’s wife joined him and they posed for a picture, and then graciously invited us in. All the wood beams were decoratively carved, the staircase narrow and dark. Perhaps lacking in the modern conveniences of the tasteless concrete block across the street, this house exuded character. Raju has no email but gives us his Facebook account to share the picture we took.
On the second evening, at sunset, we took a boat ride on the river. The sandstone fort glowed in the fading sunlight; on the other bank, quiet muted green fields. Much more activity on the ghats than the previous night and someone tried to explain it was because of a festival the next day. Happy to leave this peaceful town before the crowds arrived! The next morning, as our bus pulled out of town, pilgrims, families were all pouring in to celebrate the festival.
It’s doubtful that we’ll ever return but Maheshwar was a very unique place, even for India that’s so diverse. The majesty with which the fort towers over the Narmada River, no Indian Archaeological Survey, no UNESCO, no ticket collectors. Even though it’s an Indian tourist destination, everything was free to the public and to our eyes, still unspoiled and peaceful.