Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

In the blockbuster film ‘Bahubali‘, a town is frequently mentioned: ‘Mahishmati’! How fitting this weighty name seems for the film’s (equally weighty) screenplay! Presented on the silver screen, the scenes of Mahishmati City are impressive, taking the audience to a different world. But the experience of the audience is virtual. The real Mahishmati is different from the movie. Full of history, architecture and legends. Makes the visitors deeply feel that they have entered a different world. Mahishmati of Ancient times is today’s Maheshwar! Nestled on the north bank of the Narmada in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, the heart of ‘Incredible India‘, is a quiet town of population of 30,000 with beautiful river banks and clear gorges (Ghats). There are so many temples that it is no exaggeration to call Maheshwar the “Varanasi (Banaras)” of Madhya Pradesh (metaphorically).

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

 

Maheshwar’s Cinematic Rise

Maheshwar’s glory as an important destination included in the Namada circuit has been around for centuries, but Maheshwar’s development as an tourist destination is only in recent years. After the shooting of films like ‘Pad-Man‘, ‘Manikarnika‘ and ‘Reva‘ based on Gujarati writer Dhruv Bhatt’s book ‘Tattvamsi‘ at the fort and ghat of Maheshwar, many people have been visiting Maheshwar.

Mythical Roots and Historical Odyssey

The Legend of Mahishmatimaheshwar 9

The ancient name of Maheshwar was Mahishmati. Mahishmati is mentioned in Ramayana, Mahabharata, Skanda Purana, Reva Purana and Vayu Purana. The capital of King Kartivirya Sahastrarjuna of the Heheya kingdom of Central India was known as Mahishmati. According to a legend, when Sahasrarjuna with his 500 queens went to bathe in the Narmada, he slowed down the raging stream by dividing it into 1,000 rivulets (small streams) with his 1,000 arms. It interrupted the penance of the young Ravana who sat on the banks of the Narmada and was absorbed in the devotion of Lord Shiva. Enraged, Ravana challenged Sahasrarjuna for a fight. A thousand-armed Sahastrarjun defeated Ravana in a crushing defeat and kept him hostage for six months. The place where the Narmada River split into 1,000 rivulets is known today as Sahasradhara. Sahasrarjuna temple is found at the place where Ravana was kept captive.

Beyond Mythology

There are many other legends about Mahishmati. It is not possible to describe all of them here due to space constraints, so let’s look at the history of Mahishmati in brief beyond the mythology. This historic town has been a part of the  Mauryan, Gupta, and Emperor Harshavardhana’s  Pushpabhuti kingdoms. After the arrival of the Mughals, Mahishmati i.e. Maheshwar also came under the Mughal Empire (in 1601 AD) like other regions. In the Eighteenth century,   Malhar Rao Holkar from Holkar Empire grew in power, Maheshwar also fell into the hands of the Maratha rulers. Ahilyabai Holkar assumed the throne of Holkar Empire in 1767 AD, after the death of her father-in-law Malhar Rao in 1766 and before that (in 1754 AD) her husband Khande Rao. She brought the capital of the empire from Indore to Maheshwar.

 

Ahilyabai Holkar: The Architect of Maheshwar’s Golden Era

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage
Statue of Queen Ahilyabai Holkar

The name of Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who was a Supreme devotee of Lord Shiva, public minded, righteous, an ardent scholar, philosopher, an expert in martial arts and also participated in the war to keep the empire intact, is proudly mentioned in the history of India. If you sit down to count the Sevashrams, Dharamshalas, Ghats and temples built by her in various places across India, the number will be in hundreds. Maheshwar’s glory reached its peak during Ahilyabai Holkar’s rule of about 30 years. Maheshwar excelled in literature, music, art and textiles. Ahilyabai died in 1795 AD, but today her memory is preserved in Maheshwar as a palace, fort, temples and a ghat on the river Narmada.

 

Ahilya Fort: Where History Meets Hospitality

Maheshwar

The most striking architectural feature of Maheshwar is the fort known as Ahilya Fort on a slightly elevated hill on the banks of the Narmada. Even today, there are few forts in the world that are bustling with human population. Ahilya Fort (like Jaisalmer Fort) is a ‘living’ fort. The once dilapidated and ramshackle fort now houses a beautiful heritage hotel. A pleasant terrace garden overlooking the banks of the Narmada, numerous temples and the flow of the river, comfortable rooms with antique furnishings etc. are the hallmarks of the hotel, while simplicity is its nature. Modern facilities such as television, room service, intercom etc. are deliberately not kept. Due to this, so much peace is maintained in the hotel that no other sounds can be heard except the chirping of birds or the diesel engine of a boat sailing in the distant river. Entry is prohibited unless booked at the hotel.

Simplicity in Majesty: Exploring Ahilyabai’s Court at Ahilya Fort!

Some sections of the Ahilya Fort are open to the public and are visited by many tourists every day. The most important part of this is the Rajmata’s palace, the so-called court, where Queen Ahilyabai ruled from a simple throne. On the walls of the palace there are paintings of Holkar dynasty kings. How sumptuous is usually the court room of a king or queen! But the court room here is nothing like sumptuous. The simplicity of Ahilyabai can be evaluated by just a look at the simple construction, the carved wooden pillars and the. tree-covered square.

Sacred Traditions: Ahilyabai’s Legacy and the Ritual of 15,000 Clay Shivlingas in Maheshwar!

A big statue of Ahilyabai comes into view as soon as one leaves the palace. Not only is it revered for the people of Maheshwar, the importance of the palace is not less than a religious place. Ahilyabai was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. During her reign, she daily enshrined 108 Brahmins in the fort, had the Brahmins prepare 1,25,000 small, symbolic Shivlingas from the black clay of the Maheshwar Ghats, arranged them in rows on wooden planks, worshiped them and finally immersed them in the Narmada river, a practice that the people of Maheshwar continue today. The tradition has also been retained at present times. Every morning between 8 and 10 in the morning, 11 Brahmins gather and make 15,000 Shivlingas of clay, worship them and immerse them in the river Narmada. Along with other tourists, foreign tourists staying at heritage hotels do not miss to take advantage of this.

Glimpses of Grandeur: Exploring Maheshwar Ghat’s Temples and Holkar Legacy!

The next worth watching place after the palace is Maheshwar Ghat. While heading towards this famous ghat of Maheshwar, many eye catching sights visible. Some of them are a large complex of temples with beautiful carvings on the walls of all four sides. Two shrines (or chhatri) are noteworthy in the complex. An Ahilyeswara Shiva temple which is considered the main temple here and is also known as Ahilyabai’s Chhatri. Another temple is known as Vithoji’s Chhatri. After the death of Ahilyabai, Vithoji continued the Holkar rule.

Maheshwar’s Spiritual Tapestry

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

The Rajmata’s Palace

Rajarajeshwar Temple, a short distance from Ahilyeswara Temple, Sahasarjuna Temple built in memory of Sahasarjuna, Temple of the same name similar to Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, Narmada Temple at Mahila Ghat (basically a Shiva temple), Chaturbhuj Narayana, Chintamani Ganapati, Pandharinath, Goddess Bhavani, Gobar Ganesh, Banke Bihari, Anant Narayan, Khedapati Hanuman, Ram-Krishna and Narasimha Temple, Vindhyavasini Temple (of Kali Mata Sakthipeeth), Baneshwar Mahadev which is among the many temples located in the middle of the river where can be reached by boat. There are hundreds of such religious places in the city of temples. Seeing so many temples in a small town makes one happy and also happy to see the beautiful maintenance of each one.

Serenity and Stories: Exploring Maheshwar’s Ghats, Films, and Artisanal Shivlings!

The visitors get impressed by the preservation of historical architecture and cleanliness of Maheshwar’s ghats. A few steps on the ghat in the early morning or early evening gives immense peace. Maheshwar has a total of 28 ghats dedicated to women bathing in the Narmada, including Mahila Ghat, Peshwa Ghat, Fanse Ghat etc. Many films have been shot on these neat and clean ghats and tourists flock here to see the scenery of these ghats after seeing them on the silver screen. Hence the movement of pilgrims and hawkers continue throughout the day. On the ghat different types of shivlings are sold. In early times, beautiful stones (banalinga) in the shape of small round or oval shivlings (banalings) were found in the river bed, on which one could see a nice variety of design naturally carved by the flow of the river. At present times, that types of natural Shivalingas are no longer found, but are artificially made in the neighboring village.

Maheshwar Ghat: Where Devotion Meets Serenity

Pilgrims can be seen taking a dip in the holy river while sitting on the ghat, while local children can also be seen practicing adventure sports ranging from river jumping to kayaking and rowing a long-narrow fiber boat. Somewhere, the monks sitting in front of the river and meditating can be seen. There are also stalls selling snacks and shikanji (lemonade). In some parts, wrestling compititions are also seen. Narmada Aarti is performed every evening. All these scenes easily remind of Varanasi which is known as Banaras in Uttarpradesh, India.

 

Maheshwari Sarees: Threads of TraditionExploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Apart from the fort, temples and ghats, another aspect of Maheshwar worth seeing and understanding is the Maheshwari saree. This ancient town was a center of handicrafts since the 5th century, which with time dried out. When this happened, Rani Ahilyabai started the practice of giving cloth woven by the hands of local weavers as gifts in the royal household. The idea behind this was to make the people of Maheshwar economically viable by providing employment opportunities. For the upliftment of the art, she also brought some artisans from Malwa province and Hyderabad and settled them in Maheshwar, the dying craft was revived and later became known as Maheshwari weaving. In order to make the sarees made in Maheshwar recognizable, Ahilyabai artisans used to have intricate designs of Narmada waves, Narmada water flow, Maheshwar fort and ghat woven into the borders of the sarees. This tradition continues till today. Many Maheshwari sarees have one of these patterns.

Reva Society: Reviving Handloom Heritage

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Over time handicrafts collapsed as machines replaced the humans. 8 artisans are required to weave one Maheshwari saree. But only one craftsman can complete the work through powerloom, the advent of powerloom has made thousands of artisans of Maheshwar unemployed, many artisans settled in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat to earn a living. In ordet to ensure that the centuries-old art is not lost forever, one of the descendants of the Holkar family, Richard Holkar founded an organization called Reva Society in the year 1979 AD. Employing handloom artisans brought the forgotten industry back to life. Gradually the fame of Reva Society spread across India. Handlooms were started on a private basis in Maheshwar, giving a new impetus to the handloom industry. Artisans from different states came and settled in Maheshwar. The result was that today there are more than 3,000 artisans engaged in handloom work in the town.

A Tranquil HavenExploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Talking about the ‘Reva Society’, 130 artisans are promoting the art of handloom. In a section of the Ahilya Fort itself is the straightforward center of the ‘Reva Society’, where artisans weave 1,00,000 meters of cloth per year on handlooms. Maheshwari saree is the main product here. This sarees are made of cotton, cotton-silk or silk. Attractive colors, light weight, simple design and (as Ahilyabai suggested) a beautiful modern Maheshwari saree with a hint of architecture from Maheshwar are key identity of Maheshwari sarees. Now a days, Salwar-Kamees, Dupattas, Gowns and Shawls are also made by ‘Reva Society’.

Good to Know for a Perfect Trip:

Travel Logistics

Getting There:

The nearest airport to Maheshwar is Indore (91 km), with Barwaha railway station (39 km) being the closest railhead. Bus and taxi services connect Maheshwar from both locations.

Accommodation InsightsExploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Limited Options:

Limited Options: In the past, accommodation choices in Maheshwar were scarce. Presently, a few hotels are available, including the luxurious Ahilya Fort Heritage Hotel. It is mandatory to book in advance. Booking can be done through www.ahilyafort.com. Another affordable option is Labboo’s Cafe, located nearby, which is a good option for a short and budget stay. Labboo’s Cafe offers a more budget-friendly option, while Madhya Pradesh Tourism provides alternatives like Narmada Retreat, Akashdeep, and Hansa Heritage.

Culinary Landscape

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Sparse Dining Options:

Maheshwar’s food and drink establishments remain limited. Snacks are available on the ferry, but alternatives may be scarce upon disembarking. Exploring local culinary delights may require some creativity.

Ideal Visit Times

Seasonal Exploration:

Maheshwar welcomes visitors from the monsoon to the winter. The town, known for its reverence for Lord Shiva, showcases the grand Mahamrityunjay Rath Yatra during Makar Sankranti—an event not to be missed.

Beyond Maheshwar

Exploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Exploring Nearby Villages:

Enhance your Maheshwar experience by taking a boat in the early morning. A 20-minute journey offers a unique glimpse into village life, with opportunities to explore small villages like Naodatodi. Additionally, consider road trips to nearby destinations such as Mandu (40 km) and Omkareshwar (65 km).

Conclusion: Embracing Maheshwar’s Timeless EleganceExploring Maheshwar: From Mythology to Handloom Heritage

Maheshwar is neither big nor famous like Varanasi or other famous religious places. Not a typical tourist spot either, so no hustle and bustle here. The entire town is quiet. If you want to enjoy the banks of river Narmada, clean ghats, boating, well-maintained historical buildings and temples etc., you can do a two-day short trip of yesterday’s Mahismati and today’s Mahashwar!’.

 

 

 


 

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