|Yes a ghat. No it is not Varanasi|
A quintessential old town with old buildings, narrow lanes, dusty or old stone cobbled pathways, an aura or religious and spiritual existence and inextricable part of the shores of a perennial river, existing since almost forever – Maheshwar. For many the description might seem to be that of Varanasi and you wouldn’t be wrong to think so because Maheshwar would remind you of Varanasi every minute but it was much more than Varanasi for me.
|Where does that door lead to?|
Maheshwar, in Madhya Pradesh, is one of the lesser known ancient towns of India and for similar reasons is an offbeat destination but it is a gem of a place! This ancient town has been prominent on the map of India since the time of Ramayana and Mahabharata when it was known as Mahismati. But it was during the 18th century when Maheshwar peaked in glory. It was Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar who decided to make Maheshwar the capital of the Maratha Kingdom and eternalized this small quaint town. Now the only way people come to know about this town is when movies like Bajirao Mastani and Asoka promote them, but there is so much to see in this town and so much to explore!
From the moment you enter Maheshwar, you are greeted by a whiff of history and an air of Royalty at the glimpse of Ahilya Dwaar. Traveling through the nearly barren Malwa under the hot 2 ‘o’ clock sun had drained me off all the energy and made me wonder why a kingdom would change its capital from Indore to some out of the blue, dry place where temperatures are above 40 degree Celsius even before May! But soon, all the questions drowned when I saw the huge fort wall and the number of cars parked outside.
|The hot, almost barren land|
The moment I stepped out of the car the cool winds ruffling my hair got me energized again. Whether it was the elegance of the Maratha structure, or the aura of the bygone era, or just the cool air telling us of the river close by, I don’t know, but Maheshwar sure greeted us in just the right way.
|My love for windows!|
On entering the fort one can see a very well preserved wada and a large life size statue of Maharani Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar who chose this place over Indore as her capital for the spiritual appeal it had. The Wada stands out for its simple appeal, flowered wooden windows and the typical Maratha wada’s wooden work that dominate the interiors.
|The typical wada - one of the traditional house styles of India|
Though only the Durbar hall and a part of the courtyard is accessible to locals (rest is part of the Ahilya Hotel), you get an idea of the average lifestyle Ahilya Bai had despite being a Maharani. And if that wasn’t enough to prove the simplicity, you would be amazed at the amount of hours she spent praying in a day.
|At the entrance of the Durbaar|
Close to the Darbaar hall is the worship chamber of the Maharani where all I could see was Shiv Lings and Shalagrams (black stones consider sacred in Hinduism). The watchman over there told me that according to common lore, Devi Ahilya used to spend 5-6 hours daily over here praying and cleaning the room herself. The room also had a golden infant Krishna statue, a gold cradle, 1001 Rudraksh and a lot of other valuables due to which the place is under supervision all the time and photography is not permitted but since it was a temple in the end people are allowed to visit.
|From the stairs|
The Wada was hardly one fourth of the fort. The actual wonders were yet to come. From there I descended down the ghat exit of the fort and was in awe of the sight in front of me. Auburn structures with slight blackening due to time, adorned with carvings that speak of the skills of craftsmen back in those days, standing peacefully next to the wide blue Narmada.
And this was just the description of what I saw from the stairs while coming down. While the Shivalaya sure was the largest temple in the complex, the one that stood out with its work was Chhatri of Vitoji Holkar.
|Yes, every inch is carved skillfully|
A Maratha Chattri with ornate carving on every inch, Vitoji Chattri is dedicated the younger brother of King Yashwant Rao Holkar, and is not part of Ahilya Bai Holkar Era.
The Shivalaya though belongs to the great queen’s era and the growing plants and ferns on the structure would tell you that. The lamp stands, the temple levels, the Jharokhas – ornate windows, all witness to a great era, now withering away with time due to negligence.
|Inside the chattri, the heavy carving!|
The ghat was a flurry of activities even on such a hot day. People were praying to the numerous Shiv Lings built randomly at the footsteps; Locals chatting, playing cards, weaving, discussing life – totally oblivious to the tourists in the area; boats and boatmen busy with their duties and me just randomly looking around. The ghat had it all, but it was quiet, peaceful, and so breezy that I lost track of time. I don’t even know how much time I spent there doing absolutely nothing but soaking in the feel of this quaint town and occasionally glancing the half drowned temple in Narmada.
|It is all about faith everywhere|
When it was finally the time to leave, I saw remnants of the bygone era that were almost unseen and gone – Havelis. Maheshwar was a seat of art craft and textile back in those days and hence was home to many well to do houses. Yes, Maheshwari saris are still famous all over India but art and craft now seems lost. All you can see are the dying dilapidated havelis that are struggling for survival but are strong enough to tell you their glorious past.
|Havelis just wait to lose it all|
The whole area in fact just tells you of things, of the past we are forgetting and kind of makes a silent and moving appeal to remember the days and save the legacies. Maybe not very well known but far from the commotion, crowd and commercialization of Varanasi, Maheshwar was my kind of place and is undoubtedly one of the most peaceful historic Ghats of India.
|Some gone, some remain|