A City lost in time
A City lost in time
If you happen to drive through the main road of Maheshwar, which also serves as a state highway, there are no visual cues that set this place apart from the thousand other small towns spread across central India.
Its famed fortress, long and well-documented history and rich tradition of weaving become evident only if you get off the main road and venture into Maheshwar`s bustling bylanes. But before you go any further, know that the key to comprehending nay destination lies in tapping into its life force and under-standing that first. It seems only natural, therefore, to tell the tale of the River Narmada at the very outset.
Maheshwar was a glorious city at the dawn of Indian civilization when it was Mahishmati, capital of king Kartivarjun. This temple town on the banks of the river Narmada finds mention in the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Revived to its ancient position of importance by the Holkar queen Rani Ahilyabai of Indore. Maheshwar’s temples and mighty fort-complex stand in quiet beauty, mirrored in the river below.
Today, Maheshwar is also known for its distinctive handwoven sarees known as “Maheshwari” saress. Folklore and history enhance the charm of these soothingly picturesque towns, bringing back the child-like wonder; the kind you experienced on listening to the myths from your dear ones.
It is said that of the five most sacred rivers in India – Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri – Narmada is the holiest. It is also said that when Ganga herself feels unclean, she takes the form of a black cow, and using the darkness of the night as her cover, comes to cleanse herself in the waters of the Narmada. In a culture where respect is accorded to age, there seems to be some geological justification behind Narmada`s claim of holiness. Millions of years ago, while the Indian tectonic plate was still moving towards the Asian tectonic plate after its divorce of sorts from Africa, the Narmada was already a full-bodied river. It was only after the Indian and the Asian plates collided that the Himalayas started rising.
The rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Indus, Brahmaputra, etc) were formed even later. It is only natural then that a younger river should cleanse herself in the waters of the much older and consequently holier sister. Narmada is known by many names, one of them being ‘Shankari’, or the daughter of Shankar (Lord Shiva). It is believed that she was born out of a drop of tear that fell out of Shiva`s eyes. Narmada`s connection with Shiva does not end here. Anyone who has travelled to any town on the Narmada has heard the saying ‘Narmada ke kankar utte Shankar’, meaning ‘Shiva lives in the very pebbles on the riverbed of the Narmada’. True to the legend the banks of the Narmada are replete with cylindrical pebbles, which look rather similar to the shivalingas that are worshipped across India. Known as banalingas, they are collected by tourists and pilgrims. The holy river begins her journey as a small of Amarkantak, on the border of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The first of the many dramatic landscapes comes shortly after its origin when the river plunges down a steep cliff to give rise to the Kapildhara waterfalls. As the mighty Narmada nears the town of Jabalpur, it cuts into the solid marble bedrock and creates the unimaginatively named Marble Rocks. This solid marble canyon ends in a dramatic display of the river`s kinetic prowess at the Dhuandhar Falls. Thereafter Narmada enters the plains, gradually increasing in size. The river, merely 2 ft across in Amarkantak, swells to nearly 1.5 km in width by the time it reaches Maheshwar. She travels for many miles, nourishing fertile plains, deep forests and undulating farmlangs. After flowing for around 1,300 km, the Narmada flows into the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. Along with Tapti she is the only river in Peninsular India to flow from west to east. At the point of her confluence with the sea, the river`s volume is more than the combined waters of the five rivers of the Punjab – Ravi, Sutlej, Jhelum, Chenab and Beas. The lives of the people of the Nimar plains revolve around the river, when children are born, they are bathed in its holy waters; a pot of the sacred water is essential for every marriage, the daily rituals happen on its banks; and when someone dies, his/her ashes are scattered in the river`s choppy dark waters. The Narmada is the artery through which flows the life blood of a civilization as vibrant as it is ancient. Historically, the river has formed the boundary between north and south India; and has thus stopped many an army and many a migration. The rulers from one side who crossed over and conquered lands on the other were given the title of a chakravartin, few attained it Many died fighting for it.
During the glory days of Maheshwar under the Paramaras in the 9th century CE, the city was famed as a seat of culture. Another reason that the city flourished was because of its tradition of weaving. The iron rich soil of the Deccan meant a bountiful crop of cotton, which could then be easily transported on boats and barges plying on the Narmada. Years of practice resulted in the creation of a fabric so fine, yet so suited for the climate that the city soon came to be synonymous with the fabric. The trade increased and decreased in accordance with the might and patronage of the powers that held sway over it.
While it flourished under the Holkars, particularly Ahilya Bai, the British rule all but killed it. A few decades ago, the art of weaving a Maheshwari sari was almost at its deathbed. On a visit to Maheshwar, Richard Holkar, the current scion of the royal family and his wife Sally, realized the need to revive it. So with a paltry grant from the Indian Central Welfare Board, in 1979, they started a weaving project involving the local women and called it the Rehwa Society. Rehwa, or Rewa, is another name for the river Narmada. Over the next three decades, the number of weavers went up drastically. Inspired by the success of the Rehwa Society, individuals have also taken up weaving and now within the walled city, the stillness of the click-clacking of the traditional wooden looms, however, back in the day while the weavers, produced mainly saris, the modern weavers have diversified into dupattas, shawls and dress material.
Today, Maheshwari saris are made from a blend of fine cotton from Coimbatore and silk yarn from Bengaluru. This gives the textile an alluring, gossamer look. The intricately carved stone walls of Ahilya Bai`s Fort and Maheshwar`s places of worship are the inspiration for the elaborate motifs used on Maheshwari saris. Some popular motifs are chatai (mat), chameli ka phool (jasmine) and heera (diamond). Maheshwari saris are usually coloured using vegetable dyes, thought to bring down prices some weavers do use chemical dyes. The most popular colours used in Maheshwari saris are angoori (grape green), dalimbi (deep pink), jaamal (purple), tapkeer (deep brown) and aamras (golden-yellow). The pallav or aanchal of a Maheshwari sari is distinctive with five alternating stripes of which three are of different colours and two are white. The use of zari and kinari is used to embellish the saris, which often have a rich golden border and two gold bands on the pallav. The key feature of a Maheshwari sari is its reversible border. It is designed in such a way that both sides of the sari can be worn.
An original Maheshwari sari can cost between Rs 1,500-5,000. The fine, airy cloth is perfect for Indian summers while the blend of silk and cotton makes the cloth float above the skin.
Maheshwar, lost in time is a cradle of stories.
Read more below.
The life of this humble Holkar queen began in a rather unusual fashion. She was born in 1725 in the village of Chandi, in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, to a village chief who taught his daughter to read and write, an unusual practice in those times. Malhar Rao Holkar, the then Maratha ruler of Indore, was struck by her simplicity and piety, and brought her with him to Indore where she was wedded to his son Khande Rao in 1733. What followed next was a string of unfortunate events. Khande Rao was killed in battle in 1754 and Malhar Rao died in 1764, leaving the reigns of the Holkar empire in the hands of Khande Rao`s son Male Rao. As luck would have it, Male Rao died as well, that too merely nine months after coming to power. Thus the mantle of the empire was forced onto the grieving widow and mother – Ahilya Bai Holkar. The queen`s early days as the ruler weren`t easy. Most of the Holkar subjects objected to being ruled by a woman. The queen, however, praved herself as an administrator and a fierce military strategist.
Even today, folk songs depict her as striding into battle with bows and quives packed with arrows fitted to the corners of the howdah of her elephant. Malhar Rao`s adopted son Tukoji Rao Holkar was oppointed the commander of the Holkar army. Ahilya Bai engaged the services of the Frenchman Chevalier Dudrenec, locally known as Huzur Beg. With him, Ahilya Bai raised four battalions and employed the best of Eastern and Western military technologies.
Interestingly, however, what elevated Ahilya Bai to legendary status was her piety and compassion. She was referred to as punyashlok, or the one who is as sacred as the shlokas or the sacred chant of the Vedas. Sir John Malcolm, the governor of Bambay from 1827 to 1831, referred to Ahilya Bai as ‘an avatar of divinity’ (A Memoir of Central India, Including Malwa, and Adjoining Provinces, 1832). She built roads, guesthouses, fortresses and many public structures throughout her realm.
However, she was best known for the temples. Under her patronage two of India`s 12 jyotirlingas at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi and the Grishneshwar Temple near Aurangabad were constructed, besides several other religious monuments which extended beyond the borders of her kingdom to other Hindu holy sites such as Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Rameshwar and Puri. She also built the famous Vishnupada Temple at Gaya.
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