Most of Maheshwar`s attractions are located inside its fort, and to get to the fort, one has to walk 2 km through the busy market. Usually abuzz with activity in the mornings and evenings. The entire most of the town retreats indoors to beat the Malwa sun which can be severe even in the winters. The lanes are usually empty but for a stray canine or two, a truant kid rolling a used bicycle tyre or a housewife making a quick trip to the rare grocer who has braved the summer heat and, most importantly, resisted the lure of a refreshing nap.
The serpentine road eventually becomes a somewhat steep incline and eventually the north gate of the Maheshwar Fort emerges. This massive fort stands on a hill with the languid Narmada on one side and the modern town of Maheshwar on the other. Excavations conducted here by the Archaeological Survey of India reveal that the area of the fort has been fortified for over a thousand years. Historians have, so far, not arrived at a conclusion as to who first fortified the hill at Maheshwar. Some scholars believe that it was the Paramara ruler Munj Deo, an uncle of the famed King Bhoja (1000-1050 CE). Other historians date the origin of the fort as far back as the 5th century CE. Yet another group of scholars trace the creation of the fort back to the Mauryan period (4th century BCE).
While the ancient history of the fort is veiled by a mist of conflicting theories, the present structure (thanks to surviving documents) can be attributed to Malhar Rao Holkar. He captured Maheshwar in 1733 and immediately set about repairing and expanding on the existing structure. The work was continued by Ahilya Bai Holkar who commissioned most of the recognizable structures inside the fort, including the numerous ghats as well as the temples.
Antiquity aside, what strikes you first about the fortress (especially if you were to look at it from across the river) is the sheer height of its walls. The walls in the north and the east, where the fort borders the modern town, are around 35 ft in height. This figure rises to around 50 ft on the western side of the fortress. Dwarfing everything on the southers side along the Narmada, the walls soar to over 100 ft in height. Standing on the ghats and looking up at the palace complex can actually give you a stiff neck.
These formidable walls of Maheshwar Fort are pierced by five gateways, the main one being the Ahilya Dwar. Previously known as Gadi Darwaza, this the largest gate and only way to enter the fort on a vehicle. As you enter through the Ahilya Dwar, you leave the modern world behind and step into the old, walled city of Maheshwar. Although people continue to live here, the main city and its all-important market lies outside these walls.
The other important entrance to the fort is through the Kamani Darwaza on the northern side. It does not have a motorable road running through and is now used only by pedestrians. A third gateway to the fortress is the Pani Darwaza (water gate), located immediately to the east of Ahilya Ghat, next to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Mostly ornamental in nature, it thus was the entrance used by the select few who came to Maheshwar via the water routs. Further east of Pani Darwaza is the Mandal Kho Darwaza. Both the Pani and Mandal Kho Darwazas are along the southers walls of the fort and open on to the wide expanse of the Narmada flowing past the town.
Just as you enter through the Ahilya gate, to your right is the quaint Laboo`s Café. Stop here for some much-meeded lemonade or if hungry, a home-made lunch. The café also offers rooms to travelers. Straight ahead of the café is a small gateway which is the entrance to the Rajwada, or the palace. Half of the palace has now been converted into the luxurious Fort Ahilya Heritage Hotel, while the other half has been converted in to a museum and is open to the public. The first thing that strikes you about the palace is its simplicity. The length and breadth of the country is dotted with opulent palaces of the royalty but this is a complete antithesis to the seemingly vulgar squandering of wealth. It is not that Ahilya Bai, the Holkar queen who constructed much of this fort and the palace was the queen of a small dominion, unable to muster money for such luxuries. At the height of her rule, she controlled over half of what is now Madhya Pradesh. Instead, she spent the money on building temples. The famed Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi was built by her. She also constructed dharamshalas (guesthouses) and haolis (wells) in Haridwar, Pune, Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Kanchi, Jagannath Puri, Pushkar and Nashik. Till today, she is depicted wearing a simple white sari in popular culture – the constume she used to wear while she was the queen. It is said that she possessed only three of such saris, all of which she had woven herself.
The palace, mostly constructed of wood, rests on a stone platform almost 3 ft in height. Next to the main entrance of the Rajwada are statues of an elephant, a horse and a bull, each carved out of a single block of wood. The elephant signifies the grandeur of the Holkar kingdom while the horse is the symbol of its military might. The bull is representative of Nandi, the divine vehicle of Shiva, the tutelary deity of the Holkars.
This main entrance opens into a wide central courtyard with rooms surrounding it. The entire palace is two-storeyed: the first floor housed the rooms of the queen herself, members of the royal family and the household staff while the ground floor had guest rooms and offices. At the centre of the courtyard is a small pool with a platform for the tulsi tree on one end and an image of Lord Krishna flanked by bulls on the other.
The simplicity of the queen can be further witnessed in her so-called Durbar Hall, where she conducted the affairs of the state and held audiences with the citizency. Located on the verandah in her wind of the palace, it is nothing but a white mattress covering the floor with a low, wooden throne at one end of it. These days, a white marble image of the queen can be seen on the throne.
The pillared verandah that runs all along the palace is dotted with souvenirs from the Holkar era. A carelessly placed palanquin here with a film of dust covering it is the one which was used by Ahilya Bai, as is the slightly larger howdah (a canopy used to travel on an elephant). To the left of the main entrance, on the inside is a low wooden chair covered by a silk canopy. Unbelievable as it might sound, this was the throne from where the humble queen ruled her vast empire. In front of the throne and covering most of the balcony is a sprawling mattress which is at present covered by a white sheet. This setup served as the Durabar Hall for Ahilya Bai. If the guides are to be believed, the princes, nobleman shared this humble seat with the peasants and artisans while the queen conducted her business.
The marble image of Ahilya Bai keeps a stern eye on the tourists. The mattress is covered by coins. For some reason, the locals seem to believe that if you were to make a wish and throw in a coin, your wish would magically come true.
Just behind the throne, a smaller door leads you to Ahilya Bai`s room of worship, also known as t he Devpuja. The centerpiece of this room is a small swing made of solid gold on which rests a golden image of an infant Krishna or Gopal. This swing was stolen by four thieves. The story goes that these four were blinded and their sight returned only after they returned the swing and performed penance!
A double-storeyed gateway, directly opposite the main entrance to the Rajwada, leads to a flight of steps that bring one to a cluster of buildings on the banks of the Narmada. It is from this gatewary that you get your first glimpse of the holy river, which at this point is over a mile wide.
At the foot of the flight of stairs, to the right is another gateway, which opens into a compound at the centre of which lies the chhatri (mausoleum) of Vitoji Rao Holkar. He was the younger brother of King Yashwant Rao Holkar (1798-1811). Built on a high plinth and sproting two bulbous domes, this chhatri is known for its exquisite carvings, especially that o a row of caparisoned elephants on its side.
Facing the entrance to the chhatri of Vitoji is a gateway to yet another enclosure which houses the Ahilyeswar Shivalaya. Although it sounds like a Shiva temple, and is definitely built like one, it is actually the chhatri of Ahilya Bai Holkar. Built by the queen`sdaughter Krishna Bai, this towering structure combines the north Indian nagara style of temple architecture with the Maratha style.
From the enclosure that houses the two chhatris, another gateway leads to yet another flight of stairs that forms the main ghat of Maheshwar. Almost 2 km of the riverfront of Maheshwar has been paved in stone to give rise to a series of ghats. Of a total of 28 ghats, the most important are Ahilya, Peshwa, Phanse and Mahila.
Just like a couple of centuries ago, the lives of the people of Maheshwar revolve around the ghats. At daybreak, people throng to the ghats to offer their prayers. The morning air resounds with chants of Om Namah Shivay as people brave the morning chill to take a dip in the holy water of the Narmada. Locals believe that the waters of the river have purifying properties and hence a morning dip ensures success in the day`s endeavors.
After the initial stream of devotees have taken their dips and have gone on their respective missions, come the tourists. Colourful boats lie moored on the ghats to take the tourists for a cruise on the waters of the Narmada. There are two kinds of boats available at the ghat – row-boats and the ones powered by modified motorbike engines. While the latter are definitely faster, they create one hell of a racket, which can effectively ruin the charm of a quiet morning. So it is advisable to take the rowboat. It is a good idea to bargain beforehand, not only about the price of the ride, but also the duration.
Most of these boats ply from the spectacular Ahilya Ghat, arguably one of the most scenic ghats in India. The beautiful symmetry of the steps descending from the intricately sculpted gateway, the colourful boats moored to it, the looming walls of the fort and the relative absence of milling crowds adds to its unique charm. If you are keen on photography, you will find it very hard to put your camera down.
While standing on the ghat, one structure that is hound to intrigue is a tiny little temple straddling an island right in the middle of the Narmada. Baneshwar Shivalaya, accessible only by boat and that too if the currents are just right, is of great cosmological significance. It is believed that this temple is located on the meridian connecting the centre of the earth with the mathematically significant Dhruva, or the pole star.
To the right of Ahilya Ghat is the much busier Mahila Ghat. On Mahila Ghat is the Chhatri of Lakshmi Bai constructed by Ahilya Bai. A road leads straight from the city to this ghat. This is the best place from which to watch the unfolding of a typical day on the ghats. Apart from religious rituals, this ghat is used for everyday activities by the local people. If you are out on a morning walk, this is also the perfect place to have an intimate conversation with a cup of steaming chai and a spicy samosa.
A little ahead of the Mahila Ghat is the Siddheshwar Ghat, supposed to be the dhyan sthal (place of meditaion) of Ahilya Bai. Steps from it lead to a doorway, beyond which lie two chhatirs. On the left is the chhatri of Mukta Bai, wife of Holkar king Yashwant Rao I. It is built like a temple along the lines of the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya and Chhatri of Lakshmi Bai. The samller chhatri to the right is that of Mukta Bai`s husband. A pathway leads from here to the smaller Siddheshwar Temple.
To the left of Ahilya Ghat is a smaller ghat, whose steps lead to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The original Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi, one of the 12 jyotirlingas, was rebuilt in Maheshwar, believing that a visit to this temple would earn the devotees as much punya (good Karma) as a visit to the real temple itself.
Built on an artificial terrace overlooking the Narmada, the mandapa of the temple houses an exquisitely carved Nandi. This temple os not as busy and dare we say, dirty, like its namesake in the holy city of Varanasi. This means that you can sit here, read a book, gather your thoughts or just watch the Narmada flow by.
A short walk on a lovely, stone paved path from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple leads to Rajrajeshwar Shivalaya. This important shrine is said to stand on the site where King Kartyavirya Arjuna was cremated. The temple features ashtadhatu idols of Shiva and Parvati enshrined in its sanctum sanstorum. It also has 11 nandadeeps (holy lamps) which have been kept lit for centuries.
Beyond Kashi Vishwanath lies the Parashuram Ghat. From this ghat, a dirt track leads eastwards for about 2 km to the Jwaleshwar Mahadev Temple. Located on top of a small but steep hill, its white spire can be seen from miles away. At the base of the hills is a small ghat with seven shrines dedicated to the seven mothers (Brahmani, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda), popularly known as the Sapta Matrika.
Next to the Jwaleshwar Mahadev Temple is the sangam (confluence) of Narmada with the Maheshwar river. Separated by the sangam is another hill on top of which is a temple surrounded by high walls. The Kaleshwar Temple, as it is popularly called, is dedicated to the manifestation of Shiva as the destroyer. Slightly inaccessible, the only way to reach the temple if there is a boat at the confluence.
Those who wish to explore the immediate surroundings of Maheshwar, will definitely not be disappointed. A 4-km boat ride from Maheshwar Fort brings one to Sahasradhara. Here, Narmada flows over a hard rock bed, which the river has carved into a thousand (sahasra) channels (dhara) over the years. The river rushes in myriad cascades and chutes from here. It looks magical at sunrise, specially from March to June when the water levels are low and the flow of the white water through the maze of brown rocks creates quite a hypnotic effect. However, you must be careful about the river current and mossy rocks.
• Ahilya Fort ( Maheshwar Fort ) & Palace
• Ahilya Bai Temple
• Pandrinath Temple
• Rajrajeshwar Temple
• Ek Mukhi Datta Temple
• Baneshwar Mahadev Temple
• Narmada ghat and boat ride at dawn or dusk ( Royal ghat )
• Akhileshwar Temple
• Maheshwari sarees – witness the weavers weave at the looms
• Chhatri (Cenotaphs) of Devi Ahilya Bai
• Sahastrajan Temple
• Jwaleshwar Temple
• Kaleshwar Mahadev temple
• Bajirao Peshwa Samadhi – at a distance of 60 kms south east of Maheshwar
• Boat ride to Sahastradhara
• Mahashivratri celebration
• Ahilya Bai’s birthday in May which witnesses a palanquin procession
• Labboo café
• Hire a boar and after a 1 hr boat ride, reach Sahastradhara – where the river splits into a thousand streams due to volcanic rock formations.
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