Maheshwar looks like a slice of Varanasi – I tell Boris when we reach the ghats. Varanasi (or Benares) is one of that impressive destinations that makes some travellers want to rush away while it gets others trapped for days or weeks in its narrow streets and wide ghats. Six years back I had fallen into the second batch. Maheswar momentaneously transports me to that great and inexplicable city along the banks of the best-kown river of India. In Maheshwar, though, it is not Ganga that carries away the puja offers of the pious pilgrims, but one of the other six veneered rivers in India. The ghats of Maheshwar walk down into the river Narmada. “Even holier than Ganga”, somebody says. It is the lifeline of Madya Pradesh, that flows westwards across the state, from its marble rocks source at Amarkantak all the way to the Arabian Sea.
In mythological times Shiva, the lord of creation and destruction, sat in deep meditation. In his intense concentration a drop of sweat rolled down from his forehead onto the earth, where it got collected in a tank. Many more drops of divine sweat followed and slowly the tank overflowed giving birth to Narmada River. That is at least what one of the creation myths tells. A different legend says that it was actually a drop of holy sperm from Lord Shiva, while another says it is from the eyes of Lord Brahma that the river sprouted along with a twin current called Son. And we even read somewhere that Narmada is also said to have been in love with the very same Sonbhaadra. Whatever the story, the one thing we come to know is that in all cases the divine nature of the flowing waters remains undisputed. Whichever the lord, the river shall be adored as representation of the divine. And Maheshwar, the temple-town where we have come to meet Narmada is a special place of worship along its banks.
The afternoon heat is so intense that one fails to decide whether to wash his throat with icy nimbu pani (lemonade) or try to wake up from the stupr with several cups of boiling chai (tea). We sit in the shadow of a fancy built-in tent, watching the river follow its course under the blazing sun. In the midst of the riverbed a small temple interrupts the current. Pilgrims reach the shrine by boat and take ritual baths in the waters, following the hindu way of paying tribute to the divine. Only many weeks later, someone would explain us by the ghats of another holy river in Nassik, that bathing now is done in a ritualistic manner, but that in its origin it was prescribed by the wise men with the simple and practical aim of helping worshipers tame their body temperature during the heat of the season and certain times of the day. What now is thought of as “auspicious” may have indeed sprang from a very utilitarian origin that just like the origins of the river is covered by thick layers of mythical legends. We switch off the aircon that our luxury tent brings incorporated, and accommodate ourselves under the shade of a tree with both the lemonade and the chai at hand. The four of us, including our good friend Adity and Burma the cat, wait for the hours to pass before we can even think of taking a walk.
The Ghats are in effervescence. A dip into the holy waters is said to wash one’s sins away. It is even believed that when Ganga river gets polluted by her own bathing worshippers, she comes to wash herself in the fresh waters of Narmada. We dip our feet. While ladies in bright sarees walk with their puja (offers) along the ghats, their children swim around and young men rather than dipping dive into the waters in short underpants. The legend says that each pebble of the river takes on the shape of the holy Shivalingam (a symbolic representation of Lord shiva in a cilyndrical or oval shape). It might be for these veneered linga-shaped quarz stones that the devoted worshippers of Shiva are searching for deep under the surface of the running waters. It’s the end of a festival and the last groups of pilgrims still gather in the corners, combing their hairs, meditating, chatting, dining, or getting ready for a night under the stars.
By sunset, we start to walk the ghats with a kind police escort that offers to show us around. Curios eyes follow Boris with Burma in his shoulders, and a few people come to greet him calling him “Bili Baba” (the sadhu of the cat). The police lady, who does not know this is by now an everyday thing, offers us to move into safe and emptier territories, and we all jump onto one of the boats that roam the waters for a motorized tour in the dusk. Lines of candles light up the waters like tiny stars. There are many elements, details and words that we cannot understand in hindu rituals, but lighting up a candle in offer or memory seems somehow to transcend all cultures and creeds. How many candles are being lit right now all over the Earth by the very same hands of so different women and men. How many hopes flow down in offers to anything that humans believe to know. How many times does a move need to be made to become a ritual and be meaningful in itself. And would I ever come to see bathing, like lighting candles, as anything else than practical joy, as an offer for a higher aim. I look at a world that springs out from the photographs of India, that makes me think and ponder about the meanings hidden in the language of worshippers. Maheshwar makes me wonder about the stories that the ghats would tell if they could speak the same tongue as us.
The next morning, we wake up before sunrise urged by the scarce few hours of fresh air that we have per day, hoping to visit at least the fort and some of the main temples, before a wave of heat slaps our faces and makes us retreat back into our shadowy den. Just like Narmada cannot be conceived as a stream of water simply springing out from the Earth, so Maheshwar has her own mythic past. The settlement was a glorious legendary city at the dawn of Indian civilization when it was called Mahishmati. Myth and history get entangled in Maheswar, and the city has a place in the great Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharat, as the capital of King Kartivarjun who even fought and captured Ravana in this very place. It is believed that during the 6th and 7th centuries the city enjoyed a distinguished position as capital of the earliest families of Kalachuri Kingdom that reigned over what is still known as the Malwa region, builders of the deservedly famous and impressive caves of Ellora in the nearby state of Maharashtra (one day we will write about them). By now, the history of Maheshwar lies buried under the pavements of the small town, where twenty-something thousand inhabitants move briskly around busy with everyday life, but it lifts up from the accounts of time to bring greatness to the rulers that made of the city of Maheshwar their palace and throne across times.
We walk along the banks of the river towards Akhilia fort, the most notable construction of Maheswar. Four centuries back, the Mughal emperor Akbar set the rampants of the fort in 1601. A couple of dinasties later, it was the Holkar queen Rani Ahilyabai who moved the capital of the Malwa kingdom from Indore to Maheswar and by 1776 completed the mighty fort and its residential quarters in Maratha architectural style. She undisputedly holds the place of “queen of Maheshwar”, and is seemingly veneered as much after death as during her life for her unbound kindness and fairness towards her subjects. Rani Ahilyabai Holkar has a temple of her own within the walls of the fort. When we arrive, the guardian of the shrine is sweeping the floor, and we take the chance to sit down on the steps of stones examining with care the detailed reliefs and sculptures that decorate the walls. The worshipped queen was a fervent devotee of Lord Shiva herself and generous contributor to religious heritage. Not only did she fund the building and restoration of temples and shrines all over India, one of his temples en Benares, but turned Maheshwar into the center for Shiva workship that it is today, paying homage to the god by the banks of Narmada. An endless trail of shrines, shivalingams and nandi sculpures also dot the riverbanks, that enturies later still receive their daily pujas, which are already starting to take place in the early morning haze.
We walk up the Akhilia fort. It feels like a film set, so empty and quiet that for a second we doubt if we are still in India. Outside, pilgrims still sleep wrapped in blankets over the hard stone floors of the ghats while we walk up staircases and corridors looking for the handloom of Maheshwari sarees that the town is famous for. It was the very same mighty ruler Akhilya Bai Holkar who established the weaving tradition in town 250 years back. And over 20 generations later, the current heir of the Holkar family and his wife revived the tradition that a lack of market had led to decay. He did also restore the palace above the fort, which was laying half in ruins, and turned into a heritage hotel to the delight of high end tourists who come to experience the joys of Indian royal life.
The town is slowly waking up and we keep on walking past shaded corridors and gates, towards temples we don’t care to visit today and onto a shaded yard where we rest for a while. Adity tells me that her favourite festival in Maheshwar is the Narmada Jayanti, the anniversary of the river goddess, when she gets dressed in a bright coloured saree crossing from bank to bank. In one of the buildings inside the fort, a hand-painted board announces that we are way too early to visit the handloom of Maheshwari cotton sareees. We would have loved to watch the artisans at work, and maybe add an exclusive saree to our growing treasure of crafts handmade in Asia. But it seems that we have a perfect excuse to repeat our own sort of pilgrimage to Maheshwar, maybe in another occasion on time to dress the river for its festival.
By the time the sun lifts itself above our heads, we are already walking back to our lodge on the riverside, unwilling to fight the strangling heat of summer in Maheshwar. Lemonade, tea and full Indian breakfast await us after a short refreshing nap in our air-conditioned tent. Since we became guests in Madhya Pradesh, a few weeks back, our cooking stove and old camping tent are hidden in a corner of the room in Bhopal to which we return in between one journey and the next. Comfortably sitting in the backseat of a car, we leave Maheshwar hoping that we will really come back to this pretty slice of Varanasi by the shores of Narmada, that now has its own place in our map. Looking at red sandy roads extending along the plains from our well closed windows, we conclude that while one part of us longs for some more hitchhiking adventures, uncertain days and dusty paths, another side of us, the one worn out by sun strokes and heavy backpacks, is quite happy to enjoy for a while every sip of tea served in porcelain cups, our own share of royal comfortable life. The four of us, three humans and one cat, continue our effortless journey across Madhya Pradesh, from Maheshwar to the heritage site of Mandu, where more surprises await.
Madya Pradesh (MP) is a large state in Central India, bordering Uttar Pradesh (nort-east), Chattisgarh (south-east), Maharashtra (south), Gujarat (west) and Rajastan (northwest).
Its capital is Bhopal, and largest city Indore.
MP has a population of over 75 million people of which over 20% belong to indigenous tribes.
Madhya Pradesh Tourism provides a comprehensive list of interesting sites to visit, including 3 UNESCO heritage sites in the state.