The train starts from Delhi at a convenient 10.30 pm and after long stops at Nagda and Ujjain, deposits us at Indore at midday. On alighting we blissfully shed layers of clothing to enjoy the balmy afternoon. Boarding the jeep taxi after picking up golden bananas, desert apples and guavas for the journey from a wayside shop, we set out on the three hour hair-raising drive to Maheshwar.
Passing the cantonment town of Mhow and negotiating the Ghat roads, vying for place in the midst of enormous trucks and trailers, we reached Dhamnod from where the State highway jostled us along through cotton and sugarcane plantations (suited to the black soil of this area) to deliver us finally at Maheshwar town. A man in bright pink identified himself as Prakash and directed us to the bungalow by the puliya, bridge, where lunch was awaiting us.
Maheshwar – Madhya Pradesh
Maheshwar has been in existence from the Harappan era and has been referred to as Mahishmati of Ramayana and Mahabharata fame. The Maheshwar Fort built by Ahilya Bai Holkar in the 18th century, is simple and elegant with the ground floor serving as the administrative office and the first floor functioning as living quarters. Adjacent are beautiful temples, facades and banks built by Krishna Bai Masaheba, wife of Ahilyabai’s successor, Yeshwant Rao I. The handlooms of Maheshwar are famous world over and provide a livelihood for a quarter of the town’s population. The river Narmada flows before Fort, remaining a kilometre wide all year round. Running from East to West between the Vindhya and Satpura ranges this river is perhaps the last of India’s great rivers which remains relatively unpolluted. In the centre of the river lies the Baneshwar temple, supposedly marking the spot through which passes a line connecting the centre of the earth and the north polar star. It is also considered one of the sites where the Gondwanaland joins the Asian continent.
After a sumptuous Indian lunch of sweet and spicy traditional dal, fried bhindi, baingan bharta, and soft rotis, seated in a dining area that afforded a breathtaking view of the Narmada, we were escorted to our living quarters in the beautiful cottage. An hour later we assembled for a shikara style boat ride on the river. The boat was fitted with an outboard motor and headed for the Baneshwar temple savouring the fabulous sights by the riverside in the glory of the setting sun. Cruising past we noted several structures prominent among which were the Narmada Retreat by Madhya Pradesh Tourism, dilapidated ramparts of the Fort, Ahilyeshwar, Kaleshwar and Jaleshwar temples. The Fort and the temple walls shone gold in the setting sun. Evening brought a group of villagers to the river front for aarti and we were treated to a grand spectacle of innumerable floating lamps on the Narmada. It was dark by the time the boat was tethered to the bank and a cool breeze was wafting on to the house. Firewood had been collected and seats arranged around it for ‘high tea’ around a bonfire! An early dinner and we retired to our cottage.
Day break found us ambling along the river bank eastward towards Mandleshwar. Startled chatter of a few owls resting in a clump of trees and swishes of egrets, paddy birds, shovellers grebes, wagtails, prinias and twitters of a host of other birds greeted us as we stood witness to a lonely fisherman gathering his catch against a watery sunrise. Then before we knew it the sun popped up, declaring the day open, so to say. We got ready and after breakfast of paranthas and andeyki chutney – colloquial for scrambled egg, we embarked on a tour of the looms. A short drive led us to the palace gates where Rehwa (meaning Narmada in Sanskrit) Society, an organisation begun in the seventies to promote traditional Maheshwari sarees, is situated. Between 1950 and 1970, the Maheshwari sarees lost out to the cheaper mill cloth but it was between 1971 and 1974 that the search for old collections started and Maharaja Richard Holkar found steel trunks holding Queen Ahilyabai’s vintage sarees along with a lone design book. Women weavers belonging to the Maru community of Gujarat started working the looms again. We went round the complex, spoke to the weavers working on pit looms, saw the products in the inhouse shop and then visited the temple where Ahilyabai worshipped. A view of the ghat and the chhatris in memory of the countless women who sacrificed their lives in johars from the characteristic overhanging balconies was eerily haunting. In the evening we rode the river to reach Sahastradhara where the river splits into a thousand streams over rapids! On our return we were treated to a spicy deep fried yam like delicacy from Ratlam called garadu.
Next morning, heading for Omkareshwar by taxi, some 60 kilometres away, began with a bone shaking ride to Badwah and then to Khandwah. A left turn at the ornate metreguage rail station took us the last 20 kilometres to Omkareshwar. The island below the confluence of the rivers Narmada and Kuveri, comprises two lofty hills and is divided by a valley in such a way that it appears in the shape of the sacred Hindu symbol Om and thus originates its name. A scenic cantilever bridge constructed in 1979 connects the island to the mainland. The devout gather to kneel before the Jyotirlinga (one of the twelve throughout India) at the temple of Shri OmkarMandhata that stands on the one mile long, half mile wide island. A rare degree of detailing may be seen in the striking frieze figures and intricately carved stone roof of the temple. Encircling the shrine are verandahs with carved columns in circles, polygons and squares. We bargained a reasonable rate for a parikrama, circumnavigation of Mandhata and set out in a large boat called The Indien! Soon we arrived at the sangam at the far end of the island where the boatmen displayed tremendous skill in negotiating currents and turbulences. At the other end an imposing dam constructed across the river loomed into view. The boatman informed that the dam had cut into their run over 22 kilometres of the river and carrying pilgrims to hundreds of Shiva temples along the bank is now not possible. He added that during summer when the discharge from the dam was low, besides a fall in fish catch, tall grass growing halfway into the river also obstructed free passage of fishing boats. “Painful rashes appear when these reeds accidentally brush past” complained the irate boatman. The boatman then dropped us off at a rocky island where we could wallow in placid water for a while. After a visit to the Mandhata temple and the Gyaneshwargufa, we trundled back home.
On the last day of our stay we went over to Indore, and visited a recreation park called Tafree about 8 kilometres on the Ghat Road. Popular among school children who, besides enjoying the large open spaces of the Park also learnt rural craft. We saw the Rajwada, Holkar Palace and after collecting the famous khattimeethibhujia and shrikhand that Indore is famous for, we reached the railway station to arrive at Delhi the next day.