The story of Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, the austere queen who ruled from Maheshwar, near Ujjain and rebuilt, all over India, scores of temples that were destroyed by Muslim invaders.
Her serene face greeted me from a painting as soon as I landed at the Indore Airport. There was something about her eyes, compassion, sadness, an acute knowledge of human suffering, that held me captive. Her eyes reminded me of the Buddha. Devi Ahilyabai Holkar was welcoming me to her home.
The story of Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, the legendary queen of Malwa had fascinated me for years. I had first read about her in an essay by noted Marathi writer, Durga Bhagwat, while I was still in school. As I traveled across India, I discovered that I was unknowingly following her footsteps. When I went to Varanasi, a guide told me that the existing temple of Kashi Vishwanath was built by her, after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had razed the original temple to the ground in one of his many fits of blind religious hatred. On a visit to Somnath, a sterile, featureless information board curtly informed me that Ahilya Devi had rebuilt the Somnath temple after it was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni. While taking the Darshan of Ghrishneshwar near Ellora, I read that the temple and the temple tank was rebuilt by Ahilya Devi.
During her reign that spanned a mere 28 years, this frail lady, who ruled a small kingdom in central India, had singlehandedly rebuilt Hindu temples, ghats and dharmashalas all the way from Badrinath in the north to Rameshwaram down south. It is widely known that Aurangzeb knitted caps to pay for his funeral but how many of us know that Devi Ahilya saved every paisa of her personal income and spent it in the pursuit of Dharma? She did not merely rebuild and renovate temples but in doing so, she reclaimed sacred spaces for the Hindus that had been wrested from them over centuries by hordes of Islamic Invaders.
When I was invited to participate in an international conference on the Mahakumbh organised in Ujjain, my thoughts kept returning to Ahilya Devi and her capital city in Maheshwar, a small town located some 95 km from Indore. Maheshwar was not just another destination for me, begging to be ticked off my bucket list. Rather, it was the culmination of a personal pilgrimage that had begun in my mind when I had first read about this ascetic queen.
My friend Rashmi Mandpe, who lives in Indore, volunteered to be my guide for the day. We started off in the morning. The road was smooth, the car cruised through and we reached Maheshwar within 100 minutes.
The first thing that strikes you about Maheshwar is how small it is, and the second thing is the continuous, rhythmic, clicking sound of the handlooms. The small town is a big weaving centre for Maheshwari sarees, known to be light-as-air, hand-woven and with distinctive jari borders and checks. Ahilya Devi herself was instrumental in setting up of the first looms in Maheshwar. It is said that she invited master weavers from Gujarat and gave them land and all the required facilities to set up their looms here. In all her portraits, she is depicted wearing a plain white Maheshwari saree, with a plain, subtle border, the colourless uniform of a Maratha widow in those days. These sarees went through a commercially rough patch in between but now there are a bunch of weavers’ societies in Maheshwar, keeping the art of weaving Maheswari sarees alive. Earlier, these sarees were woven from pure silk as well, but now, the warp is of cotton and the weft is of silk threads. The pallu is distinguished by plain stripes and the border, known as bugdi, is fully reversible.
Ahilya Devi was a ruler with a difference. In an era, when Maratha women from royal families routinely followed the practice of Sati, after their husbands had fallen in the battlefield, she chose not to, following the entreaties of her father-in-law, the immensely capable Malharrao Holkar. It was Malharrao who had carved himself a separate kingdom in Malwa under the suzerainty of the Peshwas of Pune. Malharrao recognised the true potential of this introverted girl from a shepherd family of the Choundi village, in today’s Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. He chose her as a bride for his young son, Khanderao. The couple had a son named Malerao and a daughter named Muktabai. Khanderao died when Ahilya was only twenty five. A grieving Malharrao asked Ahilya to look after the state’s affairs and after Malharrao’s death in 1766, Ahilya bai’s son, Malerao was crowned the king. But he was not a very popular ruler owing to his numerous vices and died soon after in 1767, without producing an heir. After his death, Devi Ahilya became the queen of Indore till her death in 1795. In those times in India, when widowed women were little more than living corpses, Ahilya Devi ruled a kingdom! She never observed any purdah and led her army in a couple of battles herself. She led an extremely frugal, almost ascetic existence, eating simple food, that too, only once a day. She only wore white Sarees and no jewellery. She was a devout Hindu and a great devotee of Lord Shiv.
As a token of her Bhakti, Ahilya Devi named her capital Maheshwar, the abode of Lord Shiv. Earlier, Maheshwar was known as Mahishmati, a town that was home to the Vedic scholar, Mandan Mishra. It was in this very town that the famous debate between Adi Sankara and Mandan Mishra had taken place in the 8th century CE. Today, Maheshwar reverberates with chants of Lord Shiv, who is worshipped here in many forms. Kaleshwar, Rajrajeshwar, Ahilyeshwar and Vithaleshwar are some of the famous Shiv temples in Maheshwar. The worship of Lord Shiv and the proximity of the River Narmada were the twin anchors of Ahilya’s spartan existence. Even today, the ghats she built on the River Narmada stun the onlookers with their spare beauty and symmetry.
In a sense, the river was the unraveled skein of Devi Ahilyabai’s life. Her palace, a small, unpretentious building, striking in its simplicity and struggling to justify its association with royalty, stands on the bank of the Narmada. Her room is a frugal cell on the first floor with no furniture in it except a small wooden mandir, a plain bed and a small window that overlooks the calm, flowing waters of the Narmada. We met an old caretaker who looked after the place lovingly. He kept telling visitors to speak quietly and not to litter. ‘Ahiylabai was a Devi. This is not a Rajwada, this is a Mandir,’ he said simply. The main temple of Ahilyeshwar, just outside the palace is a beautiful building built in black stone. It doesn’t have the exuberant carving of the Hoysala temples or the grandeur of the Vijayanagara sculptures. It is a simple, spare building with a slightly melancholic beauty, much like Devi Ahilya herself.
Rashmi and I went down to the ghats. There are a series of stone steps leading down to the water. Narmada flows gently here in Maheswar, lapping at the stone steps reverently. There are hundreds of Shivlingas scattered on the ghat, all perfectly rounded stones from the river itself. According to Hindu belief, River Narmada is revered as the daughter of Lord Shiv. The perfectly rounded, coloured stones found in her waters are worshipped as Shivlingas. It is said that when Devi Ahilya went on her long solitary walks along the ghats, local fishermen presented her with these stones, Banalingas as they are known locally.
As we stepped gingerly into the cool waters of the Narmada, we forgot the sweltering heat of the surrounding Nimad region. The temperature was a scorching 44 degrees, but the water felt as loving as a cool, gentle caressing touch of a mother’s hands. As we sat there on the banks of the Narmada, time stood still. It was easy to forget the hustle bustle around us and imagine a stooped figure in a plain white saree, standing in knee-deep water, offering a prayer to the Suryadev as the plain, unadorned pallu of her saree fluttered in the wind. I found my eyes misting over. Rashmi put an arm around my shoulder and whispered, ‘feels like you have come home to your own mother’s house, doesn’t it?” Yes, Ahilya’s daughters had come home!
How to Go
Maheshwar is located about 93 km from Indore. Indore is well connected to the rest of India by air as well as by rail and road.
Where to Stay
One of the members of the Holkar family runs a heritage hotel in one part of the Maheshwar fort. MP tourism also runs a luxury resort called the Narmada Retreat, located right on the banks of the River Narmada.
What to buy
Maheshwari sarees, of course. The palace has the Rehwa outlet where one can see sarees being woven as well as buy them.