Maheshwar is about 90 kilometres south-west of Indore, and situated on the north bank of the Narmada River. Its population is numbered at more than 24,000, fourteen percent of whom are under six years old, and was the capital of the Holkar clan of the Maratha Confederacy till acceding to the Union of India. Maheshwar is built on the site of the capital city of King Kartavirya Arjuna, mentioned in the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana. In ancient times Maheshwar was known as Mahisatti and was the capital of the Southern Avanti. There is claimed a legend, I did not make it up, that says the God of Fire, Agni, granted the girls of old Mahisatti sexual liberty, so that women of the town roam at will, each unbound to a particular husband. To the best of my knowledge I met no latter-day practitioners upon its streets, and so I have no experience in support or denial of it, and accept the legend’s truth only as a matter of faith in its author.
In the 18th Century Maheshwar served as the capital of the renowned Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar (1725 to 1795), queen of the Maratha Malwa kingdom. Taught to read and write by her father, under her patronage Maheshwar became a centre of artistic and industrial enterprise. Following the death in 1754 of her husband in the Battle of Kumbher, the Maharani took over the political and administrative responsibilities of the kingdom. She moved her capital from Indore to Maheshwar and bequeathed to both these cities many fine buildings and public works, temples, the Ahilya Fort, and riverside ghats. In addition the Maharani caused to be built at pilgrimage sites throughout India free lodgings known as ‘Dharmshala’, ghats, and water tanks, as well as embellishing existing temples at locations outside her kingdom. Trained in military matters she personally led armies in battle and tried to protect her kingdom from thugs, organised gangs of professional assassins. Thugs, or Thuggee derived from a Hindi word meaning ‘thief’, had plagued India for hundreds of years and were first mentioned in Indian history as early as the 14th Century. In the 1830’s the British targeted the thugs for eradication. Thugs killed ritualistically in honour of the goddess Kali, usually by strangling their unwitting victims, to whom they had first feigned friendship. The Maharani’s concern for the welfare of her people, won her great and enduring acclaim. Her golden statue stands by the riverside, on the ghats below the terraced stairway that leads to the gate of the Ahilya Fort.
Maheshwar is also acclaimed for its handloom industry, this in existence since the 5th Century CE, being now especially known for weaving colourful cotton saris with distinctive fine stripes and checks, and floral borders. The origin of the contemporary Mahashwari sari is traced to the Rehwa Society, a non-government organisation founded by the Holkars in 1978 to give women employment and to rebuild the city’s textile industry and tradition. About 130 weavers are associated with the Society and these produce over 100,000 metres of fine fabric a year. The Rehwa Society also provides free schooling for the weaver’s children and runs a low cost health scheme.
The city was a centre for weaving fine ‘shallu’ muslins, these manufactured during the 18th Century for the local Madhya Pradesh aristocracy as well as the imperial Mughal court. Their production ceased at the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the spread of cheap mill-spun thread imported from England in the early 19th Century. Maheshwari saris are traditionally woven by Muslim rather than Hindu weavers. They exhibit traditional Deccan elements, with silk warps only appearing from the 1970s. Borders have narrow bands of supplementary warp patterning in fine metallic ‘zari’ thread or coloured silk using customary Deccan sari designs, as well as distinctive chain-link edge patterns (aankh ‘eye’) and lines of dashes (muthda). Nowadays Maheshwari sari borders are often broader and embellished with small edge patterns and floral designs.
Maheshwar and the Narmada River have been captured in several Indian movies, in particular the 2001 epic Bollywood film ‘Asoka’. This is largely, very largely actually, a fictional dramatisation of the life of the emperor Asoka the Great. Directed by Santosh Sivan, the film stars Shahrukh Khan as Asoka and Kareena Kapoor as Kaurawaki; a buxom princess of the kingdom of Kalinga. Though widely distributed Asoka flopped at the box office. Years ago I rented it out on a DVD from my Hometown video store. I liked it, well kind of: except for the Bollywood dance routines, the choreographed fighting, Asoka’s fanciful whip-sword, all the bits that had no known historical basis, the repetitive ham comedy scenes, the part where Asoka cuts his long hair and ends up looking like a walking hair oil commercial, all the bits where the film makers are appeasing Indian censorship mores, the trivialization of Asoka’s attempt to milk a cow, the lengthy parts where Kauriwaki, against all laws of physical mechanics and the laws of gravity, manages to keep all her clothes intact during the waterfall scene (her eye make-up didn’t even run), and particularly the scene where a very colourful deity, Vishnu at a guess, appears with a conspicuously long and erect head of a blue peacock emerging from the region of his groin; an accurate interpretation of the bird’s symbolism being elusive, if only to me. Call me overly critical if you will, and though I come from a foreign cultural base inadequate for applying a fair appraisal of the movie’s merit, I could not bear to watch it fully through a second time around. It was the 4th Bollywood dance scene, just a little past half way through the movie, which did me in. I just couldn’t fit the historical Battle of Kalinga into the theatrics, well meant as those theatrics probably were. The film had managed to pervert one of the most portentous episodes in Indian and world history into something little more than a protracted and melodramatic cosmetics advert.
After lunch we drive up into the Vindhya Range to the destination of the partly ruined city of Mandu. The mountainous setting is spectacular, but again the scenery looks dry, brown and sparsely vegetated. At this time of the year all appears as it should be, and if I wanted green grass I should have been here months earlier. The lines of an old fortress wall are met at the top of the ascent to the rocky outcrop on which Mandu stands. In total the battlemented wall is over 30 kilometres long and is punctuated by twelve gateways. The road is guarded by boab trees, their stark gnarled and deciduous limbs and swollen trunks standing like sentinels out of a science fiction movie. They are a link to Australia for the related species Adansonia gregorii is restricted to the Kimberley region of Western Australia and the adjacent Northern Territory.
Situated in the Dhar district of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, Mandu was referred to as a fortified city as early as the 6th Century CE. The city extends for a length of 13 kilometres along the crest of the Vindhya Ranges overlooking the plateau of Malwa to the north and the Narmada River to the south. The topography of the landscape on which it is located lends natural defences and due to this feature, and its strategic position, Mandu became an important military outpost. Originally the fortress-capital of the Rajput Paramara rulers of Malwa, Mandu was conquered by Muslim invaders from Delhi in 1304. In the 15th Century it achieved a period of splendour under Hoshang Shah. In 1534 Mandu came under the rule of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, but the city was later lost to Sher Shah Suri, founder of the Sur Empire with its capital in Delhi.
The two-storeyed Jahaz Mehal, or ‘Ship Palace’, located in the main fortress complex, is built between two artificial lakes. Constructed by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji it once housed the Sultan’s harem. Though extensive in size the Jahaz Mehal is now architecturally bland for there remains little other than harsh colonnades, arches of standard design, barren alcoves and plain angular lines. Only a grim view down to what I take to be dungeons, and a drain built in swirling curves, breaks the rigidly linear lines of the building complex. Little of the original coloured stuccoed plaster that once gave artistic relief survives. Virtually all painted ornamentation has been stripped away, this being achieved either by time or mischief. Nevertheless it is a popular tourist destination and many young Indian teenagers are in evidence in its surrounds. Summoning up courage I ask a lady dressed in a beautiful green and maroon sari for permission to photograph her. No problem, except I make the mistake of inviting her relatives to join in. Others follow, but goodness knows who these were. Somewhere in that photo resides a very interesting sari, the subject of my photographic desire. Sadly lady and sari are swamped beyond recognition by the horde of family members that took centre and front stage, the garment and the wearer’s face lost within a crowd of vibrant smiles and gleaming white teeth by the hundreds. In a degree of compensation, on the close-cropped lawns of the fortress I make my first sighting of the Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus a species related to plovers and widespread in India. It occurs in pairs or small flocks of up to twelve birds. Here I saw what I took to be a pair.
Late in the afternoon I dispense with the company of my driver-guide and I explore on foot tomb ruins clustered around the Sagar Talao Lake, this located beyond my hotel; the hotel also an establishment of lodging run by the state government tourist authority. There is a small eco-park and animal reserve adjacent my bungalow. Its artificial lake draws waterbirds to its shores, but no people are in evidence in its grounds. There are squirrels everywhere on the road leading to the tombs. A group of langurs sit quietly in trees along the way. The langurs ignore me, the squirrels avoid me. “Namaste” I beckon to a passing bicyclist who nods in return, but the daylight is fast failing, and I chose discretion over further adventure, and decide to return to the ruins in the morning of the next day.
At the hotel later that evening I eat a meal of unassuming boiled rice, lassi, coffee, and vegetarian curry; Rs314. There was an emptiness of clients in the restaurant and that night most meals listed on the menu seemed unavailable. What I really felt like was a good peanut butter sandwich; didn’t matter on what kind of bread, just as long as the loaf was crusty, wood-fired, and its thick-cut slices smeared with a wholesome lashing of butter. Forget the cholesterol risk.
Strange the cravings you get.