Most of the time I like to take local transport as it’s usually fairly reliable and you get a much better experience of the land and the people. Also, the bus and train stations are a great opportunity to people watch. However, I had been told that the only way to get to Maheshwar from Mandu was to get a series of slow buses so I decided to splash out a bit (800Rs) and get a taxi for the fairly short hop. It was an uneventful hour and a half except for a puncture which gave me a few minutes to stretch my legs and admire a very dry and dusty view. I suppose it’s not so surprising that the wet season is a more popular time of year for the locals to go on holiday here. On the way I did see quite a few people walking along the road which is quite rare. They weren’t Indian backpackers but pilgrims. Maheshwar is mentioned in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two most famous books in Indian history and is a very popular pilgrimage site and I was to meet quite a few in my time here. However, I digress. Another advantage of getting a taxi is that I avoided a fairly long trek from the bus station to the river where most of the hotels are located. I stayed at the Aashay Hotel and paid 1250Rs for a nice big room with bathroom and my own open area outside which looked out over a school. I got there at lunchtime and all the kids were in the playground having lunch after which they all disappeared home.
After settling in at the hotel I was keen to go to the river where all the action was. The Narmada is a fine wide river and as a pilgrimage site there are broad steps (ghats) to gain access rather like Varanasi but on a much smaller and intimate scale. All through the day people came down to ritually cleanse themselves or just do their washing. There are also a few temples to prey at before or after the ritual cleansing.
There is nothing much to do in Maheshwar so I spent most of my time just hanging out by the ghats watching the other tourists/pilgrims and often being asked to pose with them for a photograph. One motley bunch was especially interesting. All men, both young and old from Gujarat. They said they were holy men (sadhus) on a pilgrimage and they were very interested in whether I smoked narcotics. They also wanted money off me but it soon became clear they were not begging, they just wanted European coins. I’m not sure why.
The backdrop is also quite impressive – a huge 16th century fort. Although started by the Moghul emperor Akbar most of the fort dates from the reign of the famous Holkar queen Ahilyabai (1767-95). Entering the fort from the river you go through a massive arched gateway which leads to a courtyard containing a couple of memorials or cenotaphs of the Holkar family. Shown below is of one of them – the chattri of Vithoji Rao. He was killed by being trampled under the feet of an elephant so it is somewhat ironic that his cenotaph has an amazing elephant frieze on its plinth. Part of the fort cum palace is a posh hotel and part is a museum which contains many relics from queen Ahilyabai including a statue which is highly venerated in these parts. Also near here is the Rehwa society which is a craft cooperative making saris. In fact Maheshwar fabric is famous and I saw many shops doing a fine trade with Indian tourists and pilgrims.
Behind the river facade the town speads back towards the main road and is just like many other Indian towns, with narrow winding streets, full of hustle and bustle. There are also plenty of old buildings with attractive balconies with wooden fretwork which had been well maintained. Many people’s homes were open to the street where I could see women spinning the thread to use for the famous Maheshwar saris. And of course there were also interesting characters in restaurants and markets full of local food and produce.
After a few days of relaxing in Maheshwar it was time for another fairly long journey. I got the bus to Indore and from there another overnight train trip to the north of Madya Pradesh and another architectural beauty: Orchha. At least this train was running and it was nice to see my name on the manifest glued to the side of the train.