The first sight of the beautiful fort and tiered temples of Maheshwar, shimmering above their reflections in the waters of the sacred Narmada River, is something that no-one forgets. Not many tourists make it this far, which is a shame because it is one of the most atmospheric villages in India.
Ahilya Fort sits right in the centre of the action in Maheshwar, a 4,000-year-old town in Madhya Pradesh. This 18th-century fort, built by Queen Ahilya Holkar, known as Ahilya Bai remained in the family until Prince Richard Holkar, Ahilya Bai’s descendant, took it over in 1971.
When Holkar arrived in Maheshwar, the structure that became a finely appointed 14-room hotel was a partial ruin within the battlements. Still, the prospect was gorgeous from the five-acre redoubt high above the sacred Narmada River, at the edge of a town of just 19,000 people, in an agrarian landscape remarkably untouched by industrial modernity. Unlike many of India’s crumbling havelis and retrofitted palaces, Ahilya rewards the long hike to the back of beyond, and Holkar neatly provides a reason why.” This is an antique landscape, and you won’t find that in many places anymore,” he says.
The Prince ensures that the pace of life at Ahilya Fort is leisurely, in keeping with his wish to offer his guests an oasis of calm and repose. One easily settles into a rhythm of well-accommodated indolence, a pattern of days spent wandering the sleepy lanes of Maheshwar; visiting local weavers whose gossamer saris are an essential part of many an Indian bride’s trousseau; stopping into shrines blessedly free of temple touts; plying the river in flat-bottomed boats propelled mostly by the current to visit the beautiful Omkareshwar Temple; and gorging on home-cooked meals fully in line with the precepts of Slow Food.
Maheshwar is indeed one of the hidden treasures of India. Situated on the banks of the sacred river Narmada, it has been described as one of the most beautiful temple-palace complexes in India and is a treasure-house of sculpture. It is also famous for its fine cotton saris – a tradition that was re-introduced by Ahilya Bai Holkar over 200 years ago in order for the plain geometric weave patterns that she preferred, to be woven to her specifications.
In the post-Independence period this tradition almost died out but was revived by the Holkar family via an NGO called the Rehwa Society founded in 1978. The aim was to revive the town's textile tradition while providing women employment. Today 130 weavers produce over 100,000 metres of fine fabrics a year. The weaving centre is located in one of Maheshwar's historic buildings. Rehwa Society also provides a free school for weavers' children and runs a low-cost health scheme.
Whilst at Maheshwar a visit to the deserted city of Mandu is extremely rewarding. The superb architecture and isolated location of Mandu provide a suitably romantic setting for one of the great romances of Indian history – the story of the Sultan Baz Bahadur and his Hindu Queen Rupmati. Perched atop a spur of the Vindhya ranges its rulers built exquisite palaces like the Jahaz and Hindola Mahals, ornamental canals, baths and pavilions, as graceful and refined as those times of peace and plenty. Each of Mandu's structures is an architectural gem that provided inspiration to the master builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later.
The food is some of the finest in India and constantly changes as the owner is a reputed chef and gourmet; author of a book of recipes from the Maharajah's palaces, he personally oversees the kitchen. Wonderful pasta salads for lunch, followed by delicious and unusual Indian cuisine at night, after drinks by the pool, will keep the most demanding gourmand happy! The oak leaf lettuce and rocket and romaine and sweet red carrots that turn up in your salads are grown in raised beds laid out by the prince himself.
Both the breakfast eggs and the sliced chicken in your lunch travel not food miles, but food feet. The henhouse stands near a fort wall not far from a path to the azure swimming pool. Some nights the dinner table is set up there, amid the crenellated palisades, outlined by the light of a thousand oil candles. Sometimes it is placed in an interior courtyard near a small temple to the jolly god Ganesha, or ferried by boat to an island mid-river. Like shadows, the staff move in and out of a light cast by torches set into the mud.
Evenings are magical at the fort. Join the prince and some guests for drinks on a terrace in the ramparts, watching sunset the Shiva temples along the shore side ghats over the kilometre wide Narmada is enchantment. It is simply the finest hotel in India. Eighty feet below us clumps of worshippers chant arti and launch oil lamps into the water. With nothing man-made to illuminate it, the far shore is obscure.
It’s a fairy tale hotel in a fairy tale setting.
By Marcela Kunova - 20th April 2017
Nicola Shepherd, founder and CEO of The Exploration Company, organises unusual trips for HNW and UHNW clients ranging from birthday parties at an Indian Maharajah's palace to reliving Sir Vivian Fuchs's 1950s expedition to the South Pole. Citywealth caught ...
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