Narmada's story

Narmada's story

Narmada's story

Susheela Nair takes a walk on the banks of River Narmada in the historic town of Maheshwar, once ruled by a brave queen who changed the image of the place.

As we sauntered in the somnolent town of Maheshwar, we were catapulted into another portal where we experienced timelessness.

It transported us into a realm where the myriad moods of the Narmada river intertwined with the life of the people.

The clean ghats and serene temples stood all guarded by a magnificent fort punctuated with riveting history.

Occasionally visited and not as teeming as Omkareshwar, this ancient port of call for Hindu pilgrims finds mention in the early epics as Mahishmati, the capital of King Sahasrarjun.

During our strolls around the temple town of Maheshwar, we were able to snatch a few glimpses of scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Ancient descriptions portray it as a spectacular temple-city and a prominent political and cultural centre.

The Holkar dynasty, which made Maheshwar its capital in the 18th century, ruled over huge swathes of western Madhya Pradesh and southern Rajasthan until the early 19th century.

We found their cultural mark discernible everywhere, from the regional Hindi dialect that draws from Marathi to the staple Marathi breakfast of poha sprinkled with locally-grown pomegranate.

Steeped in history

Our spiritual sojourn started with the mighty Maheshwar fort complex and temples, which stands on a high platform in quiet beauty on the northern bank of the Narmada river mirrored in the river below.

With a distinctively Maratha architecture, the fort and the medieval buildings by the riverfront formed a backdrop to the bustling town which still retained its lazy serenity and a distinctive spiritual ambience.

Entering the fort, we tarried awhile at the memorial to Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, the legendary 18th century Maratha queen who lived and ruled from Maheshwar.

We saw Rajwada on the right, a lovely 18th century building which was her living and administrative quarters, her seat, various chhatris and her personal temple.

Walking down the steps from the fort built by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore — towards the riverfront ghats, we stopped by the Rewa Society, a weavers’ co-operative, run by the Ahilya Bai Trust.

It has scores of workshops in the fort where you can see the Maheshwari, a gossamer fabric that has helped put this area on the international textile map.

We watched in admiration the weavers working on distinctive patterns on Maheshwari saris.

The delicate and sophisticated fabric has also made it to the collections of designers like Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Muzaffar Ali and Abraham & Thakore.

Maheshwar or ‘the abode of Lord Mahesh’ is home to thousands of Shiva temples.

From the overhanging jharokhas (balconies) of the temples, the breathtaking view of the river tempted us to go down to the waterfront.

Stairs lead down from the fort to the gracefully proportioned grey-stone Ahilyeshwar Temple, a Shiva temple, which includes a Ram shrine on the premises.

The carved facades and the figures of elephants and Maratha soldiers will take one’s breath away.

Further down the ghats, we saw Baneshwar in the middle of the river, Rajrajeshwar in the fort, Kashi Vishwanath, and Kaleshwar and Jaleshwar along its banks.

Steps from here further lead down to a well-maintained stretch of ghats, which abound with Shivalinga and Nandi shrines.

We hopped into a boat to comb the river-banks for temples as the true beauty of Maheshwar is revealed best from the water.

As we drifted down the river, we had a panoramic view of the fort as well as the innumerable temples that line the river.

From there we rushed to Baneshwar Temple in the middle of the Narmada. It was spectacular at sunset.

Our guide rattled stories that envelop it.

We were told that this ancient Shiva temple lies on the line from the North Pole to the centre of the earth, and its submergence in floods or other adversities foretells danger for Maheshwar.

Sahastradhara

The next day, at the crack of dawn, we took a 45-minute boat ride upstream to Sahastradhara, where the river splits into the legendary thousand streams due to volcanic rock formations on the riverbed.

Though the urge to immerse oneself in the cold water was tempting, we were warned of the dangers.

So we sat by the river bed and lost all sense of time watching the Narmada transform from a sedate personage we knew to be at the ghat, convulsing and exploding into a thousand streams, rapids and eddies, flaunting her enormous power.

Returning to the ghats along the riverfront, we saw holy men sitting in silent meditation and tourists enjoying boat rides.

In the distance, I could hear priests chanting prayers at the many temples built by Holkar and her descendants and a loudspeaker singing praises of Lord Shiva.

The river draws people to its banks not only for their daily ablutions, but also for ritual, ceremony and festival. Sitting on the banks of the river, I watched the world pass by.

Devotees were taking a holy dip in the river while the villagers were engaged in their daily chores of washing clothes.

Women indulged in gossip while they cleaned vessels and did the daily rounds of laundry. Some urchins flaunted their diving prowess as they dived into the river and splashed the water.

I felt a tinge of sadness at having to leave this oasis of tranquility and head back to the chaos of the city.

As we left the place, the constant drone of the motor boats ferrying tourists from the landings at the ghats, and the loud thumping of clothes being pounded on the stony steps of the ghats by the hundreds of women who come to wash and bathe in the river echoed in the distance.

The river had cast a spell on me and these temples reminded us of the great god’s constant presence along the Narmada.
 

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