Maheshwar, often referred to as the Varanasi of central India, is a small holy town dedicated to Lord Shiva. Set along the banks of the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh, it's said that only Shiva is worshiped where the Narmada flows, as he's the only god with the inner peace to calm her.
Mentioned in both the Mahabharata and Ramayana (Hindu texts) under its old name, Mahishmati, Maheshwar is recognized for its spiritual significance.
It draws both pilgrims and Hindu holy men to its ancient temples and ghats.
Maheshwar was revived by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, of the Holkar dynasty from Maharashtra, who reigned from 1767 to 1795 and moved the capital there. The dynasty's culture imprint is visible everywhere in the town. Members of the Holkar family still live there and have opened part of Ahilya Fort and palace as a luxury heritage hotel.
Maheshwar is located around two hours drive south of Indore, on roads that have been upgraded and are mostly in good condition. To get to Indore, you can either take a flight or Indian Railways train, then hire a car and driver from there. Alternatively, it's also possible to take the bus from Indore to Maheshwar.
When to Visit
November to February is the best time to visit when the weather is the coolest and driest. It starts becoming really hot towards the end of March, before the summer heat sets in for April and May, followed by the monsoon.
Top Things to Do
Maheshwar's rambling 16th-century Ahilya Fort, built by Emperor Akbar, dominates the town. During her reign, Ahilyabai Holkar added a palace and numerous temples to it. Part of it is now a public courtyard that offers a panoramic view over the river and ghats. Apart from the fort, the town's riverside temples are the main attractions.
Spend some time exploring them, and enjoying life along the ghats.
If you like shopping, keep some money aside to splurge on famous Maheshwari saris and other local hand-loom items. A legacy of the Holkar family, this delicate weave has helped put the area on the global textile map. The family established the Rehwa Society, housed in a building attached to the fort, which supports local weavers with the profits. It's possible to visit the weavers and see them in action there.
Ahilyabai's birthday is celebrated in May each year, with a palanquin procession through the town. The two biggest religious festivals there are Maha Shivratri (the great night of Shiva), and the Muslim festival of Muharram (the holy first month in the Islamic calendar) featuring a procession of floats that are submerged into the water.
On Maha Shivratri, thousands of women from surrounding village spend the night on the ghats, drumming, and singing, before bathing in the river and worshiping the multitude of shivalingams there. Nimar Utsav is held around Kartik Purnima each year and consists of three days of music, dance, drama, and boating.
An annual Sacred River Festival, featuring classical music performances, is held at Ahilya Fort each February.
And, on every Sunday before Makar Sankranti, Swaadhyaaya Bhavan Ashram holds a chariot festival (the Mahaamrityunjaya Rath Yatra) in Maheshwar.
Where to Stay
The options for staying in Maheshwar are limited. If you don't mind paying a lot, it's possible to be a guest of the Holkar family at their Ahilya Fort hotel, which has been established in part of the palace.
There are 13 unique guest rooms, including the Maharaja Tent with its own garden overlooking Ahilyeshwar Temple and the river. The service is excellent. However, with rates starting from around 20,500 rupees a night ($400), you're paying more for the atmosphere and location than anything else. One redeeming factor is that the tariff is inclusive of all meals and drinks (including alcohol).
A cheaper option is the delightful Laboo's Lodge and Cafe, also part of the fort.
For 2,000 rupees a night you can stay in a deluxe air-conditioned room on the top floor inside the ramparts, complete with your own private outdoor sitting area.
Alternatively, just outside the fort, the Hansa Heritage hotel is the best option. It's actually a new hotel that's built in a mock heritage style. It has a popular hand-loom store below it. Kanchan Recreation is an inexpensive and decent homestay near Narmada Ghat.
On the outskirts of town, Madhya Pradesh Tourism's Narmada Retreat has luxury tents by the river.
To really experience Maheshwar, stroll along the ghats, and take a sunset boat ride along the Narmada river and out to the Baneshwar temple (there are plenty of boats for hire on the ghats). The temple occupies a tiny island in the middle of the river.
If you're a woman, do dress conservatively in Maheshwar. As a foreign female, you may experience unwanted attention from groups of males (including photographing you with their cell phone cameras), even despite wearing Indian clothing.
Historic Mandu, with its treasure trove of ruins, is around two hours drive away and is well worth visiting on a day trip (although, you could easily spend three or four days there exploring it).
If you don't mind commercialized religion (and the extraction of money that comes with it), Omkareshwar, also a couple of hours away from Maheshwar by road, is a popular pilgrimage place that forms part of the Madhya Pradesh Malwa Region Golden Triangle.
This island, resembling an "Om" sign from above, on the River Narmada has one of the 12 Jyotirlingams (natural rock formations shaped like shivalingams) in India.
Travel an hour upstream by boat from Maheshwar and you'll reach Sahastradhara, where the river splits into a thousand streams due to volcanic rock formations on the riverbed. It's an ideal picnic destination.