Maheshwar is a small holy town that's dedicated to Lord Shiva and sits alongside the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh. It's often referred to as the Varanasi of Central India because of the many temples and ghats (steps) lining the river. However, unlike the overwhelming assault on the senses that is Varanasi, Maheshwar is comparatively calm and clean. This Maheshwar travel guide will help you plan your trip.
Hindus regard Mahesh as a peaceful incarnation of Lord Shiva, the powerful god of destruction and and transformation. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva created the Narmada River from sweat while meditating or performing the cosmic dance, and he's present in the smooth cylindrical-shaped stones (called banalingas) on the riverbed. The town's special spiritual significance draws plentiful pilgrims and Hindu holy men. Many visit Maheshwar as part of the Narmada Parikrama -- a lengthy circumambulation of the river from its source to the sea and back, stopping at as many temples as possible on the way.
Maheshwar is widely thought to have been mentioned in both The Mahabharata and The Ramayana (Hindu texts) under its old name, Mahishmati, the capital of legendary king and warrior Kartavirya Arjuna (also known as Sahasrabahu and Sahasrarjun). He had 1,000 arms, and was so strong that he effortlessly defeated demon king Ravan in a duel and imprisoned him.
In the 18th century, Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar revived Maheshwar after moving her capital there from Indore to be close to the Narmada River and Lord Shiva. She built many temples, reconstructed the landmark fort, added a palace, and established a local weaving industry. Her positive contribution to Maheshwar's development resulted in her being very popular and greatly admired.
Members of the Holkar family still live in Maheshwar and have opened part of Ahilya Fort and palace as a luxury heritage hotel.
Maheshwar about two hours south of Indore in Madhya Pradesh.
The roads from Indore to Maheshwar have been upgraded and are mostly in good condition. To get to Indore, you can either take a domestic flight from many cities in India or an Indian Railways train, and then hire a car and driver from there. Alternatively, it's also possible to take the bus from Indore to Maheshwar if you're traveling on a budget.
When to Visit
The weather is coolest and driest from November to February. It starts becoming really hot towards the end of March, before the summer heat sets in during April and May, followed by the monsoon from June to September.
An annual Sacred River Festival, featuring classical music performances, takes place at Ahilya Fort each February. Mahashivaratri (the great night of Shiva), in February or March, is one of the biggest religious festivals in Maheshwar. Thousands of women spend the night on the ghats, drumming and singing before bathing in the river.
Ahilyabai's birthday is celebrated in May each year, with a palanquin procession through the town.
Nimar Utsav is held around the occasion of Kartik Purnima (full moon) in November each year and consists of three days of music, dance, drama, and boating.
What to Do There
Maheshwar's rambling Ahilya Fort and palace is the main attaction. Part of it is open to the public, and it offers a panoramic view over the river and ghats. There's a small museum with regal memorabilia such as palanquins, weapons, photos, and Ahilya Bai's humble throne.
Try and attend the unique Lingarchan Puja ritual, held in daily in the fort from 8.30 a.m. for the wellbeing of the public. It was started by queen Ahilya Bai, and features Hindu priests reciting prayers over thousands of miniature Shiva lingas (representations of Lord Shiva) made out of mud from the Narmada River.
Downstairs, the stone courtyard by the Narmada River contains the cenotaph of Vithoji Rao Holkar (the younger brother of king Yashwant Rao Holkar I, who was executed by rivals in 1801) and magnificent Ahilyeshwar Temple made as a memorial for queen Ahilya Bai.
To really immerse Maheshwar, stroll along the atmospheric ghats, observe daily life, and take a sunset boat ride out to Baneshwar Temple (there are plenty of boats for hire on the ghats). The temple occupies a tiny island in the middle of the Narmada River.
If you like shopping, keep some money aside to splurge on famous Maheshwari saris and other local textiles. A legacy of the Holkar family, the delicate Maheshwari weave embellished with zari (gold thread) striping or brocade 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 revenue generated. It's possible to visit the weavers and see them in action there.
Where to Stay
The options for staying in Maheshwar are limited. If you can afford it, you can be a guest of the Holkar family at Ahilya Fort. The 19 unique rooms in six buildings include a Maharaja Tent with its own garden overlooking Ahilyeshwar Temple and river. Service is personalized and excellent. However, with rates starting from around 20,000 rupees a night ($280), you're paying more for the experience 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, with rooms inside the ramparts and gate house of the fort from around 2,000 rupees ($28) a night.
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 ethnic style. It has a popular hand-loom store below it. Kanchan Recreation is an inexpensive but decent homestay near Narmada Ghat.
On the outskirts of town, Madhya Pradesh Tourism's Narmada Resort has luxury tents for glamping by the river.
What Else to Do Nearby
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 on the Narmada River resembles an "Om" symbol from above, and has one of the 12 jyotirlingas (natural rock formations representing Lord Shiva) 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.