Maheshwar: Ahilyabai’s City
The historic town of Maheshwar, located 95 kms south of Indore, on the banks of the Narmada river, was the seat of the Maratha ruler, Ahilyabai Holkar (1725–1795 CE). It served as the capital of the Holkar kingdom from 1766 CE till 1818 CE, when the capital was shifted to Indore. This ghat built by Ahilyabai is one of the most iconic images of Maheshwar.
Ahilyabai Holkar is considered to be one of the greatest rulers of her time. Widowed at a young age, she was trained by her father-in-law, Malharrao Holkar to take over the reins of the kingdom.
Ahilyabai lived in and ruled from this wada (a traditional Maratha style mansion), for nearly three decades till her death in 1795 CE. It is a large simple house adorned with some fine wood carvings. Of great interest and value, is her private puja room, which contains valuable idols of gold and silver. A part of the mansion has now been converted into a heritage hotel.
Under Ahilyabai, Maheshwar became the center for art and culture. Ahilyabai built ghats, dharamshalas and numerous temples in Maheshwar and across India. Her most notable constructions were the Kashi Vishveshwar temple in Varanasi and the Somnath temple in Gujarat.
Maheshwar’s importance came from its location on an important trade route connecting north and south India. Buildings at Maheshwar show an interesting blend of Mughal, Rajput and Maratha influences, in keeping with its status as a crossroads of cultures.
One of most enduring legacies of Ahilyabai’s reign is the Maheshwari sari which remains popular to this day. Ahilyabai invited weavers from Maharashtra to set up looms in Maheshwar and produce exquisite hand woven textiles for nine yard saris worn by Maratha women at the court. The popularity of Maheshwari weaves eventually spread across India.
But after India became independent in 1947, there was a fall of royal patronage owing to the dissolution of princely states. Following this, the looms of Maheshwar saw a period of decline. But since the 1980s, they have seen a revival thanks to the efforts of the Rehwa society (a not-for-profit foundation created by the royal Holkar family). Today, most of the weavers of Maheshwari saris are women, something Ahilyabai Holkar would have approved of!