Night Queen, an anchovy can passed off as a bus, has rear-ended a rickety truck whose bumper carries the jaunty legend remover of obstacles. Now the guts of both lie scattered across a two-lane mountaintop switchback. We are in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, and traffic to and from our rural destination in the town of Maheshwar is temporarily at a standstill. With nothing else to do, we prop open the doors of our hired car and let a warm wind powder us with dust, yielding to the Indian inevitable.
Travel snafus may be less common than they once were in the booming and increasingly efficient subcontinent, yet as the host of our hotel remarks merrily when I limp in with my partner nearly five hours after departing by air from New Delhi, much has changed about this astounding country—and much has not. “India strikes!” Richard Holkar says, with the same mordant fatalism of Jack Nicholson’s “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown!” in the movie of that name.
Had India not abolished the monarchies after independence, Holkar would still be known as the prince of Indore; he would have succeeded as maharajah of that large state had he not been born outside caste, to his father’s American third wife. Like so many of India’s “erstwhile” nobles, the civilian Mr. Holkar, now 64, has spent a good part of his life observing the piecemeal dismantling of his family’s heritage.
First, in the 1970’s, the International Style palace designed for his maharajah father by the German architect Eckart Muthesius was sold to the government. Then Christie’s auctioned off the famous fittings by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann and Eileen Gray. Three of Brancusi’s legendary Bird in Space sculptures, two of them commissioned by the family, were long ago spirited out of the country, landing in major museums. Inquire what became of the jewels that once barnacled Holkar’s ancestors, rulers from one of the three great Maratha dynasties of central India, and you will be met with silence. Only the famed Indore Pears, two flawless 44- and 46-carat diamonds, are traceable, and then only vaguely, following an arc that led from Indore to Harry Winston, and from the jeweler’s hands into what are referred to as “other” royal houses—most likely in the Persian Gulf.
In the era when society portraitist Boutet de Monvel depicted Yeshwant Rao II, Holkar’s father, as the consummate Indian elegant, few could have predicted that the family would one day be innkeepers. And although Holkar still employs his princely title, life since he began transforming Ahilya Fort eight years ago has looked less than regal—and as beleaguered as that of any white-elephant owner.
When Holkar arrived in Maheshwar, the structure that became a finely appointed 14-room hotel was a partial ruin within the battlements of the 18th-century fort built by the Rani Ahilyabai, his ancestor. There was no running water and no electricity. Roof tiles lay shattered in the dust. White ants had rotted the teak pillars surrounding the interior courtyards. The battlements were bulging. 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 tells me some days after our arrival, by which time my partner and I have settled 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 and the extortionist priests who can turn temple tours into obstacle courses; plying the river in flat-bottomed boats propelled mostly by the current; and gorging on home-cooked meals fully in line with the precepts of Slow Food.
As we will learn during four days at Ahilya, the oak leaf lettuce and rocket and romaine and sweet red carrots that turn up in our salads are grown in raised beds laid out by the prince himself. Both the breakfast eggs and the sliced chicken in our 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.
At dusk on our first night, we join the prince and some guests for drinks on a terrace in the ramparts, taking in a view of the wine-dark river and the Shiva temples along the shoreside ghats. Eighty feet below us clumps of worshippers chant aarti and launch oil lamps into the water. With nothing man-made to illuminate it, the far shore is obscure.