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.
By daylight the view clears and on the opposite bank can be seen a modest stucco temple, a village, and checkerboard farm fields stretching along the river and away in the distance toward haze-covered hills. At this point in its journey and also its seasonal arc, the Narmada is slow-moving, placid, and flat. People bathe and beat their clothes clean in it, and local kids launch cannonballs off the stone steps of the ghats, then swim to the center of the stream.
One hears a lot of birdsong in Maheshwar and, for once in contemporary India, only that. It takes a while to register the near total absence of the ubiquitous amplified din that a friend here terms Hindi Headache Music; that this is so owes largely to the remoteness of Maheshwar and its location on a river known as one of the seven most sacred in India.
The Rani Ahilyabai was fabled as a shrewd administrator and ruler and no less as a prolific builder. Whether strategically or out of piety, the queen threw up Hindu shrines all across India, among them the Vishwanath on the Ganges in Varanasi, arguably that city’s most important holy site. She built a more intimate temple within Ahilya Fort. It is to the smaller one that locals come to revere an idol of Ahilyabai, who was elevated to quasi-deity status somewhere along the line.
In so many ways an unusual river, the Narmada originates not from mountain runoff, as does the Ganges, but instead rises from the red laterite flats of a place called Amarkantak; flowing east to west, it gains strength as it crosses the agricultural state of Madhya Pradesh, until finally the volume of water it carries is larger than that of the three great northern rivers—the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej—combined. A longtime controversy over plans to dam it has tended to focus equally on the destruction of the landscapes it traverses and on the river’s status as a sacred entity.
As it does so often in India, the lure of mythology trumps science, and the Narmada has a creation tale of considerable poetry. Ancient Vedic texts lyrically ascribe its origin to a postcoital moment enjoyed by two of Hinduism’s key divinities; after having made love to his consort Parvati for a thousand years, the great god Shiva was aroused again by the sight of his beloved at rest and, in that state, let an errant drop of semen fall to the ground. Thus arose a daughter, Narmada, a “virgin” river considered holy by worshippers of Shiva, not least because it is here that the stone lingams important to Hindu worship are still found, rolled over eons into smooth phallic forms.
Lingams are placed along the riverbank at large temples and in the many domestic shrines at Ahilya Fort. Every morning a small barefoot woman makes her way through the fort’s six linked courtyards, stopping briefly at each to anoint the idols with a paste of powdered vermilion and sandalwood. A fellow staff member arranges flower petals concentrically in an old bronze basin. Kunta Bai, one of the hotel’s housekeepers, stout and efficient, with a dark oiled braid down her back and a Shiva tattoo on her forearm, seems constantly in motion—an American friend drolly refers to her as the Indian Mrs. Danvers—attending to the most minute needs of the guests.
By saying that Ahilya feels more like a private house than a hotel, I do not mean to suggest that it induces the claustrophobia one associates with a bed-and-breakfast or a homestay. “You’ll see that the pace of life is quite authentic,” Richard Holkar had said over dinner in New York several years back. “It’s easy to do nothing,” he’d added, not mentioning that there is blessedly little to do.
And now, as one day fades into the next, we find ourselves trying and failing to work up some Puritan guilt about our unusual lack of initiative. We make ambitious plans to visit the Muslim ghost city of Mandu, and then think better of the 1 1/2-hour drive over bone-rattling roads. We debate a river trip to Shiva’s island shrine at Omkareshwar long enough for the days to slip away and the plan to dissolve. New ideas form as we slump on upholstered charpoys in the shade of blowsy bougainvillea, drinking fresh lime sodas. Tomorrow, we keep telling ourselves. Then, without our having really noticed, tomorrow has come and gone.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.
When to Go
From October through March, Maheshwar is pleasantly warm and dry.
Fly Jet Airways to Indore from Delhi (11/2 hours) or Mumbai (11/4 hours). From there, it is a 21/2-hour taxi ride to Maheshwar.
Where to Stay and Eat
Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh; 91-11/4155-1575; ahilyafort.com; doubles from $520, including meals, beverages, and excursions; two-night minimum.
What to Do
Set on a high plateau 25 bumpy miles from Ahilya Fort is the abandoned sixth-century city of Mandu, built by the Muslim ruler Hoshang Shah and famed for the fine state of preservation of its many structures (said, as so many things are, to have provided inspiration for Shah Jahan in the building of the Taj Mahal).
This sacred island in the Narmada River 34 miles upstream from Ahilya Fort is the site of an important Shiva temple, the Mandhatta Jyotirling, and is close to a center of Shiva lingam manufacturing. It is also a gathering place for the wandering mendicants known as sadhus. The best way to reach Omkareshwar is by boat, but be forewarned: it’s a slow boat—eight hours one way.
Prized additions to an Indian bride’s trousseau for centuries, the intricately woven gossamer saris of Maheshwar were saved from disappearing when Richard Holkar and then-wife Shalini Devi (Sally) first came to rural Maheshwar in the late 1960’s and set about reviving the local craft and improving weavers’ lives. The Rehwa Society sells its gorgeous hand-loomed saris, scarves, shawls, and yard goods—at startlingly reasonable prices—from a small shop at Ahilya Fort. It also provides free tours of the adjacent weaving workshops.