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.