Monthly Archives: February 2017

India’s Need – Smart Rural Towns -The Case of Maheshwar in Central India By Dr. Navina Jafa




Situated on the banks of River Narmada, Maheshwar is a sleepy heritage town in Central India. In recent time it has surfaced as an attractive stop in the travel circuit. One can critically offer, that its identity and attraction can be constructed along three modalities. First, its location on a sacred river has for a long time made it a popular religious tourism destination in the circuit covering neighboring places namely Omkareshwar and Ujjain.  Two, historically, it was the ruling seat of a renaissance 18thc woman – Ahilya who left behind two legacies – namely the built heritage in form of landing steps along the river, a fort, beautiful temples and cenotaphs all of which are heightened by the environmental heritage of the river;  She also left behind weaving tradition. This article traces, knits and critically analyses these multiple facets of the heritage town and advocates that India’s need is not Smart Cities but smart Rural Townships.

In India, like other old civilizations, rivers have always remained ideal locations for settlements, trade and communication. They, thus inevitably acquired a sacred status which got constructed through metaphors, symbols, myths and legends. The sacredness then manifested itself through rituals and beliefs by communities. In India, the symbolism of rivers gains an additional sacred perspective which is directly or indirectly associated with the concept of karma and mukti.  Mukti  is the idea of release through good karma or action, which is done  to escape human suffering and in turn results to transcend the cycle of life. The rivers are therefore a medium for this release, thus to attain mukti one can bathe in the river Ganges once, or bathe thrice in the now hidden river Saraswati, or seven times in river Yamuna, but most importantly in relation to this article, the mere sight of river Narmada is enough for eternal bliss.

Symbolism and metaphors on Narmada’s sacredness get extended with network of myths, the most common being that Lord Shiva[1] meditated with such intent that his flowing sweat drops gradually transformed into the river Narmada. Both Shiva and Ganges in their anthropomorphic form are believed to have had a bath in Ma (mother) Narmada and reached their release.



The sacredness of River Narmada is embodied in religious texts, festivals, rituals and pilgrimages. For example, on one hand, an important Sanskrit hymn in her honor called the Narmada Shatakam (or 100 verses on Narmada) says… Narmadashtakam: Sa-Bindu Sindhu Suskhalat Taranga Bhanga Ranjitam  … “I salute Devi (goddess Narmada) whose body is illumined with sacred drops of water and whose water ripples playfully in shape of bending waves…O Devi your sacred water has the divine power to transform hatred into love and  your power extinguishes the evil power of our  sins… You instill fearlessness in those who take refuge in you with your waters that form an armor … O Devi, mother Narmada, I bow down to your Lotus Feet… O mother give me Refuge….” On the other hand, thousands of pilgrims perform a parikrama or barefoot circumambulation of the river round the year calling her ‘Ma Narmada’ or mother Narmada and singing hymns in her honor. Many pilgrims immersed in faith walk a distance of over nine hundred kilometers along the route of this mighty river. The process of such a rigorous pilgrimage makes her a symbol of Vairagya or detachment for the pilgrim who performs the pilgrimage.

It is believed to reach mukti or release from cycle of rebirth one can bathe in the river Ganges once, or bathe thrice in the now hidden river Saraswati, or seven times in river Yamuna, but the mere sight of river Narmada is enough for eternal bliss. The local folks in Maheshwar have connected the powerful energy and symbolism of the river to the living spirit of their queen Ahilya who lived in the 18th c queen and both are perceived as ‘Mothers’, the nurturers and the protectors.



From a more realistic historical perspective, Narmada gains importance because of her geographical character. Not only does she originate and flows from and through the oldest part of the subcontinent – The Deccan plateau, but she is the fifth longest river in the Indian subcontinent and the longest west flowing river dividing North and South of India.  It was inevitable that her geographical importance led human communities to evolve her sacred identity.


AHILYA BAI – Queen of Maheshwar:  Ahilya, belonged to the ruling Holkar family who formed a part of the Maratha Confederacy. “The Maratha power began with the Maratha Peshwa, the agent of who became an effective leader…”[2] The Holkars had established their dominance in Central India. There are several stories that are associated with Ahilya including those crediting her with introducing the tradition of weaving Maheshwari sarees. One common version says that Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha’s military governor of the Malwa plateau region once happened to stop at a village called Chondi in the modern state of Maharashtra.[3]  There he came across a young girl who conducted herself impeccably while performing complex temple rituals. Impressed, he asked her parents as a bride for his son Khande Rao.  Unfortunately, very early in the marriage the young man died, and Ahilya became a window. As was the custom those days, a widow was expected to sit on the burning cremation pyre holding the body of her husband and immolate herself thereby proceeding to gain sainthood where she was called Sati.  However, Ahilya’s case, her father in law Malhar Rao Holkar, not only prevented her from committing Sati   but acted to subvert the custom. He personally trained her in military and administrator affairs and appointed her ruler. She ruled from Maheshwar from 1765-1795.[4]


However, the death of the father-in-law saw a group of chieftain resenting the rule by a woman even though she was an effective ruler. Ahilya, acted to protect herself by commissioning weavers from the Surat (in present day in the Western Indian state of Gujarat) to weave beautiful turbans, and sent them as gifts from a ‘sister’ to the group of loyal chieftains requesting them to protect her from opposing ones. Additionally, she managed to get the Brahmins or the religious clergy to back her by bestowing them with generous gifts and alms. The combined support of religious and feudal elite made her invincible, and installed her as a supreme ruler.

The oral history about gifting woven turbans to loyal chieftains takes on another angle, where it is believed that the wives of the ‘brother’ chieftains demanded that they too be given a gift, so, for each wife (sister-in-law)  Ahilya commissioned a traditional nine yard woven saree. These nine yard sarees came to be known as the ‘Ahilya Sarees’, and the weave as Maheshwari.[5]

For the local community both the river Narmada and Queen Ahilya represent Ma, or mother, they both perceived to be nurturing and protecting energies. The stature of Ahilya as a renaissance woman are aptly captured by the Scottish poetess Joanna Baillie:

“For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart, and bright her fame,
And Ahlya was her honored name.”[6]

After even the passing of more than 200 years she remains a living spirit and can be seen in the manner folks remember her, or visit and honor her small courtyard house where there is a her throne, a remake of her humble court in her residential area. Her energies resides in the impressive riverine landings (ghats) and soaring temples she built along with cenotaphs. The blessings of the river and the queen live in the woman selling a snack of sprouted black chick peas along the river …. “there is nothing to worry… Ma Ahilya and Ma Narmada are watching over us, over you…” and their energies resound  in the rhythmic clacking sound of looms run by weavers all over the town.




The Revival of Weaving:

Modern India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, championed hand-spun cloth and weaving. But India’s handloom weavers have been hit hard by the industrialization and the inability to compete internationally. They are facing stiff competition from a flood of machine-made cheap clothing and challenge of power looms replacing the handloom. The fast pace of developing India poses challenges to the traditional knowledge and skill sector and yet the revival of weaving in Maheshwar  illustrates a success story of a  movement which has produced a wave of aspiration for the future sustainable existence of handloom in India, a compelling professional engagement, empowerment for women in rural India but most of all the validity the India needs smart rural towns and not too many smart cities.

Traditionally, in most parts of India, barring North East, the skill of weaving remains largely in the hands of men. One main reason for the success of handloom weaving in Maheshwar has been shifting weaving from men to women, and re-positioning the men in other ways the still link them to weaving.



In 1978 the royal couple of Maheshwar, Sally and Richard Holkar set up the Rehwa society a non- for –profit to revive the hand weaving industry in Maheshwar with the objective to empower women and to create a holistic development program by providing housing, healthcare and education to the families of weavers. The environment and the state of weaving in Maheshwar at that time was dismal. Most traditional weavers were leaving the occupation and taking to other means of livelihood. When Rewha started, there were less than two hundred people involved in the Handloom weaving industry in Maheshwar, “our local survey of 2013 saw this number increase to about three thousand people, while fifty percent were actual weavers, the other 50 % involved in the industry were engaged in ancillary work associated with cloth weaving namely, binding, dyeing preparing the loom and the yarn. There is an involvement of about 5-6 people in creating a weaving group.”[7]

Prior to the coming of Rehwa Society, it was the men who were the weavers, while the women played subsidiary role by performing ancillary work such as spinning, assisting in dyeing.  Rewha as a localized movement began by training 12 young women from nontraditional families. The training was by senior traditional male weavers.

Rewha principally aimed to promote the Maheshwar weave which is traditionally done using cotton and silk. Earlier, Maheshwari sarees had traditional patterns which were known by poetic names such as Chandrakala (moon like motifs) Beli (creepers), such motifs formed the vocabulary of local songs and thus the saree with its motifs was a living entity that added to the essence of both the women who wore them, the weaver who wove them and the community for whom they became an identity. Unfortunately, much of it the knowledge on traditional motifs which was part of the oral heritage is now lost.[8]  Floral motifs were rare in Maheshwari weaves, instead patterns like bricks, mats and diamonds inspired from the built architecture the fort and the temples remain popular. Maheshwari sarees are found in a wide range of colors which include blue, mauve, dark pink, greens with gold-thread zari borders.[9]


The cotton was acquired from Coimbatore and Silk from Bangalore. Maheshwar, therefore, had only the skill of weaving. Hence, a part of the revival of the handloom movement in Maheshwar incorporated the use of local raw material like locally grown cotton, “… we started a new woven product which was different from the traditional weave. Gradually, the Rehwa movement took on a life of its own and spread to others in the town. Entrepreneurial weavers started business in Maheshwari textiles. The revival of the textiles included addressing issues related to wages, consciousness of grasping the interest of consumer’s taste, idea of design, nuances of marketing, and comprehension of communal identity as weavers… the Maheshwar handlooms slowly and unmistakably emerged in the larger context of the handloom industrial sector in India with a representation of a positive index growth from within an otherwise negative scenario…”[10] 


Sally Holkar in 2002 expanded the movement initiated by the REWHA society into a larger and more ambitious independent, organizational network called the Women’s Weave, and now an even more ambitious program of a handloom school. The charitable organization has organized principal women weavers in a collective business entrepreneurial networks.  The model saw not only a gender role reversal where men chose to be engaged in activities connected with the outside world such as marketing, acquiring raw material and other ancillary work, but this movement has impacted other sociological dynamics. For instance, in 1980 several of the first batch of women weavers at Rehwa were in domestic abusive situations and that reality extended itself into the working spaces. For example, the women were paid weekly wages,  on the pay day, husbands would stand outside and grab their money. “We solved the problem with the women themselves. Those days the process of opening bank accounts was cumbersome, but between us we mutually decided that a part of their earnings will be deposited with us (Rehwa) as savings.”[11]  Other changes in social behavior have been related to education and professional choices.


In 2009 Hemendra Sharma, the Chief operating officer of Women’s Weave started interacting with six children (age 7-20 years) from traditional weaving families. At that point of time, all of them claimed that with their education they were not interested in weaving. Like in many parts of India, these young people perceived their upward mobility in terms of getting government (sarkari) jobs. Hemendra, started meeting them regularly in the evenings and engaging them in informal discussions related to opportunities of learning English, or deliberating about markets, economics and politics. Getting advice on learning to speak English was a great motivating factor which led them to interact with Hemendra. One interaction led to another, and gradually these very young men from traditional weaving families who were in rejection of their heritage gradually started getting drawn back to the handloom sector. With time, several have established their own businesses. Presently many are working with big players engaged in textiles such as ‘Fab India’ and ‘Jaypore’ and earning around 20, 00,000 rupees a year.”12]


           Hence, an important part of the success story of Maheshwar remains, that the work initiated by both REHWA and Women’s weave has trickled down to permeate the entire town. Interviews with several grassroots actors in Maheshwar revealed, that if holistic systematic knowledge on handloom is combined with entire context of dynamics of socio- economic environment as part of capacity building of not only weavers, but all those who form units of handloom it results in a form of bottom up development.

The Maheshwar handloom’s successful revival also exposes and attempts to on one hand break a post-colonial mindset and on the other hand, validate the importance of Gandhian economics of bottom up empowerment which in turn reveals the faults that are arising in the stress that is put by present day idea of development that focuses on urbanization and smart cities, The following is an important argument –  “Every child in rural area thinks of becoming a blue collared professional which is limited to becoming a doctor, engineer, or getting a government job. However, the reality is that they do not have the qualification and they will never be hired for those professions. A large number of children get educated only as far as grade eight or ten. So where are the opportunities for upward mobility? Children from traditional weaving families in rural areas give up their family skills where they usually earn per day rupees 150 to 200. Many of them then move into the construction work where they get minimum daily wages of rupees four hundred and fifty. However little do they realize that this is temporary work, and secondly, it disrupts family? No one is happy!”[13]

Handloom as a cottage industry is well synergized with agrarian lifestyle. The handloom provides employment “for at least 280 days, where the aggregate income ranges from 175 -300 rupees a day. This blends with agriculture which provides 60-90 days of employment in two seasons, and where the aggregate income is about Rs.75 a day.” The combination of the two occupation are complimentary, prevents urban migration, and allows multiple income generation for rural households.


The story of Maheshwar is indeed a unique one, a location where leisure and religious tourism are synergized with a cottage industry in an agrarian framework, a splendid display of not smart city but smart rural township.  Follow : @navinajafa



[1] Lord Shiva – the God in the Indian mythological trinity symbolizing multiple ideas of which release from cycle of birth-rebirth being one)

[2] :Chaurasia, R.S: History of Marathas, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 2004. Pg : Xii


[3] Malwa – a natural region in west-central India occupying a plateau of volcanic origin

[4] Rajaswi,M.I : Ahilyabai Holkar, Manoj Publications, New Delhi, 2004, Hindi , Pg – 45-47,

[5]  Chopra, Gopika (Designed) – The Heart of Incredible India: Discovering Madhya Pradesh: Published by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation. Published as a Destination guide. Pg. 220-229; 2008

[6]Baille Joanna : Ahalya Baee: a Poem : For Private Circulation , Spottiswoodes & Shaw. London. 1849; Google books –



[7] Sharma Hemendra , Chief Operating Officer at Women Weave Charitable Trust,  Skype Interview with author. November,2014


[8] Interview with Sally Holkar, 2014.

[9] Zari is the woven thread traditionally made of fine gold or silver used in woven cloth especially as  brocade in sarees

[10]Author in Converation with Holkar, Sally, President  & Hemendra Sharma Chief Operating Officer Women Weave Charitable Trust, and on Skype, November, 2014


[11] Author in Converation with Holkar, Sally, President  & Hemendra Sharma Chief Operating Officer Women Weave Charitable Trust, and on Skype, November, 2014


[12] Author in Converation with Holkar, Sally, President  & Hemendra Sharma Chief Operating Officer Women Weave Charitable Trust, and on Skype, November, 2014

[13] Holkar, Sally, President Women Weave Charitable Trust. Interview on Skype with author, November, 2014