In a time when Indian Handlooms are in present times challenged by the invasion of power looms, the story of weaving in the heritage town of Maheshwar provides not only a glimpse of hope in the struggling handloom industry in India but that the entire dynamic heritage and its history of the past is a record of the glory of women.
Maheshwar a small town on the side of the river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh in Central India is part of the tourist circuit covering Indore, Ujjain, Omkareshwar, Dhar and Mandu. The town rose to prominence when in the second half of 18th c the hamlet saw the reign of one of India’s renaissance, remarkable Queen called Ahilya Bai Holkar.
However, it has multiple identities that of a pilgrimage, weaving and heritage town. The ex-royal family of the Holkars have done much to create the visit to this location an attractive proposition. Defined by a quaint setting, where a visitor climbs the fort area through a bustling town one approaches the tranquil waters of the holy river Narmada. The town of Maheshmati has a mythical history and is mentioned in the two epics of India namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharat.
The symbolism of both the river and the queen Ahilya is a living spiritual entity in the town. Both are perceived as ‘Mothers’.
The river Narmada or Reva as it is locally called is considered one of seven holiest rivers in India. Her name Reva means the bouncing cadence defining her flow.
Such is her importance in the individual psychological aspect of spiritual evolution that while to reach mukti or release from cycle of rebirth and suffering it is believed that 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. There are, many myths associated with the river, the most common being that Lord Shiva one of the main Gods in the Indian mythological trinity, meditated with such intent that his flowing sweat drops gradually transformed into a river. Both Shiva and Ganga came to reach their mukti by bathing in ‘Ma’ Narmada. The concept attaining freedom from the life cycle comes to purify themselves in this river, and that every pebble represents the linga or the unmanifest form of Shiva the supreme force a belief reinforced by the well know saying Narmada ke Kanker utte Shanker ” Pilgrimage rituals impel devotees to perform over nine hundred kilometers of circumambulation. The most powerful symbol of the river is that she represents Vairagya or detachment.
Apart from the tourism and pilgrimage identity, Maheshwar has emerged as a vibrant handloom weaving location and the credit goes to not only the historical queen Ahilya, who of course has emerged as a symbol related to the textile cottage industry but to Sally (of women’s weave) and Richard Holkar (Rehwa society) who initiated the revival of the heritage tradition.
History: Empowered Queen
Ahilya belonged to the ruling Holkar family. The Holkars formed a part of the Maratha Confederacy and had established their dominance in Central India. There are several stories that are associated with Ahilya and the merit of introducing weaving goes to Ahilya. One version of the story as told by the town’s people goes like this: Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha’s military governor of the Malwa region once happened to stop at a village called Chondi in the modern state of Maharashtra. He was most impressed by a young girl who conducted herself impeccably while performing complex temple rituals. He asked her parents for her, brought her back and groomed her as the bride for his son Khande Rao. Unfortunately, she was widowed before she even reached 30. As was the custom those days, a widow was expected to sit on the burning cremation pyre holding the body of her husband and would immolate herself thereby proceeding to gain sainthood where she would be called Sati. In Ahilya’s case, her father in law Malhar Rao Holkar not only prevented her from committing Sati¸ but appointed, trained her both in military and administrator affair to take over his kingdom and appointed her regent for her young son from 1765-1795. She took control as an effective ruler. However, after her father in law’s death, there was opposition from some feudal lords who resented her leadership. Ahilya, strategized ways to win overlords, she commissioned some weavers from the Surat in the Western part of India to weave beautiful turbans which she sent as gifts from a ‘sister’ to the chieftains and requested their help. The chieftains appeared with armies in her defence. Young, small built and courageous Ahilya garnered the support of the Brahmin clergy by bestowing them with generous gifts and alms. The combined support of religious and feudal elite made her invincible. However, as the common tale among with the citizens of Maheshwar goes, the sending turbans had other consequences. Wives of the ‘brother’ chieftains demanded that they too are given a gift, and the queen then commissioned nine-yard sarees which then became what is today known as the ‘Maheshwari Sarees’, and locally are fondly known as Sarees of Ahilya.
The young Queen provided the direction to her small kingdom just as the river in Jungian therapy embodies the flow of life or the goal-directedness of the psyche. The river represents for the environment of the small town Maheshwar, the symbolism of a powerful flow, and one aspect to provide that direction was the legacy of the tradition of weaving of Maheshwari Sarees, which has been re-positioned in Neo-Liberal India in a manner that provides hope to the survival of the handloom industry.
The Design of the Maheshwari Sarees: Traditionally in cotton, they were usually nine-yard the sarees were in bright colours of red, yellow, blue-green among others but today through design intervention there are a larger variety of colours and combination. Traditional Maheshwaree sarees as similar to the sarees from Pune, their end or pallu are characterized by white and red stripes with gold, their borders are inspired from the motifs in the surrounding historical architecture and environment – Leheriya – wave, the river design among several others.
Such was her rule that she has over time evolved into a symbol and has inspired or continues to inspire all kinds of creative energies, about whom the Scottish poetess Joanna Baillie expressed in her poem Ahalya Baee:
“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.”
Over 200 years have not lessened the belief that she remains alive as the reigning ruler. One can see it in the small courtyard house where there is her throne, a remake of her humble court, her residential area, it can be viewed in the impressive riverine landings (ghats), soaring temples, cenotaphs, in the woman selling a snack of sprouted black chickpeas saying “there is nothing to worry… Ma Ahilya and Ma Narmada are watching over us, over you…” and finally in the rhythmic clacking sound of looms run by women weavers. Yes the handloom in India has a chance when Women take to the Loom in all textiles towns of India
Tourist Destination: Post Script: you can do a day visit or stay a weekend, Maheshwar is well connected by road. The Ahilya Fort run by Prince Richard Holkar among several other places to stay provides the visitor with a serene getaway. One can walk or cycle around, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset along or on the river. An important part of the experience to Maheshwar is that unlike other pilgrimage locations, one is struck by the immense cleanliness that defines it. The local governing body in tandem with the locals has disciplined themselves over several years to handle the garbage.