Two heaving, panting pugs prance around my ankles as I walk in through the aged wooden doors of Ahilya Fort hotel. Only after I’ve rubbed their coats do they let me walk into the garden, gone a tad wild post-monsoon. I lean against a railing, high up on the mighty ramparts of this fortress once ruled by the 18th-century Maratha queen, Ahilyabai Holkar. Below me, the ginger-coloured waters of the Narmada River caress the ghat.
The Ahilya Fort hotel is part of 200-year-old Ahilya Wada. The complex comprises the fort and living quarters of the beloved queen, whose fair and fierce reign won over the hearts of her subjects. The hotel, built in a part of the queen’s living quarters, feels like a well-worn and well-loved Maratha home. Gnarled neem and tamarind trees stand sentry in the courtyard, privy to the conversations of guests who sit in the restaurant nearby. Daubs of fresh vermilion shine on the foreheads of deities in a small shrine near the garden. Slim wooden pillars support verandas outside the rooms, whose roofs are buried by clusters of climbing plants.
Most of the 11 rooms are named for the trees that thrive around them. I am in the spacious Kachnaar room, where wooden columns, a planter’s chair, and wooden beams on the ceiling take me back in time. It opens into the vegetable garden outside, where I spot leek, hibiscus, and avocado plants, and the Pug Mahal: kennel for the canines I met earlier.
The rooms at Ahilya Fort have neither television nor room service, and I’m glad to have more reasons to step out. Almost every corner here pays homage either to the river or the family’s history. Black-and-white photographs of the Holkar family and artefacts from their collections line the walls around the hotel’s courtyard. These share space with beautiful watercolours of the town and river painted by artists that Ahilya Fort has hosted over the years.
I keep finding new nooks and corners, and sometimes don’t meet another soul for hours. The homey library has a vast collection of fiction and non-fiction, and it is easy to sink deep into one of the armchairs on its chequered floor. When I feel like shaking off the languor, I climb the fort’s steep steps and marvel at the panoramic views of Maheshwar it offers. I sip cool jasmine water by the pool, and take short walks along rows of plants in the organic garden.
Ahilya Fort, like all of Maheshwar, derives its energy and spirit from the Narmada River and ghat. In the morning, after watching priests in the fort complex make 15,000 tiny shivlings of clay as part of a centuries-old daily ritual, the thwack-thwack of washing bats mingling with the clanging of temple bells summons me to the water. I walk down, and watch goats halt in their tracks to observe some men soaping themselves vigorously or muttering prayers as they take a dip in the river.
Over the course of the day, I learn more about the town’s history from Basant Maheswarkar. He is the wizened, toothless manager of a small museum lying just outside the hotel. It displays artefacts from Ahilya’s life. We sit in a small circle, some pilgrims and I, listening to Maheshwarkar recount the tales he grew up with. My favourite was about how the residents of Maheshwar gave up eating sweets for several years after Ahilyabai’s death in 1795, and refused to celebrate festivals.
Later, I watch weavers make stunning Maheshwari saris at an NGO centre. In the evening, the hotel packs me a picnic to take on a boat ride to Baneshwar temple, which stands in the middle of the river. On the way back, the boatman unfurls a bright orange sail, emblazoned with the name of the river. The sun sets over the ramparts and the ghat, where a man slowly dances and stretches to music. The riverside thrums with travellers and pilgrims, and I gravitate with them towards the Narmada aarti, performed by local men and women.
That night, over dinner featuring Chettinad chicken and Kashmiri lauki, I sense time slowing down. As Maheshwar and the Narmada sleep, I slip into to the calmness only small joys can bring.
Appeared in the December 2016 issue as “Queen of Hearts”.
Getting There Ahilya Fort is in the town of Maheshwar, about 90 km/1.5 hr south-west of Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Frequent buses and taxis (₹1,800 one-way) ply between the two places. The railway station in Indore is well connected to major cities.
Accommodation Ahilya Fort has two suites, 11 rooms, and two tents spread across seven buildings (ahilyafort.com; doubles from ₹26,334 per night; minimum stay 2 nights). Breakfast is a mix of continental and Indian, while dinner includes dishes from around the country. Meals are served in the garden, at the restaurant or beside the pool (on request).
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.