Ahilya Fort hotel clings to the ramparts, overlooks basalt temples and a sinuous Narmada.
Women wash clothes on the banks of the river like centuries before, bare bodied children leap into the waters and painted boats chug along taking devotees to the different Shiva temples along the banks. Deep in the fertile plains of one of India's largest States, is a town called Maheshwar where time has stood still. Ahilya Fort is a piece of glorious Indian history. Akbar built the ramparts here in 1601 and Ahilya Bai Holkar, the philosopher queen and a prolific builder who personally led armies into battle, made this her home for 30 years from 1766. Ahilya Fort was built in the simple Wada style of Maratha architecture — with wooden pillars and supporting beams made of lime and bricks. It's a complete antithesis to the opulent palaces that are found elsewhere in India. Today, part of it has been converted into an atmospheric and intimate heritage hotel with 13 tastefully decorated rooms by Prince Richard Holkar, her descendant and the son of the last Maharajah of Indore.
Ahilya Fort's main selling point is her magnificent location. The hotel clings to the walls of the fort and looks down on the Ghats, the basalt stone temples and the sinuous Narmada River. When Richard started restoring the hotel, with the help of Mysore based conservation architects, Ravi Gundu Rao and Associates, the derelict fort had no running water, the pillars were rotting and there was bat excreta all around. Today, it's a splendid maze of low, white washed buildings, hidden terraces and turrets, corridors and lush gardens.
Rattan furniture painted black and white, wooden ceilings, piles of books almost everywhere — on eclectic subjects from history and art to philosophy and fiction, an internet room with an antique door, two adorable pugs called Yoda and Alhambra... the ambience created is warm and cozy. Gods and goddesses smeared with vermillion, urns and planters filled with flower petals, paintings of local scenes and sepia photographs of the Holkar family all create a back-in-time feel. Each room is unique and is named after the tree that it overlooks. I am in the Gulmohar Room with a lounger and antique desk, soft Chanderi quilts on my bed, marigolds in brass vessels and old style fans. The bathroom has modern plumbing but the endearing details continue — a brass bucket and lota with rough stone floors. There are no modern distractions like television, intercoms or even room service. The silence is deafening broken only by the distant drone of a motor boat or the croaks of frogs and bird-song.
The personal touch is evident everywhere. Kunta Bai, a genial, warm lady came to work for the Holkars more than 30 years ago, and today she is a virtual institution. A picnic lunch of aloo parathas and aam ka achaar is rustled up in no time, a local masseuse is summoned and in many ways it feels like a welcoming home. Stanford-educated, debonair Richard Holkar, of course, is an integral part of the Ahilya experience — whether setting the daily menu for his chef, enquiring about a missing cocktail shaker or educating someone on the nuances of masala porridge. He is himself a gourmet cook and the author of a cookery book. The food is organic and local — most of the fruits and vegetables are grown right here in the gardens of the hotel or sourced directly from where it's grown.
Delicious meals are served alfresco in different places — in the terrace overlooking the Narmada or the courtyard garden of the erstwhile cow shed or the lush Poshakwada filled with greenery. There are jams and preserves which have been made by Richard in Paris, house-made walnut bread, salads and cold soups. There's a unique “Battisi” preserve, which has 32 ingredients and Richard claims that you cannot taste it outside Ahilya Fort!
Come night, Ahilya Fort takes on a bewitching look. Oil lamps are lit everywhere, casting small, warm pools of orange light and creating a dramatic stage for aperitifs. From the terrace we hear the chants of prayers and the ringing of bells on the Ghats. There is a loose “community” kind of dining experience where you can mingle with the other guests. I enjoy my evenings with chatty Mumbaikars, elegant Parisians, NRI returnees engrossed in social change and an investment banker with a yen for photography. Every turn or flight of stairs seems to lead to a hidden treasure. There is the Lingarchan courtyard which has two quaint rooms called Neem and Imli with window seats that have panoramic views of the Narmada.
Though Ahilya Fort is perfect for lotus-eating, I tear myself away to visit the Baneshwar temple in the middle of the river, which local legend says is the centre of the universe. Another day I take a trip on bone-rattling roads to Mandu, a town of beauteous ruins and legends. I visit Rehwa (the old name for the Narmada), an organisation started by Richard and his former wife Sally in the 1970s to resurrect the local Maheshwari weaving. Today it provides employment to more than 150 weavers, runs a school for the weavers' children and has brought back the glory to the gossamer Maheshwari sari.
The charm of Ahilya Fort is that it's a throwback to a gentler era and pace of life — when the high points of a day are a walk on the Ghats or a boat ride on the river. It's an authentic, multi-faceted Indian experience, which is rare in the relentless march to modernity.
How to get there: Fly Jet Airways to Indore through Hyderabad or Mumbai and from there it's a two-hour drive to Maheshwar. Ahilya Fort arranges pick up at a cost.
Where to stay: Ahilya Fort has doubles with garden and river views. Contact Durgesh Chaddha at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org for bookings.
What to do: Take a boat ride on the Narmada, visit the numerous Shiva temples, and take a day trip to Mandu and Omkareshwar. Visit the Rehwa looms to see how they weave Maheshwari saris.
Buy: Maheshwari saris and salwar suits, scarves and dupattas.
For further information visit www.ahilyafort.com
The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU SUNDAY MAGAZINE, 2011