LIVING LIKE ROYALTY
Words: SHRADDHA UCHIL
Photographs SUPRIYA KANTAK
GREAT FROM New Delhi, Mumbai, Indore
GREAT FOR A quiet, romantic weekend
“What’s that sound?” you think to yourself as you hear the chanting upon entering Ahilya Fort. As you step out onto the balcony of your room, it grows clearer. It’s one of the gardeners intoning, “Ram Sita Ram…Ram Sita Ram…”, a chant that continues to be in the background during your stay at this beautiful heritage resort.
You quickly learn that spirituality runs deep in the veins of Maheshwar’s residents, just like it did in the veins of their beloved queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar, who ruled Indore in the 18th century from the palace that’s now a hotel.
On arrival, you’re greeted by Kunta Bai, whose worn-out sari and unassuming appearance belie her towering personality. Appointed caretaker (and resident superwoman) when the owner, Richard Holkar, is away in France, she is much like a mother dragon with her baby, fiercely protective and proud. The fort itself is part public garden and part hotel, the latter part walled away from the eyes of curious tourists. Inside, it’s a different world: one where silence is indeed golden, with only the chirping of birds and, of course, the chants in the air. Sepia-toned photographs of the royal family adorn the whitewashed walls around the courtyard, while rain-soaked trees and flowers infuse the space outside with life and colour. There’s no room service or TV, so you have all the time you need to explore the hidden nooks.
Meals here are always a surprise – you could have breakfast by the pool, lunch in a shaded courtyard, and dine by night along the fort’s rampart, overlooking the Narmada River. Featuring dishes from the royal kitchens, the daily-changing menu uses fresh produce from the resort’s organic garden.
On a pleasant day, step down to the ghats flanking the river – the sight is a mirror image of Varanasi, minus the crowds. Gape at Ahilya Bai Holkar’s cenotaph here, a plain monument surrounded by beautiful structures commissioned much after her death by her daughter-in-law. This is also where you can take a boat ride to Baneshwar Temple on a tiny island in the Narmada River. Lore has it that this temple lies on the axis connecting the centre of the Earth to the pole star. The hotel also offers boat rides with a twist – and champagne. You dine in the midst of hundreds of diyas, set afloat prior to your arrival, with your loved one. How’s that for a great splurge for romance?
There’s plenty to do if you’re rained in too. Loll in the library, which stocks everything from pulp fiction to tomes on the royal dynasties of India. Rainy days are also perfect for some pampering at the spa.
To know more about the history of this place, seek out Basant Maheshwarkar, a crumpled old man who says he is “only 62 years old.” He’ll tell you how the fort was captured by the Holkars, and about the death of Ahilya Bai’s husband, after which she was asked to assume the throne instead of committing sati. “Ahilya Bai was the best ruler we had,” he says reverentially as he shows you around Maheshwar Palace, her living quarters now transformed into a small museum that’s open to public.
The queen’s legacy lives on in Maheshwar and her people, and there’s no better way to experience it than by living in the heart of Ahilya Fort, where it all began.