The young 18th Century queen Ahilyabai Holkar spurred the tradition of Maheshwari saris, enabling people from her riyasat to make a living

A little [more] than a thousand kilometres from the hustle and bustle of Varanasi, in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, lies another handloom hub – Maheshwar. Early one April morning we found ourselves in this historic town, just two hours’ drive from Indore. Walking along the banks of the river Narmada, we saw the crystal clean water. Wave after wave rose to greet the ghats (stone steps leading to the river) in a well-orchestrated symphony. Located along one side, rising majestically was a row of temples. Hundreds of stone steps led to the monuments which rose like sentinels above the river bank. What struck us most was the simplicity of the architecture. There was no gold, no silver, no tinsel. Miniature paintings, inlay work, Belgian mirrors, marble – the expensive ornaments adorning royal palaces and temples across the country were conspicuous by their absence. As far as the eye could see, it was just grey stone. And these stones were privy to the story of a woman, a young queen who charted a new life for the people of Maheshwar.

Ahilyabai was a simple girl from a town called Beed in Maharashtra. During one of his tours, the ruler of the Holkar state, Maharaja Malharao, spotted her at a Teej festival. Something about her youthful bearing struck the sagacious ruler, and he chose her to be the bride of his young son, Khonde Rao. She came as a child bride to Maheshwar in 1753. Some years later, Khonde Rao Holkar suddenly died, and Ahilya prepared, as was the custom, to ascend her husband’s funeral pyre and become sati. But Malharao stopped her. ‘You must live, my child. Maheshwar needs you,’ he said. Thus, Ahilyabai Holkar became regent for her young son, and ruled from 1765 to 1795.

Gradually, the young queen began to get acquainted with the life of her people. After her morning prayers she would sit on the ramparts of her palace so she could meet her praja (people) and listen to their problems. The more she heard, the more determined she became that no one in her riyasat (kingdom) would be denied a decent livelihood. But how was this to be achieved? What could she do to ensure that her people had a source of income not just for a season or for year but forever? At that time, 167 km from Maheshwar was a town called Burhanpur, known for its rich tradition of handloom weaving. It was from here, and from the town next door, Mandu, that Ahilya brought skilled weavers. She made them set up looms in her riyasat to teach the art of weaving to the women and men of Maheshwar. Her people acquired the skill fast enough but what they needed now were beautiful patterns that would win the hearts of consumers for all time to come. Ahilya mulled over this morning and evening as she watched the Narmada flow beneath her palace, blue and clear, creating thousands of patterns with its waves. Narmada or Rehwa, as the river is known locally, is regarded as the ‘Mother’ because its fertile banks feed people throughout the year. It was from Rehwa and from her own deep faith that Ahilya finally drew inspiration.

The patterns created by the boisterous waves of the Rehwa were first etched on the stone steps and on the walls of her palace. Then Ahilya began to construct temples along the banks of the river. And on their pillars, walls, chhatris (domed pavilions), doors and jharokhas (overhanging balconies) were engraved stone flowers, animals, birds, waves (the Narmada lehar) and many other intricate designs. … Till today, one has only to pick up a Maheshwari sari and the designs woven on the pallu or the border can be found etched on some stone slab partially immersed in the mighty Narmada, narrating the story of this visionary queen.

We saw Ahilyabai’s palace, her personal mandir (temple), and her gaddi (throne). There was a mark of simplicity in all her footprints. As we stood at the spot from where she must have viewed the flowing river, we learnt that there came a time when only twenty-five looms were left in the bustling handloom town of Maheshwar. Powerlooms produced cloth cheaper and faster. As the demand for handloom declined, the skills of the Maheshwari weavers had no takers. Slowly, the din of the looms began to fade; in the ensuing silence, misery and penury engulfed the people. Skilled weavers were forced to take up wage labour or migrate. As despondency grew, the Holkar family once again stepped in to save the people of their erstwhile riyasat and to keep alive the tradition of their dynamic ancestor. Richard and Sally Holkar created the Rehwa Society. While retaining traditional designs, this society introduced new concepts. They changed the customary nauwari (nine yards) sari to six yards. Sophisticated designs were introduced and exhibited all across the country. Orders began to pour in. A new brand for the Maheshwari weave was created under the banner of Rehwa. And, today, there are 1,500-1,700 looms in Maheshwar.

(Excerpted from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India By Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda; Published by Harper Collins.)

(Women's Feature Service).