Two hours from Indore airport in the heart of Madhya Pradesh lies the eighteenth century Ahilya Fort, an understated ode to India’s grand heritage that’s tucked away more than a thousand kilometres from the grandeur and opulence of Rajasthan’s royal palaces. Step into Ahilya Fort and enter the abode of the Holkar dynasty – a home with an eminent personality, exuding memories and stories from decades past. Restored as a guest residence in 2000 by Prince Richard Holkar, the son of the last Maharaja of Indore, the fort is perched above the banks of the sacred Narmada River. It is here where you can uncover the local legend and majesty of one of India’s most celebrated female rulers, Ahilya Bai Holkar, as well as experience an undiluted homestay that exudes comforting Indian hospitality and low-key luxury.
Threads of History
In the late 1700s, Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar invited weaver communities to teach her people their craft, turning them into a flourishing community of weavers who later settled in Maheshwar. Thanks to her efforts, the town began to produce what used to be the finest fabric of Madhya Pradesh. But as the demand for handloom declined, the need for the weavers diminished, and the formerly prosperous community began to fall into despondency.
Founded in the 1970s by Richard and Sally Holkar, Rehwa Society was a non-profit organisation dedicated to reviving the tradition of weaving. While retaining the traditional nature of the designs, they introduced new concepts and a new brand was fostered under the banner of Rehwa. Today, as a guest of Ahilya Fort, you can experience and visit the present-day weavers who still practice the centuries-old customs of the craft.
As you wake up to the scent of incense drifting in from the temples below, mud from the Narmada river is being ritually shaped into a thousand miniature Shiva lingas on a wooden board right outside the entrance to the temple during a daily puja (prayer). Wander down to the ghats just below the fort and you’ll find locals going about their daily life, washing and practising yoga. Here, away from the intensity of the Ganges in Varanasi, it’s possible to partake in a slower pace of local life along the river.
From the daily programme to the food offerings, each aspect of your stay at Ahilya Fort has been personally curated by Richard Holkar himself over the past decade. Try yoga at sunrise with the in-house specialist (a former Brooklyn-based artist who runs her own ashram next door) complete with a special fire ceremony, or take a sunset boat ride to the middle of the river, dubbed “the centre of the universe” by the community.
Despite its off-the-beaten-track location, the property has activated sustainability initiatives, including the installation of three solar panels, the cultivation of an organic vegetable garden and the creation of an energy plantation for organic firewood production. Mealtimes are announced with a distinctive drum beat ahead of enjoying a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden, or a truly authentic thali platter for dinner.
A visit to Ahilya Fort is a step back in time into parts unknown of the folklore and legend of a female ruler who still reigns over this charming, undiscovered state.
[Photos are courtesy of Amanda Ho.]