That Evening By The Narmada, Where Devi Ahilyabai Might Have Once Stood

Shefali Vaidya

May 31, 2024, 12:14 PM | Updated 02:54 PM IST

Devi Ahilyabai Holkar
Devi Ahilyabai Holkar
  • There are few moments in life that make you feel as if your life has found its purpose.
  • Namami Devi Narmade  

    Today is the birth anniversary of Punyashlok Ahilyabai Holkar, one of the most iconic Hindu queens of Bharat. At a public event once, someone asked me, "Which woman in Indian history do you consider to be your icon?"  

    It was a profound question. From the women philosophers Gargi and Maitreyi to Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, there are many women in Indian history who could be seen as icons of women empowerment.  

    But the first mental image that came to my mind in answer to that question was of a frail woman clad in a pristine white nine yard saree with extraordinarily expressive eyes, a woman who lived her entire life only for others.

    This daughter of a simple shepherd from the village of Chaundi in the Jamkhed area of Ahmednagar district caught the eye of Peshwa Bajirao the first, who recognised her potential and recommended her as a prospective daughter-in-law to Malhar Rao Holkar, his trusted friend and aide. Malharrao too recognised young Ahilya’s core of steel as he chose her to be the wife of his only son, Khanderao.

    She came as a shy, young bride to the Indore state in today’s Madhya Pradesh and went on to etch her name into the annals of Bharat’s history — a truly incredible journey.  

    Ahilyabai enjoyed very few days of happiness in her personal life. Her husband Khanderao passed away very early catching a cannonball in the battle of Kumbheri. Ahilyabai was barely 30 years old then. According to the customs of that era, Ahilyabai was prepared to commit sati on her husband’s pyre, but her father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar begged her to not do that, reminding her of her duty towards the Indore state and its people.  

    In honour of Malhar Rao’s words, Ahilyabai chose not to commit Sati. She endured much public criticism for it as the public sentiment of the time wasn’t ready to accept such a revolutionary departure from convention.

    The life Ahilyadevi led after that was an ascetic’s life!  

    Ahilyadevi witnessed the transitions within the Peshwa regime from the legendary Bajirao Peshwa the first to Narayanrao, she witnessed first-hand, the tragic defeat of the Marathas at the battle of Panipat, she fought the machinations of Raghoba Dada to annex her little kingdom after both Malhar Rao and her son Malerao had died, and she observed with increasing helplessness, the tightening grip of the British East India Company on Bharat.  

    Amidst all these political upheavals, she not only worked hard to provide justice and prosperity in the small Holkar state but also rebuilt temples destroyed by Muslims across the country as her religious duty, she constructed dharmshalas at places of pilgrimage across Bharat for the poor and needy, built ghats on the rivers and donated money for religious causes, and she did all from her private income, not from the state’s revenue.  

    Tragically, every person she loved in life brought her nothing but disappointment. Her son turned out to be an immoral opium addict who was deep into debauchery. She had to witness her son's descent into mental disorders and his tragic death following a murder he allegedly ordered without leaving behind an heir.  

    Her beloved daughter Mukta committed Sati following her own husband Yashwantrao’s death. Ahilyabai, who had shown the courage to refrain from committing Sati herself, could not stop her daughter from taking the extreme step. Her grandson, Mukta's son, whom she was trying to groom as the future ruler of Indore state also died before her eyes. She bore all these blows stoically and lived solely for her subjects.  

    The character of this resilient woman, known for her impeccable conduct and compassionate governance, is truly inspirational.

    I first read about Ahilyadevi in an essay by famous Marathi writer, Durga Bhagwat. Titled 'Maheshwarchi Mahashweta' the essay was a passionate eulogy written for a queen who loved for others.  

    Despite having experienced immense personal grief and losses, Ahilyabai's gentle and modest personality, her unwavering care for not just the people of Indore but also the poor and oppressed across India, her work for the revival of Hinduism, and her ascetic lifestyle left a deep impact on my young mind.  

    From then on, Ahilyabai and her beloved Maheshwar found a place in my heart forever like a precious peacock feather preserved in the pages of a beloved book gifted by someone you love.

    I hadn’t been to Maheshwar by then, but the vast stone-built ghats of Maheshwar, gently tickled by the Narmada river, the clear, flowing stream of Narmada as translucent as the Maheshwari sarees woven in Maheshwar, the slender figure of Ahilyabai in a white saree, the Shiva lingam adorned with bilva leaves in her hand — all of this was deeply etched in my mind.  

    When I visited Maheshwar for the first time five years ago, it felt like returning home after many  years.  

    Indore, a small state in central India, was built from scratch by Malhar Rao Holkar’s political acumen and the power of his sword. He ruled the state as an independent ruler but as a feudatory to the Peshwas.

    Malhar Rao had only one son, Khanderao Holkar, who was Ahilyabai's husband. After Khanderao's death, Malharrao entrusted the entire administration of the Indore state to his capable daughter-in-law and personally groomed her into state craft.

    Her mother-in-law, Gautamabai, a pious and generous woman herself, taught Ahilyabai compassion and instilled in her a deep faith for Lord Shiva. Ahilyabai not only lived up to her father-in-law’s trust by efficiently managing the Indore state, but she also made her mother-in-law proud by working for the cause of Dharma. The amount of work Ahilyabai put in for Hindus across the country is unparalleled by any other Indian king or queen.  

    Fanatical Islamic invaders had destroyed many Hindu temples across Bharat. When they had destroyed temples and broken Murtis, the wounds they inflicted were not just on stone, but they also shattered the hearts and confidence of the ordinary Hindus.

    When Ahilyadevi undertook the task of building new Shiva temples at Somnath and Kashi, she was not just reconstructing buildings of stone and bricks but was also providing solace to the ordinary Hindu pilgrim. 

    Through her efforts, she was challenging and encouraging Hindu society, which had become weak and demoralised by constant defeats, to rise and reclaim their pilgrimage sites with pride. She was carrying forward the work of Shivaji Maharaj amongst ordinary Hindu citizens.  

    Even today, if you look at the map of Bharat, you will see Ahilyabai's footprints in every corner. People still visit the river ghats she built for their holy dips. From Kashi and Somnath to the temples in Gaya that she constructed or renovated, Hindus still line up there for darshan. The dharamshalas she built can be found from Badri-Kedar in the Himalayas to Rameshwaram in the south.

    These dharamshalas still provide shelter to tired and weary Hindu pilgrims. Ahilyabai accomplished all this immense work during her mere 28-year reign, living a life of extreme austerity, significantly reducing her personal needs. She used every penny from her personal income to carry out this monumental work for Dharma.  

    We have often heard the praises of how Aurangzeb, in his final days, saved money for his own shroud by weaving caps and copying the Quran by hand. But how many people know that Ahilyabai lived on a single meal a day for many years?  

    Despite being a queen, she only wore simple white Maheshwari cotton sarees. She never adorned herself with any jewellery except for a rudraksha mala. Her residence in Maheshwar never appeared grand and opulent enough to be called a 'palace.' Even today, it looks like a modest home.

    All the money she saved by living such an austere life was spent on building temples, river ghats, dharamshalas, and other works of charity for Hindu pilgrims.  

    A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Maheshwar in winter. That year, there was plenty of rain, so the Narmada appeared vast and expansive. We reached the ghats of Maheshwar at dusk, just as the sun was about to set. Tribals from the villages across the Narmada dressed in their traditional colourful attire were returning home after work in small boats. The Narmada flowed quietly, her jade-green waters swirling and gently lapping at the stone steps of the ghats.  

    The thought that Ahilyadevi might have once stood where I was standing gave me goosebumps. Even today, Ahilyabai is 'Rani Maa' to the people of Maheshwar. Her presence is still felt in Maheshwar.  

    As I watched mesmerised, the sun slowly began to dip toward the horizon. A small temple standing on a rock in the middle of the river appeared to glow from the outlines. In the distance, boats filled with villagers were gently gliding across the Narmada. The sun’s vibrant, crimson orb now lightly touched the river's surface, as if leaving a bold vermilion mark on the forehead of Mother Narmada. 

    The crowd on the ghats had now thinned. Close to the water, on the last step of the ghat, a woman stood offering her prayers to the setting sun. An all-encompassing silence prevailed, broken only by the soft murmur of Narmada's waves and my breath. A slight shiver ran through me. 

    Just then, a priest arrived carrying a tray prepared for the evening's rituals. It was time for the daily Narmada Aarti. Unlike the grand ceremonies of Rishikesh or Varanasi’s Ganga Aarti, this was a spare, simple affair, much like Ahilyabai’s own modest and serene personality. The Aarti was conducted by just one elderly priest, accompanied by another playing the cymbals, and a third man singing in the background. Just three people and a few stray visitors like me. The Aarti commenced, and the priest began reciting Adi Shankaracharya’s Narmadashtak in a clear voice.  


    Dviṣatsu pāpajātajātakārivārisaṃyutam.  


    Tvadīyapādapaṅkajaṃ namāmi devi Narmade...  

    It was an enchanting evening, with Adi Shankaracharya’s divine words, the eternal flow of Narmada, the blessings of Devi Ahilyabai, and the many dough lamps gently floating down the river on banana leaves. There are few moments in life that make you feel as if your life has found its purpose. That evening by the Narmada was one of those moments.  

    The writer is a freelance writer and newspaper columnist based in Pune.

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