Ahilyabai Holkar: the people’s ruler, the people’s goddess

Queen, warrior, social reformer and saint: I had never heard of Ahilyabai Holkar until we saw a statue of her in a park in Indore. I looked her up on Wikipedia then and there.

Photo of statue of Queen Ahilyabai Holkar in Rajwada Chowk, Indore, Madhya PradeshGlancing up from my phone to tell Alan what I’d learned, I saw a man standing before the statue of Ahilyabai, his hands folded in prayer. I watched as he prostrated, then sat in meditation at her feet. That’s when I understood Ahilyabai is much more than a historical figure, or even a heroine: She is a goddess.

She didn’t start out that way. Ahilyabai was born a commoner in 1725, in what is today the state of Maharashtra.  Girls weren’t sent to school in those days, but her father, who was the village headman, taught her to read and write. This unusual advantage likely helped enable her place in history.

Far less unusual is the fact that she was married at eight years of age. Malhar Rao Holkar, the ruler of Malwa (in what is today Madhya Pradesh), stopped at her village for a visit. He saw the little girl feeding the poor at the local temple, and was so impressed with her character that he claimed Ahilyabai as a bride for his son. Soon after, Ahilyabai was married and living in the palace in Malwa as the wife of the heir to throne.

She grew up and had two children, a son born when she was 20 and a daughter three years later. I assume she fulfilled all the duties of the traditional wife and mother of her time and station in life, but even so, her intelligence set her on a different path. When her husband was killed in battle in 1754 and Ahilyabai tried to commit sati – at just 29  – her father-in-law stepped in and persuaded her not to kill herself. She was too valuable to him and to his people, he said: He relied on her insights and judgment for help in ruling Malwa.

(In case you haven’t heard of sati, it’s the practice of a wife burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Traditionally it was considered to be a holy practice, and voluntary, though it’s certain that at least some widows were forced to it. Sati was outlawed in the 19th century, but one sometimes reads of sati occurring even in modern times.)

Twelve years after the death of her husband, Ahilyabai’s father-in-law died. At first, Ahilyabai’s son Male Rao Holkar was appointed as the ruler, with Ahilyabai as the regent. But his reign lasted only a few months before he died. Male Rao was apparently insane, cruel and incompetent, depending on which accounts you read. In one story, he put scorpions into the shoes of some courtiers; they were bitten and died. For this, Ahilyabai herself sentenced him to death, and he was crushed beneath the foot of an elephant.

It sounds impossible: How could a mother do this? Let alone one so revered for her compassion and piety. But the story is cited by some as evidence of her divine wisdom and the depth of her caring for the people of her kingdom. She was not going to let them be ruled by a madman.

Ahilyabai’s 30-year reign is, in fact, considered to have been one of the best for the common people of India. She showed great compassion for the poor and laboring people of her kingdom, keeping taxes on poor people low (or nonexistent) while building forts, roads, wells, and rest-houses for travelers, and planting shade trees along roads all over the kingdom. She created a peaceful environment for farmer and merchants by making a treaty with groups that preyed on her people. She granted these groups the right to live in hilly land surrounding Malwa and to collect reasonable duties on goods passing through their territory.

Ahilyabai moved the capital of Malwa to Maheshwar, a small town on the Narmada River. There she established a textile industry that’s still an important economic force today. As you walk around the streets of Maheshwar, you hear the clack-clack-clacking of many handlooms resounding in the front rooms of modest houses.

Lady in front of her house with a handloom filling the front room and a spinning wheel set up on the front porch. Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh.
A handloom in her front room, spinning wheel on the stoop.

Today’s royal family continues to support and expand this industry, offering free training at a weaving school they established for local people. The family also has several workshops, with attached schools for the weavers’ children.

Under Ahilyabai, Maheshwar became a thriving little city, and Ahilyabai hosted poets, musicians and artists of all kinds. She was constantly building temples, dharamshalas, chhatris and other monuments, employing many craftsmen, artisans and sculptors. She also developed Indore from a small village to a large and thriving city. Her activities spread across India, and she built temples as far north as Gangotri and Kedarnath in the Himalayas, as far east as Puri (in Odisha) and as far south as Rameswaram (in Tamil Nadu).

It’s easy to recognize the monuments that Ahilyabai is responsible for in Maheshwar and Indore – they are gracefully laid out, and beautifully embellished with sculptures. I particularly enjoy the fact that these are often of people from all walks of 18th-century Indian life – musicians, artisans, nursing mothers, sadhus, scholars.

Old Krishna temple in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and girls relaxing and taking selfies.
Krishna temple in Indore.
Ahilyabai's fort
Ahilyabai’s fort in Maheshwar.
Drunken soldier
English soldier feeling up a local woman who’s serving him a cup of wine.
Drummer and snake charmer
Musician and snake charmer
Family group

While Ahilyabai is remembered today for the peace and prosperity that characterized her long reign, it’s interesting that she is also remembered as a successful warrior and leader of warriors. (Ahilyabai is often depicted as an archer.) It’s clear that military skill was necessary to assure the security of her subjects, a security that permitted a great deal of economic development.

Ahilyabai was also known as a diplomat, and it’s clear that she made use of both her military and diplomatic skills to protect her subjects. She was able to avert at least one war by telling the other ruler that it would be deeply humiliating to have his army defeated by an army of women.

Woman warrior 2
A woman archer at the corner of a temple in Maheshwar. A reference, perhaps, to Ahilyabai’s reputation as an archer and to her all-female army.

Piety is another virtue attributed to Ahilyabai. She not only built many temples and dharamshalas, she also is said to have lived in a very simple way, possessing only three saris (and apparently she wove them herself). The Holkar palace in Indore is large, but Ahilyabai’s palace in Maheshwar is small and modest for a royal personage – it’s more like the traditional house of a Brahmin with ample means and a large family.

Ahilyabai palace exterior
Exterior of Ahilyabai’s palace in Maheshwar.
Ahilyabai's palace Maheshwar
Interior courtyard of Ahilyabai’s palace in Maheshwar.

Ahilyabai also bettered the lot of widows, giving them the right to keep their husbands’ wealth, and to adopt a son if they did not have one. (Sons were an absolute necessity in traditional Indian life, as they stayed in their parents’ home when they married, and provided for them as they aged. Writing “were” is actually a little weird, because this is still the system in many Indian families today.)

As much as Ahilyabai’s life and actions challenged tradition, she also suffered for it. Her own daughter committed sati, which must have been a dreadful loss. It also seems Ahilyabai had no grandchildren; when she herself died at 70, she was succeeded by a military commander who had served under her for many years.

All these facts are interesting, but what’s most interesting about Ahilyabai is walking around Maheshwar, its ghats, fort, temples and streets, and feeling her presence and legacy. The rhythm of handlooms and spinning wheels in the streets; the schools where children play under huge trees; the beautifully designed and ornamented temples that are still alive with bells and chants – all this is descended from her rule. When you stand on the ghats looking up at the fort, or in the fort’s gateway looking down, it’s easy to imagine Ahilyabai making her way down the gracefully flowing stairs that lead to the water, a brass pot in her hand, ready to take her morning dip and say her prayers.

Photo of the feet of a dancer on the side of a temple in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh

More information about Ahilyabai

The best resource I found for historical details about Ahilyabai is here: http://ahilyabai-holkar.blogspot.com/


Surprised by Indore

Photo of a mother and daughter who jumped into our rickshaw in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
This mother-and-daughter duo jumped into our rickshaw our first morning in Indore. We enjoyed a chat (and a few selfies) before they jumped out to shop.

I didn’t expect much from Indore. The city doesn’t seem to get a lot of love from the Rough Guide authors, nor from reviewers on TripAdvisor. So I just thought of Indore as a large Indian city marred by traffic, noise and pollution.

Being a major hub within the Indian railway system, you pretty much have  to pass through Indore to get to other places in Madhya Pradesh. Because our railway journey from Haridwar to Indore was a long overnight haul, we decided we’d spend two nights in Indore to recover before making the bus journey to Maheshwar. As it turns out, we’re glad we did.

Yes, Indore is large, and yes, there’s plenty of traffic, along with the attendant horn honking and bad air. But the streets of inner Indore are highly rewarding for anyone who loves to walk and look, a fascinating mix of colorful clothing and jewelry shops, small vegetable markets, temples and mosques, and traditional buildings in varying states of decay.

Looking through a curtain of colorful saris into a sari shop, with the proprietor showing saris to some ladies. Cloth market district, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
Shopping for saris in Indore’s cloth market.

As we walked through the narrow, tightly-packed streets of Indore’s central old city, we could see that we were moving from one distinct neighborhood to another, the people of each neighborhood bound together by religion and social affiliation.

Kanch Mandir and Sarafa Bazaar

For our first walk, we decided to head for Sarafa Bazaar and the Kanch Mandir. Sarafa Bazaar is known for jewelry shops and food, a destination for foodies eager to sample a wide range of local specialties. The Kanch Mandir, located at one end of Sarafa Bazaar, is a Jain temple known for its interior decorations fashioned from glass.

We reached the Kanch Mandir after passing several beautiful mosques and Hindu temples tucked into rows of busy shops – kitchen supplies, motorcycles, shoes, groceries, you name it. From the outside, the Kanch Mandir certainly looks large and important, but the face it turns to the street is fairly plain and unimposing, at least compared to its interior. We shed our shoes, walked upstairs into the entry  –  and stopped.

Just inside the Kanch Mandir is a temple guardian made of glass. Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
Temple guardian made of glass.

We were stunned by our first impression. All around us were murals, portraits of saints and gurus, magnificent patterned borders and ceiling decorations, and every bit of it made of glass. Even the floors that gleamed up at us were made of glass.

You would think the inside of such a temple would be so brilliant, you’d need sunglasses just to stand in the space. But it’s not like that at all. The effect is curiously like a darkened cave with light reflecting off millions of tiny wet surfaces. As you move around, these reflections flicker, like stars winking at you from the nighttime sky.


The Kanch Mandir, a Jain temple in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Its interior surfaces are all encrusted with glass: walls, floors, pillars, ceilings, altar niches.
Every interior surface of the Kanch Mandir is encrusted with glass: walls, ceilings, pillars, floors and prayer niches.

I walked up to one elaborate mural depicting seven levels of heaven and seven levels of hell, with the earth in between, and stared at the surface up close. Each tiny piece of glass in this elaborate mosaic appeared to be curved, and while every piece was certainly reflective, you could also see through them. It was as if you were looking through the glass surface and into a deep, dark forest beyond the temple walls.

We left the Kanch Mandir and wandered out to admire jewelry and search for the famed food shops of Sarafa Bazaar. I think we missed out on most of these because we were visiting in the daytime. I read – but kind of ignored – that the food scene happens in the evening. There’s a story behind the food scene in Sarafa Bazaar: apparently at some point the jewelers in the district began allowing food vendors to set up right in front of the jewelry stores in the evenings to provide security. The idea was that with all the customers, noise and bustle, burglars would not have the opportunity to break in.

Photo of elaborate gold jewelry in a jeweler's window in Sarafa Bazaar, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
Bling in Sarafa Bazaar. Yes, it’s all real.

Whatever Sarafa Bazaar is like at night, we were surprised by an odd dearth of restaurants. Most cities we visit have at least a couple of streets filled with restaurants, and usually you can find places to eat in any shopping area that appeals to ladies. But we walked up and down, and saw nothing but sweets and fried snacks. Yes, it’s certainly food, but we don’t feel like we can make a meal of samosas, pani puri, chaat, ice cream and milk sweets. We couldn’t even find anything we recognized as an ordinary chai shop. Ultimately, we did find one restaurant that served thali – the  traditional lunch or dinner made up of small bowls of dal, vegetables, raita or curd, along with rice and bread – but I had to ask Mr. Google to help us locate it.

The Jains

After the Kanch Mandir, our wanderings brought us to several different temples we could now recognize as Jain. We entered one street – it was the street where we found the thali restaurant – and found a long row of beautiful historic houses, several stories tall and boasting elaborately decorated fronts.  Among these we spotted a large and particularly beautiful Jain temple with white-and-gold pillars supporting a wide front porch. We climbed the stairs and went in to look around.

Photo of exterior of white and gold Jain temple, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
White and gold Jain temple.

Just like the glass temple, we were surprised by what we found inside. There was a large central atrium with light streaming in from above, surrounded by white-and-gold pillars. This space was bright, and as the sun broke through the morning’s cloud cover, it gleamed so strongly on the white marble floor that  I had to avoid looking at these patches – I was getting those annoying, almost painful retinal imprints masking my vision.  

Interior of white-and-gold Jain temple.

Around the atrium, the spaces were darker and easier on the eyes. I roamed, admiring elaborate painted murals. The one below seems to depictpeople worshipping in a temple, with heavenly beings in boat-like vehicles looking on from the skies above. 

Highly detailed wall mural in the white-and-gold Jain temple, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

We spent about half an hour in this temple, then wandered out to the street and looked again at the historic buildings. It finally struck us what we were seeing: a Jain district, with each street centered around its own temple. Some of the temples were large and important, like the Kanch Mandir and the white-and-gold temple; others were smaller and more modest. There were some beautiful old buildings in the street with the white-and-gold temple; a lady waved to me from her balcony as I took photos.

Historic house 1

We realized also that the jewelry business is traditional for Jains, whose religion enjoins its people from any livelihood that can do harm to living creatures. I also realized then why the meal we had at the thali restaurant had seemed so unusual: It included no potatoes, carrots, onions or garlic. It was a Jain meal, and Jains do not eat root vegetables.

During our travels in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Sudan, we’d grown used to seeing that mosques are usually surrounded by businesses selling prettier things – perfumes, sweets, books and other things fit to be near a house of God. And of course, around Hindu temples here in India you can always find similar businesses, shops selling sweets, flowers, puja supplies and the kinds of scarves and shawls people wear to temples. But this was the first time we’d actually taken note of a Jain neighborhood, and what that looks like – the architectural style, the types of businesses people own. The experience added a new layer (or at least the beginnings of one) to our understanding of India’s rich mix of cultures.

Indore’s parks and monuments

One thing that makes even the busiest city bearable is parks. We’ve had the unfortunate experience of walking through cities that seem to have no parks at all, and that means you get no moments of respite from honking horns, the endless stream of motorcycles passing you much too closely, and having to watch every minute for traffic coming the wrong way.

Indore has plenty of parks, and some beautiful temples providing leafy retreats from the noise of the street. We went into one park that’s a big circle at the center of busy traffic, just in front of the Rajwada Palace, a local monument that was unfortunately closed for renovations. The park, called Rajwada Chowk, is lovely, filled with royal palms and other huge mature trees, plus plenty of benches.

There was a statue of a sari-clad woman where we chose to sit and rest. Being the eager Hindi students we are, we worked out who the statue depicted: Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, a much-loved and much-revered Hindu ruler during the 18th century. 

Photo of someone worshipping Ahilyabai in Rajwada Chowk, Indore, Madhya Pradesh
Worshipping Ahilyabai in Rajwada Chowk.

Ahilyabai is still an important figure here in Madhya Pradesh, and we found more monuments to her in the form of Hindu temples, on the other side of the river from Mahatma Gandhi Road. These monuments are also in a calm, peaceful little park with old trees, called Chhatri Bagh. (A “chhatri” is a cenotaph, and “bagh” means garden, so it’s a memorial garden to Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, with the temples serving as memorials to her.)

Photo of the two Ahilyabai chhatris in Chhatri Bagh, Indore, Madhya Pradesh
Chhatri Bagh, located near the bridge over the Saraswati River.

We went in twice over a couple of days, and I’d always find a few men sleeping in the shade of one of the monuments, hidden from view at the back. The temples themselves – there are two in one monument, one in the other – were locked up each time we visited Chhatri Bagh, so we couldn’t go inside. But the monuments are beautiful in themselves.

Looking from the larger Ahilyabai monument to the smaller one. At Chhatri Bagh, Indore, Madhya Pradesh



Besides parks, there are a lot of temples in Indore that provide respite from the noise of the street. One was a huge old Krishna temple, the first I’ve seen in a long time. Its stonework reminded me of temples in the south, and there was a lot of restoration being done on the temple and the building surrounding it.

Artist restoring old paintings on building surrounding the old Krishna temple, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
Artist restoring old paintings on building surrounding the old Krishna temple.

We weren’t the only one enjoying the quiet of the temple. A few people came in while we were visiting, some to pray and some just to hang out and relax.

Old Krishna temple in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and girls relaxing and taking selfies.
In the old Krishna temple.

We found people in Indore incredibly friendly. Someone would just walk up to us on the street and engage in conversation – the kind of event that makes me wish I knew a lot more Hindi than I do now. And of course, there were the mom and daughter who got into our rickshaw and chatted excitedly with me until they got out. (Alan moved up front with the driver to accommodate the two ladies.)

Music: another surprise

Our second night in Indore, we were blessed with an unexpected treat: an evening of beautiful music. I have no idea what was going on, whether it was a wedding, a religious occasion or a concert, but around 8:00 it started up – a series of songs accompanied by drumming and instruments. The songs started off melodic and gentle and filled with longing, and over the course of a couple of hours, built up to faster tempos with more drumming.

I couldn’t hear well enough to recognize any words, but I think it was qawwali music – a type of Islamic devotional music that often mixes longing for one’s beloved with longing for the Beloved, the divine presence. (If you’ve ever listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you’ve heard qawwali.) The music felt like Indore’s final special gift to us, another wonderful surprise in a surprisingly wonderful city.  

A walk along the Ganga


It’s been years since we had a pet of our own. But since we’ve been traveling, we’ve had a surprising amount of affectionate interaction with animals. I spent a fair amount of time holding puppies at an animal shelter last year, and since then, we’ve had quite a few random encounters with animals of one kind or another.

Today we set out late in the morning for a walk along the Ganga, intending to get onto the river beach and walk upriver until we got tired or ran out of beach to walk on. It was a bright day, but not too hot. The wind that rushes down the Ganga River valley early each morning, blowing sand into our faces, had already subsided, leaving just a light breeze playing in the tops of trees.

We headed down the sloping dirt path that leads from the road to the riverside, and were immediately joined by a medium-sized dog.  Dog on Ganga Beach, Rishikesh, UttarakhandI noticed his beautifully marked brindled coat immediately – that, and the fact that he stopped to eat some lantana leaves. He also gulped down one of the bright orange flowerheads. “Alan, that dog just ate a flower,” I called down the slope, as the dog raced ahead.

I took a while to make it down to the bottom, where  I found Alan chatting with a tall man in athletic gear. His accent sounded American, and sure enough, he is a transplanted American, now living in Canada. He had assumed the dog was Alan’s, and asked about it, starting a friendly conversation about meditation, ashrams, politics and samsara.

We parted after a few minutes and continued upriver, climbing beautiful rocks deeply scored by wind, water and weather. The dog raced ahead, came back to us, nudged his nose under my hand a few times and trotted beside me for a while, before racing off again. He got particularly excited whenever he spotted bandars (chunky brown monkeys) or langurs (black-faced silver-furred monkeys) bouncing in the high branches of the trees that grow along  the beach.

We passed groups of people enjoying the beach and the water, some splashing around, others reading quietly on the shore. Raft after brightly-colored raft of whitewater enthusiasts passed us, floating on the fast current in the center or pulling out to the side to drift. And all along the river were huge boulders here and there, and the views of the forested Himalayan foothills above us.

Boulders in the Ganga River, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

After we’d walked for 15 minutes or so, the beach became very quiet, nearly empty of people. We came across a couple of sadhus, one napping in the sun and the other washing his clothes in the river. The dog visited with each sadhu in turn, but then bounded forward to join us as we continued up the beach.

Eventually we came to some huge boulders, ending that stretch of walkable beach. We found a nice flat place on a sort of shelf above the river’s surface, where I spread out a flowered cotton blanket. Immediately, Dog plopped down and settled himself on the clean surface, scattering wet sand everywhere. “Why don’t you just make yourself comfortable?” I asked, and Alan laughed.

Dog steals beach blanket. Ganga River beach, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

I couldn’t exactly lie down in for a sunbath as planned, so I changed into my bathing suit (discreetly, of course – a skill learned on beach days in my Southern California childhood), and ventured down to the water’s edge.

In case you were wondering, the Ganga is stunningly cold this time of year. “How is it?” Alan asked. I noticed he hadn’t gone beyond taking off his socks and shoes. “Freezing,” I said. “Well, it was probably snow about 12 hours ago,” he informed me.

I decided to be brave and get as far into the river as I could stand. This meant up to my waist. It was so cold I could stay in only by moving around. As I kicked out each leg, fresh currents of even colder water washed over my skin. It was both too much and kind of an interesting feeling. After a few minutes though, I feared the cold would affect the old injury in my lower back, so I got out.

Clambering up the sandy bank in the sunshine made me warm again. I wandered to where the water was shallower, and got in again. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it wasn’t freezing now, either. I stood in the water and watched it drifting around the rocks and my body, the surface rippling and the shadows of those ripples on the sand below. I looked out to the deep channel of the river where the current runs fast, to the white foam where currents collide, and to the quieter channel where the crests of tiny wavelets sparkled in the bright sun.

Returning to Alan and the blanket, I found Dog had left to race up and down the beach. Ignoring the sand he’d left behind, I lay in the sun and luxuriated in the feeling of sunlight warming my cold skin. When I got warm enough I sat up to watch the river again, its surface and the light on it ever-constant and ever-changing.

I don’t know how long we sat watching before Dog came back to us, ready to rest in our company. I scratched behind his ears, first one then the other.  Dog relaxed on Ganga River beach, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand After a while we noticed the light had changed angles, the shadows of huge boulders lengthening their reach out into the river. Evening was approaching; it was time to head back to town, find a meal and settle down for the night.

The walk downriver was as pretty as the walk up, but the beach was much emptier of people now. As we headed back up the steep slope towards the road, Dog joined us. He stopped for another snack of lantana leaves.

Dog trotted with us to where they’re building a new yoga ashram alongside the river, the place where the little tourist restaurants cluster. I didn’t notice when or where Dog left us, but I did see a lot more dogs around. I guess he picked us up when we entered his territory, joined us for the afternoon, and stayed in his own territory when we left it.

I still wondered about the dog eating the lantana. The odor of lantana is strong – it always reminds me of my childhood, and of the little brown butterflies that used to cluster around it. I wondered how a dog could possibly enjoy eating it. Maybe, I thought, lantana has medicinal properties, and Dog is eating it for his health? So I looked it up on the internet, and sure enough, lantana is good for all kinds of things: cancer, itchy skin, leprosy, rabies, measles, asthma and other respiratory ailments, chicken pox and ulcers.  Thank you, Dog.

I couldn’t resist adding these shots of the beautiful patterning on some of the boulders on the Ganga river beach.

Haridwar: a walk to Kankhal and the Ma Anandamayi ashram

Some interesting old buildings we spotted in Kankhal during our walk to Ma Anandamayi's  ashram in Kankhal, a suburb of Haridwar.
We spotted some interesting old buildings in Kankhal during our walk to Ma Anandamayi’s ashram.

Today was the third of a six-day visit to Haridwar, a break from Hindi classes and the rains of Mussoorie. We decided to have a morning walk to the Ma Anandamayi Ashram in Khankal, just over four kilometers from our hotel. There are, of course, many Anandamayi ashrams, including Ma’s ashram in Almora, where we spent a fair amount of time in July and August. The ashram in Kankhal is where Ma’s samadhi is located. For those of you not familiar with Indian terms, the samadhi is the place where a guru’s bodily remains are housed. Samadhi actually means the state of eternal bliss, the merging into oneness that takes place when a teacher’s work on this earth is complete, and the body is left behind.

The walk from our hotel to the ashram is about 4.5 kilometers. Despite being a center for Hindu religious practice, Haridwar is not a particularly peaceful or relaxed place. The roads are mostly quite narrow, at least for all the traffic they carry. Rickshaw, vikram (a larger type of rickshaw) and scooter drivers are constantly blaring their horns. It makes any trip along the streets exceedingly noisy, sometimes to the point of actual pain. I keep forgetting to tuck my earplugs into my bag, so I walk down the street with my hands by my head, one finger on each side firmly pressing the flesh of each ear across its opening.

This morning was different. We started early enough that the traffic hadn’t built up yet. Google Maps showed us a route going southwest on a narrow street that eventually ran right next to the Ganga canal. The British built this canal many years ago, and curiously, this is where Haridwar’s famous ghats and clocktower are located, rather than on the banks of the natural river channel.

The Ganga canal with the famous clock tower and temples. Haridwar, Uttarakhand.
The Ganga canal with the famous clock tower and old temples. This is where people gather for the evening aarti puja every night, and the clock tower is what people rely on to tell when the auspicious time for bathing begins during the Kumbh Mela that takes place here every 12 years.

As the street joined the edge of the canal, we noticed more and more large dharmashalas (pilgrims’ rest houses) and huge private homes along both sides of the street. It’s natural, of course; people have always come to Haridwar to bathe in the holy river, and bathing in the early morning is an especially good thing to do. Staying right on the river’s edge gets you as close as possible.

To our left, I looked into the big open entries of some dharmashalas and houses. Imagine huge open doors like the opening to a medieval castle, and you’ve got the picture. I expected to see courtyards, but to my surprise and delight, I found myself looking right through a hall to the fast-flowing waters of the Ganga itself, sunlight flickering on its surface. From these houses and dharmashalas, you can walk right down into the waters of the Ganga itself, and come back to a cup of tea. What luxury! Not to mention the beauty of the early morning light reflecting back from the water into a marble-floored hall. It was one of the most romantic sights I have ever seen, and coupled with the peeling paint on the outside walls of most of these buildings, gave the feeling of walking through ancient, timeless tradition.

It’s good I got to see such beauty, because much of the rest of the walk was noisy with morning commuters on scooters, and as we got closer to Kankhal, the horns of vikrams carrying visitors to the Daksh Mandir, a large temple complex just over 100 meters from the ashram.

We had another great find before reaching Daksh Mandir: an old, grand building with beautiful painted decorations, now fallen into disrepair, with what looked like many families living in it.

Entryway to magnificent old mansion in Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
The ladies sitting in front of this magnificent entryway to an old, beautiful mansion were very friendly, but my Hindi wasn’t equal to getting much information about the place.

Painted archway of magnificent old mansion on way to Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
Detail of the painted decorations on the arched entryway.

Front of magnificent old mansion on the way to Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar.
The front of the mansion.

The two ladies chatting in front were friendly, but I certainly don’t have enough Hindi to ask them the history of this building.  If we have time before we go back to Mussoorie, I’d like to walk past it again and see if I can figure out when it was built, and look for any lettering saying who its owner was.

By the time we reached Daksh Mahadev Prajapati Mandir, we’d been walking nearly an hour. We were tired from the noise and dust of the road, and the heat was building up towards 38° C (100° F). So we went into the temple grounds for a while to rest up. The complex is large, with a number of separate buildings for shrines to different gods and goddesses, including Sri Ganga, the mother goddess embodied in the river itself.

Entering the main complex of Daksh Mandir, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
Walking into the main temple complex at Daksh Mandir.

The temple atmosphere was peaceful, despite many visitors wandering through. There are several large old trees offering shade, and the priests at each shrine were friendly and welcoming.

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We walked down some stairs to the Ganga where worshippers were already scooping up water, pouring some over their heads, taking some into their mouths and praying to the goddess. Instructed by the priest, we also scooped a little of Mother Ganga’s blessing onto our heads, and touched the marble carving of her feet. The cold fresh river water felt good on our own bare feet after the walk.

By the Ganga at Daksh Mandir, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand

We spent a little more time visiting the various shrines, then put our shoes back on and walked the short distance to Ma Anandamayi’s ashram. We shuffled off our shoes as we entered the ashram office and asked if we could visit Ma’s samadhi. A gentle older man told us to put our shoes back on, then walked us back out the gate and up the road a short distance, to re-enter the ashram precincts through another gate.

Ma Anandamayi's samadhi at Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
The building housing Ma Anandamayi’s samadhi.

Ma’s samadhi is housed in a large white marble mandir, beautifully made with well-tended plants all around. It is very different from the ashram in Almora, but like that ashram, it is filled with a feeling of serenity. Silence is required inside the samadhi, but I think one would want to be silent there in any case.

The stone tomb is enclosed by a metalwork screen, and is covered with flowers. Beyond the tomb, in a large alcove, is a white marble statue of Mother. A small, very old woman clad in a white cotton sari moved silently around the tomb, placing and rearranging flowers with care.

Both the tomb and the statue seemed to be at a great distance from where we seated ourselves, almost as if I were looking through a telescope toward a faraway mountain range. I watched the old woman for a while, and then another old woman emerged, and a tall man. Both women seemed to be instructing the man about some kind of maintenance that needed to be done to a ceiling beam. They were so far away, I could see only their gestures, not their facial expressions, like being in the top balcony of a large opera house, watching actors or dancers without the benefit of binoculars.

I watched the movements, heard the loud honking of car horns from the road, and looked at the white marble representation of Mother’s face before me, far away and gleaming like the full moon. My mind, as usual, was filled with thoughts when I entered the place – everyday minutiae, scattered and uninspiring, one thought crowding on another. As I gazed to Mother’s white face, there came a point when my eyes grew tired and stung. I closed them, and after a moment or two, everything went silent. I no longer heard the traffic, nor electric fans, nor whatever other sounds surrounded me. The thoughts were replaced with one phrase, heard not with my ears but with my mind: “The being that one is.”

I stayed that way for some time, then opened my eyes. Ma’s white marble face was before me, and I saw it had changed. It was still far away, but every feature had sharpened into fine detail, so I could see her face, her eyes looking towards me, her  cheeks and forehead alive, her wide mouth relaxed into an almost-smile.

Her clear distinct presence lasted for some time. Then I became aware that Alan had stood up and was getting ready to leave. I held Ma’s gaze, then everything receded again into the distance. I stood, made my pranam and went out into the sunlight.

People who write about ashrams where the teacher has already left the body often talk about “the power of the presence.” Today I saw, in a new and different way, the endurance of that power, and the presence.

A photo of Ma Anandamayi in the shop across from the ashram, where we had a cold drink.
A photo of Ma Anandamayi in the shop across from the ashram, where we had a cold drink.

About Ma Anandamayi - a plaque on the side of the samadhi building, Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand


House building in Kumaon

Photo of neighbor's house with new addition in progress and cow, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
The cow doesn’t care.

We live on a mountainside (or hillside, if you like) that slopes steeply down to a river valley. The village we’re staying in is small enough that we can see every house in it. So when we first noticed that one of the nearby houses had some rebar sticking up out of the rooftop, we figured the owner planned to add on someday. It wasn’t until we saw a line of thin, wiry men walking down the hill with loads of bricks suspended from their foreheads that we realized “someday” was “right now.”

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Kasar Devi Mandir: the peak of Almora

Kasar Devi Mandir, Kasar Devi, Almora, Uttarakhand
Kasar Devi temple at Kasar Devi Mandir. The boulder on the right shelters the cave where Vivekananda meditated.

Kasar Devi Mandir is one of the most popular temples to visit in the Almora area, and indeed in Uttarakhand. We’re lucky that we have been living just three kilometers from the temple for the past few weeks. But even before we moved to Papershali, we walked the seven kilometers of uphill road from Almora to Kasar Devi a few times, drawn by the beauty of its setting and the peaceful shakti of the place.

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How we travel (including Delhi to Almora)

Passengers on a bus to Hubli, Karnataka
On the bus to Hubli, Karnataka

India is a big country, and getting from one place to another can be complicated. It can also be really fun. Some of my most memorable experiences in India have happened on trains and buses.

Tourists and travelers here are constantly exchanging information about how to get from one place to another, where to book tickets and how much you should pay for a taxi ride. Recently, some friends who are thinking of coming to India have been asking about how we travel. So I figured it was time to write something about our travel style, and offer a few tips.

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Mushrooms of Kumaon

Yellow mushroom between Paparshali and Chitai, Almora, Uttarakhand
No. 1 – Found in pine woods between Paparshali and Chitai Devta Golu Mandir.

The monsoon seemed to begin in earnest about 10 days ago, with heavy rains occurring every day for at least a couple of hours. The rains have greened up the forests, and brought forth many lovely wildflowers. I love the flowers, but I enjoy the mushrooms and fungi even more.

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In the presence of Ma Anandamayi, and a meditation on meditation

Anandamayi Ashram, Patal Devi, Almora, Uttarakhand
Ma Anandamayi ashram during the monsoon.

Alan first pointed out the Anandamayi ashram to me one day when we were walking down the Binsar road from Kasar Devi Mandir. I saw a group of orange-red buildings tucked into the hillside below Chota Bazaar (or NTD, as it’s more properly known), with a very old stone temple just below the ashram complex. It looked intriguing, so we decided to visit in the next day or two.

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