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.  

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.

Continue reading

A hidden valley, a sky temple and a natural lingam-yoni

A typical lingam and yoni arrangement for worship of Shiva
Lingam and yoni in a temple, with lingam-like rocks found in nature arrayed on the shelf behind.

Over the years I’ve seen many examples of Indian religious symbols that occur in nature – things like the coco-de-mer, or rocks that resemble a Shiva lingam arranged in a temple and anointed with vermilion, just like formal sculptures of gods.

But up to now, I’d only seen these things in photographs, or displayed in a temple or museum. So it was special to discover for ourselves, a few days ago, a symbol of Shiva-Shakti in a mountain stream.

Continue reading

Nanda Devi Mandir: a refuge in busy Almora

One of Nanda Devi's two thousand-year-old temple towers, and its ancient peepul tree. Almora, Uttarakhand.
One of Nanda Devi Mandir’s two thousand-year-old temple towers, and its ancient peepul tree.

Alan discovered Nanda Devi Mandir (“mandir” means “temple” in Hindi) during his first week in Almora, before I came to join him in India. We returned to this temple time and time again while staying in Almora, and now that we are living in a nearby village, we visit Nanda Devi whenever we’re in town for shopping or errands.

Continue reading

Chandika Mandir in Bageshwar: a short urban hike

View of Chandika Temple high on a hill above the Saryu River, Bageshwar, Uttarakandh
View from Bhagnath Temple. Chandika Temple is on the right peak; zoom in and you can just see the buildings.

After arriving in Bageshwar yesterday afternoon from Almora, we were tempted to climb up to Chandika Mandir, a beautiful temple sitting atop one of the peaks that mark Bageshwar’s location at the confluence of the Saryu and Gomti rivers.

But after nearly four hours on a bus, with a speaker directly over our heads belting out Hindi film music, we really needed a nap. So we walked around Bageshwar for an hour or so, ate lunch, and had our rest, planning to make our Chandika Mandir visit the next morning.

Continue reading

Morning walk to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in New Delhi

Morning worshippers at the holy pond of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, New Delhi
One corner of the holy pond. A few selfies were taking place here.

We wake up early, which is fortunate during the hot season. It’s been about 41° C here at the hottest time of day since I arrived two days ago, and humidity is high – nearly 50 percent. So getting out early for a walk is a good idea. Even at 6:00 AM, which is when we set out today, I was mopping myself with a handkerchief by the time we stopped for tea.

Continue reading

Gokarna: Beaches and temples

Gokarna Beach, viewed from the south headland
Gokarna Beach, viewed from the south headland.

The cyclone that hit Kerala days ago, roiling the surf here at Gokarna, has finally arrived. We sit in the Prema restaurant, enjoying a cup of tea while we wait for our lunch to arrive. Wind drives rain against the small shops and tall coconut palms, and in sheets across the street. Deep puddles grow deeper, and even the vagrant cows huddle together under shop awnings, reluctant to emerge in such conditions. We drink tea, we eat slowly, we order more tea, as we wait for a moment when the rain pauses.

Continue reading