Our little boat is silently making its way across the river Narmada. The only sounds audible are of geese squawking farewell to each other in the distance, the melodic strains of the oar splicing through the water, and the rapid clicking of a camera — it is a beautiful clear sunset in the tiny town of Maheshwar, the kind that occurs the day after torrential rain. Our destination is the 200-year-old Baneshwar temple situated in the middle of the river, one that the more modern motorboats only circle around for the benefit of tourists. “Once we get there, take your time, take as many pictures as you want, there’s no hurry,” says Kaluram, our wizened 60-year-old oarsman.
He has an ulterior motive — while we do a quick round of the temple and dismiss it as just another one of Madhya Pradesh’s countless shrines, he shrugs off his holey rubber chappals, does swift ablutions in the river and gets on with lighting diyas, offering flowers, perambulating the temple with folded hands and eyes devoutly shut. Sheepishly, we look the other way, perhaps not wanting to invade his privacy. Once he’s done, Kaluram crouches on the steps of the temple, lights a beedi and proceeds to give us a brief history of the place.
“Every year, there’s a flood in this river — banks, houses, trees are all washed away. When the tide ebbs, this little shrine is the only thing still standing. We think of it as a miracle — which is why I come here to pray every day,” he explains. From our vantage point in the dimming light, Ahilya Bai Holkar’s massive fort looks dwarfed in the distance. Under a starry, moonless sky, we quietly make our way back to the ghat, now thronged by people sending off little betel leaf boats loaded with flowers and incense sticks into the river.
Maheshwar is a small town, quite off the beaten track, that thrives on a special kind of textile crafted here and because of adventurous tourists, mostly foreigners. Ahilya Bai Holkar, after being appointed ruler of Malwa in 1767, set up her capital here. Inside the fort, one of the few living ones in the country is a little house with a blooming angan where she used to live.
This space is now a museum stocked with her sparse belongings, countless portraits, posters and canvasses printed with poetry in praise of her piety, simple beauty and valour. Inside the fort are also countless shivlings, a school for girls, a Maheshwari cloth workshop run by old, widowed women and the poshest restaurant in town.
The people of the town seem to follow Ahilya Bai’s example dedicatedly — their visits to the smooth sandstone riverside are a daily ritual, says Kaluram. Not only does this serve as a release from the humdrum of everyday life, but it also acts as a binding force, instilling a sense of community. This spirit is quite in contrast with nearby Mandu, a more popular destination thanks to some wonderful historic architecture marvels, but which we are repeatedly warned away from due to brewing communal tensions. The issue at hand was a Hindu opposition to the Muslims offering namaaz at the local Bhojshala temple, a tradition that has continued for ages.
We’ve arrived here after a week of haphazard travelling — having hopped onto a train to Jhansi from Delhi, we headed to Khajuraho, “the land of the Kama Sutra”, as an American girl on the train put it. Khajuraho is, of course, particularly popular with the foreign tourists because it is a window to India’s heritage that celebrates all that is carnal. We cycle around the tiny cosmopolitan village that has cropped up between the eastern and western temples, populated with little hotels and restaurants serving a global menu. The temples themselves are beautiful — cut in sandstone, with statues depicting sexual positions studding the tall structures. Even the Jain temples to the west, known to be a tribute to sacrifice and abstinence, are designed thus, inspiring a sense of awe for those who are acquainted with the ways of the Hindu religion.
Pachmarhi, the Deccan’s only hill-station, is known to be an important destination on the Shaivite pilgrim’s map. Deep in the Satpura jungles is a cave, popularly known as Jatashankar, where you descend into a wet crevasse to discover a small shrine to the lord of destruction, guarded by tridents and a stalactite that looks like the hood of a cobra snake. An old woman wrapped in blue plastic sits on a rock and sings bhajans in a startlingly clear voice. When we compliment her, she gives us a toothy grin and demands I take a picture of her. Calling herself shankarji ki bhaktan, she says, “I’ve been here since I was a little girl — never married, no kids. He is my lord, my soul. I sing for his pleasure.”
Near the cantonment is the town Church, among the few survivors of the British contribution to this town. From a distance, it looks enticingly haunted, half-obscured by tall poplars, and we can catch glimpses of pretty stained-glass windows. But a woman selling cigarettes in front of the church intercepts us and, after some discomfiting questions (“Where are you going? Are you Christian? Catholic?”), tell us that tourists aren’t allowed in anymore. We find out much later that her tale of a mob coming and vandalising the church, post which it was only open on Sundays for mass, is a complete hogwash and just a ploy to earn some extra money on the side.
Our sojourn into the heart of India was not meant to be a religious one, but it seems that in Madhya Pradesh, faith just happens to be the driving force for pretty much everything. We leave Maheshwar with a heavy heart — our agnostic souls found peace sitting on the steps of the fort, as we watched breathtaking sunsets in silence. On the bus to Indore, the closest stop for a railway connection, we meet a maulavi dressed in a black achkan and white pyjamas, his silver beard flecked with red. We offer him our breakfast — delicious sweet and spicy poha wrapped in newspaper, for the princely sum of Rs. 5 — at which he smiles and begins talking about politics, religion and education, exalting the virtues of the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita and the Quran in a single breath.
As we get closer to the highway, we spot a poster by a local political party, calling for an end to namaaz in the Bhojshala temple and sporting one of the ‘sexy’ figurines from Khajuraho. While we’re busy guffawing at this, our new friend finds this violation of amity atrocious. “What is the point of religion if all it makes you want to do is force your ideas upon others?” he demands, his voice quavering. “I teach my pupils all the holy texts — and the only way to find true faith is to sieve the good out of these, because, I must warn you, they aren’t without flaws,” he asserts. It was ironical — he used the very factors that drive us ‘secular’ city folk into disclaiming religion to inspire a pluralist sensibility. But then again, in this land of convergence, such a manifestation of faith can hardly be surprising.