In the heart of India, on the banks of the Narmada pulsate places which are off the tourist track. Few but the pious and the determined reach there. In the nineteen seventies, when the South Eastern Railway, the revised name of the great Bengal Nagpur Railway still had a huge swathe of Eastern and Central India under its administration, my father was in charge of freight movement in many of these remote places. Line boxes would be prepared and saloon cars readied for the railway equivalent of the British camp. Inspection trips were prepared where my father visited tiny outposts while the rest of family made a round of Raipur, Bilaspur and Balaghat, of Amarkantak and the Marble Falls, of Jagdalpur and Damanjodi and the rushing torrents of the Chitrakote Falls. Later some of these picturesque towns would be re-formulated into the state of Chattisgarh.
Almost forty years later, on a visit to the Ahilya Fort Hotel in Maheshwar, I found that essentially much of Madhya Pradesh was unchanged. As our car wound its way from Indore to the Omkareshwar Temple on the banks of the Narmada, we travelled through hills covered with sal trees, cattle with graceful cow bells tinkling as they moved from one patch of scrub to another in search of grass, wayside shrines painted a bright orange, cyclists wearing turban and dhoti. At one point Google Maps stopped and the cell phone tower lines vanished from my phone. The Vindhyas rose in the distance, mysterious and shadowed. Over a gorge our car took some steep turns and there on my left was a riot of pilgrims, flowers, tuktuks, sadhus and a general air of feverish activity. In front glittered the Narmada, grey-green in colour, boats and steamers chugging on it, hundreds of figures dotting its banks, taking the customary dip. At the back towered the gates of the Omkareshwar dam, massive sluice gates incongruous against the spires and saffron flags of the temples bunched all around.
Omkareshwar, one of the twelve Jyotirlingas sacred to Lord Shiva is one of the holiest. It was built on an island whose shape matches that of the word Om written in Devanagari script. Though remote in location, men, women and children move towards it purposefully. The entrance to the temple is reached via a footbridge over the river, now crowded with beggars and vendors, selfie-takers and merrymakers alongside the serious and the reverent. Inside it is a perilous journey towards the sanctum sanctorum, the queues are snaking almost a kilometre long and I am taken through a side entrance, a narrow dark passage to the lingam. The oblong black rock is smothered with flowers and vermillion, a bubble of water rising from below it, like the Kamakhya shrine, and I am told that the level of water remains constant, almost miraculously so despite the jets of water cascading over it as devotees pour offerings. Quick, says the priest on hearing that I have come here all the way from Calcutta. Take this bottle of Bisleri and bathe Shivji with it. A thick plate of glass protected the stone and it took all my strength to stand on tiptoe to complete the puja. Why the glass shield? Perhaps to protect the centuries old stone from being touched by pilgrims and prevent it from being worn down.
Outside the sun beat down on fields full of wheat and barley, green fields with a promise of a bountiful harvest, so green the dam and hydel power project must surely be doing their job well for I had always associated this belt with scanty rainfall. Traffic is heavy and complicated, it is the weekend before the Republic Day holiday and many are making good use of this winter break. A large jeep comes to a shuddering halt and waits patiently for a puny puppy, no more than two months old, to sniff its way back to safety, oblivious to its miraculous escape from death. Two men on a motorcycle try to negotiate a herd of goats crossing the road; one old goat is particularly nervy and is stricken to a freezing halt, the men on the bike tumble as the bike turns turtle. Meanwhile mounds of crimson red chillies are being sold along the wayside, the famous Bedia chilly being grown here is filled with flavour and has a unique fragrance, both sharp and mellow at the same time.
Oh for a dash of spiced tomato chutney with this marvellous flavour! A whole kilogramme is bought in a careless minute. Afterwards, as I pack to return to Calcutta I stare helplessly at the bundle and wonder how to fit it into the masses of stoles and shawls I have purchased.
The heart of India is not all forests, tigers, temples and ruins. It is also home to textiles, not the machine-made cloth of the great factories in Maharashtra and Gujarat but the purer forms wrought by handlooms. At Maheshwar, off the Ahilya Fort hotel, a home built by Ahilyabai, is the Rehwa Society, a non-profit organisation established by Richard and Sally Holkar in 1979 to revive the art of the maheshwari. At Rehwa, “we aim to preserve the traditional aesthetics of the centuries old Maheshwari craft” says the brochure. At the premises, reached by climbing down the great blocks of stone stairs at the eastern end of the Fort can be seen a score or so of looms. Other paraphernalia include charkas for drawing out the cotton fibre before the weaving of the fabric on wooden looms, enormous iron vats for dyeing, shade cards for matching colours. There sit the women, clicking away at the loom, feet and hands flying in extraordinary movements, a rhythmic coordination of intricate manoeuvres. The Maheshwari sarees are distinguished by their borders, woven in geometric waves that represent the movement of the waters of the Narmada or the diamond shapes reminiscent of fort architecture. Of this the most fragile form is the Garbh Reshmi Maheshwari saree, a combination of cotton and silk fibres and a pallu that is embellished with five stripes.
I am drawn to the sound of the busy looms, the click-clack of bobbins and threads and the wooden frame, the fantastic efforts that have saved this art from extinction. In a book I found at my room at the Ahilya Fort I read the story of how the Holkars attended to this dwindling art. A weaver had come to them to sell his wares at the gate of their home in the fort, and in the ensuing conversation, Sally Holkar came to understand that there was little demand for the Maheshwari in the absence of efficient marketing. The looms were still, dying. With support from friends in Bombay, the Rehwa Society was born and the maheshwari textile was revived. Today Rehwa spins and weaves sarees, stoles, scarves, dupattas, yardage. WomenWeave, established by Sally Holkar in 2003 also provides sustainable livelihood via handloom weaving.
India is one of the last countries where the handloom sector operates on a profitable scale. It has a strong market within as well as a steady dribble of exports without to sustain thousands of indigenous industries. It is also sustained by strong traditions of religious faith. In the heart of India, at the Omkareshwar Temple and at Maheshwar, the Narmada flows quietly, its clear waters sheltering temples, weavers and age-old forms of living.