Guards, in crisp khaki uniforms, insist I cannot go into the palace. They do not believe Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar is really expecting someone like me – after all, I’ve arrived on foot, tired and dusty, carrying a backpack. Royal guests usually arrive by private plane and taxi.
Twenty–two generations ago, Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, the celebrated Indian Queen renowned for her piety, charity, and statecraft, built a fort at Maheshwar on the banks of the holy Narmada River. Now her direct descendant, Prince Richard, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, hosts a few people in the restored palace and, when I finally get past the guards, I too become one of those royal guests.
With its whitewashed walls and wooden beams, it is hard to imagine it as he saw it when he returned from France. Several decades of bat droppings and dust covered everything and chipmunks and snakes were living in its decaying walls. Restoring one room at a time, and replanting the gardens in traditional style, has been a long process: the result, fantastic.
Arriving by way of a 36-hour train trip, then two buses and a 2 km walk, has been challenging. Inadvertently leaving my guidebook on the train, when it finally arrived at 5am, I was relying on memory of a quick read to find my way.
On the first bus, an irate, moustached man insists the driver has given me his seat and I should sit in the back. Not wanting to get nauseous, and not able to change his determination that I should move, I move right off the bus and find another where I can sit near the front.
Travelling over a long hilly part of the road, on a hairpin bend, the bus suddenly changes to driving on the right-hand side the road. Luckily so does all the other transport too. Cars, taxis, buses and trucks all display images of the one of the pantheon of Hindu divinities, the amorous Krishna, bloodthirsty Kali, or the elephant-headed Ganesh – they seem to protect the vehicles, and me too, and I’m soon safely in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh – the very heart of India – physically and culturally.
Next morning, from the 300-year old Ghats below the palace walls, I hear a steady plop, plop, plopping sound. When I look I see it’s from women washing their clothes, many using wooden paddles to beat them clean. From the breakfast terrace, the views down to the ghats and the river that runs east to west, means the sunrise and sunset are spectacular.
Maheshwar is seeped in rhythms and traditions – its two favourite and biggest festivals are Shivratri and Muharram. Fortuitously I’ve arrived in this small town of some 20,000 in time for Muharram. “It’s the biggest day in our Maheshwar calendar,” the prince tells me.
It has been said that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped – for he is the only god who has the tranquilly to calm her. However once a year, locals, no matter their religion, commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein who was killed in the Battle of Karbala in AD 680. The prophet’s son-in-law Ali, and Ali’s elder son Hassan, are also remembered during this period as having suffered and died for righteous causes.
It seemed the entire town turns out watch both Hindu and Muslims carry tazias (replicas of the martyr’s tombs) through the streets before sinking them in the river.
“In most places all over the world this is a time of mourning, but we celebrate them as martyred saints too. They are holy men who died for truth and we mourn their deaths too,” a Hindu man tells me.
It’s taken a month to build the palace tazia: these replicas of the martyr’s tombs take on various shapes and sizes. Many have a pari, an angel, on the front, representing the angel who aided the martyr’s ascent to heaven.
Men cut intricate designs into white paper then paste it over coloured paper before covering the wooden frames. Some tazia have coconuts hanging from them and it seems each nut represents a wish or a prayer.
Shia Muslims in many parts of India (and the world) observe the event in this, the first month of the muslin calendar, the month of mourning. Maheshwar adds an extra day to the remembrance and the night before the carrying of the tazia I fall asleep to the sound of drums throbbing and beating.
Next day I am up very early and walk around this friendly town. While some people are still sleeping on porches beside their tazia, other men and boys are adding last minute touches their works of art, all happy for me to photograph them and explain the festival.
Drums are again beating all over town – round ones, double and single sided – and tazia are carried, on men’s shoulders, through the town to the place where the procession will start.
I return to the palace for breakfast. The guards, now my new best friends (we laugh about them not letting me in when I arrived) salute as I go through the huge gates, then into the peace of one of the palaces five courtyards.
The Ahilya Fort tazia is ready to be sent on its way: the prince, dressed as always in traditional clothes, arrives for the prayers at the tazia before its procession to the river. The few other guests arrive to witness the noisy event. Among the smoke, incense and drumbeats, Hindu and Muslim stand beside the prince as he prays or pays homage in front of the large frame of wood and paper mausoleum. At the end of the small ritual, all are given roats (biscuits made of flour, clarified butter, sugar and dry fruits) which are made especially for the tazia ceremony.
Drummers and young boys carrying smoking incense lead the way. Although the streets have some women, the parade mostly consists of men and boys, their hats are of velvet, satin, or brocade, and, while some are decorated with gold or sequins, many worn by Muslims are white to show they have been on a hajj to Mecca. Young children squat in the centre of the narrow roads so the tazia, carried high on men’s shoulders, will pass over them, believing it will bring them good health.
People place incense in the earthenware containers the young boys are carrying or that sit before each tazia. People pass their hands through or over the smoke, some putting their palms to their face or touch their forehead, the smoke wafting over their heads.
Other men walk ahead of each tazia carrying long poles with wooden triangular shapes on the top, which they use to hold up the countless wires that line, cross, and recross the streets so the tazia isn’t caught in them.
“Yah Hassan, yah Hussein,” they chant as the carry the replica through the streets and down to the ghats on the riverbank where they need to be immersed by sundown – sandhya – a time of transition.
Tazia’s are loaded onto boats that rock alarmingly with the number of men jostling get on too. Traditional boats are poled and paddled to the middle of the river. I am in one too, albeit without a tazia, so I can see the finale up close. Muslim and Hindu men call and wave, happy it seems to have a little boat of westerners watch the rituals.
Tipping the tomb replicas overboard, they make sure they sink immediately by pushing it down with hands or poles while still chanting ‘Yah Hassan, yah Hussein.’
Hindu shrines line this river: pieces of sculpture daubed with orange are propped against trees or walls, and huge temples provide a photographic skyline. I’m glad to watch this juxtaposition of two of the world’s major religions as they combine to observe a major Muslim event, on one of Hindu’s holy rivers.