“Come with us” the Prince said, and with a royal invitation I feel compelled to follow him and three other men.
Down the ancient steps, past Ahilya temple, past widows, their hands out for alms, past stones identifying extreme monsoon levels, and further down, we reach the 300-year old ghats where women are washing clothes. Others proffer water, in cupped hands or in a container, towards the sun, and as the water runs through their fingers they are reciting sacred verses.
Beside Nandi the bull and Shiva lings that mark the cremation sites of various nobles, we climb onto a flat-bottomed, traditional boat on which white plastic chairs sit. The prince is taking us upstream to another temple that belonged to his ancestor.
Twenty–two generations ago, Maharani Prince Shivaji Rao Holkari Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, the celebrated Indian Queen (died 1795) renowned for her piety, charity, and statecraft, built Ahilya Fort at Maheshwar on the banks of the holy Narmada River. Now her direct descendant, Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, allows a few guests in his fabulously restored palace. After weeks of backpacking, I value the luxury.
Another guest in this boutique, royal-homestay, is Sam Adams Green who, incidentally, introduced Andy Warhol to his muse – society girl Edie Sedgwick – and also gave him his first exhibition when he was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Now founder and director of Landmarks Foundation, which works at protecting global sacred sites: our destination is one of those sites.
Two young men, standing at the rear of the boat, move us upstream with large paddles; we have tea and biscuits that the prince produces from a picnic basket, watch life on the riverbank and cattle cooling in the water, as we glide towards Kaleshwar Temple, a 12-century temple complex. “It has been a site of Hindu pilgrimage destination since the beginning of time and memory,” Sam tells me.
There are 7 holy rivers in India, including the Ganga in the north and this one, the Narmada, in the south – it divides the north from the southern peninsula of India.
The southern bank is ancient Gondwanaland, which, as it moved north collided with the Central Asian landmass. Between the two, a rift valley was created and through which the Narmada flows over some of the oldest rocks in the world. The north – where the palace and temple are – is made of hilly sedimentary sandstone while the southern bank, peninsular India, is flat igneous basalts.
Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the holy Narmada traditionally takes 3 years, 3 months, and three days to walk. Starting 3000 feet above sea level and finishing some 1300 miles later at the Arabian Sea this is the only Indian river where a parikrama of the entire course is performed. (the top photo is of a young pilgrim)
In ‘Sacred Virgin Travels along the Narmada’ by Royina Grewal (whose own sacred journey began in 1993) says: ‘depending on where you meet her and how, the Narmada can mean different things to different people. For the many turbulent stretches, she is called Rewa, derived from the Sanskrit ‘rev’, to leap. Of her many names, this is my favourite. But she is also called Manananda, who brings eternal bliss, Rajani, the spirited one, and Kamada who fulfils desire, Vibhatsathe the terrifying one, and Manasuardhini who craves the lifeblood that she has nurtured. Ferocious, insouciant, benevolent.’
Prince Richard tells me that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped for he is the only god who has the tranquillity to calm her
Approaching Kaleshwar, we see two sackcloth clad, and orange wrapped devotees standing on stone fortifications that have tumbled down from the temple to the waters edge after a high monsoon.Prince Richard of Indore has ambitious plans for the rejuvenation of this ancient temple and dharmasala – a pilgrim’s rest house – and those who make donations over $US5000 towards its restoration are invited to tour the princely state of Indore and stay as his guest in his 18th century palace home.
Currently a bogus guru is holding up the process, effectively denying a free place to stay for some 50,000 pilgrims annually.
A couple of years ago this ex-army man asked the prince if he could stay at the temple for a few months. Soon he had set up a health clinic and was giving fake injections to cure many ills. Eventually chased out of town, he came back, ran up many bills, was run out of town again and when he next appeared was wearing the saffron robes of a holy man. Moving back into the temple, he has gathered a few devotees around him and intends to stay: it seems squatters have rights here and he cannot be evicted. Money has been offered for him to go but even this honey has not sweetened a move.
Prince Richard and the Landmark Foundation must be feeling like Henry 2nd when he said of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ as they too wonder what to do with this man who happily poses for my photos – an incongruous guru with a mobile phone hanging from his neck.
Back at the rivers edge the holy men who are walking the length of both banks of the river have washed and re-covered their bodies with ash.
India is vivid and varied, a melting pot of religions and people from central Asia, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions and here, with a, prince, a fake guru, and genuine devotees” it’s just as Sam said: ‘these guys could have walked straight out of central casting for a Bollywood movie.”