To celebrate Holi, the festival of colour and love - a piece on India. Recently I spent a couple of weeks in India in Ahilya Fort, a small heritage hotel overlooking the Narmada, one of the most sacred rivers in India.
From dawn to dark, there’s endless activity below the fort on the ghats, along the river bank. Local devotees and pilgrims worshipping and offering prayers to the holy river which nourishes and waters their crops. They perform a variety of puja and aarti and bathe in the river to wash away their sins.
Women wash their clothes along the waters edge, children feed the fish and dive into the chilly waters giggling with delight. It’s a riot of colour, women bath in their saris and then hold them up in the gentle breeze to dry.
Little wooden boats with gaily painted canopies ferry people across the river to the Shalivan Temple in Naodatodi, a village of a few hundred friendly people who earn their living from basic farming, growing bananas, corn and cotton. There’s a brick works close to the village where it’s intriguing to watch the handmade bricks being individually made by both men and women then dried in the sun and baked in a hand built kiln.
The village is tranquil, with a wonderfully welcoming friendly atmosphere, children run out of their houses to meet us…another household invited us in to share a cup of chai.
The little town is still deliciously rural, all the needs of the local community are catered for by the numerous small shops and stalls. But Maheshwari is most famous for its hand weaving industry both silk and cotton which employs over 5,000 people.
Women come from all over India to choose a Maheswari silk saree from Rehwra. Buyers from posh shops from all over the world order superb handwoven cotton scarves and fabric from Women Weave.
There’s a tiny shoe makers shop at the bottom of the hill below the fort, close by the miller, where local farmers bring their corn and wheat to be ground, a pan maker, several little flower shops where chrysanthemum flowers, roses and other blossoms are threaded onto cotton to make garlands to embellish the temple gods or to welcome visitors.
Several potters made utilitarian earthenware vessels both for the household and temple ceremonies. Many jewellers sell gold and silver, drapers sitting cross legged sell wildly colourful sarees and bolts of materiel side by side with tailors peddling away on old treadle sewing machines. Half way down the main street a man chats to passers-by while he presses clothes ‘en plain air’ with a heavy iron filled with hot coals – all the shop fronts are fully open and customers remove their shoes before they enter.
Barbers lather up their customers chins and snip their hair in full view of passers-by…It’s all very colourful and convivial. Hardware shops are packed from floor to ceiling with kitchen utensils, farm implements, rat traps, kari (metal woks), water coolers. Now more and more brightly coloured plastic is replacing tin, metal and earthenware.
Not a supermarket in sight, lots of little grocery shops also selling snacks, sev, namkin and lottery tickets.
The Fish Market is down by the river but the huge bustling produce market takes place on Friday. Fresh fruit, vegetables and roast water chestnuts are sold from street carts by women sitting cross legged on the ground surrounded by the freshest produce. Sadly, many of the older houses with their delightful timber shutters and balconies are being demolished to make way for soul-less cement structures all in the way of progress, none the less Mahesware is still utterly enthralling in a charming, chaotic sort of way. An enchanting mix of medieval and 21st century plus – There are even lots of satellite dishes and five ATM machines which occasionally deliver money.
In the morning, stalls sell poha, a mixture of soaked flattened rice and spices sold on little squares of newspaper, nourishing wholesome food for a couple of rupees, I love street food and eat it where ever I go, with street food you taste the real flavours of a country…