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THE PRINCE OF MAHESHWAR

*

Midnight in Maheshwar.

Far below a pubescent youth sang interminably out of key, shrieking prayers into his microphone, catapulting through the broken octaves of his new-found vocal range.  My adolescent guru was joined by another lad and together the two caterwauled their way deep into the night, yodelling scripture like strangled piglets. Something big was going on down there and it was all dressed in orange.

The only guest in the restored fort of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, Dog was living out his own private miracle in Maheshwar. Ahilya Fort is quite some place but then Ahilyabai was quite some gal – she’s still revered as a saint today; her picture dangles outside prayer shops; her statue is paraded down main street in town – all this for a woman who died in 1795.

Ahilyabai married into the Holkar dynasty and then, still barely in her teens, promptly found herself widowed. Instead of hurling herself onto the funeral pyre she blossomed into one of the greatest female rulers in India’s history, planned and built Indore, raised temples, encouraged artists – a list of miracles and accomplishments that points to a fine mind, acute and aware, a visionary, a dreamer and a connoisseur. Fourteen generations of her family ruled Indore for two hundred and twenty years.

Crack ‘o dawn, the noise began again – a swarm of men moved about, a thousand pilgrims, every one of them dressed in the same orange clothes; loose-fitting orange trousers, a variety of orange shirts, scarves and ridiculous plastic orange hats, orange bags and orange bangles; a great orange caterpillar of faith about to set off on a barefoot parikrama. Where they were going? I wasn’t sure – there were orange pilgrims slogging their way along every road in India it seemed to me, but I was going down to find out.

I’d not yet met the fifteenth Holkar but I passed his toilette when leaving. His Magnificence was obviously soon to emerge – all the more reason to make a swift exit. I just can’t do royalty before breakfast.

*

There, in a position of power and prominence in the right hand corner of his balcony table stood the Prince’s shaving brush. This was, as the housekeeper noted, ‘a shaving brush fit for a Maharaja.’ I could only agree. A monster spray of badger bristles sprouted joyously from a thick handle that once was ivory.

Freed of its political incorrectness, The Prince’s badger reigned supreme, surrounded by a battalion of supporting players. Beside it a pot of shaving cream standing open, ready for duty, desperate for a chance to grace the royal cheek. In the centre of the table a shaving stand of great wonder. The base was made of fine mahogany, carved, about a foot long. On it sat an oval brass dish, just like an empty football cut in half, and above that a square mirror, leaning back ready to reflect the Prince’s morning bristles. There, lying open on the table, a cut-throat razor of Sweeney Todd proportions, sharpened fresh and dangerous every day.

The brass dish was filled with soapy water kept hot from the ancient black kettle on its left. Mr. Kettle sat there hopefully, lidless and anxious to be poured, just as he had done since the dawn of recorded time. Behind him, hiding in shame, was a near-empty bottle of cologne; Ahilya Summer Water – a blend of various natural citrus and sandal essence ‘used as a cooling fragrance during the scalding months of May and June’. Of course, the cologne was created in 1968 by the invisible Prince himself.

Next to that a handsome brown bottle with a golden top; the Imperial After-shave, a potion extracted from the sweat of a thousand Indians force-fed a diet of rose petals and vinegar, then squeezed.  Beside this a team of three brass containers, all embossed and coloured with the same design. They looked very perky with their little brass hats, contents well hidden, state secrets – cotton buds for rajahs, nawabs and the like.

The cover for Mr. Kettle stood alert and at attention, guarding the breakfast tray. His wife, dressed all in red with a Persian fluted top, sat steaming in anticipation, brewing her Darjeeling; beside her a blue cup, blue saucer, blue sugar pot – all waiting neatly in a row for the true blue blood to arrive.

‘Om-m-m-m-m-karesh-h-hwah-h-h!’

‘Narmade-e-e-e… Hah-h-h!’

I had no idea what it all meant.

I had tumbled into an orange Breughel, hovered lost in the middle of it all, eyes out on stalks, watching the carrot circus go by.  Everybody was very excited, quite a few were very stoned, all of them wanted to talk to me. I was quite auspicious, I was a cosmic sign –  so I shook a lot of pilgrim hands and smiled my cosmic smiles.  I had no option. I was there.

‘Om-m-m-m-m-karesh-h-hwah-h-h!’

This word kept coming up. I thought it was some kind of religious chant but actually, Omkareshwar is a town, about twenty five kilometres away on a bend in the holy river Narmada, another of the multiple stations of Lord Shiva’s Cross. Which explained the second word:

‘Narmade-e-e-e…’

Everybody was busy.

‘Narmade-e-e-e… Hah-h-h!’

Each pilgrim had to arrive and settle, undress, dispose of his clothes, go down to the Narmada and bathe, wash several times very thoroughly and pray, dry off and pray some more, change from wet underpants to fresh ones then carefully don his new orange outfit, just bought from a pilgrim shop up the road. His old clothes were packed in a bag, collected and carried away in a mysterious but completely practical truck.

Each carried a bright yellow pole. Each pole must be studiously wrapped by his owner in what appeared to be Christmas decorations; that excellent gold spiky tat that Hindus love, yards of red string and tinsel. Each pilgrim must then go down to the edge of the ghat and slowly fill two orange plastic pots with holy Narmada water. There’s a bit of whispered prayer, then two orange lids are put on two orange pots and both are tied up in a square of orange material. String is tied around the material and each pilgrim hangs one orange bundle at either end of his decorated pole. Once complete the pole, with its identifying tinsel and number, is placed on a rack in the middle of the square.

Eventually, over the course of about three hours all one thousand poles are laid out, all one thousand men are dressed in orange; all two thousand plastic pots of holy Narmada water are dangled from their poles and about as many chillums were passed from hand to hand. There was just one last thing.

One thousand men, about to set off on a long march, need a piss first. On a shout the crowd dispersed. In every direction orange men widdled akimbo, turned with their backs to the ghat, hovered in the time-old position, squatted, some hid behind a tree – but more just let rip where they stood. That attended to, the ranks swiftly re-formed and the countdown began.

The Narmada is a holy river, born from Lord Shiva’s sweat, one of the seven most sacred rivers of India. It flows wide and brown in an east to west slash right across the middle of the sub-continent, the official border between North India and South, a stream that begins in the Amarkantak plateau and doesn’t stop till it sweeps into the Arabian Sea, 1247 kilometres away. A man is purified by the mere sight of the Narmada; to bathe in the waters absolves him from all his sins – but if you’re really serious about the whole thing and want to go for broke; eternal salvation can be attained by doing a parikrama.

This is the only river in India where a parikrama or sacred circumambulation is performed. Pilgrims believe that by walking along the riverbank from mouth to source then back again on the opposite side, visiting each of the holy places en route, salvation will surely follow.

One would hope so – this little circuit is 2,500 kilometers long and takes more than three years to complete. That’s three years of walking; battling heat, battling cold, battling pain; three years of sleeping in temples or under trees, waking early in the morning, bathing at a different spot in the river every day, three years of prayers, special puja ceremonies to the gods, three years of solitude, lost in the world of a pilgrim, a ‘mahatma’ on the road.

Understandably, not everybody has the odd three years to chuck away in pursuit of eternal salvation so, in the short term, mini-parikramas occur. Some of them seem to have a spiritual sponsor, someone who has hijacked the event in the name of this or that brand of Shiva – so it was with this extraordinary event. Frankly, I never did understand what was happening. Whatever it was, it had all been going on for quite some time.

The Preacher’s skin was almost completely white, blotched with viteligo. I suppose he was Indian, but he sure didn’t look like it – this guy looked exactly like an old American hippie to me; long hair, wild beard, crazy, scheming eyes. He saw me in the crowd – but there was malevolence in his eyes. I kept thinking of Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’.

‘Piss off!’ he was saying with that poisonous glance, ‘this is my patch. Go away!’

He sat on a truck with a band and a squawking microphone. His long red robe, his beads, white skin and fierce concentration marked him in the crowd. I was as marked a man in my own way too, the only other white man in Maheshwar – and I had a camera, which seemed to make me nearly as popular as he was.  I decided I wouldn’t piss off, seeing as he and his band had kept me awake all night. His sadhu ju-ju didn’t get to me. I didn’t get the feeling it was a private occasion.

Swami Marlon picked up the chant. His nasty little eyes flickered around the crowd. He was quite a showman. The toad priest smiled with all the sincerity of Liberace and launched into the show.

‘Narmadey Har!’

‘Narmadey Ha-a-ar!’ they roared. Two thousand orange arms waved in the air.

‘Narmadey Har!’

‘Narmadey Ha-a-ar!’ Once again the arms went up.

I was in the middle of it, in the drum, the bang and shout of it, surrounded by noise and wide-eyed orange pilgrims, all having the time of their life. In front of the assembled crowd Swami Marlon waved wildly, conducting the throng. He stood with his microphone, arms swaying wide, his robes swinging wild and free. The rhythm built up, the drums bashed out, his cries grew louder and louder. Orange men danced crazily, elbows held high, wrists bent back, swooping and swirling and crying out, ablaze with the whole damn thrill of it all. Then, on the Swami’s dramatic signal, one thousand orange lungs burst forth with one great orange shout:

‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’

Those one thousand men – and three brave women – had become one. They turned and flooded to the water’s edge. Something sacred and smoking was paraded through the mass, a few more priests appeared amidst a lot of shouting; everybody crowded by the Narmada for more blessings then, on some invisible signal, they all hurtled back up the steps to where they’d come from, a swarm of milling orange bees – shouting, waving, singing, chanting, shoving – it was a controlled bedlam. Suddenly a mass lunge and group kafuffle as one thousand poles were grabbed, swung in the air and placed on one thousand shoulders.

‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ Swami Marlon shouted.

‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ they all replied.

‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ he shrieked again.

‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’

The excitement was building. He babbled something in Hindi then, with one wide diva gesture, hurled his final blessing to the wind.

‘Narmadey! Narmadey! Narmadey! Ha-a-a-r!’

Then, from the crowd, in a volcano of excitement, one massive shout.

‘Narmadey HA-A-A-R!’

With all the cavalier idiocy of young men off to war, the great flood began. A liquid orange snake erupted out of the square and spilled up the road into town, a joyous beginning to their very own Kokoda Trail of faith. A large grey ambulance staffed with serious looking doctors followed slowly up the hill.

Oblivious to all but the marathon in front of them, lost in the slog, the sweat and the prayers, every year pilgrims are mown down by feral trucks, passing buses and the like – it was a statistical probability that some of the men I saw marching up the hill would die by nightfall.

But then again, so might I.

*

PART TWO

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