At what age does Shivaji die
Richard, king with almost no land
The week before last, I spent a few days as a guest in the small kingdom of the Holkar dynasty in Maheshwar in central India. As I said, it is a small country, less than ten hectares in total, on a gently rising castle hill, which then falls steeply down to the broad Narmada River. The western part of the Lilliput state is a hotel, enclosed in a fifteen meter high wall, the eastern part consists of a hand-weaving mill, a school and a few staff houses.
In the Lilliput state
Of course, “state” is also a huge exaggeration. But the funny thing about Ahilya Fort is that it displays all the trappings and gestures of a country, to the grinning delight of the guests. The red and white flag flutters over one corner tower, and a cannon is set up on another. The main gate is locked at night; During the day, a traffic policeman waves through to pedestrians and cows.
Nobody cares that the massive walls protect a large vegetable garden in which arugula and broccoli grow. They also provide plenty of shade for a swimming pool, as well as a small nursery that grows fig and mango trees.
Immediately in front of the elongated guest wing with its sliding roof tiles are the stables for poultry, rabbits, some goats and - in stone troughs - compost-producing earthworms. The royal accommodation runs along the top of the wall over the river, a long, dark room, crouched under the Narmada suite. It also has a sparse roof, but is so exquisitely located and furnished that its name involuntarily struck me as the title of a piece of music.
A modern monarch
The king himself, Maharajkumar Shivaji Rao Holkar, doesn't seem to mind that a strange guest is walking above his head and enjoying the even more beautiful view of the holy river and the wide Nimar plain with its fertile black cotton soil. Richard Holkar - his real name - is after all a modern monarch who insists on philosophizing knowledgeably about organic fertilizers in his déplacements through gardens and stables and also pulling out weeds here and there; as he shows himself in the kitchen and tastes the balsamic sauce that the chef offers him with a deep kipper.
But even on these occasions - a horticultural lesson is just as much a part of the guest offer as a curry preparation - Prince Richard is carefully dressed. The colored kurta and skin-tight Churidar pants are made of the finest cotton, the gilet is richly embroidered. As if to demonstrate that he is playing his role as king with a wink of the eye, he wears espadrilles, the cheeky colors of which he changes every day.
The guests pay royally
In the evening, when the platform, which is laid out with armchairs, lights up with countless oil lamps high above the river, Holkar devotes himself to his guests in full regalia. The numerous servants - for one of the 25 guests there are four employees - serve sparkling wine and small rolls of bacon wrapped around prunes, and the maître d ’whispers to some selected guests that they can sit down next to Maharaj Sahib at the dinner table tonight.
You paid for it, too, and royally. After all, everything is included - every drink, laundry, meal, wine, yoga, guided tour, even the evening picnics on Rupmati Island in the middle of the river. You are rowed out onto them, accompanied by boats on which musicians play and sing, past several thousand floating oil lamps that were lit by servant spirits higher up in the river and placed in the prancing current.
And of course the missing room telephone is also included, the absent TV screen, the non-existent refrigerator, the fixed table arrangement and choice of food. Who thinks of disgraceful hotel comfort when you are at home with a king?
"We belong to the shepherd caste"
Dinner is the moment when Richard blossoms into full form, but not with tiger hunting stories and crown jewels. It may tell the story of the Holkars, former soldiers and generals who gained power and prestige through land donations. “We belong to the shepherd caste, so we are actually what the Indian bureaucracy would call an Other Backward Caste (“ OBC ”for short).
“So it came about that a Dalit politician in Uttar Pradesh gave a newly created district the name of my great ancestor Ahilyabai.” And he adds with a laugh: “She even offered me a seat of the upper house,” which Holkar refused with a shudder.
Adoration for the ancestor
The small kingdom on Narmada is also named after Ahilyabai. It was she who ruled from here in the 18th century over the - at that time still real, and large - Holkar state. What made her uniqueness wasn't just the fact that she was a woman - worse, a widow. She was also a successful ruler who knew how to defend her empire against envious neighbors and negotiated protection treaties with the Mughal emperors.
Ahilyabai was also a pious woman, so pious that she was venerated as a saint while she was still alive - in India the precursor to the pantheon. A small temple of its own in the west wing of the fort is dedicated to her, with a Brahmin as priest. Once a week he bathes her statue in Narmada water and dresses her freshly; and after the Aarati evening prayer he carries her on a litter through her kingdom, the old village center. Shivaji Rao also bows deeply in front of her and sips a little Narmada water, which the belief in the family's own goddess transforms into (bacteria-free) nectar in no time at all.
Revival of the weaving trade
Richard Holkar does not just play a maharajah chopping piece, like many of his colleagues in Rajasthan, who are rewarded for their use as tourist attractions in their former palaces. He studied at Stanford, trained as a perfumer in Grasse in the south of France and completed an apprenticeship as a jeweler. For years he experimented with Indian (sic!) Cotton varieties. He also advised the Swiss entrepreneur Patrick Hohmann, who had organic cotton planted on the other side of the river; it can still be found in Coop Natura products to this day.
In the eastern part of the contemporary Holkar Empire, time seems to have stood still as well. But the temple prayers and the noises of bells that penetrate from the Narmada bank are not noticeable. Rather, they are pre-industrial factory noises: the clatter of looms, the grinding and knocking of the boats that shoot through the stretched cotton threads. Rehwa Society is the name of the cooperative with which Holkar is reviving the tradition of the famous nine-meter Maheshwari sari.
As casually as Holkar plays the bon vivant in the west of his empire and earns money with it, he has worked hard for forty years to make the weaving trade that Ahilyabai started (and later abandoned) a secure source of income for the residents of Maheshwar.
Practical help for widows and women in need
Today there are again 1,500 handlooms in the town, most of them operated at home by women who learned their craft from Rehwa. The Producer Cooperative helps them with marketing, gives design advice and serves as the central buyer for thread and dye. She also employs 250 women weavers herself. Many of them are widows who, according to an ineradicable Hindu tradition, have to leave their homes when their husband dies. With part of the savings, they can move into their own home again on the Rehwa site.
Sometimes the shadows of Indian reality also lie on the sunny side of Holkarwadi. When we were there, a film team from Bombay was in the hotel. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar is an NGO entrepreneur who has developed a simple mechanical device with which poor women can cheaply produce clean sanitary pads. Its inventor, Arunachalam Murugethan (he was also "in the country") wants to use it to eliminate a source of infection that is a heavy burden for millions of Indian women. The name of the film: Padman.
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