Live the lifestyle of a modern Maharaja in a revamped 18th-century royal fortress and picturesque riverside town
Combining heritage with business acumen, Richard Holkar has transformed his family's ancient ruling city of Maheswar into a sustainable textile town and understated luxury destination.
While Maharaja riches passed out of royal hands after Independence, Richard Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, inherited something much greater than heirloom jewels. After moving into his family's 18th century fortress in the picturesque riverside town of Maheswar, the half-American former prince had the challenge of a lifetime bequeathed upon him: to turn the struggling former capital of Indore into a dynamic textile town and insider luxury destination.
Soon after moving to the region in the 1970s, after touring the country in search of royal recipes for his controversial, cult and now out-of-print cookbook, Cooking of the Maharajas, Holkar discovered Maheswar in a state of economic and social distress. The community's indigenous textile industry was in a shambles, and the family's Ahilya Fort, an 18th century palace located high above the river's embankments, in a state of disrepair. Since then, Holkar has devoted his energy to the sustained revival of each. He has resurrected the Maheswari textile tradition by creating Rehwa, a hand-weaving company that trains and employs local artisans; he has founded a school for the weavers' children; and he has transformed a portion of Ahilya Fort into a breathtaking bed and board guest hotel.
"It's a small canvas; it's somewhere you can actually do something and make a difference," says Holkar, who soon hopes to add culinary spice to the canvas, as well, with cooking tours and classes throughout the region.
What is your definition of luxury?
Something that enters my mind and that has a connection to something I've felt, seen or experienced in the past.
If luxury were an object what would it be?
A textile that has a particularly nice handle to it, the way it feels to the touch, and on the body once worn.
If luxury were a person who would it be?
I wouldn't attach a name to luxury; it doesn't make sense to me.
If luxury were a place where would it be?
Maheswar satisfies all of my criteria for luxury.
When did your family first arrive in Maheswar?
We arrived in that part of the world in the mid-18th century, when it was the capital. At that time, the ruler, unusually, was a woman. She wanted to carve out her own area away from her father-in-law, the previous ruler and founder of the state, so she moved her home base from Indore to Maheswar. She lived there and ruled there through the last part of the 18th century. After she died, the capital moved back to Indore and Maheswar sort of sank into some oblivion. People from our family would go there off and on.
The indigenous textile industry in Maheswar was suffering tremendously when you arrived. What made you want to do something about it?
It was immediately clear that the quality of the textiles produced in the region had gone down and that the infrastructure was in a precarious state. Many of the artisans had left the region after 1947 in search of work. Gradually, as Independence came and the patronage extended by our families and other nobles of the state disappeared, many of those who had been doing well at the beginning of the 20th century had to leave to look for work. That migration was carrying on. It's terrible for people to leave what is their home, where they have all of their ties and a social organization. The motive was to do something about it, which we did.
How did you put an infrastructure into place?
We spoke with several people in the handloom world, on a national level, who remembered the fine textiles that used to come from this part of the world. One of the people who supported us suggested we start an NGO focused on employing women. It was a great idea, because we knew that women were the more stable element of the family in terms of keeping it economically sound. We found a space in some of the old buildings that had been built in 18th century and we said: Come, ladies. And they came.
You actually established Rehwa, a hand-weaving company that exports internationally. How does the company keep the region's heritage alive through the promotion and support of the artisan's craft?
What we have managed to do is establish a brand, and a quality label attached to that brand. Luckily, people like it; it's kind of like Hermes. We have two ladies who basically create the designs, I just run the show. When we started, the only things that were woven in Maheswar were saris, but we found that there was enormous market for a different sort of dress, kind of a tunic in lightweight fabrics. An increasing number of people in India were wearing them because they were easier to maintain. So we started making those, and then shawls and scarves for Western and Indian clients. We're just starting a different division having to do with home furnishings, tablecloths, napkins, etc.
In addition to the textiles brand, you also transformed your family's fort into a home hotel. What inspired that?
About ten years ago, I became increasingly aware of my heritage and saw that it was important on a scale larger than just me. If I was to ensure that that would persist, then it was necessary to do something in a place that had a heritage value to me, and to many other people, and that was Maheswar. I realized that there was a lot that needed to be done in terms of maintaining the structure. We decided to make Ahilya Fort not really into a hotel, but more into something like the stately homes of England where people come to stay. The idea was to do something that would then have an income flow that would help keep this place going.
There are 14 rooms available now to guests. What's the experience like for those who stay there?
What I aspire to project is a sense of hospitality in a very beautiful location. You don't feel like hotel guests, but guests of the home. We don't charge for anything; there's a global charge. If you want a massage or to go for a boat ride or have a drink, it's all available and included.
What is so magical about the region? What are some of its secret mysteries and cultural treasures?
One of the things that is great about it is that there's lots to do and nothing to do. It has a tranquility about it that is universally remarked. Maheswar has a 19th-century town, and it has the great advantage of being pretty unspoiled for a place as beautiful as it is. It has a life independent of the tourist traffic. Just a boat ride up the river is the Baneswar Temple, one of the most important Hindu centers of India, and an hour and a half in the other direction is the most remarkable abandoned city. It's very beautiful, with lots of forests and lakes, as well as very, very attractive Islamic architecture from the 15th century. Depending on how much time you have, you have the opportunity to see quite a broad spectrum of what India has to offer without needing to do a whole bunch of traveling.
When is the right time to go?
People ordinarily come to India in the winter, which is fine, but I don't find it to be a very stimulating period, visually speaking. Monsoon, for me, in August and September is a wonderful time—everything is green. It's quite different from monsoon in the north, where it's hot and doesn't rain very much, or near the coasts, where it rains a lot. If you stay in the inner part of India, it rains a little bit, the sun comes out sometimes, and sometimes it's cool, sometimes it's warm, but it's visually very arresting.
How have people responded to your efforts to draw attention to this remote region of India?
Tourism is growing. Unfortunately, central India has a very poor infrastructure and that means that the roads are not very good, and that airplane connections are not very good. You have to make an effort. That being said, all things are improving. Three or four other princely families are opening up their estates to guests. The next happening place in India is going to be Madhya Pradesh.
As you are a gourmand and the author of the out-of-print book Cooking of the Maharajas, cuisine is central at Ahilya Fort. What are your plans to elaborate upon that with a cooking itinerary and school?
The idea is to have people come stay with us and learn how to cook. Half the day would be spent in the kitchen and the other half touring the sites. To pursue this, I've made a demo kitchen. India has cooking traditions and cooking locations that are quite disparate, and I think it's important for people to be able to stay long enough in each place to actually learn something. I worked it out for 17 days: to go from Delhi, Maheswar and Bombay to Kochi, Kerala, to experience both the different cultural and culinary traditions in each region.