Maheshwar is a small town set on the banks of the picturesque river Narmada, affectionately referred to as Maa Reva by the residents of the town, the epithet "Maa" making it implicit that the river bears a deep socio-cultural and religious significance on them. The broad stone steps from the Maheshwar Fort lead downs to the river to form a long ghat and meet its flow perpendicularly. To the residents of Maheshwar, this flow seems to represent the very flow of life within the town, such is the importance of this sacred river.
Historically, the town is oft identified with the ancient janapada of Mahishmati, founded by the King Mahishman of the Som dynasty as a capital and pilgrimage center. Present-day Maheshwar is 91 km from the state capital of Indore. It once used to take half a day to drive through twisting roads to reach it. Today with the construction of a new Agra-Mumbai superhighway, it is only around 3 hours' drive from Indore, the nearest city with an airport and a railway station that connects to the rest of India.
Maheshwar was the capital of the Malwas during the Maratha Holkar reign till January 1818 and had an elevated status in terms of royal interests. Although a small town, Maheshwar played an essential role in the history of the region. In the mid-eighteenth century, Indore came under the rule of Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar (1725-1795). She began her rule at the age of 42 which lasted until her passing. Her preferred seat was Maheshwar where she settled in 1767. She lived in the fort palace by the river and built a marvelous Hindu temple complex alongside it. A female ruler at a time when men controlled every aspect of political, economic and cultural life, Ahilyabai's approach to leadership was considered a model of its time and she ruled with a unique commitment to the local community.
Ahilyabai developed Maheshwar’s local textile weaving into what today would be called “a center of excellence and innovation.” Her reign is considered a golden age for Maheshwar’s cultural, social and economic development and she remains a revered figure amongst people in the area today.
Three primary weaving communities came to settle here at Ahilyabai's behest. Of these, the Mahru was the largest, originally from Surat. The Salvis also came from Surat and Salvi women provided the services of brush sizing cotton yarn for the weaving community as a whole in Maheshwar. The Momins (Ansaris and Julahas) are the second largest group who came via Burhanpur. They were perhaps originally from Varanasi. From this blend of weaving styles, the iconic Maheshwari sari was born and became a vital part of Maheshwar’s economy for the local community.
Ahilyabhai’s vision was to cross-fertilise the weavers distinct weaving styles to create uniquely exquisite textiles to gift to the Peshwa Kings and visiting dignitaries as well as the royal women. Thus, the Maheshwari sari was conceived, originally completely made in cotton having the finest of counts (ranging from 80s to 300s) which lent the sari its signature simmering gossamer elegance. This sari was nine-yards in length, and hence was called the navari.
In time, another style of the navari emerged – the half-cotton, half-resham (or, 2-ply mulberry silk) chequered Garbh Reshmi sari, literally the “silk to be worn with pride”, which went on to surpass its pure-cotton cousin in popularity due to its uniqueness.
In the ’50s-’60s, amidst the cessation of the Holkar title and the subsequent abolition of the privy purse, the sari went through another change. The warp was changed completely to single ply mulberry silk, a cheaper alternative to resham locally known as taani, to do away with the impediment of locating the right quality of fine cotton yarn that could be used in the warp, since he Royal family could no longer ensure that only the finest of cottons from Egypt were used in the sari. The cotton weft aspect of the weave was retained. This resulted in the modern incarnation of the Maheshwari sari – the Neem Reshmi.
The one trait of the Maheshwari saris that has stood the test of time is its zari (or, brocade) borders on a cotton ground, woven with the help of a "dobby" head.
It is said that Ahilya bai, not being partial to floral motifs, commanded the weavers to design only geometric patterns. The weavers, therefore drew inspiration from the ornate stone carvings on the fort and temple structures and the Narmada to derive their unique design directory.
Even now the patterns in the borders are mostly geometric, and can be traced back to the detailing of the Maheshwari fort and temples. Today, it is these intricate zari borders, which set the Maheshwari sari apart.