A Royal Weekend at Ahilya Fort, India

Traveler: Paula Goldstein – Creative Director, Director & Founder

What is your most unforgettable escape? It’s so hard to choose I think the warmth and total other worldly experience of staying rural India has to be one of the most spectacular trips in terms of a true escape. I even managed to turn off my phone for most of it something of a rarity.

What was the purpose of your travel? I was invited last minute by a friend on a trip she was organising to her Godfather’s fort, it was a moment in my life where I was facing a lot of transition and not earning much money, India itself had always seemed a little out of my reach, as I’m a bit of wimp when it comes to backpacking. Lets just say that even as an avid traveller, but I’m very attached to my creature comforts! However I decided that really life is do or die and having an experience of India for the first time with and experienced hand to hold was something I couldn’t pass up so scraped together enough for a flight.

With how many people did you travel? There were around 15 staying at the Fort, but I travelled alone but was helped along the way by a few key spirit guides.

Where did you stay? At the Ahilya Fort an incredible place on the banks of the Narmada River.

The fort is now a beautiful retreat, with organic food and surreal gardens overlooking an ancient temple and the river.

However personally, beyond the place’s current beauty, I became entranced by its history, my personal work is always very driven by women and the celebration of them, and so finding that the fort itself was founded by a woman, the awe inspiring Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar, was something really amazing.

Ahilya was the Holkar Queen of the Maratha and ruled Malwa kingdom, in 1700’s. Her story is that of a women rising to fill a position, with her entrance on to the stage of history something of an accident.

According to legend, Malhar Rao Holkar, Lord of the Malwa territory, stopped in the village of Chaundi, and saw the eight-year-old Ahilyabai at a local temple service, sensing something special in her, he brought the girl to the Holkar territory as a bride for his son, Khanderao.

As a girl plucked from her family, she was forced to grow into a leader, Ahilyabai’s husband Khanderao Holkar was killed in 1754. And when later, her father-in-law, died, she was coronated as the queen of the Malwa kingdom, a warrior she personally led armies into battle to protect her kingdom. Yet also a women famed as a great builder and patron of many Hindu temples and Dharmshala (free lodging) which embellished both her kingdom and sacred sites across India.

What did you most like about the trip? We danced by moonlight in Temples, Learnt Henna for school children, swam in the river, chased goats, and were blessed both literally by a sadhu and to be there.

Could you share an unforgettable memory about the trip? Whilst I was there it was my birthday, and the Maharaja hosted an incredible dinner, in which the river burned with 1000’s of floating candles, men danced in pyramids, we had cocktails rowing in boats to fire, drummers and a roast goat (the pig ran away).

Your most surprising find during the trip? The joy and warmth of the people in the local village, particularly the young children, I fell in love with the 2 school girls drawing henna with me and had them both sign their names on my arms much to their delight… everyone was a little bemused by my temporary tattoos on my return home though.

Favorite restaurants or food you have tried during your trip? The food at the fort was a family affair, all grown in the grounds, the site is very rural so there is not much else to explore, however most international travellers will land in Mumbai or New Delhi but the exploration of these buzzing metropolis are a whole other story.

What is the must tries? Any hidden gems you could whisper to us? 1 hour from the fort is Mandu is an abandoned islamic city from the 15th century, sat within 50 kilometers of forest it’s an insanely special forgotten treasure.

Would you go back? Yes I made friends for life on that trip I would go back and drink wine to the early hours on ageing balconys and reunite.

Could you list a few of your favorite finds you came back with? Silk! the silk woven in the village is made by local women offered a fair wage and including their children’s schooling. Even at a fair price, cutting out the middle men who ship to Europe and incur huge profits the silk is produced in Maheshwar is a real steal, I even had a Sari made by the local tailors I just wished I could have brought more of this very special fabric home.

Any tips that might be useful to know before going there? Be prepared for bugs, I tend to get eaten alive even in an English garden and the Indian mosquitos are savage.

Next stop you would like to visit? I really want visit Nashville, I adore country music, southern cooking and cowboys so I can’t think of anywhere better!