Maheshwar is a small rural village located two hours from Indore, the capital of the central Indian state of Madya Pradesh. Located on the banks of the Narmada river, the ancient town is dotted with temples and is a popular stop off on the pilgrimage route. We took an overnight train from Delhi to Indore, jumped on a local bus in Indore and 18 hours later we were in Maheshwar.

Maheshwar holds an interesting place in Indian history on account of it’s championing of one of the very few female rulers of India. For the late part of the 18th century Queen Ailyabai Holkar held a strong and virtuous rule over the region, earning a loyal following for her justice without partiality or partisanship. This was also extended to her only son, who upon being found guilty of a capital offence, was ordered to death by Ahilyabai by elephant crushing.

Queen Ahilyabai Holkar circa 1750

Queen Ahilyabai Holkar circa 1750

On a more relevant note, she is also credited for establishing the textile industry of Maheshwar. Traditionally, the Maheshwar region is renown for their intricate handloomed silk saris, for which Ahilyabai brought in weavers from Surat to design for the royal family. The handloom industry in Maheshwar declined drastically post independence with the end of the royal patronage and following lack of demand for handloomed fabrics. The past decade has seen a revival in the handloom industry of Maheshwar, with the pledged support of Prince Richard Holkar and his former wife Sally Holkar.

Women Weave is an NGO that was established by Sally Holkar in 2002 specifically aimed at women in the industry. Situated in an inconspicuous building off the grid according to Google Maps, it took a little bit of hunting to find the organisation’s headquarters. Following the wood clacking sounds of numerous handlooms in operation, we found ourselves in an expansive, sandy-floored studio. Unlike their industrial counterpart, the power loom, walking into a room filled with 40 odd handlooms in full swing is a breezily zen feeling. In place of the wet, sweat-soaked workers sit a dignified collective of women, working calmly to fulfill the yards of fabric on order.

The airy studio space filled with looms in action

The airy studio space filled with looms in action

The Women Weave space was designed by the women themselves in collaboration with a young Australian architect, Sian Pascale, as one of her first interior architectural projects. On a budget of around 2 lakh ($4000AUD) the former bus garage was converted into an airy studio for the weavers as well as an on-site weaving school. Using material sourced from around the town - including rat cages for lamp shades- the result is an invitingly unique and practical workspace.

We spent a week wandering around the grounds and sitting with the women to get an understanding of the organization. At first the women were rather reserved but after a few of our bumbled questions in Hindi we were quickly bombarded with an account of each woman’s sons and daughters and the inevitable questioning as to where, how many and how old our brothers/sisters were.

Women Weave is a fully vertically integrated operation, with yarn spinning to reeling onto bobbins to dyeing and finally weaving the fabric – all done by hand by the women - all under the one roof. The only step left out is the actual growing of the cotton itself, however Women Weave strives to source cotton from farms in the local area. By doing so, Women Weave not only reduce their carbon footprint but also meet the legitimate definition of ‘khadi’ fabric, a term today that is loosely thrown around the Indian market. ‘Khadi’ is a natural-fibered fabric produced entirely by hand, often cotton but can be silk or wool. The fabric experienced a resurgence when Mahatma Gandhi revived the 5000 year old process of hand weaving as part of his freedom fight in the 1920’s.

Gandhi's reasoning behind re-establishing the khadi movement was to give independence and self-reliance to every Indian, particularly for the struggling populations of the rural villages. Women Weave is following the key principles behind khadi and giving the women of Maheshwar the skills and training to retain employment in a traditionally male dominated industry. Aside from education, Women Weave provides a day care facility for women with young children who would otherwise have to remain at home, a healthcare system and a micro-loan service.  To have a closer look at what the organisation is up to now, you can visit them here.

Maheshwar is a quaint gem on the back roads of Madya Pradesh and as of yet, not quite on the radar of the tourist masses. Its unassuming place on the map beguiles the town's incredible story of women empowerment dating back to 1700s that continues to this day through organisations such as Women Weave. 

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