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India’s foremost heritage hotel: Ahilya Fort

Looking out over the Narmada River in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, the magnificent Ahilya Fort stands out from the crowd in a country full of heritage hotels. Alongside the grandeur of its right-royal connections you’ll find comfortable-yet-atmospheric rooms, exquisite home cooking, and even the chance to play petanque using 18th-century cannon balls. The Ahilya is a destination in its own right, enticing visitors to experience the charms of unspoilt, small-town India.

If the walls of the Ahilya Fort could talk, they’d have some eye-opening tales to tell. One of few female rulers in India’s history, Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, made it her royal seat after she was forced to take power following the deaths of both her husband and father-in-law. Ruling from 1765 to 1796, she had the Ahilya Wada - her personal residences, offices and darbaar audience hall - built within the fort.

The present owner, Prince Richard Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore and the descendant of the Maharani, has gone to great lengths to preserve the Ahilya’s unique history. He personally oversaw the restoration of the fort, designed and planted the gardens, and remains involved in the day-to-day operations, from selecting menus to responding to reviews. Through the Rehwa Society, he also supports local weavers and champions female employment, of which we’re sure his illustrious ancestor would highly approve.

There’s no doubt that the fort is an attraction in itself, with nineteen rooms sprinkled throughout a number of 18th-century buildings, as well as three acres of courtyards, gardens, fountains and the royal menagerie - home to the Royal Pugs - to explore. However, what lies just outside its walls is even better: traditional communities, village markets, riverside temples and ruined cities. Just as fascinating as those in better known parts of India, but still largely unvisited by foreign travellers.

Of course, there are plenty of things that the Ahilya isn’t. This is no Four Seasons or Oberoi, and the accommodation is comfortable rather than opulent. It doesn’t work for everyone in terms of the time available, distance from the nearest airport, and budget, although it could be a spectacular replacement for beach time at the end of a trip. If adding more travel is a possibility, you could even continue to the Ahliya’s sister property in Goa, the laid-back Ahilya by the Sea. 

Although the Ahilya Fort won’t suit every traveller, by any means, we think it's extraordinary and well worth knowing about. If you can’t make it there, and it's the kind of stay that appeals, we’ll do our utmost to come up with an alternative that works for your holiday.

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