Maheshwar town is built on the site of the ancient city of Somvanshya Shastrarjun Kshatriya, and was the capital of king Kartavirya Arjuna,(Shree Shastrarjun) who is mentioned in the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Maheshwar was known as Mahissati (Mahishamati in Sanskrit) in ancient times and was the capital of Southern Avanti. Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada was capital of King Sahasrarjun. One day the King and his 500 wives went to the river for a picnic. When the wives wanted a vast play area, the King stopped the mighty river Narmada with his 1000 arms. While they were all enjoying themselves, Ravana flew by in his Pushpak Vimana. Downstream, when he saw the dry river bed, he thought it was an ideal place to pray to Lord Shiva. He made a shivalinga out of sand and began to pray. When Sahasrajuna’s wives were done and they stepped out of the river bed, he let the waters flow. The voluminous river flowed down sweeping Ravana’s shivalinga along, messing up his prayers. Furious, Ravana tracked Sahasrajuna and challenged him. Armed to the hilt the mighty Ravana was in for a huge surprise. The mighty Sahasrarjuna with the 1000 arms pinned Ravana to the ground. Then he placed 10 lamps on his heads and one on his hand. After tying up Ravana, Sahasrarjuna dragged him home and tied him up to the cradle pole of his son. A humiliated Ravana stayed prisoner until his release was secured.
Even today, the Sahasrarjun temple at Maheshwar lights 11 lamps in memory of the event.
In Mahabharata, there is description of an unusual custom of non-prevalence of marriages in Mahishmati. As per the legend, there was a king named Nila who ruled over Mahishmati. King Nila had a daughter who was exceedingly beautiful. So much so that god Agni(fire) fell in love with her. She always used to stay near the sacred fire of her father, causing it to blaze up with vigour. And it so happened that king Nila's fire, even if fanned, would not blaze up till agitated by the gentle breath of that girl's fair lips. And it was said in King Nila's palace and in the house of all his subjects that the god Agni desired that beautiful girl for his bride. And it so happened that Agni was accepted by the girl herself. A secret love affair began between god Agni, who assumed the form of a Brahman, and the beautiful princess. But, one day the couple was discovered by the king, who became furious. Nila thereupon ordered the Brahmana to be punished according to law. At this the illustrious deity flamed up in wrath and beholding the terrible flame, the king felt terrified and bent his head low on the ground. The legend abruptly comes to a conclusion (perhaps due to narration changes it underwent in later centuries before being written) and from that time, the girls of the city of Mahishmati became rather unacceptable to others as wives. God Agni by his boon granted them sexual liberty, so that the women of that town always roam about at will, each unbound to a particular husband.
In the late eighteenth century, Maheshwar served as the capital of the great Maratha lady Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar, ruler of the state of Indore. She embellished the city with many buildings and public works, and it is home to her palace, as well as numerous temples, a fort, and riverfront ghats (broad stone steps which step down to the river).
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