Friday, December 28, 2007

Raigad Fort

When Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj calls, you just get up and go. And that is exactly what we did last Sunday! On the dot at 0540, we set out from Bandra, onto the Mumbai Goa highway NH17. It was dark and chilly. The excitement at visiting a place that I had been trying to visit for the past twelve years, but somehow had never managed to do so, for a variety of reasons, was palpable. The drive, all through until Mahad on the highway was smooth. At Mahad, we took a left to reach Pachad, which is at the base of the famous fort Raigad. This road was a two-laned road that at times narrowed down to a single lane. It also had an exciting batch of about a dozen hairpin bends. Due to paucity of time and stamina, had decided to take the cable car which operates from the point where the motorable road ends and lifts you upto the fort in a matter of just four minutes. Reached the Ropeway starting point at 0915hrs, having covered a distance of 191kms.The Ropeway traverses a diagonal length of 760 metres and a steep ascent of 420 metres – a distance which would have otherwise taken us around 3 hours over 1450 steps! They charge you Rs.140/- per head for the journey up and down in addition to the services of a guide to take you around the fort. We had a typical Maharashtrian breakfast of Kanda-pohey in the cafĂ© run by the Ropeway operators, purchased the tickets for the ride to the fort and bided our time in the waiting area for our turn. The Ropeway seemed more like elevators going up and down! Within minutes, it was our turn to get into the cable car and I readied my camera to get some pictures. Got some and before I could catch my breath it was time to disembark at the Mena Darwaza – the alighting point for the Ropeway travellers. There we were met by Mr. Gaikwad, our guide on ‘Raigad’, who took us to a waiting group for further action. Once he had assembled about thirty of us, he started his spiel. The starting point of our tour was the Mena Darwaza – the entrance through which the ladies of the Fort would enter. Fort Raigad was the capital of the most illustrious Maratha sovereign, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. European historians have described it as 'The Gibraltar of the East'. The sheer vertical rock face soaring into the sky above appears defiant and insurmountable. As he took us along through the various points on the Fort, he explained everything beautifully and with a great amount of passion that was heartening to note. Innumerable tales of Shivaji’s strategies and valor were narrated as reasons towards his many wives. Apparently, he married princesses from various places to ensure that he would not be attacked by the rulers of those states! We counted eight living quarters specifically meant for his queens. He was so organized that he had a full-fledged ‘Secretariat’, the remnants of which can still be seen. To ensure that his entourage and their families who lived with him on the Fort were comfortable, there was a ‘Bazaar Peth’ that was headed by one Nagappa Seth. Trading of daily consumables was carried out here for the convenience of the Fort residents. However, nowhere on the Fort was anyone allowed to display their name on any property and Nagappa wanted to feature somewhere somehow. Since he was not allowed to display his name anywhere, he displayed a ‘Naag’ or snake on the wall of his shop to symbolize his presence! We were then shown the ‘TakMak’ point, which is the edge of a sheer cliff from where traitors would be thrown off as punishment. This particular point also has a curious tale of steadfast devotion and obedience. Chhatrapati Shivaji used to visit the place often and would always be accompanied by a ‘Chhatri’ or an Umbrella bearer. On one of these visits, due to strong winds, the Chhatri bearer who was under orders not to leave the Chhatri under any circumstances, was blown off the cliff but miraculously parachuted down to a village named Nizampur. Chhatrapati Shivaji then announced that the village would henceforth be called ChhatriNizampur! The most amazing place was where he held court or Durbar. Right from the doorway to his throne, anywhere in the court, if anyone even whispered, it could be heard very clearly at the throne. Our guide proved it to us by asking us to wait near the throne and he stood near the doorway and whispered ‘Shivaji Maharaj ki’, to which all of us promptly responded with a ‘Jai Ho’! And this is no covered auditorium! Amazing architecture indeed! The architect has also carved his guarantee on the door leading to the Jagdishwar temple, which Shivaji visited daily, stating that it will stand the test of time and shall remain forever! Adjacent to this temple is the Samadhi of Chhatrapati Shivaji, behind which one can see the statue of a dog on a pedestal. This, we are told, was Shivaji’s faithful dog ‘Waghya’ who committed suicide on learning about the death of his beloved master! Hence, he was immortalized next to his master. The overall area over which the Fort is built is huge and it would take at least a couple of days or more for a thorough absorption of the history therein. So, with a promise to return yet another day and spend a couple of days in the peaceful environs, we start on our way back. Lunch at ‘Kulkarni’s Suyash’ restaurant near Mangaon on our return trip is memorable for a couple of reasons. The first of course is the delicious food in a natural ambience and second is the crows that descend on the tables at every opportunity to peck at the leftovers. This inspite of the catapult bearers who keep taking potshots at the intruders. It seems like a regular game between the birds and boys! Fun to watch. Post lunch it was a straight drive back home with a feeling of day well spent. Getting there: By Road From Pune: Chandni Chowk - Paud Road - Mulshi – Adarwadi - Nizampur - Mangaon - Mumbai-Goa Highway - Mahad - Raigad Distance from Pune to Raigad is 150 Km. From Mumbai: Mumbai to Panvel by Goa highway towards Goa up to Mahad-Raigad. Distance from Mumbai to Raigad is 190 Km. For details regarding the Ropeway, visit their website at Accommodation: MTDC has cottages on top and reservations can be made at The Ropeway organisation also has accommodation details of which can be obtained at Restaurants/cafes are run by MTDC and the Ropeway organisation at the Fort. You will also find locals selling typical Maharashtrian food and buttermilk at the Fort. The locals do not have any stalls but carry the food in baskets on their heads.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Karla and Bhaja caves

If one has an interest in ancient Indian history and wish to indulge in some cave art appreciation, a visit to Karla and Bhaje caves is a must. Located about 10kms from Lonavala and 115kms from Mumbai the caves are worth spending the weekend at.
Karla caves
Bhaja caves

As structures excavated in stone were the most durable, rock cut architecture came to the fore in India during the reign of Emperor Ashoka who was looking for a lasting medium to commemorate and spread the teachings of Buddha. The style of architecture turned out to be especially suited to the Sahayadri ranges, as the hills were composed of alternating horizontal strata of harder and softer volcanic trap rock making excavation easy. Hence, the Sahayadri range is dotted with cave temples. Built along trade routes, the Buddhist monasteries were important stages on the journey providing resting places for the traders as well as supply-cum-banking stations for them. There are about 1000 rock cut caves in Western India, a large number of which are around Lonavala - a name that is a derivation from Lenauli (place of many caves - Lena meaning cave). Of these, the most famous are at Karla, Bhaja, Bedsa and Kondane. The Karla, Bhaja and Bhedsa cave temples are perfect examples of the early phase of Buddhist architecture known as the Hinayana phase wherein the Buddha was represented symbolically.

In the early period Hinayana Buddhism prevailed and in the latter, Mahayana Buddhism. In the Hinayana period, to which Karla belongs, the architectural design was wood based, being copies of wooden buildings of an earlier age. Also, as the Buddha, not wanting to be deified, had decreed that after his death, "neither the gods nor men shall see him", in this period he is represented by symbols. The lotus or the elephant, symbolizing his birth, the bodhi tree under which he attained Nirvana, the wheel of law which he set in motion, a stupa or mound symbolizing his death and a throne symbolizing that he is a prince among men.

By the seventh century AD, the Mahayana sect took over and representations of Buddha became more common. By the central doorway, you will find sculptures of the Buddha preaching while seated on a lion-supported throne, along with magnificent carvings of three elephants.

The excavations took the shape of the chaitya or prayer hall and the vihara or monastery.

The viharas were the dwelling place of the monks and usually consisted of cells cut into the walls around three sides of a hall.

The excavation at Karla, the site of the largest Chaitya caves in India, began around the beginning of the Christian era and culminated in the 4th century A.D. The principal cave measuring 37.87m x 13.87m x 14.02m (L x B x H) is the largest Chaitya among the Buddhist caves in the country.

The most remarkable feature of this cave are the wooden rafters that support the arched roof. They have survived all elements over a period of more than 200years!

At the entrance of this cave is the temple of Goddess Ekvira visited by thousands of devotees from the coastal region around Mumbai during the annual festival in April (chaitra) and during Navratri.

The Ekvira temple is on the right side of the cave while on the left is a giant pillar with three lions on its top.

In the outer porch is a vestibule outlined by walls with carvings of couples and elephants.

The interior of the hall consists of a colonnade and a sun-window. The colonnade has 37 pillars, each with some fine sculpture at the top.

One group consists of two kneeling elephants each with a male and a female rider wearing ornate headdresses and jewelry. Another group has horses, originally decked with rich trappings, just as the elephants had ivory and silver tusks.

At the far end of the hall is a stupa, literally meaning funeral mound, above which is an umbrella - a symbol of royalty.

The sun window, a wonderful arrangement for the diffusion of light, deflects the rays of the sun in a manner that soft light falls on the stupa.

On the other side of the highway and railway tracks are the Bhaja caves. The 18 Bhaja caves are supposed to have been built for Buddhist nuns and are as old as Karla caves.

Cave no 12 is a chaitya hall - the finest of the cave complex. In the chaitya, there is a stupa that is 3.4 metres in diameter and has a deep socket for the shaft of an umbrella that once canopied it.

Cave no 1 is the dwelling house for the master architect, 10 are viharas and remaining 7 caves contain inscriptions about the donors.

Apart from these, there is a group of stupas at the southern end.

A few minutes' walk past the last cave is a beautiful waterfall, which, during the monsoon looks beautiful. From here, you can see the Visapur and Lohagarh forts.

The last has two fascinating sculptures that are still well preserved.

One sculpture depicts the sun god "Surya" with his chariot drawn by four horses.

The other sculpture depicts Indra, sitting astride his elephant Airavata that appeared when the ocean was churned up.

Both these historic sites (Karla and Bhaja) can be covered in a day, preferably in the afternoon as they both face the West and one can enjoy the sights in the streaming rays of the setting sun.

Getting there:

By Road: Karla and Bhaja are 10kms from Lonavala, which is 100kms from Mumbai. Get onto the Mumbai – Pune expressway and take the 2nd exit for Lonavala. Once you get onto NH4 turn left towards Karla and soon you will encounter a tollbooth. Karla is just a couple of kms drive thereon. At Karla junction if you turn left you will head towards Karla caves or if you turn right, you will head towards Bhaje caves. Both are at a distance of about 5kms from the highway either way.

One can drive up almost to the caves and need to climb only for about 20minutes from the parking lots.

Entrance charges at both caves is Rs.10/- per head and parking charges Rs.10/- at Karla.

By Rail: The closest railway station is Malavali – 5kms either way (Karla or Bhaja).

Hotels: MTDC is the best bet which has a wonderful resort at Karla or there are many other private hotels to suit every budget in Lonavala.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Bhimashankar, one of the twelve Jyotirlingas is at a distance of around 200kms from Mumbai.

It is a place to revel in nature and spiritual bliss.

It is also the source of the River Bhima, which flows southeast and merges with the river Krishna.

It is built in the Nagara style of architecture and dates back to the 18th century. One can also find influences from the Indo Aryan style of architecture. It is believed that the ancient shrine was erected over a Swayambhu Linga or a Self Emanated Shiva Linga. Thus the Linga is exactly in the centre of the floor of the Garbagriha or the Sanctum.

Intricate carvings adorn the pillars and the doorframes of the temple. Within the temple precincts there is also a small shrine dedicated to Lord Shani. The statue of Nandi – Lord Shiva’s vahana is installed just at the entrance of the temple as aways. The shikhara of the temple was built by Nana Phadnavis. Shivaji - the great Maratha ruler is said to have facilitated the carrying out of worship services. As with other Shiva temples in this area, the sanctum is at a lower level.

As per the legend, once a demon called Bhima lived with his mother Karkati in the dense forests of Dakini, on the lofty ranges of the Sahaydris.

It is said that Bhima was so cruel that every one was scared of him. But what tormented Bhima was his curiosity regarding his own existence. One day, Bhima urged his mother to tell him who his father was and why he had abandoned them in the wilderness of the forest. His mother revealed that he was the son of Kumbhakarna, the younger brother of the mighty King Ravana - the King of Lanka. Bhima’s mother Kartaki also told him that Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as Lord Rama annihilated Kumbhakarna. This infuriated Bhima and he vowed to avenge Lord Vishnu. Bhima performed severe penance to please Lord Brahma. The compassionate creator was pleased by the dedicated devotee and granted him immense prowess. With so much power, Bhima began to cause havoc in the three worlds. He defeated King Indra and conquered the heavens. He also defeated a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva - Kamrupeshwar and put him in the dungeons. All this angered the Gods and they along with Lord Brahma beseeched Lord Shiva to come for their rescue to which Lord Shiva agreed. Tyrant Bhima asked Kamrupeshwar to worship him instead of Lord Shiva. When Kamrupeshwar refused, Bhima raised his sword to strike the Shiva Linga. But as soon as he raised his sword, Lord Shiva appeared before him in full magnificence. Then the terrible war began. Holy sage Narad appeared and requested Lord Shiva to put an end to this war. It was then that Lord Shiva reduced the evil demon to ashes and thus concluded the saga of tyranny. All the Gods and the holy sages present there requested Lord Shiva to make this place his abode. Lord Shiva thus manifested himself in the form of the Bhimashankar Jyotirlinga. It is believed that the sweat that poured forth from Lord Shiva’s body after the battle formed the Bhima River.

Apart from the Bhimashankar temple one can visit the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to a variety of endangered species of flora and fauna. The dominant species of flora are Mango, Hirda, Behda, various medicinal herbs, bamboo and fern. The Giant Indian Squirrel is one of the major attractions of the sanctuary. The other species found in the dense forests are Panther, Sambar, Mouse Deer, Hyena and the Wild boar

There are no hotels there. The local upadhyayas or priests make arrangements for the lodging and boarding of pilgrims at a small cost. Visitors are accommodated in either temporary hutments or in dharamshalas near the village. A new dharamshala is under construction.

The food is typically Maharashtrian available in stalls or dhaba type cafes. Basically vegetarian fare as in the temple surroundings.

One can trek to Bhimashankar too.

Bhimashankar is at a height of 3250 feet. Karjat is the nearest station from which the bus for Khandas can be taken (1st bus is at 10:00 a.m.). The 11/2 hour journey (approximately 40 Km.) will take you to Khandas. The summit can be reached either by Ganesh Ghat or Shidi Ghat. The climb via Shidi Ghat is a bit tough, but very enjoyable. Going through to the dense forest will take you to the top in around 4 hrs.

Best Time to Visit - August to February

Nearest Airport Pune (130 Km) By Rail Pune (130 Km)

By Road from Pune - 85kms

By road from Mumbai there are 2 routes

1)Mumbai-Bhimashankar (via Lonavala) - 213kms

2)Mumbai-Murbad - 87kms - Bhimashankar (via Malshej) -147kms

Total (87+147=234kms) The drive from Mumbai would take about 5 to 6 hours.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Vitla - Mudbidri - Karkala - Mumbai

Once potholed twice shy! For the return drive to Mumbai, decided to take the much heard of scenic route via Moodbidri, Karkala, Agumbe and onwards to Shivamoga, Harihar, Hubli and back onto the comforts of NH4.
Set out from Vitla at 0630hrs for Moodbidri where we wanted to visit the Thousand Pillars temple. Covered the distance of 46kms in an hour on one and a half laned roads with hardly any traffic for company. Tribhuvana Tilaka Chudamani (also known as Thousand Pillars temple) basadi (temple) is the largest and the most ornate of the Jain temples of this region. Moodbidri is described as the 'Jaina Kashi'.
Built in 1430 A.D. at the instance of Devaraya Wodeyar of Nagamangala of the Mangalore kingdom, the basadi enshrines a panchaloha (5 metals) idol of Lord Chandraprabha, the eighth Thirthankara. The entrance to the temple is imposing, giving one an idea of the awe inspiring structures inside. There were barely any people inside. Just a couple of guys sitting and possibly discussing philosophy. But pillars , yes, there were plenty!
One thousand of them. I didn't venture to count though as I trusted what was posted. Entry in the sanctum sanctorum was restricted to Jains. There was a board restricting entry and we had to satisfy ourselves by squinting in the darkness at the idol inside and pay our respects from a distance.
Then we did a parikrama of the temple appreciating the amount of effort that must have gone in erecting the one thousand pillars for this wondrous temple. Had also read somewhere that no two pillars are alike! Amazing. Now we were ready to face the Gomateshwara in Karkala which was a mere 25kms away. Again very decent roads helped us cover the distance in 25kms.
The 42feet high monolith is situated on the top of a hill. Fortunately the weather was very pleasant and we climbed up the steps, admired the Gomateshwara and came down appreciating the views, all in 30minutes flat!
Then on to Agumbe! Had read and heard so much about these fearful ghats (a dozen hairpin bends coupled with Naxal threats) that we were quite excited at what lay in store.
Thankfully, did the ghats in relative comfort and crossed Agumbe into a bamboo forest on our way to Tirthahalli where we had our breakfast - some delicious vada sambar and masala dosas followed by filter coffee - heavenly!
All along, the roads were very decent and the traffic sparse. Surprisingly did not encounter much of cattle and human traffic either. Just before reaching Shivamoga, at Harakere saw this wonderful Shiva statue. Don't know why it was built. But there.
Having entered Shivamoga, could not figure how to get out to Harihar. Were told that we would have to take some diversion due rain-ruined roads. Spotted a couple of elderly souls waiting to cross the road and asked them for directions. While one of them started giving directions, another asked whether they could accompany us to the spot from where it would be one straight road to Harihar?! 'Of course Sirs, Please get right in!' One of them, Mr.Narayan, was a music teacher running a music school in Shivamoga since years and entertained guests like Pandit Jasraj and other famed musicians at the school while the other gentleman was a retired Physics professor. Shortly we reached the spot where they got off and bid us farewell wishing us bon voyage and thanking us for having given them a 'lift'! Told them we were extremely grateful for their kindness and prayed 'may their tribe increase'.
Had an uneventful but a thoroughly enjoyable drive to the highway and then on NH4 right upto Belgaum. Since it was almost 1800hrs, and the sky was getting overcast, decide to spend the night in Belgaum. Did so in Hotel Ramdev International - very decent,clean and efficient Hotel with reasonably good food too - all at very very knock down prices! Set out from Belgaum at 0700hrs, had an energizing drive to Lonavala where we stopped for a vadapau lunch at Datta Snacks on the Expressway. Around 1430hrs got back onto the road and soon the rains hit us with a ferocity that can be seen and felt only on mountainous terrain. Visibility was down to maybe a hundred feet at the most. Sheets of rain wrapping all in sight and the wind howling to make us crawl in awe on the expressway! And it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared leaving behind gleaming wet tarmac and glistening greenery all around. Beautiful!
A perfect way to end our journey back in Mumbai to the daily grind! Distances Vitla-Shivamoga - 208kms Shivamoga - Belgaum - 313kms Belgaum - Mumbai - 485kms Total - 1006kms Car - Indica V2 DLS TC