The Sahyadris – which form a ring around Mumbai – play host to a million miracles after the rain-washed monsoon months. Whenever one gets away from the city for a restful weekend, one finds so many delightful archaeological and natural sites around the city, that rest becomes a second priority and adventure takes definite precedence....
If you live in Mumbai, and feel that the cityscape literally stifles you each day with its heat and dust, its cacophony and crowds, there is hope for you. Make the post monsoon season in the city your holiday getaway for short periods. You may just find that quick forays of just three or four days each time will not only give you great joy, but they will also acquaint you with heritage sites and nature’s wonders.
Drive just a few kilometres out of the city, when the rains have greened the Sahyadri Mountains, and see how Mumbai looks like a jewel set among thick forests, green fields, craggy mountains with thousands of leaping waterfalls, flower-carpeted valleys, gushing rivers, swirling mists, quaint village bazaars and flora and fauna of a vast variety. A magical display of butterflies, birds, beetles and even harmless snakes makes Mumbai's surrounding mountain and forest region a veritable wonderland in the post monsoon months of October-November.
Take the not-so-well-known district of Thane, the largest in Maharashtra. Apart from the industrial complexes, Thane has huge reserved forest belts and the highway through the jungles is the site of at least 500 waterfalls – some small and quiet, others huge torrents pushing down boulders and huge blocks of mountain soil. Along this highway which goes through a ghat to a small bird sanctuary which attracts cranes, flamingos and other water birds in Malshej Ghat. As the slope rises towards the Pune district, vast fields laden with purple blooms and white and blue wild flowers make this region a mini valley of flowers. Farmers from the small villages in the valleys also grow marigolds and sunflowers in their farmlands to create a festival of colours. The mists from the moist clouds descend ever so gently over the hills and often, the highway is almost invisible. Later, along the same road, you come to many ancient temples and historic forts of the state.
If you drive through the well-known Mumbai-Pune route, you see more magic too. During the monsoon, pit-patting showers have worked the miracle of greening every strip of land in sight. Not only does a hiatus of a few days increase one’s love for the environment, but one also soaks in the strange and elusive tranquillity which only the incredible grandeur of nature can offer.
Suppose you stay in Lonavala for a leisurely, long weekend. One day, you can drive out aimlessly to the T junction where the highway meets the Talegaon Chakan road. Turn left from this junction and soon, passing through the town of Talegaon, you cross the Indrayani river to come into Indori. This tiny river, though ignored by environmentalists and heritage activists alike, is the nerve centre of Maharashtra’s history and secular culture. On its banks, battles have been fought to win freedom, saints have lived and written the greatest devotional masterpieces and stories of courage and love have unfolded. The first glimpse of the river is when it passes the fort of the Dabhade sardars in Indori. The fort itself is in shambles, with the temple of Amba, the goddess worshipped by the Maratha warriors, in the process of restoration. Other than that, the fort’s strong ramparts are sentinels to the passage of time and its neglect by citizens.
Back on the road, you can drive up the Bhandara hill where the temple of Sant Tukaram is buzzing with activity and devotees. Maharashtra’s favourite saint, a contemporary of Shivaji Maharaj, Tukaram sat on the top of this hill and wrote his songs in praise of Vitthala. Down below, turning right, is the ancient village of Dehu, where Tukaram lived on the banks of the Indrayani and where his life unfolded. Further along the road, stands the village of Alandi, the sacred town on the Indrayani where Sant Dnyaneshwar took his samadhi at the tender age of 21in 1296. The Ajana tree here shelters thousands of devotees who sit for days, reciting the great Dnyaneshwari, the finest work of literature in the Marathi language written in the 13th century by the 18-year-old saint as a poetic transliteration of the Bhagvad Geeta.
Back to the fork in the road, and you turn toward the road which leads to Bhimashankar, a town which houses one of the twelve Jyotirlingas of Shiva. Along the forested road, you also visit Pabal, now an unknown village, where Mastani, the beautiful courtesan/wife of Bajirao Peshwa is buried in a non-de-script durgah, whose beautiful arches showcase Islamic architecture even in small villages. The tomb has been ravaged by treasure seekers over a period of time and is now renovated by local citizens.
On the same road, further, you come to a village called Morachi Chincholi, a village where people have jealously guarded flocks of peacocks. The forest belt around this area has seen a resurrection due to a ground water enhancement scheme and the farms can now produce three crops a year. In this verdant landscape, herds of peacocks, shining and proud, roam around unfettered because the villagers protect them. It is reported that several villages here have large populations of peacocks.
On the other side of the Mumbai Pune highway, runs the Pavana river, equally famous in Maratha history. Though there are numerous dams and reservoirs built on this river, there are still stretches where one can sit peacefully for a day and eat farm fresh vegetables or fruit with the robust food of the farmers. A day spent near the river, leaves the mind clear and the body, rested. The night opens the curtain to a theatre of beauty, with millions of fireflies lighting up the trees and mountainsides with a rare kind of divine illumination. On the banks of the this river in Chinchwad, is the Samadhi of Morya Goswami, the saint who was born in Morgaon and established Ganpati worship in Maharashtra being associated with the Ashtavinayaka temples.
A third route you can take is towards Wai - where Shivaji killed Shaista Khan - and then on to Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. Here too the Krishna River – her ancient name was Kannavenna when she was the boundary of Samrat Ashoka's empire – swells up to touch the shore temples, especially the Ganpati temple on its banks. The Pratapgarh fort is often lost to sight in the mists of autumn. The lakes, the old houses, the strawberry farms, the farm meals eaten in firelight and the promenades along the Venna Lake are enjoyable. Panchgani has less rain and therefore less damp than Mahabaleshwar. In and around these hills, twilight-time brings on small processions of fireflies, creating beautiful spectacles. Near Mahabaleshwar is the old cave and temple where five of Maharashtra’s rivers originate. These are the Krishna, the Venna, the Savitri, the Gayatri and the Koyna. Most of these rivers meet the Krishna as they flow down the hills. This Panchganga Temple in old Mahabaleshwar is venerated as the source of the Krishna River, which played a huge role in the history of Maharashtra. The cave and ancient temple are of a pre- historic period, but the temple which stands at the site now is attributed to the Yadavas of Devgiri who built it in the 13th century. It was later restored by Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1635, then by Shahu (1670-1709) and lastly by concerned citizens in recent years.
The Sahyadri Mountains are dotted with innumerable forts belonging to past dynasties and caves with fabulous sculptures and inscriptions for those interested in history and culture. While every route into the Sahyadri Ghats is a monsoon wonderland, the one to Neral and then to Matheran is for the brave alone. The rainfall here is excessively heavy and often a holiday means sitting up by the old frames of doors or windows and watching chattering monkeys among the thick tree cover. In Matheran, one can see the tiny railway chugging up the mountain and the old British colonial style bungalows built in the past centuries.
These are just some routes out of Mumbai. Adventurous joy-seekers can leave the known highways and wander along jungle paths to environmental sights the like of which are rare even in India. Indeed in Mumbai itself, you can see pre-historic caves, lush forests and animals, flower carpets of all colours and ancient monuments. Once you return to Mumbai after your adventure drive, you will wonder how you accepted Mumbai's unfair description as a stressful, money-driven city. Indeed, you will agree that Mumbai has conserved its jewelled hinterland for long centuries!
The author was Editor of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among India's senior most Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle pieces, women's concerns, travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces about India. www.vimlapatil.com .