By Clement Augustine
Bahrot Caves hold immense religious significance for the Parsi community, for it was in these very caves that their holy fire was first placed when this small group of people fled from what was then Persia (now Iran). At the top, they carved out caves from the rock face and for eight years this was the holy place for Parsis around the world. Under the patronage of Shivaji they lived in peace; after his death, the Mughals began harassing them. The fire was then moved to Udvada where it remains to this day.
Versions differ on the number of mountains you have to climb to reach Bahrot Caves. First of all, hire yourself a guide in Bordi for about ₹200, which is a must because every branch and tree looks the same and apart from the one poor excuse of a path to the top, there is really no other way up. Vehicles can go only as far as Asavli Dam, after which it is a hard climb of almost 3 hours via the regular route. On the way are a couple of benches built by some kind Parsi soul.
Carry plenty of bottled water and sandwiches, as it will be a good 4 to 5 hours before you get back to base. Do remember to wear good hiking shoes and be sure to return before dark because, according to the guide, there are wild animals around.
Once you reach the top, you can see the landscape for miles away. The caves, about four in all, are in a state of neglect and disuse, except for the main cave where the Parsis still conduct their prayers after washing up using the water in a nearby cave. The amazing thing is that the water is available 12 months of the year, come rain or shine. However, November- March is a good time of the year to visit. Summers are hot and it’s too slippery during monsoons. A guide is a must.
By Vatsala Srivastava, Andre Morris and Niloufer Venkatraman
If you are from the sweet tooth clan, from the tribe that eats dessert before dinner is served, Lonavla has a whole industry that caters to just your kind. Sometime in the 1980s, Lonavla took over from Matheran as chikki capital of India. Its residents, it is alleged, have mastered the art of making that perfect sweet, brittle candy. Lonavla chikki is now famous around the country.
Even if you are not too fond of this sticky treat, the varieties and flavours that chikki can come in will certainly surprise you. The general variety of caramelised sugar and dry fruits or nuts — peanut, sesame, cashew, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, dates — are some of the more obvious ones.
Maganlals and A1 are the most famous chikki stores here. The chikki shops are invariably crowded on weekends, so expect your purchase to take a while. You can taste each variety before deciding which ones to buy.
Coopers definitely makes the best fudge and Frends comes a tasty second. Coopers only make a limited quantity so everything is sold out by 3.00 or 4.00pm. Their chocolate- walnut fudge is simply scrumptious.
Another interesting stop is Shakti Foods (near Lonavla Station at the junction leading to Ryewood Park). They specialise in amla juice and several other fruit drinks and crushes.
By Purba Dutt
Pratapgad Fort, built in 1656 on craggy cliffs, survives in remarkably good shape. It was the venue of the November 1659 face-off between the diminutive but indefatigable Maratha leader Shivaji and the muscular and well-built Afzal Khan, the mighty general of the Adilshah of Bijapur. Though the meeting was intended as a rapprochement between the two, Afzal Khan reportedly had other ideas. Shivaji, not easily outwitted, stabbed him in the abdomen and killed him with his concealed wagh-nakh (tiger claws).
It’s this engaging mythology surrounding the fort that continues to draw crowds. But the fort is worth visiting for its architectural virtues alone. Some 450 steps lead up to the top — an easy enough climb. Don’t miss the Punishment Point, where villainous sorts were put into gunny bags and then dropped from a height of 1,800 ft. From here you can see the Koyna river below.
The temple of Shivaji’s kuldevi, or family deity, Bhavani Mata inside the fort remains a star attraction. At the last and highest level is a 4,500-kilo bronze equestrian statue of Shivaji. The gardens around the statue are landscaped and thoughtfully provided with benches. Pratapgad is a hive of activity inside as stall owners implore you to try the chhaas or sit down for a light snack.
Close to the fort is the dargah of Afzal Khan where the general lies buried. Location: 24 km from Mahabaleshwar; Timings: 6.00am-6.00pm.
By Manu Joseph & Mrinal Jaisingh Shinde
Malshej is as close to nature as you can imagine. And the pink-legged European flamingoes knew this much before the humans caught on. The villagers will tell you how great droves of flamingoes arrive at Malshej for about a month between July and September every year. They’ll also tell you of the mating dance of these graceful visitors. Often, bird lovers and village kids alike wade far into the backwaters of Pimpalgaon Joga Dam, just when the sun is beginning to peek out through the mist, to see the ballet performance.
Pimpalgaon Joga Dam, about 4 km away from Flamingo Hill Resort, is a long bund blocking Pushpavati river, which springs out of Malshej Ghat. The dam has created a lake that swells in the monsoon. And its expansion quietly submerges vast tracts of plains and many trees, leaving the taller ones standing with their heads barely out of the water. The still lake looks like a creature out of a sci-fi movie. It’s a pale green, unmoving force that drags you from above the bund to its very edge. You just sit there in silence, which is echoed by the lake. It’s the kind of stillness that you know you may never find again.
But you never know; if it’s in July or August that you’re here, the flamingoes may darken the sky and swoop down to break the calm.
Panhala / The Masai Tablelands
By Hansa Thapliyal
The Masai Tablelands, locally known as Masai Pathar, is the one of the largest plateaus in Asia. The top of the Masai land formation looks like a large zigzag ruler has turned this way and that to gather the seven tablelands into its fold. All of them are made of a porous rock, which is locally called khadak. The black, permeable surface of the rock is unfriendly to plants and has only a thin film of coarse short grass coating it. The skies above spread out endlessly on either side of the vast expanse. The tablelands comprising this rock and grass combination spread out into the valley. Visitors can undertake a rigourous 10-km trek to get to the top of the tablelands or hire a local vehicle and drive the distance.
If you take a few steps in this emptiness, staring down at the texture of the earth at your feet, you might suddenly feel that you, along with the grazing cattle, are riding on the coarse back of an unknown being. Look up and you’ll feel the edges of the tableland pulling you towards them. Sit down on the dry grass by the edge and look end to end at what is spread out before and around you under the open skies. The sun’s rays are slowly receding from the brown, barren slopes of the tablelands; a road looks like a frozen stream; the sounds of a drum, of livestock and a thin strand of music are reverberating around the different points in the valley. Small trees make stumpy shapes here and there among the farmlands, more solemn tall ones gather in groves at the borders. On the other side of the terrace, where the setting sun has left a chill in its wake, distant trees seem to float on pale green lakes.
Tip: It is possible to trek to the Masai plateau any time of the year