Closest to Mumbai and Pune, but a far cry from their bustle and din, Lonavala and Khandala make for a perfect getaway for weary city dwellers. Boasting amazing locales, viewpoints and waterfalls, the cities are a runaway favourite with families. In addition, filmmakers from the Indian Film industry also arrive here on a regular basis, armed with their state-of-theart equipment.
They discovered the potential of the rolling hills, steep cliff faces and gushing waterfalls as an impressive and economical shooting location long ago. While Lonavala and Khandala can be visited throughout the year, it is needless to say that the entire area really comes into its own during the lovely monsoons. When the rains come, the towering Western Ghats are all but obscured by the thick mist of the rain-heavy clouds. The green of the valley turns so bright it is fluorescent, the smell of the damp earth is most acute and the down-pour soaks one to the skin.
THINGS TO DO AND SEE
Lonavala/ Khandala boast archaeological sites, picnic spots, viewpoints and even abandoned forts nearby. In fact, it is impossible to pack everything in one trip. That’s why visitors from Mumbai head this way again and again.
Located 6km from the city centre, this dam is a popular spot amongst holidaymakers as it boasts of magnificent views of the surrounding ghats. The best time to visit is during the monsoons when the water overflowing from the dam’s gates creates an artificial cascade. Visitors like to sit on the stone steps and enjoy the falls but it is advisable to always be on one’s guard in case of a sudden surge in water level. Swimming is not allowed.
Karla and Bhaja Caves
The famous Karla and Bhaja caves lie about 15km outside Lonavala en route to Pune. Carved out of sheer rock faces, these caves are a fine example of Buddhist temple architecture. It is quite easy to reach the base of the caves but ascending to the top is a completely different ball game. Visitors are recommended to wear comfy walking shoes with a strong grip. Avoid the hike during heavy rains since the terrain gets extremely slippery.
The 150-odd steps that lead up to Karla Caves are perilous, to put it mildly. The staircase is actually sheer rock, uneven, steep and slippery, with a narrow steel railing to hold onto in case one’s step falters. It is impossible to climb all the way up without taking a couple of breaks to catch your breath. Halfway up, stalls selling various odds and ends appear on both sides, their tarpaulin roofs creating a sort of canopy to protect you from the sun and rain.
At the top, a short walk leads to the Karla caves, famous for the two rows of decorated pillars that line the main hall. It is said that the caves have been built by Hinayana Buddhists in 80 BCE, and were later taken over by the Mahayana sect.Outside the main chaitya, there is now a Koli Temple (Entry: Indians Rs 5; Foreigners Rs 100). You will often see Koli fisherfolk walking up the hill in a trance, swaying and dancing all the way. The next part of their ritual involves sacrificing a goat or a couple of chickens. Exactly opposite the Karla ridge lie the Bhaja Caves. They are accessible from Bhaja village, located 400m below the caves. Although the route to the caves is a little off the beaten track, locals are happy to help with directions.
The nearest landmark is the Malavli Railway Station, from where Bhaja village is only a 3km walk. Visitors usually park their cars here and begin the trek up to the caves. The Bhaja Caves are a group of 22 rock-cut structures that date back to the 2nd century BCE. The most renowned structure here is the horseshoeshaped chaityagriha with the traditional stupa inside. These caves are better preserved than Karla.
Along the lines of Madame Tussaud’s in London, this wax museum is a relatively new attraction in Lonavala. Huge signboards on the highway herald the sight and urge you to visit it even before you enter Lonavala’s town limits. Since the property is privately managed, the entrance fee of Rs 150 seems a bit pricey. However, visitors usually don’t mind paying owing to the sheer novelty that this museum offers.
Inside, life-size wax models of prominent celebrities, including Michael Jackson, AR Rahman, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Kapil Dev, Anna Hazare and even one that depicts Adolf Hitler, are arranged in three large halls. Touching the statues is strictly prohibited and punishable by a fine. To the sculptors’ credit, most statues bear a striking resemblance to their parent personalities.
Forts around Lonavala
Take the road from Lonavala that cuts across the Lohagad Ridge and then runs along the shores of Pawna Lake to get to Tikona Fort. At the top of Tikona is an ancient Buddhist cave, along with some water tanks. If you are up here early on a winter morning, you will see Tung Fort, clearly reflected in the waters of Pawna Lake. Tung Fort was really more of a watchpost or lookout tower since the top is not very large.
There are some water tanks and ramparts that afford good views of Lohagad, Visapur and Tikona forts and Pawna Lake from the top. ST buses from Lonavala run to the base of Tung Fort, from where it’s less than an hour to the top.
While most forts are connected by ridges to other hills, the Koregad Fort, embellished with a few ponds, stands in solitude. A motorable road leads from Lonavala to INS Shivaji and on to Peth, from where it’s an hour’s walk to the top. Lohagad Fort (the iron fort) was so named because it was considered impregnable. From Malavli Station, take an auto to Bhaja village.
Read: Monsoon at Visapur Fort
From here, a path climbs up gradually to the ridge between the forts of Lohagad and Visapur. You will travel through a series of gates and up steep steps before you reach the top. The hilltop was originally used by Buddhist monks, who have left behind rock-cut caves. That the Mughals also occupied this fort is evidenced from a dargah just opposite the entrance.
Walk out towards the finger-like projection of a lava fissure called Scorpion’s Sting (vinchhu kanta). One thing to watch out for are monkeys at Lohagad. For, long fed by generous tourists, they will not hesitate to pounce and grab food out of your hand now. Visapur Fort is opposite Lohagad. The climb is a little steep in parts but not difficult at all.
Tip No entry fee to any of the above mentioned forts.
The Lonavala region is considered the Lake district of Western India because it is dotted with many beautiful artificial lakes. Many of these lakes are secluded and remote. The Tata Electric Company owns several lakes in the area, which are used as catchments for the water needed to run their turbines. Please note that the lakes belonging to the Tata Electric Company, which were once open for fishing, are now no longer open to the public. A small lake just outside the town of Lonavala, Tungarli Lake is at its best just after the monsoons, though the water is still clear and deep right until December or January.
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The lake dries up by end-March. To get there, one must take the road that branches off left from the old Mumbai-Pune Highway in Lonavala, just after the ST bus station (3km). Valvan Lake is a restricted area near the Valvan Dam. Lonavala Lake, or Monsoon Lake, is another Tata lake, which is best viewed just after the monsoons. The expanse of Pawna Lake, a major tourist attraction, appears to stretch forever.
There is now a road that one can take from Lonavala to Pawna. Note that the lake has no access if you are travelling on the Mumbai-Pune expressway). The road to Pawna is 25km long and the easiest way to get there.
Tip Swimming in the lakes is not advisable during the monsoons due to overflow and undercurrents.
There is plenty of opportunity for angling in these parts of Maharashtra. Some basic fishing tackle (hooks, floats, line, etc.) is available in Lonavala, but it’s best if you come prepared with your own. It is always a good idea to check with officials at the tourist office and the locals beforehand, in case you end up with a fine for illegal fishing.
There are plenty of opportunities for birdwatching, as this region is home to many local avian species. It is also the nesting place for some migratory species, making for some lovely sightings, so keep your binoculars handy. In the woods in and around Lonavala and Khandala, you have the chance to spot the paradise flycatcher, the pied kingfisher, the common kingfisher, parakeets and bulbuls, several varieties of kestrels and the magnificent forest eagle owl, along with a whole multitude of other birds. In the summer, the whistling schoolboy is in full throat and its distinctive call is, to trained ears, unmistakable.