The long drive towards the small town of Bhandardara, past the breath-taking hills and steep valleys of the Sahyadris, with the Western Ghats as your constant companion is beyond wondrous. It’s the perfect precursor to the beautiful destination itself. Once you get off the highway and turn right on the road that leads to this little-known town via Ghoti (there are ample signposts along the way but a GPS is handy), all traces of civilisation vanish slowly in front of your very eyes.
What lies ahead of you is this scenic road, which promises to lead you to your intended destination. And just when you are beginning to wonder if you missed a turn somewhere, the ascent uphill begins. Continue onward and you’ll slowly but surely reach a forgotten, rustic town, that makes a perfect getaway from the monotonous hustle and bustle of city life. There are no five-star comforts here, no fine dining. What you get instead is a healthy dose of clean air, greenery and awe-inspiring natural beauty.
Bhandardara is suitable for all kinds of tourists. If you are an adventure lover there are ample walks to take, sights to explore and peaks to scale. For the laidback visitor, there is the option of cozying up in a chair with a book, or taking a leisurely walk by the lake. You can also bring your line and tackle along and indulge in some angling.
There are jeeps available at the village square in Shendi, just 3km away, to take you on a tour of the points of interest around Bhandardara, but this often ends up being just a long drive that is not worth the money. Instead, set your own itinerary and take the hired jeep only to places of your choice, or just hop on and off the many jeeps that ferry locals from one village to another. The latter option is cheap and you get a taste of how the residents commute. In addition, there are local guides that usually hang around the MTDC resort, who are willing to show you around for a nominal fee; the best choice if you have a car and driver at your disposal. Their knowledge of the area is extensive.
Also called Lake Arthur Hill, this vast body of water was created when the Wilson Dam was built across the Pravara River. Legend has it that Sri Agasti Rishi meditated in this region for about a year, surviving only on air and water. Pleased with his devotion, god granted him a boon in the form of a stream of the sacred Ganges, thus creating River Pravara. The Wilson Dam, built by the British between 1910–26, is one of the country’s oldest and stands at a height of 492ft. It was constructed to provide irrigation to the region.
During the monsoon when water levels increase, the overflow gates are opened, creating two huge 60-to-80-ft cascades of water that gush down to the rocks below. Several water channels unite to form one enormous waterfall, which is commonly called the Umbrella Falls, because it creates an illusion of a huge canopy of water. A picnic area at the foot of the dam is the best place to admire the falls.
The Pravara River plunges 170ft down into a gorge, creating a magnificent sight called the Randha Falls. The waterfall has the honour of being the third largest in India. A look-out point just above the falls provides a great view and photo opportunities. A footpath (steep in places) leads down to the pools below. Be careful as the currents in the pools are strong.
The Bhandardara Lake offers great opportunities for those who are interested in angling. With just the right combination of patience and luck, you may secure yourself a good catch. Boats are not allowed on the lake so casting a line or spoon fishing is the way to go. The pools at the bottom of the two falls are also great fishing spots.
Walking and Birdwatching
The best way to explore Bhandar-dara’s awe-inspiring natural beauty is to take walks along the shores of the lake. After the first monsoon showers, with the valley shrouded in a green veil and the lake overflowing with water, the views are simply spectacular. Nature lovers may even spot waders during these perambulations. Remem-ber to take binoculars along!
Legends of the Willful and the Wild
At 5,400 ft, Mt Kalsubai is the highest peak in Maharashtra as well as in all of the Western Ghats. According to local legend, Kalsubai was a tormented daughter-in-law, who ran away to the top of this hill in order to escape harassment from her husband’s family and disappeared. The local people have named the hill after her and built a temple in her memory on the summit. The hill, which served as a watchtower in Maratha times, is the ultimate challenge for trekkers today. Bari village (12km from Bhandardara) is the starting point. No supplies are available here, so it is advisable to carry everything you need.
Just behind the bus stop on the road, a path leads into the village. From here, a trail climbs up the hill and emerges halfan-hour later, on a flat stretch. A temple is located here, but do not be fooled into thinking you have reached the top of the mountain. Some interesting stone pillars and Nandi bulls are scattered in the temple courtyard. The trees around the temple make this an ideal oasis to take a break before continuing the climb up. From here, the trail gets steeper and iron ladders have been installed at three points to assist climbers. After many false summits, you will come to the welcome sight of a small well.
Its chilled water will make even the most fastidious hiker throw caution to the winds and take a long drink. Kalsubai’s summit is clearly visible from this point, and appears to be a huge boulder. The easy route to the top is via the long iron ladder that stares you in the face. For the more adventurous trekkers, there is an iron chain on the left that leads to the top. The small temple dedicated to Kalsubai greets you at the summit. The magnificent vistas from the top – of the shimmering expanse of Bhandardara Lake surrounded by the lofty peaks and verdant valleys of the Sahyadris – make the tough climb seem worthwhile. For many, the descent is often tougher than the ascent.
There are very few options for eating out in Bhandardara. The local staple of varan bhat (dal-rice) is easily available but can be spicy. Some tandoori and non-vegetarian food is available but should be ordered in advance or you can expect a long wait while it is being prepared for you. Freshwater fish and, if you are lucky, shrimp is sometimes on the menu. Regular Maharashtrian fare of usal pav, misal pav and vada pav is easily avail-able here. The area is also famous for a sweet peda that you will find being sold everywhere.
A dirt road connects Bhandardara to Ratanwadi, which is home to the Amruteshwar Temple – an ancient stone structure. Jeeps and ST buses ply this route but most consider it a rough ride. The ferry across Bhandardara Lake to Ratanwadi is a quicker and a far more pleasant alter-native. The village of Ratanwadi is a 20-minute walk away from where the ferry drops you off. The temple dates back to the 11th century, and contains a Shivalinga that is believed to be swayambhu (naturally formed). Nearby, a few steps lead down to the Vishnu Teerth tank.
The bigger attraction of Ratanwadi for many, though, is the trek up to the immense 400-year-old Ratangad Fort. The fort overlooks Ratanwadi and Bhandardara Lake. As you go higher, the famous Khutta Pinnacle on the twin-peaked hill of Ratangad will come into view.
The path leads to some caves on the hillside. Venture inside only if you are travelling in a group and have flashlights. The view of the plains of Konkan from here is unmatched, and you can get some exclusive shots of Mt Kalsubai and the lake in the foreground. Explore the three doorways to Ratangad – the Ganesh, Tryambak and Hanuman darwazas, the small temple of Ratandevi and the Ranicha Huda, or Queen’s Palace, near the Hanuman Darwaza.
The trek is moderately tough, and shouldn’t be attempted alone by first-time climbers. Ferry timings are irregular so check with the offi-cials at Wilson Dam and make sure of the return journey before you leave for the trek.