Once the abode of the greatest of Maratha warriors, today, Panhala (literally, home of serpents) is Maharashtra’s smallest, albeit fastest developing city. The history of Panhala is inextricably linked to the history of the Maratha empire. Shivajii captured the fort here in 1673 and Panhala was the state capital until 1782. The Maratha sovereign is said to have spent a lot of time in the fort, which was the largest of all the Deccan forts and strategically located at the apex of the Sahyadri mountain range, on an important trade route. It was taken over by the British in 1827.

Locals claim that most of the 150 original wells of the medieval fort of Panhalagarh were snuffed out when the town’s roads were being laid. This must have been sometime after 1842, when the British opened up the fort to other settlers. You can still see people pulling water out of one of the 35-odd surviving wells.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

The ruins in Panhala are scattered over a small area. They are from different times, and are often just vestiges. Although many ruins offer a great vantage point, visitors must brace themselves for steep walks uphill to get to them, which can prove to be especially difficult in the thin, chilly mountain air. Those who persevere are rewarded with great views and evocative ruins.

Ambarkhana

Built by the famous Raja Bhoj, Ambarkhana, also called Dhanya Kothar, is a massive, well-preserved 11th-century granary, which is still functional. Nowadays, it serves as a granary for the army. There are three buildings called Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati, which can collectively store upto 100 tons of grain. Peasants regularly store their produce in the pits of this structure that has impressively withstood the test of time.

Sunset Point

The aptly named Sunset Point is known for the awe-inspiring views it affords of the surrounds. Called Pusati Buruj in the ancient days, it was the northernmost point and thus an important watchtower from where soldiers could keep an eye on the movements of the enemy. Swallows and hawks continue to glide over the valley here. Behold the vast Masai plateau from any of the bastions in this part of the fort.

Punit Paranjpe
Baji Prabhu Deshpande’s statue near Teen Darwaza
Baji Prabhu Deshpande’s statue near Teen Darwaza

Sajja Kothi

A single-storeyed structure, dating from the 11th century, Sajja Kothi is a great vantage point on the eastern battlement of the fort. The stone arches on its terrace, the open steps without railings, the overhanging canopy, all serve as framing devices for a photo-op.

Tabak Van Udyan and Wagh Darwaza

Trees grow any which way in Panhalagarh. They are given the leeway to make room for themselves, to stoop low to the ground with the weight of their aerial roots, which then become accessory trunks. Some adventurous branches even encircle the parent tree. The hillsides are densely wooded with these freely growing entities. Within the city, public parks have been developed around them. The most elaborate and enchanting of these is the Tabak Van Udyan. The hill beyond the original fort gate called Wagh Darwaza has been cut into a series of long steps from which radiate paths and forks to walk further into the tree cover. Stone benches gleam from inside the mossy rock-cut caverns. At the end of it all is a view of the valley, but before that, where the garden ends, two trees have clasped each other in a manic embrace over a couple of adjacent tombs that are covered with brocade.

Children will enjoy this walk. Look out for the model that shows what the kite-shaped fort might have looked like when it was intact.

Tararani Palace

Although built by Shivaji’s daughter-in-law, this palace is very basic. It is said that Dilip Kumar’s Ram Aur Shyam was shot in a school close by.

Sambhaji Temple, Kalavanti Mahal and Dharam Kothi

Here are three structures, adjacent to each other but separated by time. The Sambhaji Temple is intriguing on account of its deity, well worshipped locally. A knowledgeable local tells me it is Sambhaji II, and not Shivaji’s progeny, as everyone supposes, who is worshipped here. Dharamkothi has a lovely façade. Its name, as well as that of Kalavanti Mahal, are convenient local nomenclatures: the Dharam Kothi was where alms were once distributed, and the Kalavanti Mahal/ Naikinhicha Sajja is said to have been the abode of dancing girls in the time of Ibrahim Adilshah.

Punit Paranjpe
Botanical Gardens near Panhala Fort
Botanical Gardens near Panhala Fort

Teen Darwaza and Andar Bav

Both these buildings have a military past. Teen Darwaza was a gate within Shivaji’s fortifications, and Andar Bav was a trap for attacking soldiers during Adilshah’s time. Located adjacent to each other, the grounds of the two buildings are now the site for a large tourist camp, a veritable Chowpatty.

Nagzari and Parasher Caves

Nagzari and Parasher Caves are not very far from each other. Nagzari, an old water source of the fort leads onto Parasher Caves, where the famous 18th-century Marathi poet Moropant is supposed to have composed his greatest works.

Near the town bus stand is a charming, buzzing town library, which has in its possession, for viewing by visitors, a manuscript in Moropant’s own hand, with some of his verses.

Vishalgad Trek

During the monsoon, you could join the trek that follows Shivaji’s escape route to Vishalgad.

WHERE TO STAY

This tourist town has many hotels to suit all budgets and tastes. Checkout time is 9.00am in most places and should be negotiated beforehand.

Valley View Grand (Tel: 02328- 235036; Tariff: 3,500–6,700) is owned by filmmaker V Shantaram’s daughter Rajshri. It has nice views and offers 31 AC rooms. MTDC’s Mahalaxmi Resort (Cell: 09422046609; Tariff: 600–1,200) near the fort is clean and comfortable. Hotel Hill Top (Tel: 235154, 235054; Tariff: 2,300–3,000) is located at Teen Darwaza. Hotel Diamond Villa (Tel: 09096459641; Tariff: 1,400–2,000), behind the Jain Temple has five rooms. Empire Hotel (Cell: 07588620096; Tariff: 1,500– 2,000) is by the bus station, but magically quiet. It has a comfortable set of spacious one-roomed ‘cottages’ set in a large arbour of trees.

A roomy sunlit Government Guest House (Kolhapur Tel: 0231- 2666855; Tariff: 400) overlooks the whole hill station, next to Sajja Kothi. They have four double rooms on offer. Prior booking and permission letter is required from Executive Engineer, Special Project (PW) Division, Kolhapur.

WHERE TO EAT

The simplest looking lunch homes arranged around the bus stand – Gouri Dining and Om Ganesh home eateries – serve the most fresh, delicious food, especially meat. The famous Kolhapuri meat curry with the two accompanying sauces, the spicy tambda rassa and the white pandra rassa are a must try. Hotel Hill Top serves good vegetarian fare such as sol kadi. Valley View Grand is recommended for Chinese food. Om Ganesh and Khanawals are very good for simple vegetarian fare also. The other small places around the depot serve a decent poha/ upma breakfast. For a fancier meal, you could try Sanjha Chulha, at the Kawade Guest House. The MTDC restaurant at Mahalaxmi Resort serves mostly vegetarian and non-vegetarian Maharashtrian fare plus some Punjabi and south-Indian dishes.

The Masai Tablelands

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 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, you might 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

FAST FACTS

When to go Panhala can be visited any time of the year, but the monsoon is best enjoyed by those who want its very particular pleasures

Tourist Office

MTDC
Kolhapur. Tel: 0231-2652935

MTDC
Panhala. Cell: 09422046609
W maharashtratourism.gov.in
STD code 02328

 

GETTING THERE

Region Desh

Location Historic Panhala is 3,000 ft above sea level and 19 km from Kolhapur

Distance 240 km SW of Pune

Route from Pune NH4 to Kolhapur; NH204 to Panhala  

Air Nearest airport: Belgaum (145 km/3 hrs). Taxi charges 4,500–5000

Rail Nearest railhead: Kolhapur (19 km/ 45 mins). Taxi costs 1,000 approx. Autos charge approx 600 one way. An ST bus plies every 30 mins (6.00am–8.00pm) between Kolhapur and Panhala

Road Take the Expressway to Pune. Take NH4 to Kolhapur, via Satara and Karad. Panhala is just off the Kolhapur-Ratnagiri National Highway No. 204

Bus State transport and Volvos ply from Mumbai and Pune upto Kohlapur. Log onto W redbus.in for bookings