When I was a young lad growing up in Mumbai (then Bombay), my dad used to be Head, Marketing at the old Burmah-Shell oil company. While this meant that he was busy and away a lot, it also allowed us privileged access to a lovely cottage in Lonavla, the pristine hill station situated almost equidistance from Mumbai and Pune (then Poona). My childhood memories are of old whitewashed bungalows, shaded verandas with lizards scurrying for cover, quiet lanes with no traffic, and everywhere clusters of brightly exploding bougainvillea. So when my Mayo College buddy Sunil Patel suggested a quick jaunt to Lonavla, I definitely had mixed feelings – so much was likely to have changed, and for the worse no doubt. Wasn’t it better just to live with the memories?
In the end, we made the journey down memory lane and I am glad that we did. The new expressway connecting Mumbai to Pune whisked us there far more quickly than the old road I remembered from my childhood. Soon we were ascending the foothills of the Sahaydri range, also called the Western Ghats, which divides the Konkan coast from the vast hinterland of the Deccan plateau. Our destination was the Sterling Holiday resort with the apposite name of Under the Over. The name, we were to learn, comes from the resort’s location just below the flyover over which roars the expressway traffic in an unending flow. As far as the rooms, food, and other facilities are concerned, the resort is pretty average, with a solid three-star rating, but thanks to Sunil’s platinum RCI rating we were upgraded to the owner’s suite. The entire staff, led by the extremely affable and helpful manager Jessie D’Souza, treated us like minor royalty. We enjoyed the feeling of being big fish in a small pond!
For an ardent trekker like me, the major attraction of Lonavla is, of course, the trails in the Sahaydri hills. While they are a far cry from the long multi-day Himalayan treks I am used to, they are certainly of considerable local significance, and I look forward to exploring the terrain and being out in the open air. Our first objective is climbing Duke’s Nose, the most prominent rock structure that overhangs from the valley to the right on the drive up to Lonavla from Mumbai. It was named by the British for its likeness to the substantial proboscis of the Duke of Wellington; it is also referred to by its local name of Nagphani because the cliff looks like the hood of a cobra. Both are very evocative names and come from totally different cultural contexts, so take your pick.
We set off from the village of Kurvande and follow the dusty trail up the hillside which leads up the back of Duke’s Nose. It is quite an easy scramble, but the sun is at its zenith and there is no shade. Sunil, who is used to the flatter terrain and colder climes of his home in Toronto, is struggling. I cajole and goad him on in the way that only a fellow Mayoite can do and finally we reach the top where there is a small red Shiva temple and an even smaller plaster effigy of a kneeling white bull. The view from the top of the town of Lonavla and the Mumbai–Pune highway is impressive. Below us the cliff plunges straight down into dense green jungle. Sunil comments that he used to climb the legendary hill of Madar outside Mayo College (which is twice the height of Duke’s Nose) in half the time, but now we are four times as old so . . . I am lost in the complexity of the calculation of this fundamental equation of fitness and life!
The next day, our plans to climb up to Lohagad Fort, or Iron Fort, are almost derailed by Vikas, our auto driver of the previous day, who decides to up the ante. After some hard bargaining, we settle on Rs 1,200 for the round trip to Lohagad and the Karla Caves, but further surprises are in store. Unnerved by a steep road that he hasn’t been on before, Vikas chickens out of driving up the last stretch, leaving us to hoof it on foot. A young Marathi couple kindly gives us a lift and soon we are climbing the stone steps up to the fort. Crowning a hillock at the height of 3,400 feet, Lohagad (along with its twin, Visapur Fort) occupies a commanding position over the countryside below and divides the Indrayani and Pawna river basins.
The fort is built in the classical style with a long pathway that snakes back on itself, and interspersed with four large and intricately carved gates for defence. We emerge into bright sunshine at the top and survey the desolate scene before us. Unlike the impressive forts of Rajasthan which are still largely intact and relatively well preserved, practically nothing is left of the original structures of this Marathi fort except for a small temple and a step-well. What survive are only the stone walls, which are fused into the hillside and disappear under a cloak of green during the monsoons. Still it is impossible not to appreciate the grandeur of what it had once been, and the feeling of awe is intensified as we wander along the battlements taking in the superb views below. The unique feature of Lohagad is a long and narrow wall-like fortified spur on the west side called Vinchukata (scorpion’s tail) due to its natural shape. To me, it looks like the prow of a giant ship surging imperiously across an ocean of green.
We end our trip to Lonavla with a visit to the Karla Caves, 10 km to the north of Lohagad and located across the Mumbai–Pune highway. These are a complex of ancient Buddhist rock-cut caves dating back to the second century BC and built astride a major trade route, running eastward from the Arabian Sea to the Deccan. It is a dreary trudge up through the oppressive gaggle of shops and hawkers selling snacks, drinks, souvenirs, and temple offerings found in tourist spots across the country, but it is worth the effort. The smaller caves themselves are no match for the likes of Ajanta and Ellora, but the piece de resistance is the grand chaityagriha or Buddhist prayer hall, the largest of its kind in South Asia.
I step inside through the horseshoe-shaped entrance and am immediately blown away by the beauty and scale of this immense rock temple. Sunlight filters in through a semi-circular ‘sun window’ highlighting the stupa (the cave’s representation of the Buddha) at one end, which is protected by a carved wooden umbrella. Two rows of massive rock pillars, topped by sculpted kneeling elephants, march away to meet at a spot behind the stupa in a semi-circle. The semi-circular vaulted roof, ornamented with rows of ancient teak buttresses, flows back towards the stupa like a frozen upside-down wave. The entire layout is evocative of the grand cathedrals of Europe, a sight wholly unexpected and pleasing in this very Indian setting.