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Archive for August, 2011

Shivaji’s escape from the siege of Fort Panhala on a rainy night, the subsequent frantic chase given by the Bijapur forces and the battle of Pawankhind culminating in the inspiring sacrifice by Baji Prabhu Deshpande and 300 Maratha soldiers is the stuff of legends. The fable of Shiva Kashid, the barber who volunteered to dress up like his beloved King to misguide the enemy and assist in the escape, knowing well that a certain death lay in store provides a touching subtext.

The 75 Km-long route of the escape is broadly known. It extends across a portion of Kolhapur district in Maharashtra, from Fort Panhala to Fort Vishalgad. On this route, Pawankhind lies at a distance of 55 Km from Fort Panhala. Even today, the landscape is as rugged, has few roads and is dotted with nothing more than quaint hillside villages, peopled by simple Marathas farmers or Dhangar shepherds.

Shivaji is not just a ruler who lived centuries ago. He is a sacred memory alive in the hearts and minds of the Marathis. No other royal figure of India commands such devotion. The trek from Panhala to Vishalgad is therefore, a mandatory annual fixture – almost a pilgrimage – for many adventure groups in Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur and Sangli. Since the date of the original operation was 13 July 1660, the trek too is performed in the month of July when the monsoon is usually in full fury in the Western Ghats.

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I had been trying to do the trek for last three years. But somehow the plan fell through every time. This year I am a little more determined. I get in touch with an adventure group. They have planned it on the coming weekend. Some 400 people in all have already signed up. But I have prior commitments and will not be able to make it that day.

I feel sure the trek can be undertaken independently by a smaller group. I try to rope in a couple of friends who I feel will be enthusiastic. Enthusiastic they do sound, but have no time. Finally, I decide to go it alone.

Three days later, I get a rough, hand-drawn sketch of the route from a doctor friend who did the trek that I could not do. The most important details therein are the names of villages. Now I know what to ask the solitary shepherd I run into when I get lost. The kind doctor also fills me in with a few expected hazards – like ankle deep mud, pestering leeches and treacherous mountain streams that have burst banks due to heavy rains.

*********

I pack a rather perfunctory collection of items. Whatever comes to my mind, goes in. Whatever doesn’t occur to me is left out. So I have a field bandage, but not a rope.  A light blanket but not a sleeping bag. A torch but not a knife. A waterproof cape, but not a sun cap. A painkiller tablet, but not a sprain ointment. Snake and scorpion bites are a real possibility. But I carry nothing to deal with such a crisis.

Fortunately, during the whole trek, I never face the requirement of any of the items I have forgotten.

As energy food, I pack in Konkan special stuff – groundnut Laddoos and baked cashew nuts. They are light in weight but provide an instant rush of energy when eaten. I decide against taking any chocolate bars. I do not want them flowing all over my bag and clothes with rain water.

*********

REACHING PANHALA

The good old Maharashtra ST takes me first to Kolhapur and thereon to Fort Panhala.

It is 1930 hrs. I check in to the first hotel I see and enquire half-heartedly for a guide who can come along with me.

Since the distance involved is long and the degree of difficulty considerable, he is more likely to be a companion-buddy than a mere paid guide. My reluctance is mainly on that count. He is going to rob me of the solitude that I am looking forward to. I want to be all by myself, in the midst of lush green Ghats, torrential rains, overflowing lakes and winding foot tracks. There are going to be no roads, no cars, no trains and not many people. I also expect to be surveyed by at least a startled rabbit if not – hopefully – an annoyed leopard.

The hotel owner knocks on my door late in the night to tell me that no guide is available. He also urges me not to go ahead with the idea of trekking alone.

************

DAY ONE : FORT PANHALA TO RINGEWADI

I check out pretty early at 0615 hrs – backpack, rain gear n all – and stroll casually around the drenched, misty interiors of Fort Panhala for a while. But I am postponing serious sightseeing to another day and deviate quickly towards my intended exit – The Raj Dindi gate. On the way though, I take in whatever I can.

Unlike most other forts of India, Panhala is an inhabited mini-town with its own local governing body. This means marginally better civic amenities – like roads and traffic islands at least. Many families have lived here for generations. Besides, the moneyed lot in Kolhapur have their second homes here. The monsoon fog is making it all look faintly European.

A curious but incomplete-looking structure stands in the middle of a lake.

An ancient banyan tree whose ancestors probably saw and heard the great warrior King himself.

The crumbling ramparts give a fascinating birds-eye view of the rain-washed landscape below.

A gentleman who is plucking flowers for his early morning worship, points out to me the way to Rajdindi gate.

As transpires later, I had misunderstood his directions. But for now, I move along this forest path.

Nature claims me without wasting a moment. Thick growth on either side seems to be waiting to overrun the opening.

At the end of the track, I find myself, not at the Rajdindi gate but at a forest department hut. It has these contradictory signboards of “Welcome” and “No Entry” placed in sight of each other! So typically Indian!

Already outside the fortifications of Panhala, I choose to descend further and soon reach a black-topped road below the fort where a village is yet to wake up from its sleep. Chicken have barely begun scurrying around. I find an odd early riser and learn from him that this is not Turukwadi village but a flank of Panhala town itself.

I follow the road and reach Turukwadi  which isn’t very far.

At this point, I have to abandon the road and take a hilly path to Mahalunge. I turn around to catch the last sight of the mighty Fort Panhala, wondering if the great Shivaji and his loyal Maratha warriors could have passed this same spot that night three centuries ago.

The silence of the early morning is utterly peaceful. The countryside has gained its monsoon splendour. This impossibly rich hue of green will be accompanying me throughout the trek.

Immediately as I start climbing the hill on way to Mahalunge, I hear the roar of water gushing down. It is in close vicinity. But the undergrowth is so thick, I can only see this much after a lot of effort.

A multicoloured frog concealed in the mud.

The first sight of village Mahalunge.

Farmers (meaning almost everybody!) in Mahalunge are hard at work in their fields while women are filling water at the village well. I cross Mahalunge and begin a rather short and gentle climb to Mhasai Pathaar, the most anticipated part of the trek.

MHASAI PATHAAR

Mhasai Pathaar (Mhasai Plateau) is a peculiar geological formation. It is a table-top piece of land roughly four miles by one mile.

It has mild undulations, resulting in creation of a number of mid-sized lakes all over its surface. The lakes are presently filled to the brim owing to heavy rains and their banks are narrow mud bogs full of swaying water lilies.

The Pathaar has no trees and very sparse shrubbery. It falls steeply on all sides to the plains below where tiny villages abut the cliffs. There is little human presence on the Pathaar itself. In day time, a few cowherds bring their livestock for grazing. But that too is rare in this season as fodder in available in plenty close to the villages during rains.

I am reminded of the ominous, mysterious moor in the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Hound of Baskervilles”.

No photograph can do justice to Mhasai Pathaar – except, perhaps aerial ones. It is a 3600 experience. By the grace of God, the weather is pleasant. Sun is hidden behind thick, dark clouds but it is not raining. An unceasing cool breeze buzzes in the ears. There is nay a sound in the air, save a stray alarmed sparrow chirping as it flies overhead.

I put myself on pause mode and marvel at the unadulterated charm of nature on display all around me.

Water in a lake looking like clouds due to wind-generated waves.

Wild mushrooms emerging out of decomposing cattle dung.

Naturally formed caves at the edge of the Pathaar. Ideal abode for a leopard!

Drinking water straight from a lake!

The only permanent – so to speak – signs of human existence here are the two temples of Goddess Mhasai Mata. Both are rather non-descript and attract some pilgrims only on Tuesday – the designated favourite day of the Goddess. I see the first temple in far distance. The original stone structure has given way and the new cement one is incomplete.

I bow to the deity inside and move on. The road ahead extends right to the apparent horizon.

Soon I can spot the second – and probably more popular – temple.

I see countless coconut shells strewn around, a testimony to the crowd size of the previous Tuesday. Also lying about are innards of sacrificed chicken. Mhasai Mata is a Goddess of the shepherds and farmers and hence approves of animal sacrifice unlike other Brahminized deities.

The priest-attendant is busy with the rituals but hearing me, he comes out of the sanctum. In return for a suitable offering, he hands me a packet of holy ash which will ensure my safety during the trek.

I survey the village of Ghungur Bandivde spread below the cliff behind the temple.

A huge lake has recently been dug right opposite the temple. The excavated earth has piled up over an acre of land, blocking way forward.

I say goodbye to the priest with folded hands and take a detour around the mud mounds. The two Resident Dogs of the Temple escort me, no doubt attracted by the smell of the foodstuff I am carrying. They remain with me right till Orewadi, the next village.

A light but persistent rain continues. Rivulets of water run down my face, my rain jacket and my backpack.

A brief while later, I site two huge lakes side by side. They are the biggest I have seen on the Pathaar so far.

I glance all around. Not a soul for a mile. Besides, there is a thatched-roof shed nearby. I can’t resist the opportunity. I lose my clothes in the shed and have my first-ever skinny-dip. The Resident Dogs are mock-wrestling in a puddle and a few cows are munching grass on the banks of the lake. They all appear deeply disinterested.

Sorry, no pictures!

The Pathaar ends sooner than I expect. I find myself passing by this eucalyptus forest while a few alarmed buffaloes wonder if I could be a threat.

A small stream jumps down the edge of the Pathaar.

A cowherd tells me I have overshot Kumbharwadi a bit, but no problems, I could go down to Orewadi and then follow the kutcha road to Kumbharwadi. I heed his advice and begin descending to Orewadi. I can see my destination from the top.

The kind cowherd has told me the alignment of the foot track in great detail. But the temptation to beat my own path is too great. I attempt to take a short cut and soon find myself on all fours, negotiating this slippery vertical rock cautiously while the shepherd shouts unintelligibly from the top.

Last glance at Mhasai Pathaar.

I waste a lot of time reaching Orewadi (which is on a detour in the first place) and then moving on to Kumbharwadi. At Kumbharwadi, the sky opens up and a torrential downpour begins.

*********

From hereon, the trek progressively becomes a lonely, melancholy trudge. The shoes and socks cling to my feet and drip. Under incessant rain, the backpack gains in weight. The clothes turn wet inside rain wear. Very soon, my damp shorts begin to bite the insides of my thighs, making the act of walking brutally difficult. It feels like someone is singing my thigh-skin with burning coal. And I have not even completed a third of the route.

I fool around with my cell camera to cheer my sagging spirits and distract myself from the pain of trouser-bites, though clicking pictures in rain is also a test of one’s skill and patience.

Chafewadi, Khotwadi and Dhangarwadi come and go past in monotonous succession.

The men and women in the villages are used to seeing trekker groups from Mumbai and Pune pass by in this season. In each village – or in the rice fields outside – I have exactly the same interaction with the locals:

“Are there more people behind you?”

“No. I am all alone.”

“Alone…??”

“Yes, alone.”

“Which place do you belong to?” (As if that would explain the madness.)

I wizen up after a few such annoying encounters and modify the interaction.

“Are there more people behind you?”

“Yes. But they are a little far away. I started early.”

The rain continues unabated, not giving more than a few minutes respite at a time. The landscape around is bewitchingly beautiful.

Unusual rock formations on a hill top.

Traditional motifs on doors of houses.

A Tulsi plant with (perhaps) the image of the guardian saint of the area carved on the Vrindavan.

I remember Shivaji, Baji Prabhu and the brave Marathas. I begin to understand the insider-versus-outsider dimension of their fight. All the Marathas were from one or another of these very villages and knew this terrain like the back of one’s hand (Baji Prabhu, however, was from Bhor tehsil near Pune) while Siddi Jauhar and Siddi Masood perhaps did not know even the local language.

**********

Short of Mandlaiwadi, I have to cross a stream. It is wide, deep and would not allow jumping over. I have no option but to remove my shoes and walk through knee deep water.

A little upstream, I see a small lake formed. A little breather seems to be in order.

At Mandlaiwadi, a villager invites me inside his house to wait till rain subsides. I immediately get rid of my shoes and hang them on my backpack, switching to chappals instead.

The way from Mandlaiwadi onwards is a series of obstacles which sap my energy tremendously, while heavy rain continues to pound the earth and sting my face.

Deep nullahs that can be forded only by wading across them.

Foot tracks that have turned into waterways.

Paddy fields that dare you to cross through ankle-deep mud.

At a spot, I simply throw off my backpack, flop down on wet grass and close my eyes. The only sound heard is of a distant waterfall jumping down from a hill. The serenity of it overpowers me. I let my muscles and my mind relax, allowing myself the luxury to weigh the options of either stopping or moving ahead.

Ah, the pleasures of trekking alone!

Of course, it is just an indulgence. There is no real option but to pull oneself together and resume the march.

*************

I reach Karpewadi at 1600 hrs. The locals eye me with concern and exhort me to call it a day. Ignoring them, I cross the village and move on. But the light has begun to fade and I am staring at a rather large (meaning I can’t see the other end !) eucalyptus forest which I have to cross.

The forest is a government-planted one and isn’t very thick. But the following facts concern me.

1. It is contiguous with a natural forest which has dense undergrowth.

2. It is getting dark.

3. There is absolutely no human presence around. Nearest village on either side is two miles away.

4. I have never dealt with hostile wild animals in my life.

I get hold of a stout stick and hold it in ‘ready’ position with both hands before moving inside the forest. If a leopard (or a bear) does pounce on me, I can perhaps break a couple of his teeth before s/he settles down for dinner.

Any environmentalist will rethink his agenda if he is left inside a forest alone on a rainy evening with just a stick for protection. Let me tell you it is pretty unsettling! Every sound sets one’s imagination ablaze with suspicions and every shadow looks like that of some predator.

Many tracks meet and disperse in the forest. It could have been confusing but these route markers painted by the adventure groups four days ago, keep me from getting lost -though it is not much of a consolation!

A red coloured crab stares curiously at me!

I never thought I would be so happy to see human beings. But after that long, solitary walk through eerie woods, this view below gladdens my heart!

It is 1830 hrs. I have crossed Amberwadi and reach Ringewadi quite exhausted – not so much due to the walk as because of mud, rain and the trouser bites. I decide I am staying here for the night.

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My hosts for the night are the Bharankar family. They are farmers of rather moderate means, but extremely dignified and hospitable. (Actually, the surname of the entire village is Bharankar and they are all each other’s relatives.)

I change my dripping clothes and hang them up to dry (fat chance of that, though!). Mr Bharankar spots the leeches who are feasting on my legs and promptly removes them (leeches, not the legs!) with a sickle.

The dinner is rice bhakris, lentil curry, boiled rice and a raw onion. Food seldom tasted so delicious in past! We talk about random things over food, the way two absolute strangers would. But soon, we are talking about farmer’s concerns and issues. I am humbled to see that the Bharankars, in spite of their obvious difficulties, scrupulously refrain from any kind of cribbing or complaining during the discussion and hold on to their self-respect.

After dinner, the family watches their favourite Marathi soap on a B&W television (didn’t know they still existed!) while I lay down on a blanket next to this grain stack, hearing the rampaging rain outside.

*************

DAY TWO: FROM RINGEWADI TO PAWANKHIND

My eyes open at 0530 hrs. Day must be breaking outside, but inside the well-sealed stone house, it is utterly dark. Only when I peep out through a tiny opening next to the granary do I see the dawn.

Yesterday, I dreaded the prospect of waking up in the morning and walking again. I felt my legs would simply get jammed. But nothing of the sort happens. My legs are aching a little, but I feel I can walk.

A hot cup of tea later, I say my goodbyes to the Bharankars and move on.

For the first time after crossing Turukwadi yesterday morning, I set my foot on a black-topped road. It runs a little distance away from Ringewadi. I cross it and continue along a foot track. As it turns out, the next village Patewadi isn’t very far. Had I known this, I wouldn’t have halted at Ringewadi.

See if you can spot the road in this picture below.

Rain is absolutely unrelenting. It has already filled this well to the brim.

Jackfruit trees lined up in a grazing pasture.

Water, water everywhere…!

Patewadi and Sukalmacha Dhangarwada villages pass by.

On way to my last stop, Masevde, I find myself yet again in a forest all by myself.  It is far denser than the one I crossed yesterday. Rain is making it look even more sinister. And I have forgotten that stick at the Bharankars’ house.

What is more, a number of nullahs are flowing through the undergrowth. Though the water level and speed has receded since yesterday, one can imagine it from the size of objects that have flown along from top.

Trying to cross this huge tree lying in water, I suddenly sense movement scarily close to me. I turn around in terror and find that it is a man carrying a big load on his head! He is waiting for me to move. Anti-climax! I tell him as much, to his mild amusement! He is a shepherd from Masevde and is returning from the forest after collecting this load of Ayurvedic herbs which he will be selling to a shop in Malkapur. I am relieved to find company and walk behind him to Masevde.

The last lap Masevde – Pandhrepani – Pawankhind is entirely along a black-topped road. I have, therefore chosen to end my trek at Masevde and take a bus to Pawankhind.

Some school kids are also waiting at the bus stop. They will be going to Malkapur which is in opposite direction. They tell me that my bus to Vishalgad is at 1130 hrs. It means I have to wait for 45 minutes.

Thankfully, the MSRTC bus is dot on time. I get down at Pawankhind stop. The conductor tells me to be back there by 1345 hrs and the vehicle speeds off towards Vishalgad.

*************

Pawankhind is a very short walk away. I descend to the pass. The Satara NCC battalion has put up a board marking the site.

I imagine the bloody night battle taking place around me between the valiant Marathas and their chasers. I imagine the tired, outnumbered peasant-warriors falling to their death one by one, delaying the enemy enough to enable their beloved King to reach Vishalgad safely. I imagine Baji Prabhu, their mortally wounded chief, refusing to be evacuated until he hears the artillery gun fired from Vishalgad. I imagine blood mixing with the rain and flowing down the hill.

I feel a lump rising in my throat. I bow down on my knees and touch my head to the ground. I rub some mud on my forehead and drink a little water from the nullah, cupping it in my palm in the Hindu religious tradition.

************

Timeline

Location Time

DAY ONE

Panhala 0720
Turukwadi 0755
Mahalunge 0815
Mhasai Pathar 0820
Mhasai Temple 1 0845
Mhasai Temple 2 0935-0945
Orewadi 1100
Kumbharwadi 1130
Chafewadi 1200
Khotwadi 1215
Dhangarwadi 1300
Mandalaiwadi 1400-1445
Karpewadi 1600
Amberwadi 1700
Ringewadi 1800 (Night Halt)

DAY TWO

Ringewadi 0700
Patewadi 0740
Sukalmacha Dhangarwada 0930
Masevde 1030
Masevde bus stop 1045-1130 (waiting for bus)
Pawankhind (by bus) 1200

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