New Year’s Day is the perfect occasion to do things without planning, rhyme or reason. I was sitting at home, a bit groggy after staying up till 3 in the morning, writing and blogging, and was planning to take short trip somewhere, far away from the maddening crowd. Only, I did not know where, since I got up late in the morning, and it was too late to plan out things. All the friends I contacted were busy, and my family was away at Kolkata. Not cherishing the prospect of sitting at home on a New Year’s Day, I decided to simply roll my wheels and drive my way out of the city, not really planning the destination, the idea being basically to relax and chill out.
Post-lunch, I took my car out, filled her up and set out for the Pune- Nasik highway (NH-50). Traffic was thankfully thin, and soon I hit 70 kmph, turned the radio on and just soaked in the moment. As I crossed over the Bhosari flyover, I saw the city spread out in front of me, all the way. The mild January weather was just right, and as I crossed the tree-lined road to reach the toll booth at Moshi , my mood was already elevated considerably.
The road moves straight ahead from Bhosari, onto Moshi and then towards Nasik. Nasik which was 200 km away, and therefore not really a feasible destination in view of the time-constraint . I had plans of reaching somewhere on the way, probably Sangamner ( which I had seen on the map), enjoying the journey , clicking snaps, listening to songs, and then turn back, the whole idea being to idly drive about, chill and relax.
On exiting Pune, one is struck by the vastness and the expanse of the countryside around. There are acres and acres of land which are just vacant, unspoilt, unutilized by agriculture, or industry or habitation. Grey hillocks with patches of green dot the landscape, the asphalt road leads straight ahead, and when is driving at 90 kmph and listening to an electic mixture of John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel and ABBA, the mild winter sun gently nestling upon the window, surely heaven can’t be far away. I was listening to “Country roads, take me home” and simply enjoying the moment.
Onward from Moshi, the road leads through Chakan ( another toll post!), Manjarewadi , Rajgurunagar(birthplace of the Indian revolutionary Shivaram Rajguru ), Malegaon, Manchar and then towards Narayangaon, which is roughly 1/3 rd of the distance to Nasik. I had no prefixed intention of visiting any particular place, but was curious about Lenyadri, the Buddhist cave complex about which I had read sometime back and which, as the road signs showed, would be somewhere on the way.
Rajgurunagar (earlier known as Khed) is the birthplace of the legendary Indian revolutionary Shivaram Rajguru, who was hanged by the Britishers along with his comrades Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev, in 1931 at Lahore. Today it looks like a town like any other, with the exception being the prominent pictures of “ Hutatma” ( Martyr) Rajguru, who seems to be the patron saint of the town, and a wide entrance arch to a public building named as “ Rajguru Prabeshdwar” ( Rajguru Entranceway). It is indeed heartening to see that greatness, inspired by brave hearts, lies in unexpected places.
Beyond Rajgurunagar, I soon hit the first stretch of the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats. The ascent was not tough by any means, but the scenery was enjoyable. I stopped my car by the side of a wide lake, surrounded by hills on all sides, and took a few pictures. Having seen the Sahyadris in the monsoon, I could only wonder how beautiful this place would be during the rains, when all is green around, and the clouds seem to touch the hilltops. As I drove further on, I came onto a wide plateau, surrounded by grey and yellow vegetation on all sides, as far as on could see, with interspersed buildings in between, pitted against an azure and grey sky dotted with flecks of clouds. One could see the hills in the distance, and far away on the horizon, the landscape dropped to the valleys below. The vastness of the sparsely inhabited landscape struck me, and I stopped my car and took a few pictures. John Denver was singing” Country roads, take me home” on the car stereo. It was the perfect backdrop to the journey.
When one is out on a roll in the winter sun, on a road that leads far far away, and the destination is not known, it is a journey designed to be enjoyed. Sometimes, one has to simply set out, let the journey determine the destination, and enjoy the journey itself; the road produces all sorts of unexpected surprises. A journey is basically a metaphor for life- if we set out with the aim being only to enjoy the moment, with no pre-determined script in mind, and no particular expectations, chances are we will enjoy it immensely. On the other hand, if we determine precise touch-points, we will race from one point to another, in the search of a gratifying experience that eludes us. I have been to so many trips where I went expecting a lot, but came back less than satisfied. Here I was, cruising along, simply not bothered about where I was going, listening to my favourite music and just soaking in the moment. It felt heavenly.
After the initial stretch of the four-laned highway, the road had changed to an undivided two-laned stretch. There were rough spots in between, but in general the road was smooth. I enquired on the way and was told by a shopkeeper that the road to Lenyadri lay in a detour from Narayangaon. I wasn’t particular about visting Lenyadri, unless it lay near the journey route, the main intention of the journey being to enjoy the drive, but surely wouldn’t mind it as a bonus. There are ancient Buddhist caves from the BC era at Lenyadri, and being a history afficando, this sounded interesting to me.
On the way, I saw an artisan making miniature images of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the legendary state hero of Maharashtra and seemingly the patron saint of these parts. You saw him everywhere- he was nestled on pedestals in statues along the road, he smiled down at you from his trademark photographs which adorned many shops, and even looked back at you in his regal pose from the rear of vehicles. If there ever has been a historical person who has largely captured the imagination of people in these parts, and indeed to an extent across the country, it is him, and it is but natural that he is omnipresent in Maharashtra, even if is a bit overdone at times.
Therefore, when after crossing Narayangaon, I saw a signboard showing the way to Shivneri fort, the birthplace of Shivaji, which was at a distance of 15 km away, my interest was stimulated. I hadn’t bargained for this at all,and had absolutely no idea that Shivneri was on the route. This was a pleasant surprise. It took me a few minutes to decide, but then I made up my mind and turned my car, taking the detour towards Shivneri. Serendipity often produces the best of surprises, and this was one!
The two-lane road to Shivneri , lined by trees on both sides, is called Junnar Road. It is maintained in a pretty good condition, probably considering the historic importance of the place, and it took no effort to race my car towards Junnar (the nearest town) and Shivneri.
Junnar is an ancient town that is situated on the old trade route of Naneghat, harking back to the ancient Buddhist times. The name “Junnar” comes from “ Jeerna Nagar” , and was originally established by the Satvahanas, an ancient Indian dynasty which came into prominence around 230 BC, after the decline of the famed Mauryan kingdom . They patronized the Buddhist religion, and under their reign, Buddhist architecture, from Ajanta and Ellora to Amravati, reached its zenith, in Southern and Western India. The Buddhist caves at Lenyadri are a witness to that legacy. The Shivneri fort in its early form hails back to those times, and after the decline of the Satvahanas, was occupied by the Shilaharas, the Yadavas, the Bahamanis , the Mughals and the Marathas successively in that order. In 1599 AD ,the hill fort was granted to Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji Bhosale and thereafter passed down to Shivaji’s father, Shahaji. Shivneri fort was chosen by Shahaji to be the birthplace of his son due to the ruggedness of the place , which would provide the necessary protection and safety to his family in those turbulent times. Accordingly, being in the service of the Bijapur sultanate and having the fort under his domain, he shifted his expectant wife, Jijabai, to this fort. In February 1730, on a balmy spring day, Shivaji Raje Bhosale, destined to be among the most prominent Indian monarchs ever, was born here to Shahaji and Jijabai.
It is easy to understand why Shahaji chose this place. It is rugged and isolated, and the fort is on the top of a steep rocky precipice. It is surrounded by jagged hills on three sides and the Kukadi river to the south. Grand and forbidding, it is precisely the kind of place if you are looking for safety for your wife and son in the tumultuous period of Deccani warfare and politics of the 17th Century.
Today, Junnar is a busy town centered round the bus stand. The road to Shivneri lies up ahead eastward from the city, as the Junnar road ends, and passing through the town, one comes to a junction where Shivneri and Lenyadri lie in opposite directions, though close to each other. It was 4.30 pm, and I figured could catch only one of the two. It wasn’t difficult to make the decision. I drove towards Shivneri.
The sheer rocky precipice, on which the fort is situated, is awe-inspiring. I had to get down from the car and take a few photographs. I gave a lift to a local person on the way, and communicating with him in broken Marathi, I could understand that the fort was still open. Sure enough, as I reached higher, I could see the cars and other vehicles parked. I had to park at a distance down and away from the fort, and walk up.
Expectedly, there was a crowd, but none like the maddening rush one sees on holidays at places like Sinhagad fort, which we were witness to last year. Perhaps the distance of the fort from Pune (90 km), Mumbai and Nasik, the nearest big towns, has something to do with it. I was glad in any case, as the last thing I wanted to battle was crowds, since this journey was about getting away from the crowds.
The fort is at height of 3500 ft above sea level, and the ascending path to the fort is defended by seven gates (such as Ganesh Gate, Mena Gate, Kulup Gate, Pir Gate) – the fifth one being the “Hathi Gate”. The names are quite an amusing mixture of Indo-Marathi and Persian-Arabic, thus attesting to the symbiotic nature of the place, more evidence of which I would see later. The Hathi Gate is built in the classical style of the era, being armoured with anti-elephant spikes to protect against invasion. However, the road upwards is quite steep, and I figured it would take quite a braveheart elephant to come this far. Were elephants specially trained in fort- ascending skills in those days? Probably.
Bright pink bougainvillea flowers and green leaves made a striking contrast to the grayness of the fort. People milled about- enthusiastic city folk, curious locals, a horde of chattering schoolchildren and the omnipresent amorous couple kinds. Shivaji’s magic seemed to attract everyone.
The first structure one sees on entering the fort is the granary, the Amberkhana. Today, it is a partially- broken and abandoned building , with the roof, still intact after all these ages, overlooking the vast plains below. But in its heydays it was estimated that the fort could stock enough grain to feed a thousand people for seven years. Truth? Legend? Who knows? But the granary seemed huge. And for once, I was glad that better sense had prevailed upon the omnipresent loose bladders of our countrymen and no one had used the interior of the building as a public toilet, which is unfortunately more than what can be said for some other forts in these parts, as I had seen at Sinhagad. That was one point I really appreciated – I have seen grander forts and taller hills, but from the point of view of sheer rugged beauty, romanticism and good maintenance, Shivneri Fort stands out. Kudos to the Archaelogical Survey of India! May they find the will to repeat this in other places which are unfortunately devoid of the Shivaji magic.
The road from Amberkhana leads towards the interior of the fort. Of course, many of the structures would have disappeared with time, but a few stand out. Passing by a chattering bunch of schoolchildren out on a Sunday outing, herded by their hawk-like teachers, and umpteen people headed in the same direction , I passed through road which overlooked a cliff and the valleys below. I took a picture of the imposing rock walls from a distance.
A curious building built in an Indo- Saracenic- European style lay on the right side. This is the Shiv Kunj , a monument constructed by the state government, in honor of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, which , according to an inscription, was inaugurated by the erstwhile Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sri Yashwant Rao Chavan. If there was any proof about the importance of this place in the Marathi psyche, this was it, that the Chief Minister had come all this way to inaugurate a building. Inside Shiv Kunj there is an idol of the young Shivaji and his mother Jijabai made of “Panchdhatu” (An alloy of 5 metals). The building itself is less than imposing, but provides an interesting example of fusion of architectural styles.
The pivotal point of the fort is the building where Chhatrapati Shivaji was born, called the Shiv Janmasthan. Situated at one end of the wind-swept plateau that houses the Shivneri fort, overlooking the jagged hill ranges on all sides, and soaking in the historical significance of the place, there is a gray , gaunt brick and stone building, mostly devoid of windows except for an imposing Jharokha, where a plaque reads, “ This is the birthplace of Shrimant Shiwaji Maharaj Chhatrapati, born 1630 , died 1680.” Entering the building, after taking off my shoes in deference to the signboard requiring the same, I saw a dark, windowless locked room on the ground floor which housed a bust of Shivaji, and a wooden cradle suspended from the ceiling. The cradle, I guess, is more symbolic than historical. So this was the place where the greatest Maratha warrior and one of India’s most prominent statesmen was born! It is a moment of revelation when one considers the symbolism and significance of this room.
Upstairs, a small hall with a imposing Jharokha window looked down upon the grounds below. People were sitting; some were taking pictures. I guess for many, especially those steeped in the history and notion of Maratha statehood, this was no less than a religious place. Though my sentiments were less than religious, I could easily understand that this building represented an important focal watershed point in paying homage to the greatest statesman of Maharashtra.
Outside, a lady was narrating the story of Shivaji to her young daughter. People were taking pictures. I saw a guy sitting intentedly and taking a video shoot on his mobile camera. I sat down, soaked in the atmosphere and paid a silent mental tribute to the great warrior.
Shivaji Raje Bhosale was born here for sure, but he left the place in 1632 with his mother, and thereafter assumed the life of an itinerant and thereafter a deft statesman, culminating in his coronation at the age of 44 yrs as “Chhatrapati” (“sovereign”) of the Maratha kingdom, at his fort in Raigadh. In 1637, the great chess game of medieval Deccani politics took its toll and the fort ended up in the hands of the Mughals. In 1673 , at the peak of Shivaji’s power, the Marathas under him raided Junnar, but the vagaries of destiny intervened and the attempt to capture Shivneri from the Mughals proved to be futile. Shahu Maharaj, a later descendant of Shivaji, brought the fort under his control forty years later, and later it was taken under the control of the Peshwas. Shivaji died in 1680, not having seen his place of birth ever since his exit in 1632. For a sovereign who ruled far and wide and sent trembles down the spine of the powerful Mughal empire, the reverberations of which reached even faraway Delhi and perturbed the emperor Aurangzeb, it is indeed ironical that he had to die without ever having seen his place of birth again, which no doubt he would have desperately craved and which lay not far away from the Maratha- controlled territory of Poona. In the face of God’s determination to influence his destiny, even the most powerful ruler is but a servile subject!
The fort has seen its own share of cruelty and bloodshed. In 1650, the local Koli fishermen revolted against the Mughal rulers, but lost out to them. 50,000 folk were cruelly assassinated on the fort. Today, a memorial – the Koli Chauthara , lies in the memory of these brave souls, , at the spot where they were killed, on the top of a hillock inside the fort.
In front of Shiv Janmasthan, lies a water tank called the Badami Tank. It is an oblong structure cut out of rock, and bounded by a periphery wall. It would no doubt be grand in the monsoons, but at this time of the year, it was dry.
Further on, the road leads to the extreme northern corner of the fort, where a sign reads “ Kadelot Point.” A wall with a low-heighted entrance through it leads to a small terrace which overlooks the plains below and the hill ranges in the distance. This was also another arena of cruelty in the medieval era, from where criminals were pushed off and tumbled to their deaths on the ground below. Unimaginable cruelty can take even in the most scenic and beautiful of places!
One gets a panoramic view from Kadelot Point- of the houses, roads and fields below, the rugged hills in the distance, outlined across the grey winter sky. These hills contain the Lenyadri caves, which tell a story of their own, of the ascent and descent of Hinayana Buddhism in our country. I made a resolution to visit it the next time. For the time being, I simply stood there and enjoyed the view.
As I made my way back, I saw the Kamani Masjid and tank and the Hamamkhana, situated right next to Shiv Kunj. The mosque is a simple, stark structure, and probably belonged to the early Islamic era when grandeur in Islamic religious structures was not in vogue. It might have been named Kamani because the top of this structure is like a bow that is called as Kaman in Hindi; indeed, this is an unique feature of the building. On the east-facing wall there is an inscription in Urdu. In the citadel associated with the Maratha chieftan, it seemed initially odd to see this Islamic structure; but then, it has to be remembered that Shivaji, and later his descendants, have been tolerant of other religions, and Shivaji himself payed obeisance to Sufi saints along with Hindu ones. The way to progress lies through assimilation, which is something the pan-nationalist parties in Maharashtra which allegedly owe their allegiance to Shivaji, could do well to remember!
It was nearing Sunset, and I saw the Shiv Kunj bathed in the crimson colours of the setting sun. A wind was blowing, and the hills to the north were awash in crimson and orange colours as the sun began its descent behind the Sahyadris. I caught the moment on my camera, and as the sun finally set, leaving the skies in a brilliant mix of crimson, orange and grey, I made my way to my final destination, the Shivai Devi temple.
Shivai Devi is the reigning deity of this place. The temple of this goddess is an ancient one, and folklore says that Jijabai named her son” Shivaji” after this goddess, whereas other accounts say that he was named after the Hindu god Shiva. The entrance to the temple leads through the Shivai Devi gate, and the temple itself is a simple structure which seems to have been renovated. The carvings inside the temple are of antiquity, and are worth seeing. I paid my respects to the goddess and came out.There is a huge portrait of Shivaji holding his royal court, in the courtyard of the temple( a common portrait everywhere in Maharashtra). It was almost evening, and the last visitors had left. The temple doors closed in front of me, and it was the end of another day. The young priest emerged from a side-door, a packet of milk in his hand, and a few cats followed him, meiowing. After the Devi’s puja, I guessed it was time for some feline puja !
One gets a panoramic view of the plains, and the river and hills in the distance, from the courtyard of the temple. Behind the temple are some rock-cut Buddhist era caves hailing back to the Sathvahana period, which I unfortunately could not see due to lack of time.
Time is a mute spectator of history. Our ancient nation has been through different periods such as the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic eras. This place, the Shivneri fort, has seen it all- change of religious allegiances, birth of a Maratha chieftan, a number of wars, change of hands, and today nestles quietly in one corner of the Sahyadris, telling its tale to all those who care to listen.
It was late evening, and time to leave. This had been a serendipitous but highly enjoyable discovery. At Junnar, I stopped at a shop to have some refreshments. I ended up having tea and Kolhapuri Misal, a peculiar concoction of bread, bhujia and gravy! I had never had it before, and I am not sure whether I would ever have it again, but for the time being it was filling. The shopkeeper ended up charging me Rs. 35/- for a cold drink bottle labeled Rs.30/- ( “ cooling charges” , increase of prices, distributor monopoly etc etc- he told me). The bill for simple refreshments and tea was Rs.66/- , which was on the higher side compared to the quality, but I was not really in a mood to complain.
It was back to the road. The Junnar Road does not have much traffic, sans a few vehicles which, from their numberplates, I presumed were making their way back to Pune.
I went on full blast, music from “Swades”, my favourite movie, providing me company for the evening. I stopped at only one place along the way, just before the first toll post on the way back, to have a cup of tea and freshen up a bit. Thereafter it was all the way to Pune.
The car stereo was singing out the song “Yunhi chala chal rahi “(Carry on like this, traveller) from Swades, which captured the mood of the moment perfectly:
“ Yunhi chalaa chal raahi,
Yunhi chalaa chal raahi,
Kitni haseen hai ye duniya.
Bhool saare jamele, dekh phoolon ke mele
Badi rangeen hai duniya.
Har sapna sach lage, jo prem agan jale
Jo raah tu chale apne mann ki
Har pal ki seeb se moti hi tu chune
Jo sada tu sune apne mann ki . ‘’
(Just go on tike this o traveller,
How beautiful is this world .
Forget all your problems, see the flowers around you,
This world is so colourful!
Every dream seems true, when love is around,
When you follow the journey of your mind.
From each moment, choose the pearls
And listen always to your mind).
By late evening, I reached back at Pune and retired for the evening. It was a New Year’s Day well spent, and I looked forward to several such more in the future.