Standing at the very base of Raigad fort, we looked up to see the entire mountainside disappearing in the mist. We had a long ascent ahead of us, and the dark, silent Sahyadris looked forbidding. It was just as well that we would be taking the soft option, and going up by ropeway, instead of climbing up the 1400 or so stairs that go right up to what had once been Shivaji’s greatest bastion. It was a Monday afternoon for one, and then it had been raining heavily since early morning, which is probably why the tourists were staying away. Now that is usually a good thing, but the privately maintained (by Jog Engineering) ropeway required at least six people before it would begin its four-minute climb up into the hills, and since Srini and I still only constituted two, we settled down to wait.
Crowning of a King
Getting out of Mumbai, we had incessant rain beating the Palio’s wipers into submission all along the NH17. The traffic had thinned out after turning off Vadkhal naka, and the countryside was resplendent in rich greens brought out by the rain. The little diesel-powered Palio was humming along at a respectable pace, and in what seemed like no time at all, we were near Mahad and crossing the river Savitri. A turn-off from the highway, and soon we were headed towards Raigad. Here’s where Shivaji had been crowned king (under an umbrella, hence the term ‘Chhatrapati’), and this was where his samadhi was. The mighty Chhatrapati himself may be no more, but his resting place beckoned, it reeled us in slowly but surely.
The ever-twisting, ever-turning road leading up to the Raigad fort (the Brits called it the ‘Gibraltar of the East’) turned out to be very entertaining, and we had a blast getting up to the point where the ropeway starts. The Palio’s torquey 1900 CC diesel willingly pulled the car up the hills, and the ascent did not require as many gearshifts as, say, a Palio 1.2 or even 1.6 would have required. I, for one, was quite happy with the car’s performance. The wait was not long at the ropeway, and the required ‘six people’ arrived soon enough, in a pair of Indicas and Omnis, and we were set to go.
Along with Srini and I, our car had two giggly little schoolgirls who were all goggle-eyed with amazement as the trolley car crept up the rope. From up there, it looked like a very, very long and scary fall to where the ropeway started. We looked at each other with studied bravado, but the journey lasted a mere four minutes. I must say it was well worth the Rs 110, as climbing up all those stairs would really have been painful.Our guide for the day would be the rather knowledgeable Bhaskar, who was employed by Jog Engineering. The Raigad fort, built in the mid-1600s, was designed by architect Hiroji Indulkar, and really is a huge, sprawling place. What little – very little – is left of it, that is. The Brits had a go on the fort with their artillery in 1818, so it’s all in ruins now. On a stark, sunny day, I’m sure the ruins would have made a melancholy sight, but on that day, covered under a blanket of thick mist and fog, Shivaji’s erstwhile home (he lived here for ten years, between 1670 and 1680) just looked slightly... lost. And lonely too. Looking at the stone remains, the broken-down walls, the ruined ramparts and long desecrated bulwarks, there was a sense of sadness. Here was the glory that was once India, brought to its knees by invading foreigners.
Bhaskar, unmindful of the vagaries of history, remained chipper as he pointed out what used to be the Mena Darwaza, and the Palki Darwaza, two of the main entrances to the fort. He then told us about the throne on which the great Maharaja used to sit, which was made of a sizeable 150 kg of gold. It no longer exists, of course, but must have been quite a bit of furniture in its time. For what it’s worth, we did get to see a stone replica put up in 1974 – a statue of the Chhatrapati sitting on his throne in solitary splendour. Indeed, what’s a king without his men. Once, there were all of 300 houses inside the Fort, but none of those remain anymore.Finally, we came to Shivaji’s samadhi. It’s only fitting that the grand warrior should rest here for an eternity, as Raigad was one of his biggest, grandest forts. More than any other,this is perhaps the one which best signifies his will to win. Only part of the original structure exists, and the remaining has been built in 1926 – but it’s still a remarkable monument. We stood still for a moment, and nobody spoke much. Even the schoolgirls were suddenly quiet. The Chhatrapati had been a great warrior, and respect was due.
A battle well fought
Mahad is only about 25 km away from Raigad, and that’s where we’d be staying the night before heading to Pratapgad, and then onwards to Kolhapur. Pratapgad fort, where a certain Afzal Khan met his demise at the hands of Shivaji Maharaj, awaited.It was still raining pretty hard in the morning, but we decided to press on anyway. Pratapgad was an hour’s drive, up some very interesting mountain roads. Once again, I marvelled at the Palio’s sure-footed tenacity, as it hauled us up in double-quick time. Pratapgad’s rain gods did seem to have a twisted sense of humour though, for just as we reached the fort, water pouring down from the heavens trebled in intensity. There was nothing to do but wait in the car, and look at miscellaneous tourists (God bless their hardy souls) arrive in decrepit-looking Qualis cabs.
Finally, the rain let up a bit, and we decided to go up into the fort. No ropeway here, and we’d be climbing all of 451 steps (built in 1957, before which everyone had to go up a broken mountain trail) to get there. But first, a barrage of guides descended upon us. A mere Rs 50 in exchange for all we’d ever want to know about the fort didn’t seem too bad a deal, though it was a problem for us to convince them that all we needed was one guide.Work started on Pratapgad in 1656, and the structure was completed in 1658. The fort is most famous for a singular act of valour – Shivaji outsmarting Afzal Khan, a general of the Adilshah of Bijapur. As you might remember your history schoolteacher telling you (when mine was telling me, I mustn’t have been paying attention), the Khan had, in 1659, called Shivaji for a meeting, ostensibly in a show of affection and brotherhood, but actually intending to murder him. The canny Shivaji cottoned on the brute’s intent, and went for the meeting wearing full body armour. The hulking Khan tried to stab Shivaji, but failed, and ended up having his entrails ripped out by Shivaji’s concealed wagh-nakh (tiger claws). To this day, Afzal Khan lies there – his dargah is close to the fort, though we couldn’t go there as access to the place has been sealed off.
The fort itself is built on three levels, so the 451-stair climb was not too bad. The guide pointed out various ‘points’ along the way. One was were you could, supposedly, see the Koyna river flowing through the valleys surrounding the fort, though we couldn’t see anything because of the thick fog surrounding everything. Then, there was the ‘punishment point’ which seemed straight out of the Sean Connery-starring Entrapment, and looked none too inviting. In Shivaji’s time, this used to be the place from where wrong-doers would be tossed off a cliff, suitably trussed up and stuffed into body bags. The guide insisted that nobody was actually ever tipped over the cliff, but then, he also insisted he was a distant scion of the great Shivaji Maharaja himself. I suppose, the considerable quantities of cheap whisky he seemed to have imbibed helped him believe that. There was also the Bhavani Mata temple where Shivaji’s kuldevi (family goddess) was worshipped, and right at the top of the fort, a bronze statue of Shivaji which reportedly weighs close to 5,000 kg. The walls may have fallen, and trumpets may no longer blare, but the lore of the Chhatrapati abides.
The drive up to Satara was pretty uneventful, but after that, the going became tough. Work is in progress on building a four-lane highway (as of now, you only have two lanes), and traffic was immense. Wading through a sea of slow-moving cars, light-flashing buses and smoke-belching trucks for hours on end is as painful as it gets, but there was no other option but to soldier on. It was late in the evening by the time we covered the 200-odd km to reach Kolhapur, but deliverance was on hand. We had been booked into the only palace hotel in Maharashtra – the Shalini Palace, which turned out to be quite a intriguing place. We drove into the palace, and we were right away shown into our room,complete with red carpet, period furniture, and the most ancient-looking airconditioning controls I’d ever seen in my life. Charming!
Age of empires
We had one full day to moon around in Kolhapur, and it certainly was going to be about much more than just Kolhapuri chappals. Kolhapur is, supposedly, the eternal abode of Lord Vishnu, and old palaces and temples abound in the place. Surely, there’d be a lot to see? For starters, there is the Panhalagad fort, a scant 20 km away. This fort was built by Siddhi Johar Ibrahim Adil Shah (phew!) in 1502, and was won by Shivaji in 1659. The ravages of time and plundering British armies have taken their toll, and there’s not much left of the ancient fort, but what’s notable about the place is that Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji, was imprisoned here by his father for more than a year. Sambhaji had taken to excessive drink and was given to squandering away his time, money and energies in frivolous pursuits, prompting the Chhatrapati to try and discipline him. We went to check out the ‘saja kothi’ where Sambhaji was kept under arrest, and from up there, the view at least was pretty good. Couldn’t have been too bad a life. Food, drink, minions to wait upon him and a room with a view. Punishment? Heck, I’d say Sambhaji had it all made!
Then, it was on to the Mahalaxmi temple, which was built in the 7th century. The ornate black stone edifice looked old as father time himself, and was crowded with worshippers. Small shops pushing prasad and selling mini statues of various deities, nattily-dressed young people lolling around, sari-clad women with puja thalis in their hands and men with red tikas on their foreheads, hands folded in pious intent – holiness was everywhere. Finally, the Shahaji Chhatrapati Museum, which was built in 1877 at a cost of Rs 9 lakh. The imposing building, which also has a still-working clock tower, holds a fascinating collection of paintings and statues and photographs and other knickknacks truly is representative of an era gone by. Witness huge silver artefacts, the maharajas’ collection of animal skins (politically incorrect now, of course), black-and-white photographs of great hunts, meetings with British royalty, and more. Also, loads of old furniture held up by rather grotesque animal legs (that really was in bad taste), copper utensils, a mind-blowing Darbar Hall where the Maharaja used to hold court, and a very large arms gallery with a particularly nasty-looking selection of guns and knives. Tired, we went back to the Shalini Palace to settle down to an evening of good wine and food. It had been a good holiday, and even the Chhatrapati would have approved of our gastronomic celebrations...
Maharashtra takes on a thousand shades of green in the monsoon, and it is a good time to head out in this season – if you enjoy the rains, that is. And you usually have most tourist spots to yourself – even better when you’re literally walking in the clouds. If you’re on the Shivaji trail, there are many more forts along the coast and near Pune. Here’s however information specific to the places we visited – Raigad, Pratapgad, Panhala and Kolhapur.
The ropeway constructed by Jog Engineering is an all-weather access to the top of the fort. Tickets cost Rs 110 per person, but the catch is that they will take you up only if there is a minimum of six persons – alternatively, you can pay Rs 660 if there are just the two of you. Better still, cool your heels till some people come along, because the other alternative is to climb up those 1,460 stairs. There will be the company-appointed guide to take you around Shivaji’s most significant fort.You do have to climb about 450 steps to get to Pratapgad, not a problem actually. Guides come cheap in the off-season, and at Rs 50, he tells you most of the stuff you have already read in your history textbook. Pratapgad is close to Mahabaleshwar, which is a well-established tourist spot. This hill station has its fair share of view points and hotels, and it seems like every second Mumbai-ite has been there. If you’re missing Mahabaleshwar but want to pick up handicrafts and the famous Mapro line of squashes, jams, jellies, syrups, then stop over at the Handicraft Centre just one km after the turn-off to Pratapgad. Good deals, especially the jute bags, woodwork, and of course, Mapro products.
Panhala is just 20 km from Kolhapur, so it’s good enough for a half-day trip. A guide, at Rs 50, will take you around the ruins scattered all around the place. While you can always stay back at Panhala – which has become a mini hill station of sorts – we recommend you take in the sights of Kolhapur for the rest of the day. The 7th century Mahalaxmi temple is one, and a visit to the Shahaji Chhatrapati museum at the new palace is not to be missed. You have to remove your shoes to get into the museum, and the entry ticket is just Rs 13 per person, which even entitles you to a yellow Toilet Pass ticket. Walking down the promenade ringing the Rankala lake is pleasurable, and if you are interested, you could take a 50-km trip to the Bahubali Jain temple. In Kolhapur, don’t miss the fiery Kolhapuri mutton and the yummy misal at Chorge’s near the temple. And remember to get yourself a pair of Kolhapuri chappals too!
Routes & Rooms
From Mumbai, get to Panvel and on to NH17. Mahad is about 130 km from Panvel. A few km before you enter Mahad, to the left is the turn-off to Raigad, a beautiful 27-km stretch ahead. During tourist season, you can stay at MTDC’s own set-up atop Raigad fort, alternatively, get back to Mahad. Instead of entering Mahad town, it’s better to stay at the two established hotels bang on the NH17 itself – Motel Visava, Tel: (02145) 222382 and Hotel Kuber Palace, Tel (02145) 225993, both with rooms priced Rs 600 onwards. Mahad to Pratapgad is inside 40 km. Go via Mahabaleshwar and Medha to reach NH4 which leads to Kolhapur (200 km) through Satara and Karad. Panhala is just 20 km from Kolhapur, and Kolhapur is 400 km from Mumbai.
Kolhapur is a prosperous town, so have a choice of hotels to stay in. We recommend you head straight to Hotel Shalini Palace, on the picturesque Rankala lake. Unlike Rajasthan, it’s the only palace hotel in Maharashtra. The palace was built in 1934, and is typical of the Indo-Saracenic buildings of that era. The rooms are large and airy, and are attached by a marble-laid veranda, overlooking a well laid-out garden and the lake. Built at a cost of Rs eight lakh, the palace uses humungous amounts of Italian marble, Burma teak and Belgian glass. While any of the rooms will make city dwellers feel like royalty, you can indulge yourself in one of their suites. Named after one of Kolhapur’s princesses, the palace has been turned into a hotel by Shamrao Chougule of Indage, yes, the same group that produces some really fine international quality wines. Sit on the veranda, put your legs up the balustrade, sip Marquis de Pompadour bubbly and chew thoughtfully on sukha mutton while listening to the silence of the place. A royal experience, that too at an extremely affordable price. Hotel Shalini Palace, Rankala, Kolhapur. Tel: (0231) 2630401. Double rooms start from Rs 1,400 onwards, while suites are between Rs 2,400 and Rs 3,000. It’s worth it.
Fiat Palio 1.9 D
Distance covered: 1,000 km
Mileage: 12.4 kpl