Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kondana caves - Truly our rich heritage

A busy week filled with work should always end with a visit to offbeat location, So after week of hardwork at office it was time to unwind. We had decided to do a small trek or trail or sort of outing so as not to be lazying around on Sundays at home, doing nothing. Dr Ajay put a plan to visit Kondana caves at foothills of Rajmachi. It was wonderful idea and in no time we were a group of 20 people on our way to Kondana on a Sunday morning.

Kondana history : These are group of 16 buddhist caves located in village by same name, Kondana or Kondivadi. These caves are on the way to Rajmachi and approx 33 kms from Lonavala. Its part of three sister caves located in and around Lonavala, viz Kondana, Bhaje and Karla caves. Kondana caves were carved in 1st century BC !!!! These caves enclose sculptures, viharas, stupas, chaityas which are all part of magnificent Buddhist architecture. Although earthquake in early 1900s destroyed and damaged many stupas, front entrance and floor of the cave but still some of the architecture is intact and is best example of our glorious past.

My Visit : We decided to meet around 7am at Dadar station. It was group of 20 people which included well known Doctor and avid trekker, Sir Nanabhai. Our adventure starts from the time we leave our home as Ajay and his mom barely managed to catch our pre-decided train to Karjat. As trains to Karjat are few with long time gap in between so if missed the train then its almost certain to miss the trek. But it was all good start. Our gathering happened on Karjat station. It was a hot hot sunny Sunday at Karjat and we were literally fooled by nature as while coming in Train we saw dense fog in Thane, Mumbra, Kalyan, raising hopes of pleasant and rainy Sunday trek but on reaching Karjat there was no sign of pleasant climate.

Karjat is famous for its vadapav and we had sumptuous vadapav breakfast and tea just outside railway station. It was a welcome start. Now it was a walk of around 15minutes to Shriram bridge on Ulhas river. This was nodal point to get tum-tums to Kondana caves. Hiring two tum-tums for Rs 300/- each we were off to our base village. Sitting close to the driver in Tum-tum is nothing short of thriller ride. As we zipped past Karjat town, lush green carpet covered mountains welcomed us. It was ride of 30minutes. 

We got the first glance of Rajmachi mountain range with Manoranjan fort standing tall at the top. There is also a river flowing close to base village but seems there was some dredging work was going on and supposedly a dam was getting built on it. Another instance of man playing with nature. 

We walked past small houses in the village and then past well marked signage indicating our route to the caves. There was one small hut shop selling bottled water and cold drink which after the trek we realised was last place to get water as we didn't find any water source at the caves except for the waterfall at the entrance of the caves but this is only in Monsoons. 

There is a entrance fee of Rs 20/- to visit the caves and forest dept has pitched small tent as collection window. Hope they maintain our heritage.The path to the cave was gradual ascend but we were all walking at our own pace, clicking pictures and with company of Sir Nanabhai who with his knowledge of botany, butterflies and creepy crawlies would share it which was making our walk quite interesting. But also with sun blazing hot after a prolong monsoon was taking toll on our body and we were sweating like hell. Only solace was that we knew the route from base village to the cave can be covered in approx 1hr.

On the way we did come across waterfall but with no rains it was almost dried up so we continued our walk towards main cave. On reaching the cave we were greeted with waterfall curtain over the cave and large chaitya with beautiful carvings. Entrance of the cave has such beautiful carvings that one surely feels proud of our heritage but then one can also see neglect and disrespect for the site with lot of scribblings on the walls of the caves.

The main cave has large entrance which is shape of fig leaf and supported by curved beams. There are many pillars with a large stupa in the cave. Sir Nanabhai gave quite interesting lecture on the caves and also pointed out that small model of the stupa which was carved on the wall. This model showed how the stupa originally was. There was anther 3D version of stupa in neighboring cave also.

Apart from that on the entrance walls were carvings of men and women in dancing form. Dr Nanabhai pointed that these were images of Kings and Queens who had donated generously for making these cave !!!

One eye catching thing was life sized statue of a lady coming out of the rock. Alas the face was completely damaged but her hairs and ornaments were neatly carved in the rocks and were intact. Some thing was scribbled in old Pali language close to it but it also sported someone had scribbled own name close to it which was clearly a eye sore and showed our negligence in protecting this beautiful heritage.

Close to the main cave was another cave which might have been a sort of dining hall or kitchen with small rooms carved in the wall. One can clearly see the "BHOR GHATS" from here and we were also lucky to see trains on Mumbai - Pune route passing through the tunnel on the ghats. I must have traveled on that same Mumbai - Pune route but never saw the caves from moving train..... May be next time !!!!

One noticeable thing about the cave it had carved drainage system on the floor to sip out the water from collecting in the cave. The ceilings of the cave had some square design which Nanabhai Sir pointed that it was engineering skill to prevent the cave wall to collapse. So much of engineering in those days !!!

There are other small caves in the complex but that was nothing to watch as they were only chambers cut in the rocks. With our cave exploration complete, we couldn't wait to get in the waterfall. It was welcome respite from the hot and humid climate. We spend some time getting good massage on head and back from falling water and some photo shoot.

With our stomach calling out loud, it was time for lunch of thepla's and ladoos by chef Bharti, Potato sabji by Neha. Now it was time to say adios to Kondana caves,  Dr Bharat- one of our adventures leader decided to go all the way to Manoranjan fort alone so he left for the top and we left for the base village. On the way we came across one spectacular moth, something not seen very commonly.

Reaching base village, our tum-tums were ready to take us back to Karjat and from there by train to our homes. It was small and wonderful excursion to a important heritage site, hoping that it remains a heritage site worth a visit in years to come. Hope we all strive to conserve and preserve our heritage.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Prabalgad - Double decker mountain trek in Sahyadris

It was yet another pilot trek that Dr Ajay has finalised on Sunday. It was Prabalgad near Matheran and trek was going to start from Panvel. Prabalgad is one of the few beautiful and must do treks in the lap of Sahyadris mountain range. Everyone who had registered for the trek had never done this trek hence it was going to be a pilot trek and coming at right time when monsoons clouds are not gone but since in last leg of monsoons, had transformed the Sahyadris mountain range in lush green carpet with numerous waterfalls and abundance of flora & fauna.

Prabalgad History : This fort was built to keep eye on ancient ports of Panvel and Kalyan.It was built by Bahamani empire. Shilahar and Yadav dynasty has made it a army camp.In the year 1658, Shivaji conquered this fort from Mughals. The fort was then governed by Kesarsingh a Mughal sardar. On seeing his eminent defeat, he along with all ladies on the fort committed suicide to avoid dishonour in the hands of the enemy. In spite of the his order, Kesarsingh's mother and her grandchild hid on the fort. But as act of kindness, Shivaji's forces allowed them safe passage on being captured.

About Prabalgad : It is also known as Fort Murunjan or Prabangad. Along with Kalavantin peak can be clearly seen from Mumbai - Pune expressway. On the east lies Ulhas river and Matheran, west side there is Peb and Chanderi forts, South side its Patalganga river and Manikgad while on North its Karnala peak. It is located at the height of 2300 feet close to the Matheran plateau.

Interesting thing about the fort : Britishers in year 1850 developed Matheran as hill station and also wanted to develop Prabalgad as another hill station but water source though sufficient for villagers was not enough for Britishers requirement. So they thwarted the plan..... Well, we missed one more hill station near Mumbai !!!!!

My Trek : Our journey started from Panvel station at 8.00am, Group of 15 trekkers whose one goal was to explore the beauty of Prabalgad. Dr. Ajay had hired shared tum-tum in which we crawled 10 while rest 5 followed in one car behind the tum-tum. Our base village was Thakurwadi ,Its approx 17kms from Panvel. Local ST buses are also available from Panvel depot but its better to do shared tum-tum which is faster means of travel. We reached base village in approx 45min. From here the view of mountains covered in lush green carpet with splendid waterfalls and thick rains clouds would make one glued for hours. Base village had quiet a lot of beautiful bungalows. Our tum-tum dropped us at the base village and as decided agreed to pick us again from base village in evening by 5pm. It was around 9.30am that we started our journey after initial round of introduction. It goes without saying that our photo session had started even before we introduced each other !!!! That's the fun on these treks .....

We started our walk on the tar road with Kalavantin and Prabalgad mountains overlooking us on the right. It was drizzling on and off which really helped us in doing a nice photo shoot of the mountain range. After walking for few minutes we came across a Orange board giving brief history about the place. This was our indicator and we had to turn right and walk towards the mountain now.

From here we bid adieu to the tar road and were now walking on jungle trail. Green grass with purple flowers adorned both the sides of the road. Not a soul on the road except us. Occasional singing of birds was soothing to the ears. As we moved ahead we came across amazing flower called "Glory Lily".

One of our group member Dr Salil explained that all parts of this flower contains some alkaloid which can be toxic if ingested and this flower was used to commit suicide !!!!! It certainly had some medicinal use in traditional medicines in India and Africa.... Deadly beauty ........ Bharti our dare devil lady of the group nicely plucked it and adorned it on her hairs. Lol. As we moved further the climb became more ascending and winding up the mountains. It was getting hot and humid as rains had stopped and with our body pumping gallons of sweat. Raaghav one of our colleague was facing brunt of the heat and had started getting cramps in the leg. Dr Shruti trying to motivate him to continue slowly. But after sometime it became too much for Raaghav to continue further and he decided to quit and return back. It was disappointing to have him abandon the trek but as we moved further we realised it was wise decision he took as climb was steep and with cramps, He would have been in more pain and trouble. Dr Shruti who was accompanying Raaghav also returned back with him. But there is always next time .....

After a climb of almost 1hr 30minutes, we came across a miniature version of a pinnacle. Its a small rock patch just before Prabalmachi. We all climbed to get a photoshoot. Little further and we saw rock carved with Lord Hanuman and Lord Ganesh. Villagers and Trekkers worship here for safe journey before moving ahead.

As we climbed some steps from here and we reached our first destination. It was Prabalmachi - Machi is nothing but village in local language. It was huge plateau and whole village is settled here. I still wonder how can someone stay here where it takes almost 2hours of climb to reach. No doubt it was wonderful location which gave amazing view of the villages below from where we started and also the mountain forts of Prabalgad and Kalavantin. Prabalgad fort stood tall covered with rain clouds and dense forest below. It was going to be interesting with high endurance to climb till the top if not difficult but that was going to be later, as now all that we could think of was something that we could eat. We noticed first thing when we reached here was a small hut come hotel which would serve tea, breakfast and even lunch, dinner and accommodation. Nothing like it....... Hot cuppa tea on picturesque location with breakfast !!!!! Nothing short of WOW..

The best part about this hotel was that from outside it looked like a small hut but on peeping inside it had comfortable sitting with all arrangements in it. Ordering tea and poha, I moved out for another set of photoshoot. In meanwhile Ajay confirmed with hotel owner and we arranged for a guide - Kisan who would take us to the top and back. It was wise decision as from Machi till fort its a dense forest and we had no intention of staying overnight in middle of nowhere !!!!!

In meanwhile our tea and poha was ready, It turned out that Poha was one of the best we all had ever tasted. We all had second round of Poha and were all geared up for our real trek which was to start from here. On the way, our guide showed us the rooms which if one decides can stay overnight. It was surprising to see rooms were not only neat and clean but fully tiled and even had TV and AC in it. Spot on we decided to have another trip again after rains which would be overnight trek.

It had started raining now and we were moving through some dense forest. It was near zero visibility with dense fog. Though we started our 2nd leg of journey at 12.15pm but it seemed like it was almost evening. Some twist and turns, dodging thick forest growth, we followed our guide, realising that without him we were bound to get lost. We were now moving up the path which was full of rocks and boulders. We came across streams of water but we gave a miss as our aim was to reach top and explore as much while this could wait when we are on our downward journey. As we moved up it was getting more steep  hence it required us to do some act of manoeuvring and balancing on loose rocks. Ashwini had some difficulty in climbing but that's where our team work came handy, Bharti and some others giving helping hand while me and Dr Jinit at the end of the group ensuring no one is left behind.

After a climb of over one hour we saw the fort walls,Our guide informed its long way still but now it was more of walk on a plateau. That was quite a relief from the steep rock climb. Also Prabalgad is so huge that one needs at-least two days to have a full circle of the fort. We were only going to explore the northern part.The forest at the top was more dense with little sunlight reaching the ground. But it was pristine and blissful.

We were now walking in middle of Karvy shoots. Luckily we could see that Karvy stems was covered with tiny white and purple flowers. Karvy blossoms every 7years and it seemed that here Karvy had forgotten their 7 years cycle and it was blooming out of Lucky we !!!! It was as if we were walking in middle of Karvy garden. Had we come here after a week, we could have seen full bloomed Karvy flowers. Growth of Lichens on trees gave indication that there was no pollution here.

Our guide showed us one water tank on the way. He said it was more than 20feet deep in some part. This was way of storing water for dry season. Moving further we reached another plateau which again had some water cisterns but important part was we had reached a point called Kalavantin viewing point from where one gets amazing view of Kalavantin pinnacle. But it was all covered with thick clouds. Wind was too chilly and to add to that rains drops were like someone throwing small stones at you. Our fingers got numb and cold. From here one could see on a clear day, Matheran mountain range and other forts like Chanderi, Peb, Karnala, Badlapur ranges.

We were about to leave for place with shade so that we could fill out empty stomach and voila !!!!!!! something like miracle stopped raining and clouds slowly started to move giving us a spectacular view of Kalavantin fort.........

 It was "the" moment. We all were clicking pictures like crazy. Slowly we got the best possible view of Kalavantin fort and not only that but we could see the scary steps to reach top of Kalavantin. Some dare devil group was slowly reaching top of Kalavantin. Even they could see us clearly. We also were able to see other mountain ranges all thanks to rain god taking a break and wind taking the clouds away. We had our lunch in buffet style with everyone appreciating chutney making skills of Bharti !!!!!

With all satisfied with our clicks, photo shoots and our stomach full, we decided to start our return journey. It was around 3pm, On our way back we felt we were going through a different route but our guide said it was same we came earlier. Good we had taken a guide for our trek as sometimes the mountains can be deceptive in nature.

Our guide informed us that to visit other side of the fort especially to explore Kala buruj it could take another two hours but due to time constrain and with rains playing hide and seek, We decided to skip it for our next trek. On our way down, our guide showed us a rectangular opening in mountain walls, on closer look it was sort of cave or opening which could have been used as secret entrance to the top. It was well camouflaged and one would surely not notice it on the way. Just wondered the engineering skills and meticulous planning our earlier rulers had !!!!!

We were descending slowly on the rocks just to avoid any casualty, rocks were at times slippery and also loose. Luckily we didn't have any casualty and were back at machi by 5pm. We all were completely drenched so high tea at our 5star hotel followed. Hot cuppa tea was most savoured by one and all. Bidding adieu to our guide here we followed our descend to our base village of Thakurwadi. Our tum-tum driver has got impatient as we had promised our return by 5pm. Frantic calls followed from him. But we were able to reach by 6.30pm only. Back again on our Tum-Tum ride to Panvel and then back home.Another successful trek was completed in laps of our beloved Sahyadri mountains. It was literally a double decker trek with one part till Prabal machi and then second part till the top.

I would love to this trek again in winters and maybe do a night halt and explore the entire fort this time.

                                AN AMAZING PRABALGAD !!!!!!!!!!