The Sahyadri Mountains or more affably called the western ghats are a range of mountains traversing across the states of Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They arent as high and lofty as the Himalayas, the highest point at 8,842 ft as against the Himalayas, at 8848m, making them roughly a third of the mighty Himalayas in stature, but unparalleled in beauty. If the color of the Himalayas is white, the colors of the Western ghats is green and what a green it is. This May, we made the most of the Indian Summers and decided to go traipsing across the ghats in the Indian subcontinent centring ourselves around a past of the ghats that have their very own Geographical Index marking, and drove around the ghats going through tunnels, slopy ghat sections, trading through waterfalls, mostly absent in the peak of the summer and then enjoying the loot of the season, read scrumptious berries, strawberries, mulberrys and well, shrewsbury!
Landing into the Pune Airport is like raising a salute to the Indian Airforce, an arm of the defence services of the country. As a defence airport, photography is strictly not allowed, not even encouraged briefly. But the aircrafts we got to see quite by chance even left a 4-year old enthralled. A small brisk airport, it barely acknowledges one, forget about luring one like the airports in the other metros do. Uber though, comes shiny and bright and takes us through the city of Pune, a sleepy big city when compared to the nearby bustling mega-metropolis of Mumbai about 150 kilometres away, serviced by a large-laned expressway, Pune is surprisingly large despite its proximity to Mumbai. Getting by in Pune is relatively easy if one has been subject to the traffic snarls of Bengaluru for sure, but then we are greeted with the tiresomeness of the Indian roads in most cities these days.
Pune’s most impressive neighbourhood is the Koregaon Park for sure, with its massive houses, that could easily pose as farmhouses but then they are houses, so massive in size and boundary walls over 10′ out, they keep away their location quite aptly. The houses of Adar Poonawalla, Cyrus Mistry are deeply aspirational but keeping the city out and themselves in almost seem like they are caged within themselves. I cant believe Poonawalla felt unsafe and had to make a dash for London to save himself even after living in a house like that(!) I mean like he needed the Indian Ocean for a moat to keep away the threats. But then the Adar Poonawalla foundation literally sponsors sports, clean-city initiatives, upliftment of the poor, empowerment of women and lot of other initiatives that seem worthy. While we looked at the fancy affairs of the Poonawallas we also watched Natasha strut at the Met, looking a lot like the cover of Atlas Shrugged as she carried off the spindle-corset and a Sabyasachi sari. One doesnt need to wear khadi to do charity she quips but then one would certainly be more comfortable in Khadi I think. And with that thought we tucked into a lovely sundowner at One-nought Eight, a art-taurent, featuring an art gallery and a restaurant serving up the most delicious pizzas and Pavlova to literally die for. With its earthy-plants and the breezy decor I would say it was absolutely enthralling. The nursery next door offers up scintillating information about plants making this art-place an absolute delight.
Pune is also the city of Osho, the spiritual cult that has several followers, I dont see the point, infact in this case I was glad to see high boundary walls, but the Osho garden made for a delightful walk. It is also the city of the Aga Khan the title given to the Nizari sect of Muslims, and the palace that was built to save the city from the famine, a palace that served a completely different purpose, shielding the freedom-fighters, keeping the Mahatma as a political prisoner in an Italian architecture-inspired building, so decadent as ever, like a cake with all its tiers in a garden so brown that it is a grandeur, a sight to behold, transporting one into varied thoughts.
The rest of Pune is markedly different from Koregaon Park, with the bustle of the Maratha-speaking people going on their affairs, Pune the home of Baji Rao, showcases the Wadis, the museums and the Mastanis, with much ease. It was the seat of the Maratha kingdom and the forts that surround the city tell a story. As time went on Pune transformed into a hub for education with colleges like Fergusson to Symbiosis and I must say the city’s average age is probably 19. Munching on Vada-pavs for dinner or tawa-ice cream seems to be the norm, and dont even get me started on Maggi which seems to be the national dish, atleast in the tourist spots from Kashmir to literally Kanyakumari. The Pune zoo, isnt the best in the country but it does have a bunch a animals worth drooling over, the Tigers for instance and the reptiles, as slimy as they maybe. The lake in the zoo is covered in algae and only speaks volumes about how unclean it is. Plastic ought to be drastically reduced in consumption for sure. That is recurring thought that sticks in my head everytime I walk around anywhere, travelling or not. To take respite and some shelter from the sveltering heat we ran over to the Phoenix mall in Viman Nagar, a neighbourhood that has its roots in the booming IT sector all over the world. Scotch & Soda was one brand that stood out with its beachy and summery vibes and the whiffs at Oud Arabia amidst the usual, Zara and H&Ms! A fabulous riverside dinner (yes, Pune has a river) at the Royal Connaught Boat Club wrapped up our trip to Pune. The Uttukars are a company that import Grass hardware from Germany, apart from making some fabulous clocks and kitchens. Our host, their house boasts of a brilliant log cabin connecting the indoors to the outdoors and the house to the outhouse. It is so inventive and smart, something I have never seen before except perhaps in Switzerland. Another feature as an architect that I loved was the glass loft in the kitchen covering half of the vertical shutter of the loft.
After ousting the closest city to reach one of the most beautiful hill-towns in this country we made our way to the town of Panchgani that is home to some amazing boarding schools and a breath-taking table land or table top. That was a surprise we didnt quite expect and were blown away for real. Honestly we had to hold on to our 4-year old son who was as inspired to take off on the table top as frankly, we were! The table top land is a natural formation of five hills with a flatenned top, giving the town its name of Panchgani. (five angans as translated from Hindi) The table top has two caves, a water pond and views that bring out the best in us and the sun, the sunset is exquisite. While we did not opt to ride the horses and walked all along, we were entertained by our peppy guide who had a lot to say on the place and on Bollywoods enchantment with Panchgani. The Pandavas too shelter in one of the caves of the Panchgani table land. The air in the cave was a good 10 degree cooler than the outside, talk of conditioned air. Our room had a stunning view of the valley and running around under the trees in the expansive garden of the hotel lawns had we fawning over the beauty of life. Another feature of Panchgani before I get onto the main feature is the sustainable, ecological farms that host people to brew kombucha, recycle goods, compost waste and literally learn to leave no trace on this planet. I for one, love to leave a digital trace, and hence this blog, but then it is a wonderful aspiration to have – to leave no trace on this planet and to tread super softly. The air is literally cleaner in Panchgani and the vibe of the place is exquisite. Lucky indeed are those that get to live there, the slowness of life is mighty alluring. And then lets get to the main part, the main feature of our trip, the reason for traipsing across the western ghats, the strawberries!!!! Dotting the landscape of Panchgani are exquisite strawberry farms with sweet pretty strawberries loading up on our plate every now and then. I for one ate so many strawberries that I can literally feel my skin glow with the sheen that strawberries provide. Filled with antioxidants, strawberries taste as yummy as they look and when partnering with cream that make a duet that I wouldnt ever wish to stop. Only until we reached Mahabaleshwar and I will tell you why. In a bit. But for now, Mapro with its strawberries and sandwich and pizzas and views that behold were like being in strawberry heaven. The Mapro Garden in Panchgani has all the trappings of a strawberry wonderland. We loved standing in strawberry cutouts working it up as we went from sampling fresh strawberries or khakras loaded with seasonings.
Mahabaleshwar is about 30 minutes drive away from Panchgani, and in Mahabaleshwar the jungle starts too, tigers were once a normal occurence in Mahabaleshwar, now it is people. In Mahabaleshwar the strawberry farms in May were almost burnt out, in the words of a resident, but the mulberries were in full swing and divine they were. While strawberries grow as a plant, mulberries grow on trees and they too make a wonderful combination with cream and ofcourse icecream. Corn is another ingredient that is found all over Mahabaleshwar, that I mean aside from Maggi(!), makkai tikka, makkai bhuna, corn fried, corn steamed, getting corn to be everything that it could ever be is one big aspect of this town. Apart from the stunning produce that is edible, Mahabaleshwar has produce that even delights the eyes, the view points that overlook into seven rivers that start at Mahabaleshwar, five are keenly visible but two are firmly underground. The major perennial river that starts at Mahabaleshwar is the River Krishna and there is a temple to commemorate the fact. Praying at the Mahabaleshwar temple of Shiva and the Krishna starting point is divine, here the hills are alive with the sound of life, the sound of water. As all tourist spots are these are too filled with hawkers ready to sell ware, everywhere, I wish the country didnt have so many crowded spots but then that is the nature of this country, the population, a bane or a boon, it could be both rolled into one. The horses at Mahabaleshwar too look smart and at the Venna Lake one is shown the best that nature can bring out in people. Boating at the lake is a solitary affair, one where we can rent a paddle boat or an oared one and roam freely in the expanse of the lake, it is the best thing to do, perhaps comes after swimming in my list, rowing ones own boat, so serene and so happiness inducing. And there is something about sunsets, all across the Western ghats, so beautiful as I will continue on the next leg of our traipse.
Driving ahead from Mahabaleshwar we headed to Lonavala, the town famous for chikki in peanut, walnut, pistachio or even in dried rose and strawberry. Every resort in Lonavala is studded with a water-themed park, with water slides, waterfalls and everything gorgeous. Why there is one on trees called a Machan but that is only for couples not enjoyable with kids, the water-parks well thats what makes Lonavala so enjoyable. In Lonavala, there are projects by bigwig developers like Aamby Valley, Lavasa and lots more, the hills have inspired splendid homes, as we saw in Lonavala. Ofcourse they are older and not swanky like in Koregaon Park but the sizes are just the same albeit with lower boundary walls that probably let the people breathe. Sliding down a water slide is such a welcome change for the summer, the sound of water flowing is very calming while standing under a waterfall massages not just the back but the soul as well and as it does it makes the body let go of everything, quite literally. Waterfalls naturally make caves and getting inside one of there waterfall caves is sheer delight, as I found recently, though the Lonavala waterfall is more flat it is to be seen in the monsoon in all its glory. But being amidst water in the hills gets the water to echo its fall all over the hills and hearing the echo is an experience.
From Lonavala we headed to the famous locale of Khandala, one that even inspired a popular song in Hindi. The Khandala ghat boasts of an unparalled view of the sunset, it is marvellous and I totally recommend it to everyone. We loved being on the ghat having our picture taken, eating chikki and doing everything that Aamir Khan recommends as he lip syncs to the song “Aati Kya Khandala”. With everyone dotting the landscape of Khandala the view looks even better. Everything is better when shared they say, the view too gets better I have found. Finding a lone coconut water seller on the ghat we went forward to get one for ourselves, turns out that coconut water is the favorite drink of our family. We lapped up the goodness and heard the tender coconut seller tell us stories about how the clouds rise towards the Khandala Ghat in the monsoons and he is eternally blessed to be sitting there at that spot twenty-four hours in a day, 365 days a year, I couldnt smile as I heard him, for it is not every day that a street-side vendor expresses gratitude or even contentment. There is something about contentment, it is a treasure, not easily found and when you do you realise that it is precious. That man on the Khandala ghat selling coconut water, with a twinkle in his eyes, his easy smiles, and a ready story or two has found his calling and that makes him swell, with pride, with gratitude, with happiness, whether his stall is full or not. A larger number of people throng the tea or the Maggi stalls, but simple pleasures come from the natural, not so much the man-made. The flow of water, the flow of the wind, the siege of the trees, the smell of the strawberries, the terseness of the Mulberries, the beauty of the hills, the sound of silence, the feeling of a full tummy, the excitedness of a 4-year old, the contenment of the heart or even for some with the ending of a trip! Some people are blessed to be insanely happy to return home, to not be bitten by the travel bug, to be happy where they are, to not find a need to travel, to breathe with contentment and be merry where they are, to be like trees deeply rooted, and then there are some like clouds, who want to flitter and flutter, here and there, and everywhere, and they marry each other, and then the magic begins, just like the earth and sky, with its trees and clouds.