This doesn’t happen often to me, I tell you. Everything around me today is a shade of golden yellow, even though it’s burning hot outside. I feel like I’m a bird of paradise singing an ode to this beautiful day because I’m remembering a beautiful day.
Remember how about a month back I was lamenting my sloth-like form in this post? I’m happy to report that I’m still regular at the gym and my stamina and sessions have been improving by ant-sized proportions. But I’m taking fitness very seriously this time around because I’ve had the worst one month of my life.
A severe gastritis attack has changed my entire diet plan and I’ve had to finally let go of a lot of things I loved eating, but were not great for my gut – tea, coffee, chocolate, toor dal (why, God, why?) and idli-dosa *sobs*. What I put in my body was directly connected with how much I was moving, which wasn’t much, as I’ve already revealed in my last blogpost.
So in the spirit of keeping fit, I’ve not only been regular at the gym (as regular as I can be), I’ve also been to one trek and three hikes in the span of a month!
One of them was an official trek to Bhorgiri-Bhimashankar. I write official because it was conducted by professional trekkers. The pics I took of the trek weren’t that great because I used my cell phone to take the pics and it was raining tigers and elephants. On top of it, I had to cross two waterfalls and was waist-deep in water. Taking my cell-phone out would have been phone-harakiri.
I did sneak in some shots like these.
I’d recommend you to drive up to Bhorgiri village. Please do it. Please do it. The drive itself is magical because for miles around there’s nothing but rippling paddy fields, dotted with little houses, lovingly surrounded by lofty mountains and the Bhima river gushing below. In the peak monsoon, when I went, the place is bathed in thick fog that gives the place an ethereal feel. Also, you won’t find many modern facilities here, so go prepared. The folks here collect rainwater for all their needs, even drinking. I don’t remember seeing a prettier place than this in all my Pune-travels.
I still don’t get how my phone survived the ordeal. I experienced what horses and donkeys must feel like when it rains outside while they have to stand stock-still under a downpour with nowhere to go.
By the end of the trek, this is what my Fitbit showed me:
That’s a personal record, people! Many may have walked more than me, but damn, I’m proud of myself! I don’t remember the last time I walked that much. I think it was nearly thirteen years ago when I walked fourteen kilometres along with my room-mate from one end of Pune to the other. But well, things were different with me back then. I was *coughs* younger.
By the day following the day of the trek and the next day too, every time I stood up I couldn’t feel my knees and every time I walked I felt like someone had stuffed jelly in my thighs in place of muscle. But it was fun and if someone asked me to do it again I would, just to explore the tiny village and surroundings of Bhorgiri a little more.
Shoutout to Pune’s own Sahyadri Trekkers for organising this trek and being such good sports with rookies like me. I’d recommend this group in a trice. They organise treks to all kinds of places around Maharashtra and even beyond. They are reasonable, responsible, punctual and thorough with their work. If you’re ever in Pune looking for a trekking group, get in touch with them.
The trip to Karla was a leisurely hike. We drove up to the mountain village of Karla from where the climb up to the caves begins. There were around 200 stone steps to the caves and it was raining hard enough that there was a river flowing over the steps, but it was fun nevertheless. Once we got our shoes wet to the point that they, in turn, were adding to the surplus of water, we shed our inhibitions. My daughter took delight in splashing in ‘giant muddy puddles’.
Peppered along the steps were shops of pooja paraphernalia and small eating joints. They don’t help the place any, but I’ll reserve the rant on how they are ruining the place for later in the post.
When we reached the top, oh my, the view was worth the huffing and puffing.
Who wouldn’t feel refreshed after a view like that? Even if you didn’t want to look at the caves, just those waterfalls would make the climb up worth it. But since we were there to see the caves, into the caves we went. I must point out we chose the wrong month of the year. In August, rains lash the Western Ghats incessantly, and up in the mountains, it’s even worse. When I made this trip, Pune, where I live, was just beginning to overcome its flood issues. It may have been silly on our part to risk it but we were getting antsy sitting at home in weather like this when we could be outdoors exploring. And we were going in a car, so we thought what the heck!
But if you ever want to come to Karla, make sure the time of year is right. Summertime would be suicide because it will be hot and barren here. The climb up would dehydrate you quickly. Winter may be good, but it won’t be nearly as green then. Early monsoon would be best, say around Late June and July when the Monsoons are just getting started and the rains aren’t that much of a bother.
So after we bought a ticket, Rs.10 per person, we entered the caves. The view to the main cave entrance is partially blocked by the flank of the Ekveera Devi Temple, a very important and renowned temple. Although constructed around the same time, why would someone want to build a temple bang in the way of a Buddhist shrine is beyond me. Couldn’t they have built it to a side or built it at another spot altogether? Aside from that, the entrance with its high arch, its handsome pillars and its bold carvings mesmerizes you.
Karla is one of the many Buddhist caves in Maharashtra, along with the Bhaja, Patan, Bedse and Nasik Caves, and these other sites are better preserved and more ornamental, but the Grand Chaitya (Chaitya means prayer, Griha means hall) here is the largest rock-cut cave in South-Asia. Every time I see rock-cut architecture, I’m awestruck by the sheer ingenuity of man in an age when there were no machines, no power. Every tiny detail is hand-hewn and every rock that went into making this beautiful structure was hefted by hand. WOW!
Carved into the rock to the side of the entrance are these figures. Most of them are in good shape but time and extremes of weather have softened the features around the faces but it lends a grace, an otherworldly aura to them.
I know my pictures aren’t great. Poor light, hard rain and a phone camera can do that to even the most well-intentioned images. Again, I was bothered about phone-harakiri. It’s hard to make out but just imagine these figures carved up on nearly 15 metres of unforgiving stone. Once upon a time, the entrance had two grand pillars. Now there is just one.
As you enter the cave, the Chaitya Griha, the light plays with the structures within, so that the figures around the sides seem shy, looking down at the ground, as if they want to divert your complete attention to the stupa within, which gets the most of the little sunlight that enters the cave. It’s a beautiful effect.
The ribbed ceiling is mostly in wood, a thing of wonder considering it’s still holding even after centuries! Carved into the stones were these inscriptions. A translation would have been welcome but none was available. I found them fascinating and looked them up online. Apparently, this is the Brahmi script, the oldest writing form in India, and describes donations made by several kings.
There is a pradakshina of sorts going all around the pillars in the Chaitya Griha but it doesn’t have figures or inscriptions.
The gush of water pouring down over the hillside was loud enough to drown out the voices of the visitors. We had to shout to each other in our party to be heard. The caves adjacent to the Chaitya Griha had their entrances partially blocked by torrents of these seasonal waterfalls. We plunged in nevertheless. We were soaked to the bone anyhow.
These smaller caves served as a monastery hence they are devoid of any figures or other ornamentation. Most of them are blocked to the public anyway because they have now become too dangerous. We didn’t venture up into the higher caves either because of a paucity of time. Having a 5-year-old with you can also limit movement.
I have been told that the Bhaja caves in Lonavala are in much better shape and are bigger, prettier, in a way. We had originally planned a trip to Lohagad fort, very close to the Bhaja caves, for that very purpose; we had even made half the way through, halting every now and then before a gushing waterfall or hiking just to breathe in the fresh air and take in views like these…
But the roads and the rains kept getting worse and we were forced to turn back. We headed to Karla instead because someone told us that the road leads right up to the base of the steps. A cheat-trek. LOL!
Beware, rant begins
I always wonder why we have the propensity to ruin the natural beauty of sites like these. Every single time I have been to an ancient site – Karla Caves, Lohagad fort, Sinhagadh fort, Bhuleshwar temple, Bhimashankar temple – I have come across tourists who litter carelessly, authorities who couldn’t care less about the maintenance of the sites, traders who have ruined the natural beauty of the place with their tarpaulined shops and the trash from their wares, and temple authorities who not only are careless that their ‘holy’ site is being defiled, but encourage tourists and traders by accepting pooja offerings bought from these shops, without in the least trying to discourage this practice. It’s a wonder that where these make-shift shops abound on such sites, there isn’t a single public toilet!
Bhimashankar and Karla were exceptionally bad. Guess how we on the trekking team came to know that the Bhorgiri-Bhimashankar trek was coming to an end? About a kilometre left into the trek we saw the river Bhima beginning to get littered by masses of polythene bags, pooja garlands, paper, food scraps and whatnot. This same water downstream was clean of any of this refuse, but the moment you neared the temple it was CHAOS! Full marks to Sahyadri Trekkers who kept reminding us that we must not litter at any cost. The stone steps leading to the temple had no space left for a view of the natural surroundings which this temple is famous for, apart from the architecture, because there were countless, and I mean countless, shops hawking pooja samagri, food, chai, toys! An endless array of shops selling the same thing over and over again. Ditto with Karla caves where the garbage littered the stone steps itself. And all of this when at the entrance to these places we had to pay a Swachhata Kar (cleanliness tax) apart from a road toll and an entrance fee! Where all that tax money is going is anyone’s guess.
These were the only things that marred the adventure of these two otherwise memorable excursions for me.
I’ll leave you with a thought and a few requests –
Is it necessary that a devotee must offer flowers, milk and sweets to the deity within the shrine? Do you know your offerings could damage the structure of these ancient sites? Is your faith so flimsy that you weigh it in terms of what you offer?
Visitors: Please plan and pack before you visit such sites. Carry your own food, water and keep your pooja offerings limited to money (food and flowers attract flies and cause malodours). Use a trash can to throw your garbage. Don’t see one around? Keep it with you and throw it when you see one. STOP THOSE YOU SEE ARE LITTERING.
Government Authorities: Please use the tax you collect into keeping the sites clean and maintaining the structures; don’t divert it to other places. Crackdown on shop owners who litter. Keep only one shop of each kind on the premises. Put up signboards encouraging visitors to carry their own food & water, use the trashcans and impose penalties on those who don’t follow rules. Please make decent toilets at such places.
Temple Priests and Authorities: Please encourage devotees to stop offering food, flowers, etc., to the deity. Ask them to stop littering near the temple. Money donations would serve the temple much better, I’m sure, because all the rest goes to waste anyway.
Maintaining these places is as much our responsibility as the man wielding the jhadoo. Please be responsible citizens.
Thank you for reading. Do leave your feedback.
Read about my Bhuleshwar trip here.
Read about my time aboard a merchant vessel here.
Read about my memories of Garhwal here.
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