Romancing the rains

Romancing the rains

Romancing the rains

Even before the shrilly rain tourism campaigns by Goa and Kerala began, Lonavala and Khandala were leading the pack. The twin hill stations in Maharashtra’s Western Ghats didn’t need any marketing blitzkrieg to sell the allure of rhapsody in the rains to travellers, for they were already there. The proximity of the duo to Mumbai and Pune helped.

With time, its monsoon fiesta is weaving its magic on tourists from across the country.

In the movie Ghulam, when Aamir Khan popped the question ‘Aati kya Khandala?’ to an amused Rani Mukherjee, it became a buzzword for romance during rains. The tongue-in-cheek song with foot-tapping music picturised on the duo as rains played the cupid, struck a chord with dreamy lovers. That song instantly changed the sleepy weekend getaway of jaded Mumbaikars to a popular monsoon destination.

Lonavala and Khandala are like simple pleasures in life that come in small packages but give immense joy. There are no snowy mountains to gape at or the grand setting of a Himalayan hill station, yet it is sweet and charming.

On one breezy afternoon, we set off for a long drive on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The weather was cool, and we had to escape the incessant rain of the week that had left Mumbai waterlogged and deplorable. We were yearning for that lungful of fresh air in the perfect harmony of verdant landscape and the melody of bird songs.

As we hit the expressway leaving the mundane maddening of everyday life behind, we were like a peacock spreading its beautiful plumes at the sight of dark clouds. Everything appeared to be dancing: rain drops skidding against the windshield of our car that leapt with joy, and wayside plants bending with the breeze in unison. It was delightful to see the profusion of tiny rivulets streaming through the crevices of boulders, and cascading waterfalls, which added a picturesque touch to the scenery.

Come monsoon and it is common to see hordes of residents from Mumbai and Pune descending in Lonavala and Khandala by train, or many just drive down. The trekkers have a field day as the towns’ vicinity is strewn with vintage forts and Buddhist caves in hills.

Destination vs journey

Even the drive to Lonavala during a downpour is as beautiful as the destination However, when we were almost near Lonavala, the rain petered off and the sky cleared, promising a good view of the setting sun. Teeming with weekenders, we somehow spotted a nice place with fewer people on the hillside. We parked our car near a tapri (makeshift stall) dishing out spicy bhajias and piping hot tea.

A trip to Lonavala and Khandala is incomplete if you do not gorge on deep-fried, crispy kanda bhajias (onion pakoras) and corn fritters, dig your teeth into roasted corns on the cob and relish that cutting chai in the chilly evening.

As I huddled around the earthen chulha to get some warmth, the girl behind the fiery chunks of coal deftly turned the pearly cobs. In the hilly town of Mahabaleshwar, tourism almost shuts down and residents are twiddling their thumb sitting at home.

Attractions galore

There is no time to while away here as revellers stuff themselves with bhajias and order hot ginger tea. Forts like Rajmachi and Lohagad, and the steep climb of Duke’s nose, are much sought after by trekkers. Most forts are located on hills providing a spectacular 360-degree view of the enchanting valleys and surrounding mountains.

The slippery, moss-infested path makes the climb arduous but adds much more fun to the incorrigible climbers. For wannabes or spiritual seekers, a visit to the ancient Buddhist caves of Karla and Bhaja is more appropriate. Visiting Lake Pawna, which rejuvenates in rainy season as its beauty increases manifold, or a visit to the Bhushi dam to frolic on its stairs overflowing with water are in many visitors’  itinerary.

I was enamoured by the Buddhist caves of Karla near Lonavala, dating back to the second century BC. These caves, along with the nearby Bhaja caves, are one of the finest examples of rock cut caves belonging to Hinayana Buddhism carved during the Satavahanas’ rule. Karla and Bhaja are the best-preserved Buddhist caves with chaitya or prayer halls.

I chose to hike the 500-metre-steep hill to the Karla caves. There are 350 steps to climb, but the effort is worth every ounce, for one gets to see the caves that are as exquisite as the Ajanta and Ellora. One can explore the caves in peace.

The facade of the cave has carved temple screens and sculptures while inner pillars in the cave have motifs of animals and human forms. The high roof of the chaitya is semi-circular in shape. It is 45 metres long with 15 pillars on either side separating the narrow aisles from the central arch. The temple has spectacular architecture, and the interiors of the caves have lion pillars, large forms of elephants, carved Buddha images and dancing couples.

The Hinayana sect did not represent the Buddha as a human figure. His presence was depicted by symbolic representations like wheels and lotus. Later in the 7th century AD, the Mahayana sect took over, thus one finds figures of the preaching Buddha sitting on a lion throne by the central doorway of the chaitya.

There is serenity around the caves. As one leaves, one thinks that, centuries ago, even Buddhist monks had loved the rains here, as they congregated for meditation.

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