A whiff of cool air swept past me as our vehicle turned the bend, affording vistas of deep, wide canyons that were guarded by table-top mountains of the Sahyadris. We were heading to Mahabaleshwar, the popular yet not-so-touristy hill station of Maharashtra. Having reached Satara, the nearest point by train, we drove the 40-odd km on a smooth ghat road that was flanked by green jungles.
Checking into a hotel by twilight, we put off the sightseeing part until next day. That left us with the option of taking a walk across the busy bazaar while orientating ourselves to the new location.
Numerous restaurants, roadside eateries and shops selling flowers, fancy souvenirs etc — Mahabaleshwar has a fair share of all these. Situated at about 4,500 feet above sea level amidst a chain of mountains of the Western Ghats, Mahabaleshwar is a typical vast plateau on a high mountain with valleys all around. At the edges of the plateau in all directions are exciting viewpoints. Our first priority was a visit to the historic fort of Pratapgarh, built by the invincible Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. As we approached Pratapgarh, 20 km east, the tall edifice of the fort seemed imposing. One of the tourist guides joined us to explain and show around.
View of gorges
The initial steps led to the lower fort beside an ancient tank. To the right went a path that lead to the strongly built watchtower with a flag. Called royal path, the trail passes through solid stone walls to a high-rise platform, from where we enjoyed a fabulous view of the deep gorges.
The main path led to the temple of Amba Bhavani, Shivaji’s favourite goddess. We passed through a passage guarded by two huge circular bastions to reach the citadel at the top. After visiting the simple shrine of Kedareshwar on the left, we reached the summit. Here stands a 17-foot equestrian statue of Shivaji with three cannons in different directions. The tiny park with flowering plants is maintained well. Our guide then led us to an exciting spot in the western edge. Beyond the crumbling fort wall is a deep couloir that runs down near-vertical. This was the punishment point, he said, from where culprits and traitors were pushed down.
On the way back we paid a visit to the tomb of Afzal Khan, a ruler of the Bijapur Sultanate. He had made an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Pratapgarh but was defeated by the Maratha soldiers. He incidentally met his grave here. Back at Mahabaleshwar, we went on a trip to see the local sights. The earliest reference of Mahabaleshwar can be traced back to 1215 AD when the King Singhan of Deogiri first visited the place.
Finding the source of River Krishna, he built a small temple and a pond. Thereafter, a dynasty of Brahmin rulers held the place till 16th century. Then the Maratha rulers took over. During the colonial period, many British officers explored the place and found Mahabaleshwar with its salubrious weather to be most suitable for a summer retreat. As such there are dozens of beautiful viewpoints, many of which are named after the British officers.
We chose to visit a few of these. Kate’s point is a steep precipice in the east. The spot, named after the daughter of a Governor, affords a sweeping view of the valley below and also of the Balakwadi Dam to the north. Within walking distance from here is the more enchanting Elephant Head point. The protruding rock looks like the head of an elephant with a prominent trunk.
The rock formation has a narrow opening that resembles the eye of the needle, giving it the name Needle Hole viewpoint. Moving westwards, we passed by a strawberry farm (that this town is famous for) before reaching Old Mahabaleshwar. Besides the Shiva temple, the place is known for Panch Ganga, the source of River Krishna flowing from the mouth of a cow, and four other rivers — Venna, Koyna, Savithri and Gayathri.
The northern slopes reach a high point called Aurhtur’s Seat. Named after the then Governor of Bombay Presidency, the viewpoint is perched precariously from where the abyss of the valley drops down. It is said that Sir Arthur often sat here to watch River Savithri in the valley. His family had drowned in it. We viewed a glorious sunset from the ‘sunset point’ to mark the end of the day.
Mahabaleshwar also affords interesting excursions. Panchgani is a high point amidst five hills, at a distance of 20 km. Here are a few viewpoints and a couple of caves. But the popular spot to see is the tableland, a flat-topped hill with a wide plateau. On the way back we had a glimpse of the cute Venna Lake. But the best of the spots was Tapola, often called Mini Kashmir.
Situated south-east of Mahabaleshwar is the vast lake of Tapola, formed by the confluence of rivers Koyna and Solshi. There are facilities for water sports like windsurfing and kayaking. A boat ride and a walk around the pleasant lake with gentle hills in the background was a befitting way to conclude the visit to Mahabaleshwar.
Air: Pune, 120 km away, has the nearest airport.
Rail: Satara, 45 km away, has the
Road: Mahabaleshwar is well connected with all major cities like Satara, Pune & Mumbai.
Food & Stay: Numerous hotels for all budgets are available.
Best time to visit: Any time of the year except during the monsoons.