Kolhapur, Ratnagiri, Ganapatipule and beyond – A monsoon solo.


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In an obscure corner of my mind, when cobwebs of depressive thoughts form slowly during long periods of lassitude, sometimes there’s the proverbial ray of hope – a desire to escape, to go to places unseen - that a change of place will ''start me up'' over again.

Travel anywhere in this great country of ours is like turning pages of a picture book - sight after sight treats the eye. Colors vibrant, practices curios, and sometimes it’s all a blur when you turn pages entirely too fast.

Seven months without a trip anywhere is long enough – I was itching to turn the pages again, to feel like a five year old once more – a mixture of curiosity and joy at every turn.

Sensible people plan trips several months in advance. They read up on the places to be visited, construct an itinerary, sometimes multiple; posts comments on forums such as these and invite comments and take the bouquets and brickbats in their stride. Itineraries are then refined, tickets booked, family and well-wishers informed, essentials for the journey gathered. The much anticipated hour of departure arrives after a prolonged, agonizing wait.

I too plan my vacations this way, usually.

This time around I completed my bookings around five pm in the evening of a rainy Wednesday in August. The same Wednesday that I had to leave, at eight pm.

Mundane detail such as clothes and carrying enough cash didn’t cross my mind, until after I had booked non-refundable tickets. The base for starting this journey was Hyderabad, where I was living then due to my work location.

I couldn’t get much time off from work, just couple days, that’d make it an extended weekend break. I could probably wing Monday too – so five then. I called up a few friends and discussed some possibilities – Bhutan, Goa and even the Andamans, but all of these required more time – and I did not have that luxury.

I love trekking and walking a lot during my vacations, but the plantar fasciitis, that troubled the right foot for the last seven months, also ruled out any dedicated walk-a-thons on these few days. So a short escape to the Kolhapur region it will have to be – Maratha land and a place I’ve never visited but was always very curious about.

It’s amazing how easy (availability wise) off season travel can be. It’s also amazing what a disaster it can be for photography (think diffused light and grey skies).

Anyways, before I start this virtual journey with you, my two readers who refused to be scared away, despite the length of the previous adventures, here’s a glimpse that it wasn’t a complete washout (pun totally intended).

For example, you could get street scenes, since everyone else is as troubled by the rain as you are (seen in Kolhapur) –

Eat glorious street food (a vada pao)

Window shop (Kolhapuri chappals)

Go to the beach when it stops raining (Malgund) - and of course it will be deserted

Or a fort (Panhala off Kolhapur)

Admire the stunning greenery (view from a moving bus, shortly after Amba Ghat, between Kolhapur and Ratnagiri)

And the spectacular color (Jotiba Dongar, Near Panhala)

Ride a train (Warli paintings decorate Ratnagiri station)

And be thankful to God that there are jobs far riskier than your own

Must get food, Mikarwada –

But that people never ever give up

Catch of the day, Velneshwar -

I will start writing soon, hopefully.
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Leaving Home
At five past five, done with booking tickets, scampered to pack some clothes and located the boarding point of the overnight bus to Kolhapur on the map. Minor hiccups such as an annoying drizzle outside, were compounded by a lack of taxis available at that hour to pick me up from my residence. Gate security earned several brownie points by hailing an Auto passing by, whose drive, in turn had no compunctions in charging me about three times what it should have cost to reach the destination.

I had never travelled by a bus of this company and the pick-up point was outside the greasy compound of a half closed tyre shop. It was a busy road but there was no sign of a bus – An unmanned table next to a lit sign that the bus company promised daily tripes (sic). Imagine my trepidation.

The bus arrived and my heart sank further – see the size and the interior.

Great relief followed when it turned out this was a shuttle that picked up passengers from different points in the city. That ride through the city, punctuated by generously long stops at various points, lasted so long that one of my co passengers quipped to the driver ‘Miyan, aaj to laga Mumbai hi utarenge humko’ (Sir, for a bit, we felt you’ll let us de-board only in Mumbai).

At a petrol pump, the ‘’proper bus’’ picked us up. It was a cheerful yellow colored large bus with reclining seats, even curtains! The tyre of that thing was about as large as a man sitting. Perhaps to reinforce the impact created by its size, it had the letters XL sticker-ed prominently on the side.

My co passenger was a plumpish man, I reckoned him to be about ten years younger. A faint smell of hair oil and his words of introduction led me to hazard a conjecture “are you from Kerala?”

Mister Malyali (MM) nodded with a smile, fluorescent light reflecting off the Colgate perfect teeth, gently shaded by the trellising of his moustache.

That smell reminded me of an old joke called ‘India by numbers’ - One Malayalee is a narial-pani shop. Two Malayalees is a boat race. Three Malayalees is a Gulf job racket. Four Malayalees is an oil slick.
Anyways, the narrative is slipping.

Early on in the conversation, MM was aghast after learning that I was unmarried at this ripe age. “You forgot to marry or what?”.

After he got to know that I intended to make my way to Ganapatipule from Kolhapur, he reminisced about his own vacation and said “In Guhagar, the water is soooo clear, sooooo clear that I stood in water and like that, I was going to drink it’’ In the cup of his hand was nothing, but he proceed to drink it slurpi¬ly anyways. “Like this”, and then grinned again.

At Zaheerabad, the bus stopped and I got off to buy some water. The sign outside the dhaba we could have eaten in, was deterrent enough for me to hang around nearer the open door of the bus, watchful towards anyone decamping with my smallish knapsack that held my camera.

While getting this photo of the ‘paan shop’ next to the dhaba, I felt a hand on my shoulder and had a start.

Turned out it was MM mouthing ‘’don’t taig phodos here’’.
The natural reaction of a photog followed ‘’Who the … are you?’’
‘’It is four yore own safedy”.
“Really? How?”
“Sometimes they will come up to you and take your mobile.” In Indian English, it’s never defined who “they” implies but it’s always assumed to be local ‘’miscreants’’.
He looked all secret agent-like and would say no more. That plus the fact that we were in a deserted area, next to a highway was spooky enough for me and I quit photographing the shop and photographed the giant steel chariot instead. before retiring to its safe enclosure.

MM was probably disappointed when I pretended to sleep, and didn’t participate in his version of ten questions that followed. Some that I remember included - name your favourite corrupt politician, have you been abroad, doobai at least, you’re a vegetarian, no fish even, etc.

Six hours of near dreamless sleep later, I awoke the next morning where the road was bad, bumpy but the contrast in the surroundings was spectacular. From the dry scrub country of Telengana, we had reached the green country of Maharashtra.

India had recently lost her ex-president- APJ Abdul Kalam – a man much loved by the masses and at least one commercial hoarding stood out as it paid tribute to him.

We were at Ichhalkaranji – a tiny urban blob that shot to fame in the 90s when a local boy topped the IIT JEE, arguably the nation’s toughest entrance exam. I had written that exam the same year, so I remembered this bit quite vividly. No one around me, in the bus, knew when we would be in Kolhapur though.


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Arrival in Kolhapur

I tried to get some more sleep but daylight was too strong already. At half past seven, under overcast skies, bag and I were offloaded opposite the bus stand of Kolhapur. It wasn’t raining then, mercifully so, as I had forgotten to pack an umbrella.

I spent the first hour asking the mostly unhelpful shop owners near the stand about hotels nearby and getting a bearing about the place as I had also forgotten to carry a map. A light drizzle turned into a steady downpour and I ducked under the awning of a still closed shop for five minutes. As the rain weakened, I hailed an auto and still unsure of where I wanted to go, kept quiet for several seconds.

After years of traveling alone, one would be expected to use better sense and not give away all the bargaining chips in the opening round. Instead, I said ‘’hotel jana hai, mahalaxmi temple ke paas’’ (Take me to a hotel close to Mahalaxmi temple). I bet I saw the driver grin ever so slightly.

Kolhapur is situated near the Sahyadris – at an elevation of 1800 feet. The ground is not level - the road rose up gently, and then curved and went through a well laid bazaar – the shop fronts were at least a hundred years old and looked like they were built under British influence - the upper floors were residential and ground floors commercial.

The driver first brought me to a hotel that I refused to stay in, it wasn’t worth asking the price. The second would have to do as I needed some sleep badly. Too tired to negotiate a better price and with some assurance that the temple was indeed walking distance, agreed to stay for ‘’at least one night’’.

The staff at the front desk spoke 24 carat Marathi and not a word of Hindi or English. I suspected this to be bothersome, but not insurmountable. So I bid farewell to the auto driver – he tried his best to ‘sell’ me a city tour at ‘a special price’ – which I didn’t buy. Off to bed then.

I tried to sleep but every few minutes there was a loud knock on the door. I stormed out determined to hunt down the culprits, but they were a bunch of giggling high school students – their teacher in charge of the field trip apologized profusely. I went back to bed, only to hear some more loud banging alternating with a scream from the teacher ‘Told you, don’t do that!’ It was altogether too much, so after a shower, I went out in the general direction of the temple, ducking into shops whenever the rain picked up and exercising my trigger happy finger.

The first such hiding place turned out to be quite a find. Called ‘Sansar Bhandar’ Or ‘The world’s store’ it was a utensil shop that had a few unique metal items – made a mental note to come back here and left.

The rain had subsided and the first item on the list was to purchase an umbrella from the nearest shop I could find. Behind that shop was a smaller bus stand of Kolhapur – gorgeous color - but the condition of the buses should tell you why I dreaded riding them.

Kolhapur has an overabundance of milk products and small eateries that sell them. I stopped by at ‘Shree lassi’ and enjoyed a glass of ‘chaach’ – spelt ‘tak’ in Marathi.

By now, I was enjoying reading road signs and words from the Marathi language written everywhere – it was a bit like breaking a code. Hindi, my mother tongue and Marathi, use the same script – Devnagari – but the similarity ends there.

I reached Mahalaxmi temple around a quarter past ten. The external wall of the temple is lined with flower sellers, and the best time to purchase fresh flowers is in the morning. There was the usual range of garlands made of marigolds, roses and tube-roses.

A closer look showed more – pink lotuses competed for attention with red roses, bright yellow marigolds, mauve dahlias and blue water lillies and many other flowers whose name I forget now.

Other shops sold ‘dhotis’, colourful and with a border – these could be donated to the goddess along with a dry coconut, some vermillion (sindoor) and a marigold flower.

Mahalaxmi Temple

Kolhapur Mahalaxmi temple is considered a ‘Shakti Peetha’ – one of the 52 spots where a part of ‘Sati’s’ body fell when Siva carried his wife’s corpse. The temple, therefore attracts significant devotee following, many local but many come from far away states for a ‘darshan’. The temple enclosure is square and fifteen feet high walls of thick, smooth cut black stone enclose it on all sides, punctuated by four impressively large gateways.

At the gate, along with steel fencing meant for crowd control, was a stronger deterrent – a very good looking lady policeman (No, I’m not overdosing on CID).

She didn’t smile and instead said wrly in Marathi – "No bags"
"But the bag has the camera"
"Keep it in the locker."

I had an ardent desire of photographing the temple, had heard of its architecture and sculpture style as being unique – built by the chalukyas in seventh century AD and enhanced by kings since then. None of that had any bearing on madam. With drooping shoulders, I walked towards another gate at ninety degrees from the first, and deposited my bag in one of the dozens of lockers. I was given a receipt. That’s some solace as the gear I was leaving behind was quite expensive. I also left the sandals there and hopping like a ‘Sauras’ crane, barefoot got closer to the doorway.

Two more policemen here, but they looked at me and let me through. Once inside, I marvelled at the shape of the temple and almost everyone gave me a curios stare. Just about everyone else was dressed in simpler clothes than I was. Mine screamed ‘tourist’ (good thing I left the hat along with the camera bag).

I walked around a bit, looking for a quiet corner from where to take surreptitious shots using the mobile camera – but there were no quiet corners. Every corner had a definite purpose and was suitably employed to that effect.

Immediately ahead of me, another major temple (there’re two in the enclosure, one of the goddess and the other is her consort). More importantly, in front of me, were two security guards that were not policemen – one of those had a tag that identified him as the head of security. To this man, I directed my most obsequious gaze, sheepish smile and a demeanor that only he could save me from being sucked to the deepest hell - 'for those who come back from vacation without photos'.

“Sir, I have come from so far. One picture, saaar? “

The man looked very puzzled. After a moment’s silence said, “but the temple is closed today. It has been closed for fifteen days for renovation and will be reopening, you should come in the evening”.

After I regained consciousness, I said, “It’s ok, just one or two of the buildings should do" and showed him my mobile phone. Unable to understand why anyone would want to photograph a closed temple, he shrugged his shoulders and OK’d it. Of course I snapped as many as I could before other security guards could see what I was up to.

This is the main temple. It is stellate in form, and appears to have twenty four corners. The wall niches must have held statues at some point of time but they are either damaged or missing.

This is the one of the consort and called ‘vasudev temple’. The entrance of this temple (on the left side) promises to get the devotee face to face with as many as seven deities. On the right side of this temple is a peepul tree (and to its right, not seen, was the first gate, outside which the lovely lady officer was seated)

Moving on towards the left, on my left was a verandah that enclosed at least three smaller temples. Further, as I turned right, and got past the third gate, the perimeter walls were lined with shops selling various items that could be used for a puja (prayer ceremony). Thence, I came to the last gate that had the most impressive lamp posts I have seen – these are called ‘dipastambha’ (lit : lamp pillars) and were humongous. I had to re-request for permission from the security sitting at the gate and permission for exactly one photograph was granted and utilized quickly, twice. [I then merged these photos to create the entire gate in a single shot]

Continuing on, on the right side was a large ‘pandal’ (tent) where a group of priests and some political figures were assembling. A pedestal in the center held a large, framed photograph of the main deity of the temple, and to its side was a smaller representation of the deity but of course the ‘real’ one would be inside the temple, behind lock and key. I figured this had something to do with the reopening of the temple and that I shouldn’t dare click any photographs here.
I completed my circumambulation and arrived at the gate outside of which were the lockers. To its left was a wish fulfilling banyan tree (Seen below).

There was some commotion and I saw three people dragging a cannon to the main courtyard, in front of the banyan tree. Even before I could focus the mobile camera, it had gone off with a very loud bang.

Most curious, certainly a first time I have seen this in any temple. Shortly after this some devotees were seen taking blessings from the cannon.

Before I left, noticed that the veranda was lined with stacks of sindoor (vermillion) - used by married women as well as an offering to the deity.

I then went out the premises.