Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Monsoon Trek to Kalwantin Durg near Panvel ......

Listed at no 11,  amongst the 33 most beautiful abandoned places in the world, Kalwantin ( also called Kelve Teen or Kalavantinicha Sulka) is an old fort , at a height of 2300 feet above the sea,  very near the Prabalgad (earlier called Muranjan) Fort ,  which was actually built to keep an eye on the ancient ports (then) of Panvel and Kalyan.

"Sulka" in Marathi means "cone or spire" and the shape of this mountain explains it all .    It dates back to 500 BC, to the days of the Shilahar and Yadav dynasties, and the Bahamani Empire, passing through various rulers like the Adilshah and Moguls, till Shivaji finally captured it in 1658 , and gave it the name Prabalgad.

Kalawantin Fort is opposite to Prabalgad on the same stretch of plateau, and both the forts are visible from the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.   From the peak of Kalawantin, you can see Matheran, Chanderi, Peb , Karnala Forts, and even the lights of Mumbai City.  History has it that some smitten King , built this for his queen called Kalavantin, to ensure that she stayed with him.  Today, the Adivais folks of the Prabal Plateau (Machi) celebrate each Holi festival with a traditional dance atop the peak of Kalawantin Fort.

Today, Panvel is no longer a port, and is a significant city that one must cross by road, before climbing the Ghats.  This was our meeting point, and we traveled at dawn by the Mumbai suburban trains, to reach Panvel at 7 am.  The plan was to breakfast at Panvel, and travel by public transport , to Thakurwadi village at the base of Kalawantin  from there and attempt a climb.

The special feature of Kalawantin Fort, is its extreme vertical climb, with sheer drops on all sides, and the ancient stone steps cut into the mountain all along the way .   No railing  on the edge and no ropes on the wall.  They call it "Stairway to heaven  !".....

They have called it one of  the 33 most  beautiful abandoned places in the world.

But it will not be so. Abandoned, that is. Nilesh Bhutambre , the first and only Adivasi lad from the Machi Prabal village, half way up the mountains, who went to college and graduated , now provides, Food, Lodging and Guide facilities  to folks wishing to visit the area, do treks etc. Check out Kalavantin Durg and Prabalgad Darshan .

Our trek. 

A view of the Prabalgad and Kalwantin  Forts before we attempt climbing via the rock cut steps (no fence/railing)  with very high slope. The elevation of this fort is not high, just 2300 feet, but the gradient is very high, and the steps challenging.

Inching closer  to the objective,  on the Prabalgad Plateau (Machi) , which holds both the forts.

The approach to the Kalawantin Fort is via pathways like this that circle around the spire shaped mountain. 

      Members of our trek climbing. Several first time trekkers, encouraged by those who are more experienced.

A typical path created by the centuries of footfalls .

And the trekkers make their way, across several streams fed by rain waters, jutting rocks , and trees in amazingly useful places, giving you a hand .

Our group taking a breather . Other members of the trek  follow.

A typical clearing on a plateau en route, created by the local Adivasis.  This will no doubt be covered by some kind of tarpaulin, as the monsoon advances, or it could be that someone plans to run a stall here offering some simple food, and removes stuff when not in use.

Rock structures breaking our monotony as we climb  around the  cone like structure of the mountain.  Naturally, everyone wants to climb and pose.

                  A sheer vertical fall all around, and massive winds at this point.  A fellow trekker looks a bit disgusted at our delight  and posing in the wind.

         Just to give an idea of how elevation changed over short  horizon distances.  We climbed on.

A view of the valleys as we inch closer to the top.  The lush foliage looks darker due to huge amount of rain clouds   approaching and surrounding us.

Another view .

A Hanuman temple  with a Ganpati, both defined in vermilion, somewhere on the plateau. Worshiped by the Adivasis . While the stone relief depicting the Gods, may be ancient , the vermilion and the words are clearly modern.  Except  when it is about God, we do not call it graffiti. 


One of the ancient caves (this Durg dates back to 550 BC, during the Satvahana dynasty ) that still stands to this day. 

                       Another view of the approaching monsoon clouds from somewhere close to the top.

The mighty mountains,  resplendent in monsoon greens, surrounding the spiky Kalawantin Durg peak.

An actual capture of the verticality of the peak ( very difficult to climb, not for those prone to vertigo)  ,  and the amazing cutting of steps into the mountain so many centuries ago, by those who wished to use this mountain Durg as a lookout point  for defense and security reasons.

Now very close to the actual Kalawantin peak. The climb to the top, has no steps, and is a fairly difficult climb through a narrow rock face gap. Made possible by trekkers helping out each other.

  This is how it feels to be in the cloud as they bring rains to the valley.  Amazing sights and visuals and I was lucky to capture this .

 The unfortunate side effect of trekking now being popular is one runs into several groups doing the same thing that you are, and the Kalawantin peak can hold only so many folks at a given time.  This is what was happening at midday, 2300 feet above sea level,  in the middle of approaching monsoon clouds. Can anyone be blamed for suddenly remembering the Mumbai suburban train crowds building up...

                                       The view at the top.  Clouds  blocked our view of the valley and other peaks, but  it was fun trying to have lunch  at the peak. 

A typical feature at the top of all our forts in Maharashtra is the saffron flag that flies at the top, celebrating Shivaji Maharaj.  A member of our trek posing at the peak.

       Rock cut steps,  a heavy gradient,  and slippery mud, make descent more difficult than ascent.  A capture of the nature of the steps as they wind around the cone shaped structure of the mountain, unfenced and without any railing type structure, often narrowing dangerously in some parts, with sheer vertical falls on one side .

 Another view .

 Somewhere , lower down, there are places to rest amidst flowing mountain streams.  The trekkers taking a breather.  Me in black.

My faithful boots that  tolerated the slush, the rain, the steps, and my weight.

And we found some other folks trying to attempt the trek.  And the climb. 


Like us,  they are on their way...... through the greens. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A trek to the Kondane Caves in the Rajmachi mountains

Kondane Caves, in the mountains of Rajmachi, are at an elevation of 60 metres above sea level. They are approachable from Lonavla above the ghats, as well as Karjat in the plains below.

The caves, point to the ancient lifestyle of Hinayana Buddhist followers and are the oldest set of rock-cut cave monasteries . These caves are part of a set of 16 caves located in and around the Konadane/Kondivade village. The Karla, and Bhaja Caves are the sister caves  to the Kondane caves,  and point to this area being a great centre for Budhhists . These caves were carved around the 1st century BC, and enclose sculptures, viharas, cahityas and stupas. These are typical elements of Buddhist Architecture, geared to interaction, worship and learning  etc by the devotees. The octagonal pillars, wooden arches, and interiors are very intriguing. 

Consequent to  an earth quake in early 1900 , many stupas, front entrance and floor of the caves were damaged. These ancient caves attract lots of tourists and Buddhist devotees all through the year.

Kondane Caves is around 15 KM from Karjat.

Our group co-ordinated and reached Karjat very early by the Mumbai suburban railway . We proceeded to the Kondivade village (which is like a starting point for the trek), where we had a fresh breakfast of tea and poha, prepared by the villagers. The trek itself is not very difficult and is a gradual elevation through some great wooded areas, and crossing a few streams along the way.

Unfortunately, an hour after reaching the caves,  the place was almost run over with visitors, included a huge  group of school children, and after a tour of the caves, we decided to begin our descent.

      We traveled by public transport from Karjat to the outskirts of the Kondivade village. The place is getting developed at a very fast pace. One such proof of that.

      A place offered by the villagers, for resting a bit and a great breakfast of tea and poha. 

    So many treks, so many village breakfasts, each with its own special poha taste.

           On our way from the village, towards the base of the Rajmachi mountains. 

   The Rajmachi mountain plateau in the distance towards the right.  Our night trek to experience fireflies at Rajmachi, had us  climbing down from that plateau to Karjat the next day morning . This was a trek in the opposite direction. 

   A view of Rajmachi , top right in the distance, and rice cultivation, typical of the Raigad district, where Karjat lies.  

   Small villages along the way doing their bit for afforestation. Mundhewadi, one such, has put up this poem, in praise of trees and everything that they give us.  And managed to keep its trees intact.  All this, while we go berserk felling trees and smearing concrete all over the urban spaces.

Many such makeshift stalls along the way, selling lemon juice , water, and boiled peanuts in their shell . 

                                 A detailed capture of the goodies on offer ....

                   The group taking a short break along the climb to the caves.

                                 Another view of the path to the caves. 

                         A break in the foliage, and the beginnings of a stream.

                       The path gets narrower , and the tree cover denser , as we climb higher

                                  One of the many waterfalls encountered 

                             A wild mushroom encountered along the way.

A sample of the beautiful flora along the way

And, this is not a Google Maps satellite photo. This is a close up of an actual leaf, unknowingly showing us the world !

     We are almost there. The final steps leading to the caves, and I get clicked.  

  The caves have possibly lasted for more than a 100 years after the massive earthquake in 1900,  due to the natural green cover available, and the location, clearly away from urban areas, where such caves still exist , but in a more destroyed form, due to unscrupulous city elements.

The actual approach to the caves entrance

Well defined steps  leading the devotees to the caves.

                                     The once grand entrance to the caves.Although the 1900 earthquake did vast damage, the front entrance,  cave floor and some structures inside remain more or less intact.
  At the entrance is a carving ,which is shape of fig leaf and supported by curved beams.  The main cave has a large stupa with several pillars.

                                     A view of the ancient wooden beams built in.

                                 A panoramic view of the cave entrance.

                      A closeup of the entrance ceiling. And you wonder about the instruments they used in those days to get such accuracy in design.

    These caves are special because of the constant flow of the waterfall , like a curtain, across their entrance.  An effort at capturing the falling water. 

        An experiment with a long exposure click of the pool where the water collected after descending over the cave entrance.

                        The enormity of the caves. And the minusculeness of  humanity.

      The condition of the prayer hall post the earthquake more than  a century ago.  And how we cannot stop spoiling it all by carving our names everywhere.  The entrance cave walls have carvings of people in dancing form.  According to historians , these are images of royalty who donated  freely for the creation of these caves.

                                                               A closer look

       Carved in the 1st century BC. What remains , after the earthquake a 100 years ago.    A still closer look .
A closeup of the top of the structure, as it remains today.

          A typical set of carvings, and the grids in the wall , all across the caves. Imagine the effort, at carving all this from a big rock, and that too by hand. 

A view of a vihara, meant for devotees , to rest. Members of the trek  group taking a breather . The seating arrangement in the Mumbai suburban railways might have been inspired from this.

A typical entrance as it stands today, to one of the caves

The onslaught of visitors to the caves  had us prepone our descent down from the caves, and we took a break along this  local river  which had flowing water thanks to a great start to this year's monsoon.

Streams in flow after a decent start to the monsoon in the plains.

                                                            Another view

                          Unusually clean water, and very relaxing after descending down from the caves.

              A group photo of the trekkers , somewhere along the trek.

And finally, a  typical scene near the Kondivade village , which has probably remained unchanged over decades, if not centuries.  Mountains, greens, cultivated fields, and cows grazing , celebrating the onset of the monsoon .