Games people play: more on Ganjifa

The Ganjifa playing cards tradition is believed to have entered India with the Mughals (Farsi ganj for treasure or ganjifeh for playing cards, according to different sources) via Bengal in the 16th century. It passed along the country, the motifs changing with each region.

After it was adopted by the Hindus, the most popular icons were the Navagraha – nine planets – and the Dashavatar – ten incarnations of Vishnu. The Sawantwadi version is a three player game with the Dashavatar set containing 120 cards. The rules of the game are available in a pamphlet inside the brightly painted box holding the cards.

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This was a side-box in my piece on Sawantwadi – Calm on the coast – that appeared in the April issue of India Today Travel Plus.

Seaside story

“So do you want to meet the queen?” Whatever I am expecting, it is not this. I turn to him with a startled look. I have been watching the manager with interest as he takes off his shoes and bows to the queen before talking to her. Of course, I would love to meet her but how does one greet a queen? As I briefly toy with the fantasy of a cute curtsy (should be able to get away with it – I am far away from home), the queen solves my dilemma by saying ‘hello!’ with a bright smile. She talks about the difficulty of maintaining the huge palace and the plans of converting it into a hotel. Oh yes, heritage hotel, you just cannot go wrong with one of those.

I am in the front courtyard of the Sawantwadi Palace and the Queen Satvashiladevi is sitting there, as part of the morning visiting hour. Built in the era of Khem Sawant Bhonsle III (mid 18th century), the palace is a simple red-stone building in the middle of town, easy to miss if you are not particularly looking for it.

The only section open to visitors is the main durbar hall at the back, with its ornate silver throne sitting forlorn and abandoned at one end. The room is cheerful though, with sunlight filtering in through the stained glass windows on all sides. Inside, the ganjifa artists are hard at work. This, explains our guide, is an initiative by the queen to revive and preserve the dying art of ganjifa painting. A senior artist whose head is intently bent over the cards suddenly looks up at us with a toothless smile and offers a demo. And in front of our eyes, a coaster is born as a horse takes shape on a plain round sheet of paper; possibly the one horse that this town is known for.

In the museum shop upstairs, we pick up some painted wooden boxes as souvenirs and head to the market for more of the wood stuff. I find that my husband has bought a train set when I am not looking, while my friends have gone berserk over wooden bracelets and toys – for nieces and nephews back home, they explain sheepishly. I mean, I know all about the child in each one of us, I just didn’t know how near the surface this child lived. However, the palace and town, pretty as they are, do not come even close to the morning’s experience at the beach.

We are the only people on that side of the beach on this chilly morning. At a distance, I can see a group of fishermen, tiny specks from where I am standing. The famous white sand of the Konkan coast that Maharashtra Tourism is justifiably proud of feels soft and cool under my feet as I walk towards them. The only sound is the harsh cawing of crows sitting on the fishing boats; the Konkan version of ‘morning raga’. Suddenly the bells ring out from the temple on the shore as the morning puja begins. We are on Sagareshwar beach in Vengurla, an hour’s drive from Nandan Farms in Sawantwadi where we are staying. I look at my husband and say, “remind me again, why do we not live here”? The husband looks as stricken as I feel as he says, “work”. Ah yes, I knew there was a reason.

We had earlier stopped at the jetty to watch fishermen busily arrive and depart on their tiny vessels, a spectacle that locals seemed to enjoy as much as we do, judging by the fact that small groups of friends and families are sitting on the concrete wall, facing the direction of sunrise. The lighthouse at a distance looks very inviting but also like a lot of hard work and so we give it a miss without any guilt. We are on holiday and hard work is not on our list of things to do.

So we make our way past the quiet Sagareshwar temple across the casuarina groves, back to Nandan Farms where Amrutha Padgaonkar the host is waiting for us with a huge breakfast. We devote ourselves to the task and tuck in, and look forward to a busy day of sleep as Amrutha recites the lunch menu.

Despite the fact that we have driven for over nine hours the previous day to get here, we have been up at the crack of dawn wanting to hit the beach early. The drive from Mumbai on the Goa highway had been pleasant, going as it does over innumerable tiny (and some quaint) bridges with streams flowing underneath and over miles and miles of winding ghat roads. And then the captivating road signs that keep your spirits up even on the rough patches – like the optimistic ‘Today is your no accident day’. Or the slightly suspect ‘Control your nerves on the curves’.

After a morning on a deserted beach, Goa later that evening comes as a rude shock. At Vagator, less than two hours drive from Sawantwadi, there are a hundred other noisy people watching the sunset. Most of them are locals, which is unusual in the popular northern beaches; recession is the word on everyone’s lips. Goa is a little tentative, with cops everywhere and the beach shacks are not jumping as they usually do in peak winter season. It is a nice experience though to spend a morning at one beach and evening in another and I feel like quite the hip beachcomber.

Beaches are all fine, but we cannot leave without watching the puppet show, we are told. And so, the next evening, we head on to the Pinguli Arts Complex near Kudal on the highway. Parshuram Gangavane is an embittered man as he describes the government’s grand plans for the cultural village, plans that have vanished into thin air. I hear echoes of what I have heard in the morning; from a queen then, from a commoner now.

As it gets dark, Gangavane and his troupe perform the puppet show, this time a story from the Ramayana. The performance begins with an auspicious salutation to Lord Ganesha (Maharashtra’s favourite Ganpati). Then there is the swayamvar, a bewildered Ram, Sita in bright clothes and Ravana with his ten heads and several other colourful gods and goddesses. Five minutes into the performance, the couple of children in the group fall silent, and the only sounds are from the performers.

As we step on to the empty beach again the next morning, I send out guilty thanks for the fact that some things have stayed undiscovered.

Travel Information

Getting there: Sawantwadi is 510 km from Mumbai, ten hours by road on the Goa highway or the Kolhapur Expressway. Or take the Mandovi Express or Konkan Kanya from Mumbai to Sawantwadi. The nearest large airport is Dabolim in Goa, just over two hours drive away.

When to go: The cool months between November and February are ideal, though the whole region turns fresh and green during the magical monsoon months. Summer, though unbearably hot, is the mango season and Nandan Farms organizes all-day fruit picking sessions for visitors.

See and do: Sindhudurg is Maharashtra government’s official Tourism District. Hit all the gorgeous Konkan beaches – Tarkarli, Vengurla, Kunkeshwar. Also take the short boat ride to Sindhudurg from Malvan near Tarkarli to see one of Shivaji’s greatest sea forts. Drive up to Amboli on the other side, a hill station discovered by the British cool-seekers.

Stay: Culture Aangan, a Mumbai-based NGO manages a few home-stays in the region including Nandan farms at Sawantwadi where we stayed. MTDC also has excellently-located properties all along the coast in different beaches, including Vengurla and Tarkarli.

Eat: The region is a sea-food lover’s paradise; stop at any of the small eateries (khanaval) for a home-cooked meal, complete with fish curry. Wash it down with refreshing solkadi that comes with a tang unmatched by any available in Mumbai.

Shop: In Sawantwadi, pick up a set of Ganjifa cards or painted jewellery boxes at the palace museum shop and wooden toys (especially the miniature kitchen set) and key chains in the market. The region is also famous for kokum and cashewnuts and in season, boasts of the best mangoes in the state.

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This was published in the April issue of India Today Travel Plus as ‘Calm on the coast’.

Idyll by the sea

A good holiday is one that is spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours ~ J. B. Priestley. I smiled as I read this and thought about my weekend holiday at Kashid.

Despite being close to both Pune and Mumbai, Kashid remained undiscovered and ignored for a long time, just a small fishing village. A few years ago, the quiet beach suddenly found world-weary holiday makers rushing towards it every weekend, and it responded by remaining isolated and laidback. Thankfully, for it still remains an ideal relaxing break for those seeking to get away from it all – and not carrying it all with them.

We reach Kashid late one Saturday morning, stopping on the way for tea and snacks and general directions. A late and heavy lunch is followed by two hours in the shaded porch of the hotel under the coconut trees, looking at the sea in the distance, blue now, a shimmering white a few minutes later. I spend a pleasant and instructive afternoon, the book I have taken along lying opened and unread on my lap, eyes closed and trying to identify the bird calls. I admit I do not make much progress beyond the croaky kraws. Through eyes only half open, I spot my husband attempting to make friendly contact with the resident resort cat, giving up soon when the white and brown animal shows no interest in his affable advances. In all, I cannot think of a better way of spending a Saturday afternoon – the faint smell of the sea in the air, music on the ipod and no mobile phone and no laptop.

Sunset blaze at Kashid

As the heat begins to ebb, we head to the beach at Kashid just a kilometer away on the narrow hill road. On the beach, the few shacks that display signs of cold drinks and oily snacks just right for an evening at the beach are all shut. I remark to my husband that the entire village must have gone to Mumbai for the long weekend to escape the heat and the crowds! He glares at me and keeps walking, looking down at the patterns his muddy wet feet make on the clear white sands, turning golden with the sunset colours.

Family games...

This part of the beach is one noisy colorful playground. There are families playing cricket on the sand (my husband wanting desperately to join in), rules made and broken at will. As we watch, some of them take a break and bargain with the buggy-man for taking a ride into the sunset; others have found a Frisbee and are throwing it in the air, trying valiantly to catch it despite the strong wind that makes it seem as if the plastic Frisbee has a mind of its own.

Riding into the sunset...

There are touching declarations of love carved in the wet sand, transient messages washed away in an instant by the waves. Groups of shrieking teenagers run around, in and out of the waters, adding to the general chaos and noise. They stand on the water, looking for someone to take their photograph, capturing that transient moment of fun. Elsewhere, another group has started a game of antakshari, the noise level steadily increasing with more people joining in with their own versions of old Hindi film songs.

As it starts to get cooler, the beach shacks suddenly come alive. Tired children make their way to the tiny wooden swings along the road as their parents sit on the plastic chairs, sipping on coconut water and Cola, munching on hot pakoras. Some kind – and enterprising – soul has put up hammocks across the sandy stretch and they beckon alluringly. The next two hours pass by quickly on the hammock, watching the sun go down in the sea just a few feet away, feeling the gentle evening breeze on the face, listening to people all around discuss their jobs and busy city lives. It is totally dark by the time I step off the hammock; my spine has by then developed an abnormal curvature. The shacks are closing and the cars have all but left and the sky has switched on its lights – we step on to the beach for a few minutes looking up at the night sky, the stars that shy away from city lights are out in full force.

Driving to Murud on Sunday morning from Kashid, I have the sense of traveling back in time. Small sleepy hamlets dot the road all along the way, not fully awake but for the early morning fisher-folk on the roads. The children are all up though, learning to ride the bicycle, swinging dangerously in the middle of the lane. Herds of cattle are out grazing, looking bleary-eyed and surprised each time they hear the honk of a passing car. Most of this route is along the coast, the sea suddenly appearing at our side on the curves and then going off view till the next sharp turn.

See, sea fort!

We drive all the way through the village of Murud, stopping only to stare at the sea from high in the hills, just in front of the ornate palace of the Nawab and then for directions to get to the jetty for the Janjira fort. We reach Rajpuri from where the boats leave and see a sign at the entrance, happy new year 2006 and our sense of time travel is sharply enhanced; any year, this place would look and feel the same. We park the car and walk through small lanes to get to the jetty, young men calling out from tiny shop windows along the lane, “Bisleri, cold drinks, chai, nashta” and more shops selling Konicca colour film with cheerful disdain for all branding.
Janjira is a short boat-ride into the sea, the young man at the helm is reluctant to answer my numerous questions. He keeps imparting tantalizing little bits of information about the fort, withholding the rest; as we step into the fort, he turns around and says, let me be your guide.

Looking out of Janjira

So, guide and we walk though the purported twenty two acres of the awesome sea-fort, or what remains of it. There is an impressive rhythm about the history of this fort – twenty two years to build, twenty two acres, twenty two watch towers, each manned night and day by armed sentries. Additionally in the past, there were huge cannons at the ready and only three entrances, all cleverly concealed so they were not visible anywhere from the sea except from very close by. The enemy did not have a whiff of a chance.

From the boat into the fort... Might of the Siddi dynasty Cow-face cannon! Waiting for the enemy?

The guide (and guidebooks) say that this fort built by Siddi Johar, head of the Siddi clan who moved to India all the way from Abyssinia, has never fallen to enemy hands – not the British, nor the Portuguese, not even the all-conquering Marathas. The fort was of strategic importance, given its place in the Arabian Sea, and there are several legends about rulers who tried and failed to take Janjira. The most interesting of these stories is about Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji, who even built a fort across the bay, at Kansa, and tried everything, including an underwater tunnel.

Looking up in awe

Some sources I read say that the fort was built around 1118, while others place it some time in the 16th century. Ismail, our guide also says that till as recently was 1972, people lived inside the fort – including his father who was born there. I have no idea about the veracity of this claim, but the fort does seem capable of supporting human life – mosques and a temple, a huge granary and two fresh water lakes right in the middle. The outer walls cemented by a mixture of lime, jaggery and lead have withstood centuries of the sea battering against them and the sun and rain.

There is a general air of neglect about the fort today; it is accentuated by the graffiti scrawls and the broken stone edifices all over. Despite that, the walls of the fort have several stories to tell, now drowned by the noise of the waves crashing against them. I would have loved to spend all day there under the shade of a tree, but the tide is rising and our guide-boatman is in a hurry to get back to land. The waters have covered two more steps by the time we get down to the boat. In his hurry, Ismail still stops to point out the insignia of the Siddis near the entrance of the fort, a tiger holding six elephants in its clutches – the might of the Siddis, the ajinkya, or indestructible.

General Information : Paramount Airways flies to Pune from large cities in the South including Chennai and Bangalore. From Pune, Kashid is 160 km away, just over four hours drive via Mulshi and Kolad. The drive on the expressway till Panvel and then on to Kolad on the Goa highway NH 17 is slightly longer but beautiful especially in the monsoons.

Stay : There are several resorts to choose from – at Kashid, stay at Kashid Beach Resort or more popular Prakriti Resort, or drive on to Murud and stay at the Golden Swan or Sea Shells Resort. Be sure to sample some of the local cuisine, including fresh vada-pav from the roadside snack vendors.

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This piece appeared in the October issue of Windows & Aisles, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways.

Footprints on the sand

I am looking out of the window of my room in Sindhudurg at the rain crashing down, as I sip the ginger tea (my fourth cup… fifth? since morning, I have lost count). It was clear and sunny just a minute ago. Just as I put my book away, finding rain-watching more absorbing, the downpour stops as if someone has turned off a shower knob. And so the rain plays peek-a-boo the entire morning, soothing us with its gentle whispers at times and catching us by surprise by its vehemence at others. Only the fragrance of wet earth is constant, competing with the aromas of lunch wafting from the kitchen beneath my room. Everything around looks washed clean by the rains, the water drops on the tips of the leaves sparkling like diamonds on an emerald setting.

Backwaters of Sindhudurg

Backwaters of Sindhudurg

Sindhudurg is the last district in Southern Maharashtra before the Goa border and gets its name from Sindhudurg fort, the floating citadel in the sea. The fort has three fresh water wells in the middle of its sprawling ramparts, called Doodhbaun (water), Shakkarbaun (sugar) and Dahibaun (curd). Looking at the abundant natural beauty of the region, it strikes me that there is some poetic justice in these names. Through most of the year and especially during and after the rains, Sindhudurg comes alive, covered by a lush green carpet. Tall coconut trees, inviting backwaters, colourful local temples, swaying paddy fields; it is very easy to imagine this as the land of milk and honey.

Dalvi with Sindhudurg in the distance

Dalvi with Sindhudurg in the distance


From the shore at Malvan town, Sindhudurg fort looks like a large ship slowly drifting close to the mainland. The tide is rising and tourist boats are not allowed to take the short ferry to the fort in the monsoon season. Catching sight of us staring at the fort, a man with unkempt long hair walks over and introduces himself. Pandurang Purandhar Dalvi is a member of one of the families that has lived inside the fort for generations, and still does. The fort is closed to visitors now and the families stay inside for over three months, braving the elements, just as the fort has done for over three and a half centuries.

Gheriya

Gheriya


Ramparts

Ramparts


We are disappointed about not being able to explore the Sindhudurg fort but a visit to Vijaydurg the next day makes up for this in some measure. Unlike most other forts of this region, Vijaydurg, the ‘fort of victory’ was not built by Chhatrapati Shivaji or the Maratha dynasty. It was built by Raja Bhoj of the Shilahar dynasty in 1205 and passed through several hands before it was finally captured by Shivaji in the mid 17th century. Upon acquisition, he immediately added three layers of outside walls to strengthen the security of the fort. The fort today, as under Shivaji encompasses over 17 acres and is enclosed by the sea on three sides, giving it the local name gheriya, meaning ‘surrounded’. Sindhudurg and Vijaydurg together established the unquestioned martial supremacy of the Maratha dynasty in the region.

However, forts are not the reason I am in Sindhudurg during the monsoon. I am hoping to relax and unwind completely, leaving behind the cares of my life back in Mumbai. All I want to do is drink tea and watch the rain and by this measure the first day has been a great success. Not so the next morning. I am cribbing incessantly – “I am supposed to be on holiday and that means waking up late”. It is really early and I am still bleary-eyed as we make our way in the faithful Tata Sumo towards the beach. The irritation lasts only till we hit Mitbhav beach.

The beach is empty; the tourists have not discovered it yet and the fishermen know how treacherous the seas are during this season and stay away. However, it all looks deceptively calm. As my husband starts to wade into the water, people from the huts along the shore rush out to warn him. They disappear back into their homes just as suddenly as they appeared and we have the beach completely to ourselves again. The sky turns from a dull grey to a soft blue, smudged with the yellows and oranges of morning. I sit on the powdery white sand and stare at the rising tides and finally concede, some things are worth waking up so early for, even when on holiday.

Nivati beach from the fort

Nivati beach from the fort

And from then, the holiday takes off into ‘active’ mode. I decide there is no point in fighting it and give in gracefully. And so we spend the rest of the day, attached to the seats of our Tata Sumo, taking in the sights and sounds of Sindhudurg. At this time of the year, the predominant colour of the region is green. All roads including the small state highways are in excellent condition, and I indulge in some silent flights of fancy. I think to myself that through the windshield, the vista ahead resembles a Kanjeevaram silk sari spread out – deep grey, with green borders. Not surprisingly, I do not dare give voice to this thought, knowing the kind of caustic responses it would generate.

Tarkarli at twilight

Tarkarli at twilight

Bhogwe after sunset

Bhogwe after sunset

We take the winding roads up towards Nivati and hike further ahead through the rough stone path towards Nivati fort. There is nothing left of the fort now except a few crumbling walls but the view from the top is spectacular; miles of blue sea lashing against the fine sands, the entire scene framed by the green arches of coconut trees. We stop for lunch at a local home that doubles up as impromptu restaurant for visitors and tuck into some delightful home-made Konkani food. Before the day is over, we head to a couple of other beaches including Bhogwe and Tarkarli and I find that I cannot make up my mind about which is the most scenic of them all.

Ganjifa artists

Ganjifa artists

The next day, we drive south, towards Sawantwadi, the last big town in Maharashtra before the Goa border. Sawantwadi boasts of a beautiful palace set right by the side of the scenic Moti Talao (translated as ‘pearl lake’). The palace looks simple from outside, especially since I am expecting an opulent structure on the likes of palaces I have seen in Rajasthan. The façade is cheerful, the red laterite stone (locally called chire) standing out even on this dull rainy day. Sawantwadi was the kingdom of the Bhonsle dynasty and the queen Satvashila Devi still lives in a part of the palace that is shut off to visitors. Apart from her efforts to restore and sustain the palace itself, the queen is also involved in efforts to revive the traditional arts and craft of the region, including lacquer-ware and Ganjifa, the three hundred year old art of painting the Dashavatar on a set of 120 round playing cards. The town is also famous for its wooden toys and though we do not intend to, we end up picking up a few colourful toys as souvenirs from the shops in the main market.

Painted trees at Pinguli

Painted trees at Pinguli

From there, we proceed to another site where there have been similar efforts to preserve traditional folk-art. We walk into Pinguli Art Complex, to be greeted by a tableau of rural life unchanged through the centuries. There are installations and paintings, all unique to the region and also a stage for performances. The Pinguli complex, also called the Thakkar Adivasi Kala Aangan, is the brainchild of the Mumbai-based organization Culture Aangan. It is maintained by the artist Parashuram Gangawane, whose family has been practicing the traditional puppetry art for centuries. He tells us stories about his forefathers who were patronized by the royal Bhonsle family. Sadly, this art is dying out slowly and he hopes it will continue to be passed on to the next generation through this enterprise.

A glimpse of rural life

Rural life

Apart from this, Culture Aangan manages a cluster of homestays in the region where visitors get to stay with a local family and learn about the history and culture of the region. We are staying in one of these homes in Sindhudurg and head back there after the day’s packed sight-seeing itinerary. A hot dinner awaits us, served with warm smiles and I notice that I am smiling right back, despite all the tiredness. I am feeling content and stay firm in my resolve to use the last remaining day in Sindhudurg to recharge my personal batteries in peace and quiet, before we head back to the noise and chaos of Mumbai.

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A version of this appeared in the September issue of ‘Windows & Aisles’, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways.

Come home to Sindhudurg

My piece on the Culture Aangan homestays in Sindhudurg appeared in yesterday’s Mid day – here it is…

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‘Safety on the roads is safe tea at home’, proclaims the sign on the Mumbai – Goa highway, just one of the numerous well-meaning signboards that make this route so enchanting. We have been on the road since early morning, and think longingly of the tea, safe or otherwise waiting for us just an hour away. Sure enough, when we pull into Nandan Farms at Sawantwadi, just as the sun is setting, our hostess Amrutha Padgaonkar welcomes us with her cheery open smile and steaming cups of tea. As she takes us around the house, I can hear the pride in the voice when she talks about her family home. The place, with its beautiful bamboo furniture and colourful decor is as warm and welcoming as the hostess. It is my first time at a homestay place, and I am instantly hooked.

sindhudurg1

Over the next three days, Amrutha (“everybody calls me Ammu”) spoils us silly with home-cooked meals and heavy-duty bargaining on our behalf at the local market. The hearty home-cooked meal (well, the way to our hearts is certainly through the stomach) seems to be a common theme across the homestays, as we find with Vaishali Loke who is our host at Pitruchaya at Shirgaon. The mango season is over but she manages to surprise us at dinner with delicious aamras and fresh Deogad mangoes the next day. There is solkadi with every meal and sabudana khichdi for breakfast served with tips for finding the best vada pav when we step out later that day.

Come home to Sindhudurg

Introduction to Culture Aangan

Nandan Farms and Pitruchaya are two of the homestays established and managed by Culture Aangan, a Mumbai-based organization. At present, there are three more such homes spread across the district, in Oras, Valaval and Talavade. Each of the homes is unique and has a character and charm that is defined strongly by the personality of the host family.

Rashmi Sawant, who runs Culture Aangan has an animated smile on her face as she reminisces over her childhood days in Kumta, in North Karnataka. “All of us kids, cousins and friends used to meet up during summer in my grandmother’s house and spend all our time in the open aangan in the middle of the sprawling house. Games, food, sleep, fights, everything was out in the aangan”. And years later, when she began setting up the homestay network in Sindhudurg, one of her prime motives was also to restore and preserve the underlying cultural ethos of the region, and so the name Culture Aangan was born.

Vaishali and Vijay Loke of Pitruchaya were the first couple to come forward when Rashmi started the initiative a couple of years ago. Since then she has campaigned tirelessly among locals, trying to convince them to open their homes to visitors, and do their bit towards developing what is officially Maharashtra’s Tourism District. And once the owners agree to be a part of the Culture Aangan network, Rashmi’s business partner, George Joel steps in with his magic touch. With a background in engineering and design and an eye for unusual detail, George manages to transform the basic room into an inviting and aesthetically pleasing space.

Apart from the homestay network, Rashmi also manages a couple of other initiatives aimed at the development of the district. The Pinguli Arts Complex set up and managed by Rashmi and George is an effort to revive and preserve the traditional arts and craft of the region, including Chitragathi painting and shadow puppetry. Additionally, Rashmi has mobilized 160 Self Help Groups (SHGs) with over 3000 women producing speciality food and beverage items. The SHG organization is named Hirkani in honour of a milkmaid in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s kingdom, who climbed down Raigad fort through a rough path late in the night to get home to her child.

sindhudurg3

Head to Sindhudurg in the rains

So why go to Goa when you can go to Sindhudurg, a couple of hours closer to Mumbai? Sindhudurg is the ideal monsoon get-away, with over twenty beaches that are clean, pretty and quiet. So quiet, some of them, that the only sounds you hear are the crashing of the waves and your own thoughts racing, wondering about the point (or pointlessness, more likely) of your busy lives back in Mumbai.

early morning at Mitbhav beach

There are several things to do in Sindhudurg – for those seeking active holidays. Visit the ancient temple of Rameshwar, climb up the lighthouse at Vengurla, go for a boat ride on the placid waters of Damapur Lake or take a nature trail through the verdant slopes of Amboli, the hill station discovered and patronized by the British. The region is also home to several of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s forts, including the early 13th century ‘fort of victory’ Vijaydurg, and Sindhudurg, the fort in the sea which lends its name to the region.

Outside Vijaydurg fort

Alternatively, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the rains with a book and endless cups of tea in one of the Culture Aangan homes. A homestay is a unique experience that combines the comfort of personalized service, with the warm hospitality of a home. Staying with a local family in their home is easily the best way to get the true flavour of the region. For instance, Mr.Kadam of Shreeyog Paryatan (the homestay in Oras) was a certified tourist guide with the Deccan Odyssey luxury tourist train, and is full of stories and trivia about his land.

May all your troubles last as long as your New Year's resolutions. ~Joey Adams

Eat delicious home-made food (have I mentioned it already?) including fresh fish that you can try your hand at catching (in season, there is a deep sea trawler fishing activity you can take part in) and cooking. And perhaps most important of all, a significant portion of the money you spend goes back to a local family in some form or the other, keeping the local economy thriving.

Travel Information

Several trains from Mumbai on the Konkan line pass through stations in the Sindhudurg region. Your best option is the Konkan Kanya (departs 2305 hours) from Mumbai CST. The nearest airport is Dabolim in Goa, from where the homes are 2-3 hours away. Culture Aangan also provides a pick-up from the railway station / airport and arranges for local transport, if required. Alternatively, a drive on the Goa Highway is a stimulating experience in the monsoon, and will take from 7-9 hours from Mumbai, depending on the state of the roads and your destination within Sindhudurg.

For more information, check out the Culture Aangan website at http://www.cultureaangan.com or contact Rashmi Sawant directly at: info@cultureaangan.com

Chilling in the heat in Sindhudurg

Here is a plug for what I think is a worthy cause – Culture Aangan is a Bombay-based NGO that works in the Sindhudurg region – they have homestays and several women’s self help groups. I recently spent a few days at the Pitruchaya homestay in Shirgaon near Devgadh and want to tell you all about it…

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A lazy relaxing time at Pitruchaya homestay, home of the shy but friendly Lokes – at Shirgaon in Sindhudurg district. Quiet unknown beaches, Padagar waterfalls, Vaishali’s home cooking – those modaks, the cashew curry and the solkadi… for the non vegetarians, the fresh fish and the stuffed chicken, starry nights and sunny days…

Vaishali's thali

The home is in the middle of nowhere – or so it seems – despite the fact that it is bang on the state highway that leads to Devgadh. You cross the tiny market of Shirgaon and drive for another 2 minutes and there, in isolated splendor, Pitruchaya stands welcoming visitors.

Pitruchaya

There are two rooms on the ground floor, done up with great taste in the way of all Culture Aangan homes, using bamboo and other natural materials. The open aangan or courtyard leads to the kitchen and the garden behind the house. And the pillars painted by the same artist who has painted the trees in the Pinguli Arts Complex, a nice touch.

The living room

Aangan

But the best room is the one on the terrace – well ventilated and breezy. This is far, far away from the madding crowds and the terrace is wonderful at night; the cool breeze, the mysterious sounds of darkness and a million stars.

The terrace room

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And here, the pièce de résistance is the bathroom on the terrace – with a huge bathtub and open to the elements in a way that is utterly relaxing, yet private and secluded.

Bathroom

The garden is large and right now, running a bit wild – but here, we sit up in the mornings spotting birds and other fauna – we even have a regular visitor in the form of a garden lizard. And late in the night, dinner over and feeling completely sated, we sit on the terrace under the open star-lit sky. Till the breeze and the good food lulls us into sleep.

Back of beyond

Moored in Murud-Janjira

Driving to Murud on Sunday morning from Kashid, I had the sense that I was traveling back in time. Small sleepy hamlets all along the way, not fully awake but for the early morning fisher folk on the roads and children learning to ride the bicycle, swinging dangerously in the middle of the lane, cattle looking equally bleary-eyed and surprised each time they heard the honk of a passing car. Most of this route is along the coast, the sea suddenly appearing at your side on the curves and then going off view till the next sharp turn.

See, sea fort!

We drive all the way through Murud, stopping only to stare at the sea from high in the hills, just in front of the ornate palace of the Nawab and then for directions to get to the jetty for Janjira. We reach Rajpuri from where the boats leave and see a sign at the entrance, happy new year 2006; enhanced sense of time travel. We park the car and walk through small lanes to get to the jetty, young men calling out from tiny shop windows along the lane, Bisleri, cold drinks, chai, nashta, and more shops selling Konicca colour film with cheerful disdain for all branding. We pass the local Urdu school and the English medium school right across it, and resist the temptation to step into the ubiquitous Chinis ‘hotel’ for a quick Manjuri meal.

Janjira is a short boat-ride away, the young man at the helm, imparting little bits of information about the fort reluctantly, and withholding the rest; we get into the fort and he turns around and says, let me be your guide.

Looking out of Janjira

So, guide and we walk though the purported twenty two acres of the awesome sea-fort, which took twenty two years to build, or what remains of it. Twenty two acres, twenty two watch towers, each manned night and day by armed sentries, huge cannons at the ready, three entrances, all cleverly concealed so they were not visible anywhere from the sea except from very close by. The enemy did not have a whiff of a chance.

Waiting for the enemy?

The guide (and guidebooks) say that this fort built by Siddi Johar, head of the Siddi clan who moved to India all the way from Abyssinia, has never fallen to enemy hands, not even the all-conquering Marathas. Some sources I read (and my guide) say that the fort was built around 1118, while others place it some time in the 16th century. Ismail, our guide also says that till as recently was 1972, people lived inside the fort – including his father who was born there – I have no idea about the veracity of this claim, but the fort does seem capable of supporting human life – mosques and a temple, a huge granary and two fresh water lakes right in the middle. The outer walls cemented by a mixture of lime, jaggery and lead have withstood centuries of the sea battering against them and the sun and rain. Inside, everything is now in ruins, most of it man-created; the lakes are being drained and cleaned out since the water had become too contaminated for the fish to survive.

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The half-empty emerald green fresh water lake and the scores of white plastic Bisleri bottles tell a sad tale. So do the graffiti and the broken stone edifices across the fort.

Looking up in awe

I would have loved to spend all day there under the shade of a tree, but the tide was rising and our guide-boatman was in a hurry to get back to land. The waters had covered two more steps by the time we got down to the boat. In his hurry, Ismail still stops to point out the insignia of the Siddis near the entrance of the fort, a tiger holding six elephants in its clutches – the might of the Siddis…

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Weekend bliss in Kashid

A good holiday is one that is spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours – J. B. Priestley. I smiled as I read this and cltr-c-ctrl-v’d it on the side-bar of my travel blog. This weekend at Kashid was just one such holiday.

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Kashid – three hours from where we live, the drive till Alibag on smooth roads leading tantalizingly to Goa, and beyond that part of the route along the sea, through small villages and narrow roads, villagers carrying on with their lives as usual, responding to queries about directions and distances with practiced ease. Earlier just an isolated beach now suddenly finding world-weary holiday makers from Bombay rushing towards it every weekend, Kashid has responded by staying isolated and laidback. The ideal weekend for those seeking to get away from it all – and not carrying it all with them. Plenty of stay options – small and large seaside resorts (offering distant views of the sea), a FRIENDS (and hastily added for reassurance) AND FAMILY HOLIDAY HOME, even a NEHA TRUEST HOME – VEG, NON-VEG. Touching. Food options not much but for the shacks and plenty of Chinis eateries all along the way and around, from the pompous New China Town in a shed just after Alibag to the more honest Sadguru Chiniss joint in Murud.

Saturday lunch at four followed by two hours in the shaded porch under the coconut trees, looking at the sea in the distance, blue now, a shimmering white a few minutes later. I spent a pleasant and instructive afternoon, the Simoqin Prophecies lying opened and unread (sorry Samit) on my lap, eyes closed and trying to identify bird calls and spot the corresponding owner of the voice. I admit I didn’t make much progress beyond the kroaky kraws. Husband spent an equally p. and i. afternoon making conversation with the resident resort cat, giving up soon when the white and brown animal showed no interest in his friendly hey cat calls, and then staring at the television, Ajay Devgan and Akshay Kumar mouthing unbelievable bilge in a movie called Suhaag. In all, a very good afternoon with ipod and television but no mobile phone and no laptop.

Saturday evening a Kashid beach, the few shacks that displayed signs of cold drinks and oily snacks just right for an evening at the beach all shut. I remarked to my husband that the entire village(?) must have gone to Bombay for the long weekend to escape the heat and the crowds. He glared at me and kept walking, looking down at the patterns his muddy wet feet made on the clear white sands, turning golden with the sunset colours.

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Declarations of love, some young and innocent, some suggesting dangerous and illicit out-of-town week-end relations. Groups of shrieking teenagers (grrr, I assure you I was never one) running around in and out of the waters, group photographs in great demand. Families playing cricket (husband wanting desperately to join in), rules made and broken at will, taking a break for a buggy ride into the sunset; husband unceasingly humming humko tumse ho gaya hai pyar kya karein… and getting nostalgic about good old Hindi cinema.

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Later at night, the roads deserted and dark, my search for an STD booth, having lost the mobile connection a few kilometers and hours earlier, futile. Back at the resort, the disco jumping with exactly one person – mami of Tamil origin (not me, I assure you) rocking the floor – we peeped in for exactly four seconds and beat a hasty retreat, mami-jiving and Himesh-crooning not the ideal way to end a happy day.

Kashid beach, sleepy and forlorn on Saturday evening came alive on Sunday. The swings were occupied, shacks open and dispensing countless plates of omelettes and pakoras, cooling coconut water and Coke jumping off the shelves rapidly. Plastic chairs had appeared as if out of nowhere, and some kind soul had put up hammocks across the sandy stretch. Two hours on the hammock, watching the sun go down in the sea just a few feet away, feeling the gentle evening breeze on the face, listening to people all around discuss their jobs and PhD plans. It was totally dark by the time I stepped off the hammock, my spine having developed an abnormal curvature. The shacks were closing and the cars had all but left and the sky had switched on its lights – we stepped on to the beach for a few minutes looking up at the night sky, the stars that shy away from city lights out in full force…

Fort of the lion

Memories from a rainy morning drive up to Sinhagad fort from Pune…

Stopping at this curve on the road when the clouds looked threatening and the roads dangerously slippery…

Dangerous roads

The road to Sinhgarh

Near the top, stopping for chai and garam pakoras, and to take in the fog rolling all the way towards Pune many kilometers away…

The hills are alive

Climbing the steps to get to the top of the fort with only the regular peanut sellers on the way for company – garam garam timepass – few tourists on a wet Sunday morning…

Sinhgarh fort

Here is what I found about Sinhagad : It was here that Shivaji’s general, Tanaji Malusare launched an attack to recapture the fort. In the ensuing battle, Tanaji valiantly laid down his life, but captured the fort. A grieving Shivaji is known to have said,”Gad ala pan sinh gela” (The fort is won but the lion has gone). And this is how the fort got its name: sinh (lion’s) gad (fort).