(Or) To Ashtavinayak, Tuljapur, Kolhapur, and Back Again in 45 Hours
Yep, rub your eyes, and read that again — Ashtavinayak, Tuljapur, Kolhapur, and back again inside of two days. We did it. Over the 8th and 9th (and a bit of the 10th) of January 2009. This post will tell you how. And more.
- One crazy brother
- One vehicle (preferably the SUV types, we used a Scorpio)
- One good driver
- One reluctant blogger
It is commonly known that a typical Ashtavinayak trip, arranged by the tours and travels operators, takes about three days. If you have a vehicle of your own, this trip (to what are considered to be amongst the holiest temples dedicated to Ganesha and usually undertaken by Maharashtrians at least once in their lifetime) can be managed comfortably in a day and a half. The best route and itinerary, for people in and around Mumbai, and which I have used in my earlier trips, for the trips is: Mumbai/suburbs - Ozhar – Lenyadri – Ranzangaon – Siddhatek – Morgaon – Theur (halt for the night) – Mahad – Pali – back to Mumbai.
A trip to Tuljapur to visit the Tulja-Bhavani temple and to Kolhapur to visit the Mahalaxmi temple typically involves an overnight train/bus journey, a visit to the temple and an overnight train/bus journey back to Mumbai.
I have visited the Tulja-Bhavani and the Mahalaxmi temples once before — we had hired a car and made this trip along with Panhala in four days. Ashtavinayak has happened twice already and my last visit in August 2007, was particularly memorable for the sheer amount of greenery on display. Last year we couldn't make the Ashtavinayak trip for various reasons — both my brother and me couldn't get leave at the same time, office and other commitments, etc. My brother typically visits the Ashtavinayak at least twice a year (ya, he is one of those devout types). With no visits last year, I knew an exercise in brownie points collection would be in the offing and was looking forward to the trip. But I hadn't reckoned with the pent up spiritual fervor in my brother. Having not said hello to the Ashtavinayak temples all of last year, he felt that he needed to do something extra to compensate. So he decided that a trip comprising the Ashtavinayak temples along with a visit to the Tulja-Bhavani and the Mahalaxmi temples at Tuljapur and Kolhapur would have the requisite spiritual quotient for him to make up for the last year. I agreed — I like to travel and the more places the better.
My sis-in-law had ruled herself out very early and we felt that without her a three and a half day itinerary would be quick (my sis-in-law is prone to travel sickness) as well as comfortable. We spent a few days in figuring out the details and "optimizing" the route we were to take. Since we wanted to visit Tuljapur and Kolhapur after Ashtavinayak it meant rejigging our usual route. We found that of all the eight temples, Siddhatek is closest to Tuljapur, with a state highway that goes straight to that place and we planned our itinerary accordingly. This time our itinerary for Ashtavinayak was as follows: Pali – Mahad – Ozhar – Lenyadri – Ranzangaon – Theur – Morgaon – Siddhatek. From Siddhatek we would go to Tuljapur, and from there, via Solapur, to Kolhapur and then back. That was the broad plan. When we got a hang of the dates on which we could probably make the trip, we came up with the following:
Day 1, Thursday, 8th January 2009, following an early start, was to be used for visiting 6 or 7 of the Ashtavinayak temples. Depending on the time taken through the day, we would halt for the night either at Theur (which got my vote, for it has decent facilities for an overnight stay) or at Morgaon (which has passable rooms on hire). The next day, Friday, 9th January 2009, we would first head to Morgaon, if we had stayed overnight at Theur. If we managed to reach Morgaon on the earlier day we would press on to Siddhatek to visit the last Ashtavinayak temple on our list before heading to Tuljapur. We planned to halt at Solapur, which is just off Tuljapur, for Friday night. Saturday morning 10th January 2009, we would drive to Kolhapur to visit the Mahalakshmi temple. We planned to stay that day in Kolhapur and then head back home on Sunday morning, reaching Ambernath (where I stay) in the late afternoon.
What happened in actuality was totally different. I hadn't reckoned with my crazy brother. And I hadn't taken into account the absence of my sis-in-law for this trip who would have slowed us and restored sanity to the trip.
As planned we started early morning on Thursday, waking up at 04:00. The hired vehicle arrived at 05.00 and we were off at 05.15 (with an impatient and relieved sis-in-law all but urging us out of the home so that she could get back to her sleep and peace). We reached Pali at around 07:10. After the darshan and quick round of chai, we drove to Mahad and reached it around 08:15. Darshan was followed by picking up a substantial amount of boiled peanuts — which both my brother and I love — that was our breakfast. We then headed towards Ozhar via Karjat and through the Karjat - Murbad Phata which touches the road that goes through Malshej Ghat at Tokewade. We halted for a few minutes at the top of Malshej Ghat to stretch our legs and watch the monkeys. We were in Ozhar by 11:30 AM and then on to Lenyadri (climbing up and down 307 steps under the hot sun is not advisable) at 12:20 PM. Lenyadri is where we had our lunch (yummy Misal Pav for me) and purchased a variety of raisins — Lenyadri is known for its grape vineyards and the raisins made from local grapes are of excellent quality. We started for Ranzangaon around 13:30 and (due to patches of bad roads) reached it around 15:45.
The drive to Ranzangaon is through numerous farms and villages and small towns — Narayangaon (which is home to most of the dishes of the GMRT — radio telescope), Junnar and a few others. What was surprising as we drove past these villages was to find them apparently deserted. There were a few people working in the farms that surround these villages but their numbers were hardly enough to account for the number of homes that you could see in each village. Where were all the people? Watching saas-bahu TV soaps? Or sleeping off the afternoons? Or did zombies attack and devour them all? The mystery was finally solved when we took the main streets of some of these villages. It was the "market day" in that area and it looked like the entire population of the village had descended on to the single street haggling and milling about purposelessly, shouting out good natured and contradictory directions when we asked for them, and generally having a jolly good time.
Ranzangaon was where we got delayed a bit. The temple had some kind of a festival going on and there were people queuing up to get into the temple. We did the needful and walked out — my brother and our driver to look for some tea. I declined the beverage and decided to hunt for guava (or peru as it is known in Marathi) and which the Ranzangaon market around the temple is famous for. Now let me confess, while I will not touch a yellow, ripe guava, I love the green, raw ones — a liking which sometimes the vendors (and other people, including my friends and family) find peculiar. I looked around the market and soon found an old aaji (Marathi for grandmother) who had a basket full of the fruit. I approached, smiled, and started looking for the most unripe one. The aaji studied me for some time, apparently liked what she saw, and started pointing out to me a choice of the best she had — the ripe ones. I shook my head and told her that I was interested in the unripe fruit. She looked at me like she had never seen a creature like me. I soon found what I was looking for — a dark green guava, as large as my palm and handed it over to be cut and smeared with a mixture of salt and chili powder. The guava was so raw and hard, that the poor aaji had to use one of the iron kilo weights on the knife to get it to cut through the fruit. When she had cut it, sprinkled it with salt and chill powder, and handed it over to me, she noted my beaming face. I took a bite of the fruit and beamed some more at which the nonplussed expression on her face was replaced by a smile and she inquired, "Khula re tu?!!" (Are you mad?!!). I nodded and pushed off.
From Ranzangaon we headed to Theur. We soon discovered a short route which passed through Koregaon and Lonikand and brought us right in front of the temple at 17:30. We had not only made up the time we lost in Theur, we were now ahead of our schedule. This meant that we would not be staying in Theur but going to Morgaon. We were in Morgaon at 19.15 and my brother decided to press on and visit Siddhatek as well. We had made good time and were by now about a couple of hours ahead of our planned schedule. I had my misgivings about what he was proposing. For I realized this meant we would have to stay the night at Siddhatek and while it is a scenic place, it is a bit oddly placed in the entire Ashtavinayak tour — being entirely off the track and in the middle of nowhere. As a result nobody prefers to stay the night in Siddhatek and consequently there are hardly any places in that village where idiots like us can stay for a night. But my brother pulled rank and said that he had heard there was a tourist hostel being built in Siddhatek and he was confident that it would be ready and that I was just being finicky. "In case it is not ready, we will find something. You just don't want to rough it out . . . " And he made a few more remarks on the same lines. Which are not entirely false — I don't unnecessarily seek discomfort if a comfortable option is easily available. Support for my brother came from an unexpected corner. Our driver, by then had got speed lust in his eyes, "Nobody manages to visit all the eight temples on the same day. That would be some kind of a record, pulling it off." And he said it in a tone that conveyed to my brother that it would be the devout thing to do and he would earn more spiritual brownie points from the almighty for doing it. So . . . my advice of staying at Morgaon was ignored and we pushed ahead to Siddhatek and made it there at 20:50 just in time before the temple closed.
Prayers done, we started looking forward to our dinner and for a place to stay. The first had been easily taken care of. Siddhatek is on the banks of the Bhima river. On the other bank from the village, are huts which provide excellent rustic Maharashtrian fare cooked over wood fires — jowar and bajra bhakris, zunka, thecha (crushed green chilies with seasoning), two vegetables, rice and raw onions — all of it as much as you want and only for Rs. 40 per person. We had placed our orders on our way to the temple. Now we turned our energies to finding a place to stay before walking across the bridge on the Bhima River for our dinners. Our initial inquires got a gleeful response, "There is no place to stay in Siddhatek." Further inquires revealed that the village had only two rooms which were let out to visitors and both of them had been booked already. Our driver helpfully pointed out that he was going to sleep in the car anyways and so it was no problem for him. A local then told us that the new hostel (which my brother had been talking about) was ready but it was not operational as nobody had been found to inaugurate it yet. We decided to take our chances and headed there — and it turned out to be a complex of two structures, the hostel building and a huge hall, the kind used for humongous weddings, next to it. The complex is excellently located, overlooking the Bhima River. We rooted out the caretaker who confirmed what the locals had been telling us all this while — the hostel wasn't operational and in any case it didn't have any beds or any bedding or anything at all inside but for a few lights and ceiling fans. He advised us to go back to Daund, the nearest town, 50 km away —"That might have a lodge." Having passed through Daund enroute to Siddhatek, I wasn't very hopeful. Daund however was also in the direction opposite to the road that we intended to take the next day for Tuljapur. Going to Daund meant "wasting" a 100 km. The nearest town, Baarshi, on the Siddhatek-Tuljapur route, we were told was a 100 km away. I had to exercise a great self-restraint to tide over the urge to bean my brother one on his head. My brother then wheedled a bit with the caretaker, with our driver joining in. The fellow finally agreed to give us a place to stay in the hall next to the hostel. It turned out to be a single room which opened into the huge hall. The hall itself was large enough to accommodate about 2000 people. The bathrooms and other facilities were at the other end of the hall from the room. While our room had a functional lamp and a fan, the hall itself had no electricity. The caretaker also informed us helpfully that due to load-shedding policy of the MSEB, the electricity would conk off at 4:00 AM. Any water for any use had to be ferried from the "kitchen" of the hall. While I looked about grimly, my brother opened further negotiations with the caretaker and he came back to inform me that the fellow had agreed to provide the bedding and make other arrangements while we had our dinner. So we headed across the river for a fine al fresco meal on the banks of the Bhima. When we came back to the room, our driver said he would sleep in the vehicle. Bedding arrived in a few minutes. It turned out to be two thin sheets and one pillow. That, said the caretaker, was all he could manage. The "other arrangements" were in the nature of a bucket and a mug. And a candle and a matchbox. We would need the candle to navigate the hall in the morning. Well, there was nothing but to accept the arrangements. My brother had turned gleeful by then — "like camping out" he kept repeating. I was stoically silent. I took the pillow and asked my brother "to camp out" (and he had the gall to look affronted).
Our tiredness and the excellent dinner ensured we could get some sleep in spite of the thin sheets and the cold. We were up at 5:00 in the morning, finished our baths in the darkness (freezing water), and were driving towards Tuljapur by 06:30 on Friday.
The drive to Tuljapur was highly pleasant — these being roads not much used to traffic and bordered by either farms or open country for most of the way. We passed through Rashin, Karmala, and Baarshi (the only town on that route of any substantial size) but human habitation is generally sparse on this route. Except for an occasional State Transport bus and a tractor or two, there is no traffic. We sighted many birds on this drive — Himalayan pied mynas, kingfishers, drongos and (to my great
surprise) quite a few Indian rollers. We stopped enroute in some village for a breakfast of misal-pav. Except that by the time it reached our table, the pav had been replaced with puris. "The pav is stale,” said the tapri owner, "but the puris are hot and fresh." So misal pav became misal-puri and it was yummy. (Have I ever told you that the Solapur-Kolhapur area serves the best misal in Maharashtra?) Post breakfast we continued towards Tuljapur, and though the road was bad in patches, we covered the 200 odd km to Tuljapur in four hours. We were in Tuljapur by 10:45.
This was my second visit to the town (the first being about three years back, in March 2006) and this one only served to reinforce my low opinion of the town — it is every western cliché about India come true. It is dirty, nay, filthy — the entire town is a dump. The temple premises too are dirty as well as the temple itself. I was surprised and dismayed to find that even the inner sanctum of the temple where the idol of the Tulja-Bhavani resides was also dirty. Devotees offer a concoction of buttermilk, bananas, and sugar to the goddess. Oil is also offered. And powdered turmeric. And all of this is poured over the idol. We had managed to arrange an entry right into the sanctum . . . and was it yucky! All those offerings had spilled over and crushed underfoot. This had been mashed by the feet of the hundreds of devotees who get an entry into the sanctum. And this yucky and slippery stuff was all over the temple. In fact the entire temple is a hazard — one false step (entirely possible in the murky and badly lit interiors of the temple) and somebody might slip and break a bone or two. And it smells worse then it looks. All that buttermilk, and bananas and turmeric and oil combine to give off an odor which will linger in your noses long after you have left Tuljapur. And did I tell you about the crowds? Tuja-Bhavani is the family deity of Shivaji and so is immensely popular in Maharashtra. People come in thousands everyday to visit the temple. On Fridays, which it was when we were in Tuljapur, the crowds double. And the crowd is unruly and caught up in "religious fervor." They mill about the temple and the town and add layers to the filthiness of the town. One day it might take the effort akin to the Herculean cleaning of the Augean stables followed by some excavation to find the real Tuljapur under all that filth. I am immensely surprised that it is so (I have heard that Pandharpur is worse and I don't intend to make a visit to confirm if that is true). Maharashtra takes very good care of its temples — all the Ashtavinayak temples are beautiful and clean and well managed. And here is this temple which probably makes more money than all Ashtavinayak temples put together and look at the state of it. I also wonder what the civic authorities of the town are up to — for this is also a favorite with politicians. Bhavani, with the Shivaji association, is a prestigious visit for a politician to make.
Anyways, we managed to ignore the filth and say our prayers. Or rather my brother could. I was more engaged in keeping one wary eye on where I was standing in the filth and another on the crowds — my brother is as much a devotee as I am a skeptic and he actually managed to close his eyes and pray. In between watching the ruckus created by the crowd and the ensuring that I kept my footing I managed to find a few moments to pay attention what was happening in the sanctum. There were about five assorted priests all engaged in doing different things. One was pouring the aforementioned offerings on the goddess (and ensuring he got some on himself). Two others were singing (bellowing) aartis (different ones) at the same time. One was collecting and counting the money left as offerings by devotees. Another was assisting, with choice curses, the two policemen to regulate the crowd. One of the policemen was adding to the noise by blowing a shrilly whistle.
Was I happy to get out! Out of the temple and out of Tuljapur!
By this time it was only noon and we decided to change our plan of staying in Solapur (which is 45 km away from Tuljapur) and head straight to Kolhapur. We would reach Kolhapur late in the evening, stay the night there, visit the temple for darshan in the morning, and then head home. So off we went. Now the Solapur-Kolhapur route is amongst the most scenic in Maharashtra — virtually the entire road is bordered with green fields of sugarcane, wheat, jowar, bajra. Vegetables and onions also abound as do orchards of pomegranates, chickoos, and vineyards. There is a particular stretch which runs next to a windmill farm up in the hills. And in season, you also find mushroom farms next to the road. I want to do this drive at least once in the rains or just after, when Maharashtra is at its prettiest.
As we headed towards Kolhapur, my sis-in-law called to check on us and to inform us that the petrol pumps were on strike and closed. At that point we had about just enough fuel to reach half way to Kolhapur. If the strike was not called off in the next couple of hours, we would have to stay put somewhere on the state highway.
So instead of admiring the scenery (well, I did a bit of that too), I kept my eyes peeled for a petrol pump which was doing business. Enroute we had some good food at a dhaba (where we were served, apart from a tast chicken curry, an excellently prepared local freshwater fish called "Pankaj." I inquired if that fish was a pet and hence the name and the owner of the dhaba was nonplussed. "Does Pankaj have a surname?" I continued and received a belligerent, "The fish is called Pankaj" in response).
Soon after we did find a petrol pump dispensing fuel and topped up the tank. We now have enough fuel to get us to Kolhapur and nearly to Pune, enroute home, informed our driver. So, if we don't find another petrol pump that will sell us fuel, I told my brother, the Pune-Bangalore highway will be our home tomorrow.
We continued to Kolhapur and made good speed. The road is good and our driver was in rare form. Hours later, around 50-70 Km from Kolhapur, just outside Miraj, we found another petrol pump that was doing business and topped up again. "We now have enough to get us back to Ambernath" our driver informed. At that I noted a speculative look come into my brother's eye. I turned to the driver, and he had the same speculative look. I should have put my foot down then and asked them to stop behaving like idiots on speed. But you know how respectful I am of elders and so I didn't nip the idea forming in their heads in the bud. 30 minutes later when we had halted to pour some tea into ourselves, my brother, and the driver had a summit meeting (from which I was excluded) and then they both turned to me and my brother said, "We should be in Kolhapur by 18:45-19:00. Let us head straight to the temple and if we complete darshan by 20:00, let us head home straight away."
Now let me admit, I wanted to take a leisurely look at Kolhapur in the morning. It is a decent; actually, a beautiful, city, and I had liked it when I had visited it earlier (the same time as my first Tuljapur visit). And I was looking forward to sampling some of the local cuisine and explore Rankala lake and partake some gulkand ice cream which is sold around the lake. And I wanted to photograph the Mahalakshmi temple and Kolhapur in good light. Alas! Our driver, when I put the question to him, said he felt alert and fresh enough to drive back home. A couple of breaks and some tea would suffice. And he added, "It is better to be home and rest at leisure rather than wake up early and then head home." My brother had already started muttering how we could complete the entire trip inside 48 hours. Our driver added his two bits, "Just think! Praying at both the Devi temples in a single day!" And like earlier, he said it in a tone that conveyed to my brother that it would be the devout thing to do and he would earn more spiritual brownie points. He over-ruled my misgivings and protests and it was decided to head home if we complete the darshan by 20:00. Well, if you can't beat them, you join them. My brother, had the gall to question if I could manage the late night? And I smirked, and flicked the non-existent dust off my cuffs (actually there were no cuffs, but there was lots of dust) and said, “You forget, I work for an e-learning company. I work more late nights in a month than you entire office manages in a year." Which turned out to be true — as the journey progressed, I grew more and more alert, while my brother dozed in the back seat of the vehicle.
Anyways, the short of it was I agreed to the plan, pumped up the vehicle's music system and we headed into Kolhapur.
Needless to say, we completed the darshan by 20:00. I should admit the temple looked beautiful in the night. And it is such a more beautiful and clean place compared to Tuljapur. However photography had to take a backseat; I did manage some though. As for my plans to explore some of Kolhapur and sample its fabled cuisine — perhaps some other day.
At 20:20 we turned out of Kolhapur city and pointed the vehicle's nose to Mumbai. I once again jacked up the vehicle's music volume. And our driver, with visions of a speed record, clocked the vehicle at 110 kmph. And kept the speedometer needle there. The Pune-Bangalore national highway is a part of the Golden Quadrilateral project and is in excellent condition. With a single 30-minute halt for some tea and to stretch our legs, we skirted the outskirts of Pune at 23:15. Half an hour later, we hit the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Another 30 minutes and we were off it and into Khopoli where we halted for a late dinner and some more tea. From then on, when we started again in about 45 minutes, we were the only vehicle road on the road. The Khopoli road which goes on to Ambernath via Karjat, Neral, and Badlapur is a lovely drive and has very little traffic even in daytime. At that time of the night, we passed only three vehicles by the time we reached Ambernath. We reached home at 2:15 AM on Saturday. We had completed our entire trip, around 1500 Km, in 45 hours.
I climbed up the stairs and hit the doorbell a couple of times before my bleary-eyed sis-in-law opened the door. "What are you doing back so early? You were supposed to be here on Sunday afternoon," that was even before she had allowed me to step into the home. I realized my brother had neglected to inform her about our change in plans. "Ask your husband," I told her pleasantly. She did and then gave him a tongue-lashing for driving so much, and so fast, in the night. Then she turned to me and said, "And what about you? Couldn't you talk any sense into him?" I paused for a moment, and inquired politely, "Talk sense into your husband?" She accepted that argument.
How was the trip? Largely good. An experience (especially the horror that is Tuljapur) in itself and at least we achieved a speed record. But I prefer not to hurry from one place to another, because then you are just reaching destinations without having traveled at all. One day I would like to retrace this trip (preferably in the monsoons or just after) at a more leisurely pace. I might then even drum up enough courage or curiosity to revisit Tuljapur.
All the pictures:
For readers who are interested in such things, here are the sordid details:
Ashtavinayak: Ambernath – (via Panvel, Vadkhal Naka, along the Mumbai-Goa Highway, Nagothane) Pali – (via Khopoli) Mahad - (via Karjat, Murbad Phata on to Karjat-Murbad Road, Tokwade, Malshej Ghat, Otur) Ozhar – Lenyadri – (via Narayangaon and Junnar) Ranzangaon – (via Koregaon and Lonikand) Theur – Morgaon – (via Daund) Siddhatek.
Siddhatek to Tuljapur: The state highway that starts from Siddhatek and passes through Rashin, Karmala, Baarshi and enters Tuljapur. (If you are not doing the Ashtavinayak trip, take the Solapur road from Pune and take the turn just outside Solapur to Tuljapur)
Tuljapur to Kolhapur: Via Solapur (you drive through the town in about 5 minutes) – Mangalveda – Miraj – Kolhapur.
Kolhapur to Ambernath: Pune-Bangalore Highway to Pune, through Katraj tunnel, to Mumbai-Pune Expressway, Khopoli, Karjat, Neral, Badlapur, Ambernath (Alternatively you can drive down the entire expressway and turn in Mumbai if you stay there, or take the road through Panvel and Shil Phata to Ambernath and the towns around it).
Distance Covered: 1470 Km.
Timings (I noted the timings):
Day 1, Thursday 8th January 2009 (Ashtavinayak)
05:15 - Start from Ambernath to Pali
07:10 - Reach Pali
07:30 - Start for Mahad
08:20 - Reach Mahad
08:40 - Start for Ozhar
11:30 - Reach Ozhar
11:55 - Start for Lenyadri
12:20 - Reach Lenyadri (temple visit + lunch)
13:30 - Start for Ranzangaon
15:45 - Reach Ranzangaon
16:45 - Start for Theur
17:30 - Reach Theur
17:50 - Start for Morgaon
19:10 - Reach Morgaon
19:30 - Start for Siddhatek
20:50 - Reach Siddhatek (stay the night)
Day 2, Friday 9th January 2009 (Siddhatek to Tuljapur, Tuljapur to Kolhapur, Kolhapur to Ambernath)
06:30 - Start from Siddhatek
10:50 - Tuljapur
12:15 - Start for Kolhapur via Solapur
13:40 - 14:35 - Lunch
19:10 - Mahalakshmi Temple, Kolhapur
20:10 - Start for Ambernath
20:20 - Pune-Bangalore highway
22:05 - cross Satara
23:45 - Mumbai-Pune Expressway
Day 3, Saturday 10th January 2009 (Khopoli to Ambernath)
00:15 - Khopoli (halt for dinner)
01:00 - Start for Ambernath
02:15 - Ambernath
Solapur, Tuljapur, Kolhapur, Panhala