Thursday, October 02, 2014

Shivaji Forts (Pratapgarh & Raigarh)

We started by 9 AM from Tapola and had to pass through Mahabaleshwar. We reached Pratapgarh by 11 AM and it already had a large crowd. The Dusherra long weekend is favorite time for tourists to be out. We chose to have a guide who assured us that we can cover the fort in 1.5 hours to have enough time. The guide was very knowledgeable and narrated stories of Shivaji's era and the heroics and exploits of his time. This fort is famous for encounter between Shivaji and Afzal Khan where Shivaji out smarted him and killed him. The story of this encounter is a legend and part of text-books so known to everyone raised in Maharashtra.  The guide was narrating the story in chaste Marathi and it was delight to hear him. One could make out certain exaggerations because of the legends having been retold over the years but it was enjoyable. There is a larger than life statue of Shivaji riding his horse at the top of the fort. There is another vantage point of the fort which looks over a forested valley called Jawali-che khore (meaning valley of Jawali forest) where the battle with Afzal Khan's army was fought. The small house where Afzal Khan stayed while attacking Pratapgarh and where the actual meeting took place and Shivaji killed Afzal Khan is still preserved. The remains of Azfal Khan are buried over there. 
Pratapgarh fort from a distance
The iconic burj of Pratapgarh fort with flag of Hindavi Swarajya

Burj overlooking Jawali-che khore

Statue of Shivaji inside Pratapgarh

We left Pratapgarh and drove to Raigarh via Mahad. Mahad is a town on NH-17 Mumbai-Goa highway. Raigarh is 23 kms from Mahad and is interior in the countryside. The fort itself is not easy inaccessible. One has to either trek for four hours or there is a ropeway which takes one to top in 5 minutes. Due to this easy way most of the people take ropeway but due to limited capacity one has to wait for their turn. The charge is 200/- per person. We reached the foot of the fort by 3 PM but had to wait for 45 minutes for our turn. 
Ropeway to Raigarh. Notice the port at the top.
Red trolley

Starting point
Blue Trolley
Ground station of Trolley
Trolley going down

We were in the fort by 4PM and planned to come back by 5:30PM to catch the ropeway back to ground. We again hired a guide having had a good experience at Pratapgarh. This guide too took us to all the important places and narrated the story of Shivaji's coronation. The fort was magnificent but it was destroyed in heavy shelling by some British army general in 1811. Shivaji ascended to throne of Hindavi Swarajya (since then Chhatrapati title is put in honor) in 1674 and died in 1680 in the same fort. 

About Raigarh fort
The main structures inside the Raigad Fort, which today stands mostly in ruins, comprise of Queen's quarters, public Durbar, watch towers, Darwaza etc. The Queen's quarters consist of six chambers, meant one for each of Shivaji's wives. The main palace situated inside the fort was largely constructed out of wood. However, apart from its base, made up of stone pillars, hardly anything else remains. The fort at that time had even a market called Baazarpeth meaning market place where shops were a little raised due to patrons shopping while seated on horsebacks. Takmak Tok is a point of punishment where valley is deep and once somebody is dropped has no hope of surviving.

The place or rock on which sat his throne is still there and now a huge statue sits there which was inaugurated by none other than Jawahar Lal Nehru. At this time, the guide became so immersed in his act that he tried to picture the scene of the day the ceremony was taken up at 5AM in the morning. Legend says that on that day hundreds of people congregated on the fort and entire fort was illuminated by mashals in pre-dawn. There are several other anecdotes which our guide told and again it was highly enjoyable. The area of the fort is huge but we could not visit that due to lack of time and we decided to return back. 
Queen's quarters
Public Durbar and Nagarkhana Darwaza
Statue of Shivaji
While we were in queue for ropeway and few places behind to board a huge squall took over the area, dark clouds came in and it started raining. The ropeway had to be stopped due to high winds and lightning. The temperature dropped and lot of people including us with a kid felt the cold and were completely unprepared for it. Finally after the excruciating wait of 1.5 hours the ropeway finally started while the lighting and rain was still going on. We came to ground by 7:30 PM. After having a sigh of relief we had another challenge whether to stay back in Mahad or go back to Pune. We decided to go back to Pune but instead of taking the normal road I decided to go upto Panvel near Mumbai and take the expressway thinking that road would be good, fast but was disappointed. The road NH-17 was broken and had diversion or single lane at many places. I wondered when on earth can we have all weather roads in India. However, the FM channels of Mumbai kept us company. We had sumptuous dinner on the highway. After having dinner and this being Saturday and the lure of sleeping in our own bed and getting up on holiday made me to enjoy the drive. Finally reached home by 1:30AM in the night but it was worth rather than stay back at some unknown hotel in a town.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Satara (Sajjangarh, Thoseghar, Chalkewadi and Tapola)

In the long weekend of 2nd Oct we decided to go nearby places which we haven't been to yet. Satara is a district close to Pune but was mostly overlooked by us when planning for any vacation with old age adage that paas mein hi toh hai, kabhi bhi dekh lenge (it is close we can visit any time). So this time I planned to explore places around it. I chalked out itinerary to visit Satara, Tapola and Raigarh. Satara is a town and around it are a Sajjangarh fort, Thoseghar waterfall and a huge wind-farm Chalkewadi. Tapola is located at backwaters of Shivaji Sagar lake formed by Koyna dam. This backwater is 70 km long and Tapola is almost at the tip, 30 kms from Mahabaleshwar. Raigarh is the fort which was Shivaji's palace where he was anointed as Chatrapati or King of "Hindavi Swaraj". 

On the first day, we started for Satara in the morning by 9:30 AM and comfortably reached our hotel by 1:00PM. After lunch we set out to explore the sights. Sajjangarh, Thoseghar and Chalkewadi are on same road around 25-30 km from Satara which was very convenient. The drive was very enjoyable with gentle ghats and rolling hills, greenery and view of valley right after monsoon. 
Rolling hills on the way to Sajjangarh, Thoseghar, Chalkewadi
We passed by Sajjangarh, Thoseghar and straight went to Chalkewadi to check it out first. I wasn't expecting much but it turned out to be quite something. After passing Chalkewadi village the windmills made their appearance. After climbing a little bad road we came to a plateau and then realized why this place finds its name in travel guide books. There are hundreds of windmills dotted on the landscape. We parked our car under a huge windmill which was making whooshing sound on even mild wind. 
A huge windmill overlooking a valley
Several windmills dotting the landscape
Wild flowers on the plateau

The surrounding was quite pleasant with mild sun, breeze and small wild flowers. Its rare that we city folks find ourselves in such open surroundings, hear the sound of wind. I was not satisfied standing under a single windmill so drover a little further inside. There are no paved roads and surprisingly no one around. Look at some boards it seem some of the them belongs to TATA power. The place is quite photogenic if somebody can do justice to it.
Windmills up close
Only if we could hook up a wind mill on the cars!
In the interest of time and setting sun we left the place and came to Thoseghar waterfall. Its a narrow and tall waterfall and still had lot of water left. It has couple of streams creating a small pool at the bottom. One needs to climb down a little to get to the vantage point. After customary photos we left came back on the road. 
Thoseghar fall with a pool at the bottom

The main stream
another stream and the valley
There was a local tea stall selling "gavti" means "grass" tea. Its a special herb tea which was quite refreshing. After that we left for Sajjangarh and was hoping to catch sunset from the fort. The fort sits on top of a hill and could be viewed from same level from adjacent hills. From parking its a small climb to the entrance. The fort is home to Swami Samarth Teerth and has a temple, ashram, pupils and proper Deeksha kendra. Beyond the temple precincts lies what I was looking for, the open space and view of the sunset. At the tip of the fort there is a Hanuman temple. The sun was about to set and we watched it in all the hues gently.
Sajjangarh from a distance
Main entrance
Sun rays at another gate
View of the Shivaji Sagar lake on sunset
Visitors soaking in the sunset
Next day we started for Tapola. The route goes through interiors through gentle hills and winding roads and the drive is enjoyable. The famous Kaas plateau is also on this road. There was sizable crowd and long parking so we did not stop. We had visited Kaas plateau last year. We went past Kaas plateau and came to Kaas lake. Its a serene lake with clear water. Good place for picnic and splash water on each other. 
Kaas lake
After spending some time we went beyond on the road which is a winding road. Soon we could see the backwaters of the Shivaji sagar lake. We stopped at several places to take in the view. The road has almost no vehicle. 
Kaas-Tapola road
Lake view on Kaas-Tapola road
We reached our resort which is on the edge of the lake. The lake shore is dotted with resorts which also provide water sports activity and have cottage or tented accomodation. We had opted for a tented accommodation which was decent. After lunch went for water sports. The have provision for water scooter, kayaking, paddle boat and motor launch. I tried kayaking and went a little deep. The water is gentle and calm and it was nice being in the middle of the lake holding still. Life jackets are provided. 

Backwater at Tapola
Kayaking at Tapola
Ride on motorboat is also available
Dark clouds engulf Tapola
In the evening it started raining which played a little spoilsport. I was looking forward to view the sky from this clean surroundings but alas. I made certain enquiry and figured that Pratapgarh fort is doable in couple of hours while going to Raigarh fort. It is around 15 km from Mahabaleshwar towards Raigarh. So, next days plan was fixed.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nilgiri Mountain Railway & Ooty

Ooty aka (Udhagamandalam) was chosen as venue for annual convention of rail enthusiasts for 2014. Ooty is arguably the most popular hill station in southern India. It is nestled in Nilgiri hills or Blue mountains. It derives its name from eucalyptus trees which grow on these hills. About the reason for these hills to be called "blue" mountains, quoting from wikipedia,

The Nilgiri hills have a history going back a good many centuries. It is not known why they were called the Blue Mountains. Several sources cite the reason as the smoky haze enveloping the area, while other sources say it is because of the kurunji flower, which blooms every twelve years giving the slopes a bluish tinge.

However for rail enthusiasts its main attraction is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) which is a UNESCO World heritage site. 
UNESCO World Heritage plaque
The line is meter gauge and starts from Mettupalayam (MTP) to Udhagamandalam (UAM). The line has two main sections one from Mettupalayam to Conoor and other from Conoor to Ooty. The first section is special reason being that it has special rails; there is a rack rail in the center of the rails. This is laid to provide support to the train going uphill. 
Rack rail in the middle of tracks

The locomotives are special with a separate pair of wheel arrangement to engage with rack. This arrangement is similar to the rack system one can see in joyrides in any entertainment park. The locos for first section are X class locos. These locomotives run on steam. Earlier they were coal-fired but they have slowly been converted to oil-fired. The earlier aroma of burning coal is now replaced with diesel fumes which we encounter everyday in cities, however steam is the saving grace. This was my first time to Ooty and on NMR so was very excited to ride on this train.

My route to Ooty was taking train from Pune to Chennai then overnight train to Mettupalaym (MTP) in Coimbatore and finally the NMR to Ooty. There is only one train which goes to Ooty in the morning @ 7AM. The overnight train from Chennai to MTP connects to this train. One can also come to Coimbatore and then travel to MTPto catch this train.

There were lot of people from our group traveling in this train, so morning time before the train departed was exciting. Mettupalayam station and shed near it is full of heritage. Everyone was clicking snaps and trying to take in as much of the locomotive and surrounding as possible. The coaches of this train are all old style wooden still working. There is simple bench like seating and each bay has its own door. The braking system of the train is also remarkable. Each coach has to be braked separately. Due to this there is a brakeman standing at the front of each coach. There is a sense of pride in people working on this line as was seen by their smart dresses and discipline.
X-Class steam locos of Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR)

Destination Board of the train
The train pulled out a little after 7AM. The train chugs its way up the hills and has several curves. Lot of people were peeking out of windows, taking pictures and videos and watching the hard working engine puffing out smoke & steam. This being winter time and golden sun peeping through the foliage was so soothing. The rack section starts from the first station called Kallar. The train stopped at each station to refill water which gave ample opportunity for people to get down, roam around, take in the sun and have some refreshments.The station themselves are quaint & from bygone era. When its not looking at the train, one can at the beautiful hills.
First stop at Kallar station

First Class coach of the train. Note the seating and door for each bay
Leaving Kallar station
This is a video of locomotive chugging away

One of the tunnels enroute
People admiring the ride and beauty of Nilgiri hills
Hillgrove station
Old style station notices
Passengers taking break at Hillgrove station
Leaving Hillgrove station
Assistant filling water in the loco
Runnymede station
Beautiful valley in Nilgiri Hills
We reached Conoor where the locomotive is changed from steam to diesel. This section does not have much elevation so does not have rack system. From here startsthe stations which are all familiar in our movies. Lovedale. Ketti station is where the famous last scene of Sadma was shot. This was told by our coach's brakeman. Wellington has staff college of Indian military. The train has featured in several Indian movies like Mera Naam Joker, Sadma, Dil Se & even hollywood movie A passage to India.

We reached Ooty by 12 PM. We were going to stay at Hotel Monarch which is situated at the top of a hill. Incidentally it is owned by Mithun Chakravarthy. After freshening up we went for a little sightseeing. There are usual points like any other hill station. First one was Doddabetta peak which is highest point of Ooty. One can see far and wide from this point but only if the sky is clear which sadly was not the case for us. After that we went to Botanical garden. It has lot of different type of trees, shrubs and orchids. The garden was curated by an englishman in 1800s. It was quite beautiful. It would have been better had it been a little sunny. Next point was Ooty lake which was typical lake in hill station. We walked through the market and streets of Ooty which were crowded selling woolens and other artifacts. There's a fountain at the central square there.
View from Doddabetta peak
Ferns and flowers inside glasshouse 

Apart from eucalyptus, Nilgiri hills are known for their tea estates. Tea, eucalyptus (and other herbal) oil and homemade chocolates are the main things to buy from this place and are available everywhere. Don't know whats the origin of homemade chocolates. There are several shops selling different variety of tea and chocolates and have similar rates. Plastic is banned in Ooty so they pack these things in paper covers.

On third day of convention we had a field trip going from Ooty to Conoor and back. At Conoor we managed to visit Sims park which has trees from all over the world. Here witnessed a little action of the NMR again. The X-class steam loco was going to be attached to the downhill train to Mettupalayam. The loco was going to come of the shed, reverse and then attach.

This is a video of locomotive attaching to the train

The last day of the trip was good. Ooty could get very cold as I experienced. But on last day sun was out since morning. It turned out there is a tea garden right beside the hotel with a small road circling it. I went on the road soaking in the sun and gorging on the view of sloping tea garden. The real beauty of Nilgiri hills was visible from vantage point of our hotel. Undulating hills making valleys filled with mist and haze.
Ooty hills in mist and haze
In the afternoon everyone started their return journey. I hitched ride with a group to Bangalore. The road winds and passes through Mudumalai and Bandipur sanctuaries. Deer were so common to spot but it is not allowed to stop and take pictures. Instead of going  through Mysore, passed through Ramanagar etc and avoided the sunday evening rush from Mysore to Bangalore which was good decision. Next day flew back to Pune and back to the grind.