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MAHABALESHWAR THE HILL STATION WITH HISTORY

MAHABALESHWAR THE HILL STATION WITH HISTORY
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Mahabaleshwar is one of the highest, largest and most popular hill stations in western India. Set on a plateau, about 4,440 ft high, Mahabaleshwar today has become infamous for its congested centre and tourist bustle, but getaway from the town and the viewpoints offer some spectacular views of hills, valleys and rivers.

The Western Ghats here are lush green and forested, and forms the source of many rivers including the sacred Krishna. One of Mahabaleshwar’s prime appeal is horticulture – it produces excellent berries and stone fruits. Between January and May, families from cities like Mumbai head for Mahabaleshwar on weekends to enjoy the fruits of the harvest with many kiosks coming up to serve
strawberries, raspberries, mulberries or sliced mangos with cream.

We started out from Pune and drove south on the highway to Satara. Before Satara, we turned west for Mahabaleshwar. The road ascended the ghats and presently we came to Panchgani which is known for its convent schools, Parsee houses and colonial bungalows. We took a brief halt at the  park-like Mapro Gardens run by Mapro Foods Pvt Ltd,  with retail outlets selling organic jams, jellies, ice-creams, crushes, dessert toppings and pickles made from the strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, pineapples, custard apples and oranges grown around Mahabaleshwar. Vendors throng Mahabaleshwar selling fresh strawberries with cream, ice-cream or milkshakes, which is as much an attraction for weekenders as the pleasant weather and greenery of this hill resort set in the wettest section of Maharashtra’s Western Ghats. Some of nurseries and orchards along the road also have outlets outside offering fresh strawberries and cream for tourists. Near Panchgani, a paragliding  facility has developed in the open meadows. Most tourists take tandem flights, in which an experienced pilot flies the paraglider with the tourist strapped on as the passenger.

We continued on to Mahabaleshwar where we checked in at Valley View Resort, which is close to the centre yet peaceful, with a location in a garden which, as the name suggests, boasts splendid valley views. We had a vegetarian lunch at the pretty smart restaurant, and strawberry ice-cream for dessert.

We drove from the hotel to the centre where we did not like the look of the garish new buildings. But driving around we also saw  Mahableshwar’s colonial buildings, that stand as reminders of the days when this was the summer capital of the Bombay Presidency – the impressive Government House on Mount Malcolm, Christchurch behind the Makharia Garden, Frere Hall, the Holy Cross Church near the bus stand and the Mahableshwar Club.  Sir Clifton Malet is credited with visiting Mahabaleshwar in 1791 but it was General Peter Lodwick who uncovered its potential as a hill station for troops posted in the hot and dry Deccan or the humid coastal areas of Maharashtra. The Raja of Satara was encouraged by the British officers who began to visit the site to develop the hill resort. Sir John Malcolm who came here at the Raja’s invitation declared it a sanatorium. With the construction of cottages and public buildings of the British, and Indians close to them, specially Parsees, facilities like clubs, a race course and polo grounds developed here.

From here, we set out with a guide for Old Mahableshwar, a pre-colonial village with historic temples built from local stone, one of them with a natural lingam. The guide explained, ‘Mahabaleshwar is an amalgamation of the words, Maha, Bala and Eshwar, literally the powerful and mighty god. Temple building began in or before the 13th century’’.  We drove to the medieval Krishnabhai temple behind which is a tank built in the 13th century by the Yadav dynastic ruler Singhan. This tank is located at the source of one of the streams that forms the Krishna River some distance away, before it flows 1400km through the Western Ghats, across the Deccan, and forms a fertile delta along the Bay of Bengal in Andhra. There are a couple of other temples nearby and in the picturesque countryside near the temple we saw a berry farm. We drove back to Venna Lake in Mahabaleshwar. This is the recreational hub of Mahabaleshwar with stores selling popcorn and chips, boating facilities on the lake, horse riding and a nearby amusement area for children.

Driving into town, we strolled around the main bazaar and tucked into seek kebab, chicken tikka and biryani at one of the eateries. From little shops in the market, we bought honey and fruit preserves to take home as gifts. The next morning, we started on a drive to Pratapgarh fort, about 38 kms away,  which is impressive with a dual wall featuring spiked gateways, corner bastions and  towers with hooks for lanterns. Upstairs is a Shiva temple. The fort is the site for many stories and legends associated with Shivaji, the most famous Maratha ruler. ‘Shivaji and Afzal Khan were to meet for a peace treaty, but the latter came with a knife to stab Shivaji when they greeted each other’, our driver explained. ‘Shivaji had expected this and came wearing tiger claws on his fingers. As soon as Afzal Khan greeted him with an embrace, Shivaji killed him’. The fort commands superb views of the countryside.

The driver took us to a small place serving Marathi meals with koshimbir (a chopped vegetable salad with yogurt and peanuts), pithla (besan curry), bhakri (jowar rotis), bhajis, vangyache bharit (mashed brinjals), rassas (vegetables in a watery tomato curry), varan (dal), and pineapple halwa. We returned to Mahabaleshwar, and after a rest, the driver took us south to Babinton Point overlooking Koyna Valley, and then past a lookout along the edge of the plateau facing a waterfall, to Falkland Point. From here, we continued to Bombay Point which looks west towards the coast. This lookout has expansive views  that covers the fort as well. As evening approached, several taxis and privately owned cars broughts hordes of tourists to this point. Standing around, they waited patiently to witness the sunset in the west, one of Mahabaleshwar’s most popular attractions.
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