The Western Ghats are recognised as biodiversity hotspots by UNESCO and other organisations. The rich, tropical, moist, deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen forests covering much of this mountain system is home to a great floristic and faunal diversity.
During the monsoon, the Sahyadri hills of the Western Ghats range in Maharashtra can be exciting to explore – attractive flowers, brilliantly coloured butterflies, birds in beautiful breeding plumage, lush forests and mighty waterfalls are the main lure, and this is combined with good road systems and other infrastructure that make travel comfortable even when the Southwest Monsoon is active.
Some lesser-known hilly destinations are stunningly beautiful in the monsoons in Maharashtra and offer one of the most romantic views of nature. The Konkan coastal strip along with the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, along with the twin cities of Mumbai and Pune, are the best places to explore in the rains, offering beaches, Forts, lush green hills, waterfalls, wildlife and delicious Konkani seafood.
Visit the Cantonment or Camp area of Pune and you find colonial buildings, the Race Course started in the 1830s and popular during the racing season with its famous Derby, and other reminders of its past, as the monsoon headquarters of the Raj in western India. Explore Koregaon Park and you see the international spiritual scene of the Osho International Meditation Resort, ashrams, spiritual centres and cafes. And in the heart of the city is the Pune of the Peshwas, full of historical monuments and old bazaars. We took a room at Vivanta by Taj Blue Diamond on the road to Koregaon Park. Since it was raining, we drove around Pune to enjoy hot and spicy streetfood like Misal Pav, pav Bhaji, poha, dabeli, bhelpuri and paani puri. For dinner, we had Sukha Mutton, Bharli Vangi or stuffed brinjals, Kombdi cha Gawran rassa and other dishes associated with the Peshwas of Pune, ending with the Amrakhand. Traditional food includes Puran Poli (a dessert bread), Pithla bhakri, Mastani, a thick milkshake containing dried fruit, and Bakarvadi, a crispy snack.
From Pune, the highway to Kolhapur runs south at an altitude of about 700m through spectacular scenery and sometimes good forest. The historical Purandhar Fort, off the highway, has a formidable curtain wall pierced by three gateways and strengthened by bastions. Wai has an attractive riverfront lined with temples, and further ahead is Satara which has museums dedicated to Maratha history and Shivaji. The temples at Mahuli and the historical buildings of the Satara Cantonment are worth seeing.
Further ahead of Satara, detour to the Kaas Plateau, locally called Kaas Pathar, known for its astounding diversity of plants. During the monsoon months, the plants are in flower with the flowering season peaking in August and September. Apart from the high concentration of flowers, the views of mist-shrouded hills and hill forts, and impressive waterfalls, make Kaas a must-visit destination during the June to September rains.
Located about 1,200 metres above sea level, the plateau covers around a thousand hectares and is said to get its name from the Kaasa tree which is abundant here. It is one of the sites in the Western Ghats that has been identified by UNESCO for Biodiversity World Heritage Site status. It has been reported that over 850 species of plants most of them flowering have been identified in this region, many of them on IUCN’s list of endangered species including some endemics only found in the open plateaus and moist forested areas of Toseghar, Chalakewadi, Kaas and Bamnoli in Satara Tehsil, and nearby Koyna. The area is good for nature walks in the cloudy weather, looking for orchids, yellow, pink and purple flowers, including Smithia, Sonki, Balsam and Karvi, as well as endemic geckos, brightly coloured frogs, larks, buntings and butterflies. South of the plateau, the Kaas Lake lies amid woodlands, while nearby are the Sajjangarh fort and the Kanher Dam. Don’t miss a visit to the Thosegarh and Vajarai Falls, which are impressive in the monsoons.
From Kaas, the highway continues to the princely city of Kolhapur which has grand palaces and other monuments. Near Kolhapur, Panhala’s historical hilltop fort has become the centre for a minor hill station that offers good views of the hills.
The Kolhapur – Ratnagiri Highway goes through picturesque hilly landscapes before reaching Amba Ghat, a mountain pass where a few resorts have developed in recent years among evergreen and semi-evergreen forests where you can spot hornbills, barbets and other birdlife, butterflies and small mammals. Amba makes an ideal base to visit historic places like Vishalgad, which is a fort with the Dargah of the venerated Hazrat Malik Raihan Baba, which attracts pilgrims and the memorials of Maratha martyrs like Baji Prabhu Deshpande and Phulaji Prabhu Deshpande, who defended the Pawankind pass with 300 soldiers against the enormous forces of the Adil Shahi Sultans, enabling Shivaji to escape the blockade at Panhala and reach Vishalgad. After the battles of Pawankind and Vishalgad between the Adilshahi forces and Shivaji’s warriors in July 1660, the Marathas were recognized as the independent power in the Deccan.
Safaris to Pawankind are typically offered in jeeps with mattresses on top so you can look into the surrounding undergrowth for birds and small mammals. The drivers stop at scenic points like Wagzhara, Konkan Point and Eco Point. The hills between Amba and Pawankind are good for trekking and mountaineering. Treks in the forests can yield sightings of Western Ghats specialties like Malabar grey hornbill, pied hornbill, crimson backed sunbird, yellow-browed bulbul, black bulbul, speckled piculet, Malabar crested lark, Malabar whistling thrush and scimitar babbler. The fruiting season can be specially good for hornbills, brown-headed barbet and even the Nilgiri wood pigeon. Gaur or Indian bison, civet, jungle cat and other mammals, as also nocturnal birds like dusky eagle owl, can be spotted at night when driving in the area. There are many flowers like the Karvi which make this area productive for butterfly spotting.
South of Amba Ghat towards Sindhudurg, the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary is located between Shahusagar and Laxmisagar reservoirs. This forest is an important bird area and habitat for many mammals. Radhnagari Sanctuary and Chandoli National Park in this area of southwestern Maharashtra are notified as part of the Western Ghats World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Travelling south to the sea coast, you come to the historic city of Ratnagiri with the sea coast to its west and the hills along its eastern boundaries. Driving from Ratnagiri to Pune or Mumbai, Chiplun is a popular stop on this highway with good resorts by the Vashishti River and a Parshuram Temple. Further ahead, a beautiful road turns off the highway at Khed for Dapoli passing through a lovely landscape of lush green hills with streams and small falls. Dapoli is about 240m high looking out to a long seaboard densely covered with coconut palms. There are some good beaches like Murud Harnai that can be enjoyed here. Harnai is one of the busiest seafood market towns in Maharashtra, supplying much fish and crustaceans to the cities.
From Dapoli we drove to Mangaon where we stopped for lunch. Must try are the fish thali and chicken thali with wade, bhakri or chapatis, coupled with rice and sol kadi. The curries are Malwani style, the surmai fish fry and masala were fresh and spicy. We then turned on the road going past Mulshi, Paud and Lavale to Pune – the drive was breathtakingly beautiful in the rains, with views of waterfalls and seasonal streams.
PUNE TO MUMBAI
We drove out in the morning to the car park about halfway up the Karla hills. Fortunately, though it was overcast, there was no rain during our 110m climb to the Buddhist cave, considered the high watermark of Buddhist rock-cut architecture. Most of the hordes climbing the steps with us, though, were heading for the Ekviri shrine, mainly revered by Kolis.
The steps are lined with vendors offering toys and trinkets, prayer objects and flowers for offering the goddess, nimboo pani, soft drinks and food items. The climb, that took nearly half-an-hour, was rewarded by the sight of one of the most impressive rock cut cave temples I have ever seen, with a towering façade crowned by a chaitya (horseshoe shaped arch window), a tall column carved with lions on its left, and a porch with panels of carved figures. The high-ceilinged interior was deep and rounded at the back, with a monolithic stupa carved out at the centre. The columns rise to fluted capitals with elephants mounted by riders. There were very few visitors to the cave but the Ekvira temple was full of devotees.
We descended to the car park, and drove past the caves junction at the highway to Malavli beyond which is Bhaja Caves. Dating to the 2nd century BC, they are among the oldest cave complexes in India. Though atmospheric, the caves were largely plain without much ornamentation, but it was interesting to see the stupas. The last cave had some superb carvings on the front porch and a view of the fort.
We caught the Yashwantrao Chavan Mumbai Pune Expressway) and drove up to Khandala, made even more famous then it always had been by the Bollywood number `Aati Kya Khandala’, to enjoy the panorama of an amphitheatre of hills, including the famous Duke’s Nose, and a waterfall. The waterfall is most impressive in the rains. As if on cue, the rains started while we stood looking out at the hills from the public park.
WHERE TO STAY:
PUNE: Fort Jadhavgadh is a luxurious resort outside town, set in historical walls and enjoying panoramic views of the hills.
KAAS: Kaas Holiday Resort and Nivant Hill Resort are resorts near the plateau.
AMBA GHAT: Try the Jungle Resort. CHIPLUN: Riverview Resort is superbly located with hill and river views.
DAPOLI: Fern Samali is a superbly located resort that offers 16 cottages.