Monday, September 11, 2006

Rajgadh Fort Trek

The last time I was supposed to go trekking, I woke up an hour after the scheduled leaving time. This time, I was at the station nearly an hour earlier; won't be repeating that mistake in a hurry! Immediately saw the implications of that, though, as the first new person in the group I met immediately identified me as "You're the guy who fell asleep last time!"
Ouch. My new identity.

This one is a place called Rajgadh, the King of Forts. You'll see why, soon enough.
It's around 40 km southwest from Pune, and over 1350 feet high (at the fort base; the actual fort rises through several hundred feet more.) It was Shivaji's favourite fort, and he spent nearly 25-30 years here.
We left for Pune, taking the slow passenger so that we wouldn't have to spend on the unnecessary luxury of a lodge; sleep in the train and head straight out. Immediately ran into a problem; what happens when you put 21 excited twentysomethings in a confined space out of home on a friday night? Never mind us, the entire coach didn't sleep till midnight.

Hit Pune at 4 AM, piled up luggage on platform, and took shifts guarding it while the rest headed for the loos. N didn't like the look of the station loo, so off we go into the night searching for a lodge where we can get the watchman to open a loo for us. While the rest queued up for a foul station loo on the platform, N, M, and I sat in in plush AC lobby on sofas. Hehe.
Came back and found platform bereft of all Nature Knights. Located them at the ST stop where were soundly berated for going AWOL and endagering the mission.

The base camp village is called Velha. Literal translation - The Village At A Loose End With Nothing To Do.
Power breakfast and a quick series of photo ops where we compared ourselves to N, who stands six foot eight and therefore has a tendency to make small children - or grown-ups, for that matter - cry if seen too suddenly. There's a model of the fort in the village, and a small museum of Shivaji memorabilia / paraphernalia. Mostly photographs of the fort, but some interesting stuff like a medieval spear, and a chain-mail undershirt thingy that weighed 12 kgs.
Man, I'd have hated to be the local dhobi in those days.

Started walking up in bright sunshine, which was a nice mix of flat path, rough climbs (tough enough for railings to be installed along it at parts. You have to admire this about the Maharashtrians - if there is anything anywhere in Maharashtra - be it on the highest, most inaccessible mountain (in fact, the tougher the journey, the more pride they'll take in testing themselves doing it) - they'll be there. You can bet any amount on picking any mountain at random, and climbing up - whether or not there'll be anything else there, there will definitely be a Bhagwa flag.
Another learning - more than the trail, it's the weather that determines the trek. The easiest trek becomes a killer in the blazing sun. We took several breaks, admiring cloud formations - check out this one, a perfect heart shape - hopefully, it's a message from the chappie Upstairs telling me Good Times are coming my way.
Any trek - unless it's a really small group, or a military outfit - quickly breaks into 2 groups. The vanguard will forge ahead, taking fewer breaks, walking faster, and getting to the goal; the rearguard will stroll, admire the sights, rest, chat, and join up later. We decided not to fight it this time and split up right at the beginning.
As usual, I ended up in the front; I don't get it. Why does someone like me, who's entire philosophy of life can be (somewhat uncharitably) summed up as laziness, always end up the trailblazer? The funny thing was even the trailblazers took a remarkably easygoing trip. Walk, stop, rest. Have water. Take snaps. Read a book, take a nap.
Yeah, for a while we actually sprawled out and slept on the trail!
I swear, you will never ever appreciate a six-inch square patch of shade and warm water in your life if you don't climb a 45-degree slope for half an hour under a ten-kilo knapsack before reaching it.

All forts have several entrances - the grand majestic edifice of a gate that's mostly used to attract the enemy like moths to the flame, where they can cluster around it while the defenders happily pour arrows, spears, stones, boiling oil, burning sulphur, human waste, and assorted other pleasantries on their heads. Then, bored of the entire proceedings, they let them break through the gate - into a ravine carefully concealed behind it. If you want to be a fort designer, you have to have the kind of mind that the creator of The Itchy And Scratchy Show has.
There's also the small, inconspicuous, big-enough-for-one-person-at-a-time entrance called the chor darwaza, which is the real deal. That's where we entered Rajgadh from, after a 3-hour climb.
We were immediately greeted by 3 kids with jars of cool chass (buttermilk) which is the nearest you can get to ambrosia without actually dying first.
Right in front of us was a big freshwater reservoir, icy cool and crystal clear. This, by Sahyadri Fort standards, makes Rajgadh officially a 5-star fort. Washed up, sat in the verandah of a building, opened our packs and ravenously wolfed down everything edible we saw, from theplas to bread to fruit to shrikhand to chocolates. Then realized we were carrying the bulk of the food, which meant there was a good chance we'd eaten not only the others' lunch, but their dinner and breakfast as well.
There were 2 other groups there - some people from Kolhapur, and a Datamatics team from Pune. The place was buzzing. We immediately staked out our squatting rights in the Padmavati Devi temple, which is the only decent place to stay - dry stone floor, walls, roof.
What more do you need?
Things to carry - a plastic sheet, or ticks will come up through the floor and feast on you. A foam mat (available from any car accessories store, where it's used as car flooring) to sleep on, or your body cramps up; and a sheet, or you shiver all night. Total cost - 100 bucks at most. Or you can buy a sleeping bag which will weigh twice as much and cost at least ten times as much. And water, odomos, 1 change, a windcheater, and a cap. Camera of course mandatory, all else optional.
While the rest of the group made it's way up, we started off exploring the fort. It's a beautiful place. The central hub is called Bale Kila, nearly 500 feet high and sitting in the center like the head of a titan three-armed octopus. The three arms reach out like a Mercedes symbol and are called, respectively, Padmavati Machi, Suvela Machi, and Sanjivani Machi. Each one has a double wall, moats, and is constructed along the natural elevation in such a way that an enemy can breach the defenses not just once, but twice and thrice, and still the defenders would be able to fight him just by gradually moving up. It's a nested-loop fort. Every time you conquer a rampart, breach a wall, cross a moat, there's another one immediately behind it filled with soldiers enthusiatically throwing everything they got at you.
Demoralizing for any attacker.

And as good as the architecture are the views. We were there in bright sunshine, so you could see a massive patch of the Sahyadris spread out all around; but there was also fascinating effects created by the sun and clouds across the vistas. Check this out. The sun pouring through like liquid gold onto just one village.
Someone there must have been really praying for a nice tan...
When this is seen from the ground, they call it Fingers-Of-God, spread out over the sky.
Another nice effect - every cloud has a silver lining, and this one was incandescent. The pic is just a pale copy; you had to be there, in the cool, dry, breathless sunshine, in the complete silence and the crystal air to be a part of it.
You can also see a whole lot of other forts from here - Torana, Raigadh, Lingana, Sinhagadh, Bhatgadh... and in clear air, Mahabaleshwar, Tung, Visapur...

We also chilled out for a while getting a piscine pedicure. The fort is full of little reservoirs (and some not so little) filled with little fish, mostly wild guppies, mollies and loaches - and if you stick your feet in, they feast off the dead skin and dirt like piranhas.
Incredible feeling, especially if you're ticklish.
S also found a microscopic, transluscent green spider. Now, NatGeo always teaches how the more bright and colorful something is, the more likely it is to be dangerously poisonous. That's why she's the one holding it and I'm taking the snap.
(Sorry, S! Hehehe...)
Here's us striking a Titanic Pose towards the sunset.
This is S practicing Zen and the Art of Spiritual Photography.
This is A figuring out the purpose of the weird quasi-religious construct (it used to be a pointer; each pipe would show you one of the other visible forts. But some drunk guy must have sat on it, 'coz all it shows now is a cloud, a bit of the gravel, and a random bit of hillside)
This is a nice silhouette photo.

We were planning to head out to the Sanjeevani Machi and see the sunset from there, but as we walked through the door, it was like walking into a different world. Sudden, complete, and deliciously chilly mist. And a little rain. Finally went back to Padmavati Machi, where we saw the sun go down, and then spread out our mats, had a dinner of military-issue food packs of rajma, dal, bread, and khajur. Little silver packets, and you just dump it in boiling water. Bingo! Instant delicious dish!
After dinner, most went to sleep; some of us stayed up, outside in the moonlight, chatting, telling filthy jokes, and listening to the caretakers sing marathi folk songs till midnight. Magical doesn't even begin to describe that night.
6 AM. Sunrise. Standing there on the edge, in the cold wind, watching the sky slide from blue to pink to soft gold to brilliant, dazzling white. You could see for miles, and the morning mists lying among the lower foothills gave the place a very... Lord Of The Rings feel.
Also realized that the Padmavati Mandir had been build exactly aligned to the sun, so that the first rays would fall exactly on the idol.

The rest of the morning, we explored the rest of the fort, seeing monkeys, rock-climbing, and generally chilling and munching on healthy little snacks.
Some interesting things to see & do -
A doorway where the sun never comes.
Either a giant monkey or a tiny guide.
Viagramukh, because after climbing 1800 feet you might need help getting something else up.
A little touch of Easter Island.
Moss ecology. Moss never grows in polluted places; check out the growth here!
Guess what this is. Most interesting answer gets a lifetime free subscription to this blog, and a pack of Orbit White from me.

The return trip, after chai and breakfast (which included canape-type things made of a Marie biscuit, cornflake-type crispies, raisings, honey, and dates - a Rajgadh Original Dish) we started heading back. We took a different route this time, through a much lesser-used forest path. Few minutes in, it was easy to see why; this was another class of adventure. Places where walking was impossible in the loose, dry, sixty-degree slopes; you had to slide down on your ass. K wanted to photograph a butt parade when we got back... never happened, unfortunately.

We slipped, scraped, scrambled, slid, scrabbled, and skidded down, over dirt, rock, grass, bushes, thorns, trees, and ropes; we ripped and repaired shoes, with glue and string; and we ended up with cuts, bruises, scrapes, slashes, pokes, scratches and HUGE smiles at the bottom. We went through endless forests of kichad and thorns, drank and washed up in the streams flowing down, took breaks in clearings drinking chass (God bless you Amul for prepackaged chass above all else) and even finished the last bit developing a completely new style of carrying the extra bags, when V's asthma became advanced to the point where he was having serious difficulty carrying the backpack.

The trek ended with a bang - frantic lunch, race in the jeeps for the highway, an extraordinary stroke of luck getting a Pune ST bus immediately, reaching the Volvo departure point exactly on time, finding a bus delay, and feasting on anjeer and litchi ice cream. And finally, when the bus arrived, a long, quiet, relaxed drive back to Bombay, watching Munnbhai MBBS.
Awesome. Simply awsome.
Nature Knights, you rock!

See the slideshow here
Download the snaps here



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