Friday 29 January 2016

10 Things to Buy from Mahabaleshwar.

Luscious strawberries at the Mahabaleshwar market
I had been to Mahabaleshwar for the first time in December 2009 but I had not started travel blogging then. My second trip to the charming hill-station in Maharashtra brought back fond memories and also an opportunity to explore and shoot many pictures keeping in mind my travel blog.

Last Sunday, I had been for a refreshing strawberry picking trip organized by The Western Routes, after which we headed out to the Mahabaleshwar market. While I’ll be writing a post about my strawberry picking experience, here’s a must-buy list in the Mahabaleshwar market.

The market runs for over a kilometer on both sides of a narrow lane and was bursting with colours. While I walked almost the entire stretch of the market, I identified a few things that one should or could pick up which are unique to the region.
Strawberries and black raspberries. 
Strawberries: Well, that’s the obvious 1st on the list. If you are going to the farm to pick strawberries, you could buy some from the market. The strawberry season is from October to April and strawberries were pretty cheap at Rs 120 per kg compared to Pune, where it is sold for Rs 320 a kilo. I also bought some black raspberries, which are not available in Pune.
Crunchy, bright and fresh carrots and red radishes. 
Farm fresh carrots and radish: If you look at the picture of these carrots and radishes, you will know how irresistible they are and how hard it is not to buy them. I used them in cooking and salads, and they were absolutely delicious.
Imtiaz bhai, the wood crafter with his wares. 

Some of his creations. 
Wooden items: I saw an old man carving something on wood, so I walked upto him and had a chat. Imtiaz, the artisan told me that the wood is sourced locally and is called Bhurkhadi and Lokhadi (these are the phonetic spellings of the local names as I couldn’t get the English ones). His entire family is involved in making these wooden items, different members involved in different activities like cutting the wood, polishing it, carving on it, etc. They are also invited to participate in exhibitions and fairs by the government. In the market you will see many such craftsmen selling their wares ranging from trays, toys, combs, ladles, etc.
Leather footwear of Mahabaleshwar.
Leather footwear: There are numerous shops in in the market selling leather footwear. It differs from the Kolhapuri leather chappals, in the way the leather is treated and processed before the final product is made.
Juices and syrups in a hundred varieties. 
Syrups, juice concentrates, fruit crushes: Since the hill station is a berry bowl, many factories such as Mapro, Mala’s and Manama have set shop, producing and selling fruit crushes and concentrates of almost any and all flavours under the sky.
Varieties of homey. Image taken from Madhusagar
Honey: Many agriculturists are into bee keeping in Mahabaleshwar and so there are many outlets selling pure honey in different varieties too, having varying health benefits.
Packets of fresh turmeric powder for sale. 
Turmeric: Bet, you didn’t see this coming! Even on the way to the farm where we picked strawberries, I saw the roads dotted with stalls selling bright yellow packets of something. Only when we stopped later to have some sugarcane juice, I realized that the shop nearby was selling the same; pure unadulterated turmeric powder as well as fresh turmeric root. The aroma was beautiful and so was the colour much brighter than the powder one buys at supermarkets.
Strawberry cream to make your day! 
Strawberry cream: After all this shopping you may refresh with a tall glass of strawberry cream, which is ubiquitous, with almost every second shop in the market selling the same. Another variation is strawberries with ice cream. Both taste equally good.   
Cane items of different shapes and sizes. 
Cane baskets and items: There were quite a few of these shops as well in the market, selling baskets, holders and cases in different shapes and beautiful designs.  
Pappads of different colours and flavours. 
Pappads: There are many shops set up by families who sell home made items like pappads, pickles, noodles, etc. I bought a packet of multi-coloured pappads which colours such as green, orange, white, and brown lent by ingredients such spinach, dal, rice and finger millet, respectively. 

I guess all this shopping will leave your bags stuffed and your wallets empty, but what’s a trip without shopping, isn’t it?

Thursday 28 January 2016

Amantran Agri-tourism and one of the Cleanest Public loos!

The entrance at Amantran. 
After our heads and hearts were appeased by the visit to the 2000 years old cave clusters, Amba-Ambika and Bhutlinga, organized by Heritage Insights, it was now time to refuel with some good food. We headed to Amantran agri-tourism and were truly impressed by the lunch spread and more by the clean toilets, so far the cleanest public loo I've used in India.
The walls are covered with Warli paintings. 

....And plastic bottles recycled as planters....
The décor of the restaurant which part of this set up is simple yet interesting keeping up with the rural setting with warli motifs. The owner Shashikant Jadhav himself goes around serving and attending to people who come to eat.
The owner Mr. Shashikant Jadhav.

Let me allow you to drool at the picture of the lunch- thaali. 

One of the best meals I've had! 
There was bajri chi bhakri (flat bread made out of pearl millet flour). I was intimidated by the size of the bhakri which was almost 12 inches in diameter. Then there was a chutney made of garlic and chilies, a delectable spicy bhaji or subji made of broad beans and peanut powder, a very special Maharashtrian dish called maasvadi served with peanut gravy. Maasvadi, the name is a misnomer since ‘maas’ usually means meat, but this dish is made from cooked chickpea flour with a stuffing of spices and coconut and then rolled on to a cloth, opened and then sliced. Do eat this dish whenever there is an opportunity. In November last year when I had visited the Bhimthadi Yatra (will post about that soon), I ate it there too. The dessert was some lip smacking, scrumptious sheera, kesari or sooji ka halva with banana in it. There was rice too, but my stomach was full with the 12 inch bhakri, so I did not take that.
The kitchen where the women make bhakris. 

Bhakris are made on the coal stove which enhances its taste manifold. 
We had a peep into the kitchen where Mr Jadhav's wife oversees the cooking and herself cooks for the guests. We were told they women together make around 350 bhakris or flatbreads each day with around 30-40 kgs of pearl millet flour. 
The menu on the board. 
After our plates were served, Mr Jadhav, himself went to each and every person asking them to eat well, in the spirit of true Indian hospitality.
There are nests made for the nice! 
The loos were the cleanest, as I’ve mentioned, so it is highly recommended for people travelling on the Nagar - Kalyan Highway No. 222 (7 Kms from there), Pune - Nashik Highway No. 50 (18 Kms from there), to take a pit stop, and refresh.
Other activities at Amantran. 
They also have rooms where one can stay overnight, although I did not have a chance to check them out. Amantran provides agri-tourism activities like bullock cart ride, farm visits and rural games for weary urban people longing for a getaway close to nature. They also have a counter where there sell fresh farm produce like black raisins, kakvi or liquid jaggery and other things. 

You may check their website:

Friday 22 January 2016

Exploring the 2000 years old Buddhist Cave clusters at Junnar.

Entrance to the Bhutlinga caves. Photo by Saili Palande Datar.
When the shout-out in one of the dailies mentioned, “exotic Buddhist caves”, I knew I had to go! And I was delighted to know that the tour was organized by a team of an Archaeologist and Indologist, which meant that there would be a rich wealth of information and stories, to satiate the history buff in me.
Copy of the Brahmi script. 
Somehow I couldn’t transfer the fees for the tour in time, and pleaded fervently (lol) with Saili Palande Datar , the co-founder of Heritage Insights, with whom I travelled, to include me, on the eve of departure. The pleading did work, and I found myself, the next day, with an equally eager and enthusiastic bunch of people ready to explore the lesser known, 2000 years old cave clusters in Junnar, in Maharashtra. I was surprised to know that there are around 185 such caves in the Junnar region alone and many of them yet to be discovered.
Map with the locations of Buddhist caves in Maharashtra. 

Map of the Indo-Roman trade routes. 
It was extremely fascinating to know how these caves came to be developed. After the Samadhi of Gautama Buddha, his disciples took upon the task of spreading Buddhism all over the world, starting with India. Often they travelled with traders on well-known trade routes. But during the Monsoon, they stayed put in one place for shelter. This was called Varshavaasya, ‘varsha’ meaning rains and ‘vaasya’ meaning residence. Initially, probably they must have sought out natural caves, but when monks starting extending their stay beyond the four months of Varshavaasya, they started building permanent monasteries and cave dwellings. The funding for building the monasteries came mainly from the traders who would seek shelter and food in exchange for funds. The type of funds varied from wood, vessels, grains, cloth, etc.
Entrance to the Chaitya griha of Amba-Ambika caves. 

The sculpture of Amba-Ambika from which the caves derive their name. 

The whole Amba Ambika cave cluster. 
Several inscriptions on the stone also revealed that projects within the cave complex too were sponsored, like water reservoirs, or specific pillars, as an action of ‘punya’, or benevolent actions done specifically for atonement of sins or to appease the Gods that be. This is similar to what we see in parks or buildings, stating that the seats or certain amenities have been donated by a certain person. Several parts of the monastery like meditation cells, or the ceiling or relief work were left unfinished due to the unsuitable nature of the rock and seepage, although in some other caves, elsewhere, work has been left incomplete due to shortage of funds, much like some construction projects of today. Some things don’t change even in 2000 years, I thought to myself!
Entrance to the Bhutlinga caves. Notice the intricate carving on the facade. 

The Chaitya griha with a domed ceiling.
And who were these traders and where did they come from? These were Roman traders who carried out trade via sea, through Egypt, Alexandria and Arabia. The ports where the ships were anchored were Bhrugukachh (Bharuch in Gujarat), Shurparak (now known as Nalasopara in Mumbai) and Calliena (Kalyan near Mumbai). The Romans carried cotton, ivory, spices, silk, pearls, and exotic fauna like tigers, cheetah, peacock, and rhinos to Europe and in return brought gold, silver, wine and slave women to India. The goods brought would be loaded onto bullocks which passed via different ghats to reach important cities in the Deccan region like, Junnar, Pratishthan (Paithan), Nasik and Tagar (Ter).
Carving of a Bodhi tree.

The sculptures of Naga and Garuda. Notice the wings on the figure to the left and the multi-hooded snake behind the figure on the right. 
The then major dynasties of India, the Satvahana and Kshatrapa fought amongst themselves to control the trade routes, as that would mean a lot of wealth as the passes or ‘ghats’ on the Western Ghats were used as collection points for taxes, equivalent to the toll that we have today. It was interesting to know that for traders who used the pass often, they even had discounts similar to the discount on monthly toll passes of today.
Inscriptions stating that a trader has sponsored work for this part of the cave. 

Intricate carvings. 
So the cave monasteries and the Indo-Roman trade had a symbiotic relationship each thriving on the other. But after the 2nd century BC, the Roman economy collapsed thus impacting the trade which came to a grinding halt towards the 3rd century CE (Christ Era).

Carvings of Goddess Lakshmi in the centre and elephants, devotees and floral motifs. Photo by Minal Karekar and Swapna Pataskar
A closer shot. Photo by Saili Palande Datar. 

Our first stop was at Manmodi hill, where after a short uphill trek we reached the cave named Amba-Ambika. During the briefing, Yashodhan Joshi, another co-founder of Heritage Insights, showed us the map of the ancient Indo-Roman trade route and also handed copies of the ancient Brahmi script (the language used was Prakrit with a few words of Sanskrit origin) which we used later to understand inscriptions (with a lot of difficulty). All the caves we visited were carved out from the mountain or hill. The cave cluster called Amba-Ambika derives its name from the sculpture of Goddess Ambika which was carved by the Jains in the 9th and 10th century CE, after the caves were abandoned by the Buddhist monks. This was a two stories cave cluster with an unfinished Chaitya Griha (prayer hall with a stupa at one end). Two pot based pillars at the entrance were re-constructed by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and were hence of a different colour. Around 50 inscriptions regarding donations made for the construction of this cave have been found in the Chaitya griha.

Water reservoirs. Rain water harvesting was done even then. 
Further down the Amba-Ambika caves are the Bhutlinga caves, named after the main Chaitya griha with ‘naga’ (snake) and ‘garuda’ (eagle) motifs and the stupa which is considered a ‘Shivlinga’ by locals. The façade of the cave was very well done and was donated by an Indo-Greek trader (locally called yavans) named Chanda, as we learnt from an inscription.

The dents on these stones are for sticking in wooden sticks and watering it, so that when the wood expanded the pressure would break the stones. Here they are left unfinished.
Copper deposits in a rock which render it green. Somewhere on the way...
All these two cave groups were built or rather carved between 1st to 3rd centuries CE. Considering that entire caves had to be cut out from the hill, one would think that it would have taken a hundred years for them to have been built. But Saili, the Archaeologist in the team said that one cave cluster would have taken around 15-20 years. This and well as other facts about the life of the monks and ruling dynasties have been gleaned  from years of research by scholars through various sources like coins, inscriptions, references to the names on inscriptions found in the literature of the period, etc.
The Chaitya griha at Tulja caves. 
A distant shot of Tulja caves.
By this time we were satiated by this interesting history and it was time to satiate our hunger. We headed to an eatery in an agro-tourism enterprise called Amantran and after a lip-smacking traditional lunch, headed to the Tulja cave group. The name derives from the deity Goddess Tulja whose shrine was built in a much later period in one of the abandoned caves. This cave group is considered much older than the rest by scholars, which means it wasbuilt in the 1st century CE or even earlier. There was a circular Chaitya griha here as opposed to the hall like spaces in the previous caves with 12 octagonal pillars around it which indicates that it is from an earlier period.
On the way to Naneghat. Notice the triangular natural formations on the rock. 
Our last stop was a cave in Naneghat. On the way to the cave we were greeted by a giant stone pot which was believed to have been used for tax collection by the then queen of the ruling Satvahana dynasty, called Nayanika or Naganika. This is not a Buddhist cave but was built more as a commemoration of the main political people of the time. In this cave all the three walls of the cave were covered with inscriptions which give a lot of details about the politics of the time. The names of Shri Satkarni and his wife Nayanika, who was a very influential queen feature prominently in the inscriptions. The inscriptions also talks about the Yagnas that Nayanika performed and the donations she made for the Satvahana Empire. At one there were inscriptions serving as labels to the now absent statues of different people like Naganika and her husband.
The giant stone pot used for tax collection by Queen Nayanika.

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Inscriptions on the walls in Naneghat.
We spent some time in Naneghat taking in the panoramic views under the crescent moon before boarding the bus. This trip was surely a heady mix of heritage, history, information, and being transported for a brief moment, to the life that was, 2000 years ago!
The crescent moon for a beautiful end to a very interesting tour. 
Do follow the FB page of Heritage Insights for updates on their Heritage tours! I am certainly awaiting the next one!

Friday 8 January 2016

Inside a Green World in Sullia

Walking through the plantation. 
A friend of ours had mentioned and described his home-town a few years ago. He said that their house sits on many acres of land bearing coconut, cocoa, arecanut plantations and paddy fields and there’s a river running across their land. This was enough for me to pester him to ‘invite’ us to his home soon!
Towering arecanut trees.
That day finally came in November last year. There was a wedding in the family and he said it would be an opportunity to meet everyone and sample traditional wedding food too! It seemed perfect.
We took an overnight bus to Mangalore and then another bus to Sullia, which is where his house is. Even as we entered the gate he pointed in different directions telling us where the rubber, arecanut and coconut plantations were. We were entering a green world where the only respite would be multiple hues of jade and emerald greens and the bright colours of beautiful flowers, fruits, birds and butterflies! I roamed amongst towering trees, ate food cooked with vegetables plucked from the farm, breathed the freshest air possible, feasted my eyes on verdant greens, adorned my hair with all kinds of flowers till my head looked like a bouquet, ate turmeric roots and stained my teeth with people giggling around, and came back refreshed, with a sense of warmth by being around people who have such a close relationship with the earth.  
Turmeric roots. I bit off a piece and realized that my teeth were stained yellow, when people giggled at me. 

Ginger root. 
What impressed me most is the entire family’s deep reverence and connection with the environment.  What we urban people would label as ‘eco-friendly’ is their natural way of life. This was evident especially during the wedding. Instead of buying cheap plastic decorations, all the festoons and decorations were made of flowers, leaves and arecanuts. Even on the main stage where the newly married couple were to greet people , the screens were made of intertwined coconut leaves. I watched the woman who was making these, and was impressed by her skill. Sadly, with readymade plastic decorations flooding the market, her ilk is rapidly shrinking and so is art also dying.
Coconut leaves for decoration.

The artisan weaving the leaves. 

Notice how the decoration is natural
I, too, joined a group of people to pluck arecanuts which was later strung together and wrapped around the pillars. And they looked so bright and colourful. A short lean man, with a bamboo pole around 30 feet long, with a sharp knife tied to one end, climbs the arecanut nut tree in a blink of an eye and starts precisely cutting the stem of bunches of arecanuts of the neighboring trees. Again he is back on the ground in a second and climbs another tree and repeats the process. I was left amazed by his dexterity, precision and swiftness.
A worker climbs an arecanut tree. 

Arecanuts wrapped around the pillar for decoration. 

An arecanut on my henna stained orange palm. 

For the wedding, all meals were served on banana leaves which is put into the compost and becomes manure for the plants. Nothing goes waste!
Banana leaves stacked for meals. 

Food being served in the main hall. 
We went around the farm and I was delighted to see cocoa trees for the first time. The friend climbed a tree swiftly and plucked a yellow, ripe cocoa pod, broke it by striking it against a stone and asked me to taste it. The inside of the cocoa pod looks nothing like the chocolate we eat. There are multiple seeds coated with sweet white flesh, much like custard apples, but only less sweet. I ate half a pod and scattered the seeds around, hoping more cocoa trees would sprout.
Cocoa trees with some ripe, yellow cocoa pods. 

Inside the cocoa pod.
We went to the river too, during sunset and it was so peaceful to see the sun lending a golden glow to everything around, the birds returning home and the silhouette of the coconut and arecanut trees in the background.
Sunset by the river.
We visited the paddy fields, where just two days earlier the paddy had been harvested. I missed that! We went and saw where the paddy was being stored.
Paddy husk. 

The paddy field recently harvested. 

The family is large with different family members taking care of different parts of the farm and fields. It was heartening to hear that many young boys in the family have left lucrative career options to take up agriculture, and are using innovative techniques to improvise farming and output. The entire farm is purely organic. Our friend’s father has himself brought about numerous innovations to organic farming and has received many awards for the same. Each house on the farm has a separate cow shed with two to four cows. So all the dairy products are fresh and homemade and we had copious amounts of ghee, buttermilk and curd.  The cow dung is used as manure for the plants and also for bio-gas. It’s a remarkably self-sustaining ecology created by the family.
Large lady's finger. They should be renamed giant's finger! 

New coconut shoots sprouting from dried coconuts. 

Brinjals grown outside the house. 

Drawing water from the well in the farm. The water tasted so sweet and refreshing. 

Pineapple. I love the tiny purple flowers on the plant. 
There is something unique about people who work so closely with the earth. I've noticed that time and again, during my travel and interaction with those who work with the soil. They are so down-to-earth, simple, grounded, with an inner knowing about the working of Nature and of life itself and my friend’s Father was no different with a serenity on his face that only an association with Nature can bestow.

Puran polis or sweet stuffed flat bread being prepared for the wedding. 

The place abounds in this tree, the leaves of which are used in making leaf plates or patravali. 
This post would be incomplete without a mention of food. The food was simple, delicate on spices and prepared from ingredients from the farm itself, and served on banana leaves. Eating from a banana leaf enhances the flavour of food, which was lip-smacking to say the least. I could get only these two pictures of the food, as the rest of the time I was, well, too busy eating!! 
Traditional breakfast of idlis, vada, sambaar, chutney and kesari bhath. 

Dosa and chutney. 
Three days were over earlier than expected and it was time for us to leave. But we promised to back soon, to relax and spend more time learning about crop cycles, the soil and Nature, with whom we are so disconnected with, in the city.
Bright hibiscus flowers. 
We stopped for a day at Mangalore before returning to Pune. Do read my post on what to eat in Mangalore..:-) 
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