Well, of course I would! They interviewed me via email and the interview was published online on 1st July 2017
You can check it out here
I was flattered to receive a mail from leading Indian travel site www.ghumakkar.com saying that they have heard about my book 'Three men on motorcycles' and asking me if I would like to be interviewed for publication in their site.
Well, of course I would! They interviewed me via email and the interview was published online on 1st July 2017
You can check it out here
The portuguese era in India is something that is not much talked about nowadays, possibly because the British had no love for them and were happy for them to be forgotten. But they were the first western power to visit and colonise India in 1498 - and for that matter, were the last power to exit India.. Well after the British left, all the way till 1961!
They ruled a vast swathe of land, and had forts starting from Diu in Gujarat and all the way down to the Kerala coast. They had an extensive presence on the Eastern coast as well - with forts from Tuticorin till the Hooghli, and also ruled the island of Sri Lanka. They could have easily been the dominant power in the subcontinent, but got bogged down in royal politics and were ultimately outmaneuvered by the British East India company.
The main capital of Portuguese India was Goa, of course - but the Northen capital was Vasai - or ‘Bassein’ as they knew it. It was an extremely rich fort - the centre of a flourishing kingdom and was the dominant power in the region - much bigger than the small outpost of Bom Bahia, or Bombay island.
But now the fort is ruined and abandoned, and Vasai has been relegated to a sleepy backwater. It was to this place that I decided to cycle to on Sunday morning. If you drive down to Vasai then you have to take a circuitous route, but if you go on cycle you can carry the bike through the subway under Naigaon station and save a few Ks.
I had tried to go the earlier Sunday, but bike broke down on Thane flyover - had to do some major repairs and change the axle, gear system and chain. Now the bike was fine again and I was off again.
I left by 5.30 AM and got a pleasant surprise when I reached Thane. There was a cycle rally on there and so the police had shut off the flyovers to vehicular traffic, and they were reserved for the cyclists. Naturally, they thought I was part of the rally as well, and I got a royal welcome from the organisers as I was the first cyclist on the route. I had not waited for the starting whistle, and so was ahead of the pack. I grinned and waved as they took photos of me, though I was soon overtaken by a peloton of racing cyclists. I left them behind at the end of Ghodbunder road and carried on to Gomukh ghat and crossed over Versova creek and hit the mainland. The versova creek bridge is under maintanance, and so I was lucky to cross it without waiting for too long.
On NH8, I kept an eye out for the Naigaon flyover where I had to turn off the highway and hit the inner roads to cross under the railway line at Naigaon station. Once I did that and entered the Vasai area, I could immediately see the Portuguese influence in the place. The area was very much like a Goan village, with small neat bungalows with beautiful gardens. The names, the roads, the village crosses, the very look and feel of the place was like the portuguese christian places like Bandra or Goa - though of course the features of the people were of the typical north Konkan people.
I asked directions of the locals and made my way to the Vasai fort area. I had covered about 65 KM in roughly 4 hours.
When I reached the fort, I was astounded at the size of it! It was simply huge! I crossed some small ASI signs and stone walls and stopped to the memorial of Chimaji appa - the brother of Bajirao Peshwa, who conquered the Vasai fort from the Portuguese in 1739, only for the fort to be surrendered to the British within a few years.
‘Where is the main gate?’ I asked an ASI official.
‘You have been in the fort for quite some time’ he replied. ‘It covers an area of 109 Acres’
Wow. thats big.
He pointed the way to the sea gate and I went off to investigate that. It was most impressive, and the battlements are still intact, and you can still see the fleet of fishing boats on the shore which must have been there in Portuguese times as well. Vasai is still a major fishing port, and supply a lot of the fish in Mumbai fishmarkets.
"The complete form of the Portuguese name is "Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim" or the Fort of St. Sebastian of Vasai.
The name "Bassein" is the English version of the Portuguese "Baçaim" (with the "ç" spoken as "s" and with the "m" silent)
Portuguese mariners exploring the north Konkan Coast, discovered the Arab Sultanate of Khambat or Cambay, building or renovating or expanding the fort in the early 15th century and attacked it in a failed effort to seize it. Later, after more systematic efforts, the Sultanate of Cambay ceded the fort to Portugal by the Treaty of Saint Matthew signed on the Portuguese brig Sao Matteus anchored in the Bhayander Creek or Vasai Harbor.
The Treaty of Bassein was signed by Sultan Bahadur of Gujarat and the Kingdom of Portugal on 23 December 1534 while on board the galleon São Mateus. Based on the terms of the agreement, the Portuguese Empire gained control of the city of Bassein, as well as its territories, islands, and seas. The Mumbai Islands under Portuguese control include Colaba, Old Woman's Island, Mumbai, Mazagaon, Worli, Matunga, and Mahim. Salsette, Daman and Diu, Thane, Kalyan, and Chaul were other territories controlled and settled by the Portuguese."
I stepped out of the sea gate and checked out Vasai jetty. It was in quite nice shape and as usual I wondered why we do not use the sea lanes more. It would be so easy to have regular sea lanes to Mumbai, North Konkan and Gujarat.
There were so many ruined churches in the fort area. Even in their decrepit state, they looked stately and wonderful...in the heyday they must have been absolutely wonderful. They must have been destroyed and ruined when the maratha forces overran Vasai fort, and were never restored after that. The protestant anglican British never saw the point in restoring catholic portuguese churches I suppose.
What really struck me was the amount of non military buildings in the fort area. It showed how stable and peaceful the area must have been, and how rich the area must have been with regular economy and taxation for them to afford so much civilian and ecclestial buildings.
After exploring the sea gate and the churches, I wandered over to where there was some restoration masonry work going on and bumped into that ASI gentleman again and started chatting with him. I complimented him on well maintained the fort was - no undergrowth and no rubbish - all that was lacking was information boards at all the building which would give some info and background about what we were seeing. He thanked me and said that it had been cleaned up fairly recently. It had been completely overgrown and in a wild jungle state, and had been cleaned up by them recently. While funds and staff were completely insufficient for a fort of this size, they were trying their best. They were reconstructing the buildings, using the original stones and using traditional mortar made as per the ancient formula of lead and whatever.
He told me to check out the other churches and especially the Franciscan church, where a lot of the ancient portuguese were buried in the nave of the church and I could check out their burial slabs. I went off exploring, and checked out a couple of churches where the local boys were playing cricket in front of it.
On my way to the franciscan church, I passed a strange sight. A group of guys were faking an accident photo. One guy was lying on the ground and another was coating his head and shirt with blood, while a photographer was directing them to perfect the gory sight of a victim lying dead or grievously injured in the bushes. Wonder what they were doing this for - an insurance scam, or a blackmail plot perhaps. I didn't stop to ask, as they didn't look happy at all to see me see them.
I found the ruined franciscan church with the graves of the long dead foreign adventurers and grandees. It was quite a pathos heavy site. This must have been a grand church once - the main one of the fort. It must have been a great honour to have been buried in the nave of the church, and people must have jostled and quarrelled to get their loved ones buried there. The dead people must have come from so far away, and must have been filled with immense ambition and energy and greed. They had come and created a whole new world on the other side of the globe and changed the fortunes of millions. Now they are all dead, the church is dead and roofless and their slabs weather in the sun and no one can even read their names.
I decided to exit from there - the sun was beating down and it was getting quite hot. I was planning to take the bike on the train from Vasai to Dadar. This was the first time I would be taking the cycle by train. I hoped that there would be no issue with taking the cycle on the train - the idea of cycling back was not appealing at all. But it turned out to be a smooth issue - I bought a ticket at the counter and then went inside and took a luggage ticket from the TC who sold me a cycle ticket for 200 rupees. I went to stand on Platform 3, but rushed to platform 5 to catch the fast local. I located the luggage compartment and shoved the bike in. The people were very kind and shuffled around to accommodate me. Some of them asked me where I had been and were very impressed to hear that I had cycled from Chembur to Vasai. They couldn't figure out whether to admire me or pity me for being an idiot, I suppose.
I got off at Dadar and cycled back home. It had been a nice day - a long satisfying 80 Km + ride and a visit to a place which I had always been curious about.
A 2000 thousand year old rock carved cave temple right in the middle of Suburban Mumbai...and no one seems to care very much about it!
I have been doing Mumbai exploration this year, and while researching online for places to visit, I stumbled on Mandapeshwar caves in Borivli. I found it simply incredible that we have an ancient almost pre-history rock cut temple right here and no one seems to know or care about it.
I read about it on Ashutosh Bijoor's blog, and found that it was carved in 550 AD, around the same time as the nearby Jogeshwari caves (which also is an unknown treasure) and the Kondivate or Mahakali caves, and was carved in the same style as the Elephanta caves or the Ellora temples.
Well, I simply had to see this, and one rainy sunday, I cycled from chembur to Borivli to visit the caves. It was a about 40 Km each way, and passed through or by many things that make Mumbai amazing ( a forest, a lake, hills, ancient temples, modern highways and urban sprawl)
I found the caves tucked unobstrisively away in Borivli bylanes in an overwhelmingly christian area - it was near the IC colony and just below a church - the church of our lady of immaculate conception. It seemed that it would have been on church lands before the ASI took ownership of the area.
The other point that struck me was that it seemed to be really obscure and unmarked. There were some building materials outside which indicated that there are plans to fence it off, but as of now it was open and and nameless. There was no indication that a unique rock cut temple was nearabouts.
But when I entered the caves and looked around, I was entranced! What a wonderful cave temple! And it was reasonably well maintained as well.
It was originally built on the shores of the Dahisar river, but now the river has changed its course and the temple has become inland. But you can just imagine the temple as it must have been - in a jungle, along the riverside, on a small hill, the most talented artists and sculptors had created a beautifully carved temple out of the living rock.
The idea of rock cut caves was started by the buddhist monks, but the hindus also liked the idea and also started making the same. Possibly the same sculptors who created the buddhist caves started making caves for the hindus as well - depending on who was signing the cheques. The Mumbai area was a big trading area due to the many big ports in the area - Thane, Sopara, Vasai, etc and there must have been a lot of rich seths willing to finance cave making in the forests of Mumbai. We have Buddhist caves and Hindu caves in Mumbai - Mahakali and Kanheri are Buddhist, and Jogeshwari and Elephanta are Hindu.
The golden age of cave temples ended about 1500 years ago, and India and Mumbai went through many epochs and empires since then. The importance of the Mumbai area dwindled and the big traders went off to other areas, and the whole area went into obscurity. The muslim waves into India started, with first the persian gulf muslims and then the Mughals from the Mongol lands swept over India, and big temple building went into decline as the Hindu kings were swept away. But they were not too interested in this part of the world, and kept away from it.
But the portuguese came to India in the 1500s and they were extremely interested in this area because of the access to sea lanes. They rapidly built up a formidable presence along the western coast and established a string of forts from Diu right down to Mumbai and were the rulers of the sea. They took over the sea shore lands as there wasnt anyone to oppose them.
Along with the conquisadors came the priests who were licking their chops at getting so many heathens to convert to the word of the lord, and they went around converting all the villagers they could find. As the Portuguese military hold tightened, they could use harsher and harsher measures to get converts. One of these was was to deface local temples and use them as churches. As we can see here - there is a bas relief of Shiva which had been carved down to a cross. They built a monastery on top of the temple, whose ruins can still be seen today.
As an article in the Hindu notes -
"The Mandapeshwar caves perhaps have the most tumultuous history of all the Mumbai caves, or so it would seem from the scars the walls still bear. A Hindu temple, it was targeted by the Portuguese, who asserted their religious beliefs over it by literally building a monastery and a church dedicated to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception on top of the cave temple. Fr. Porto founded the monastery and church in 1544.
A visitor in 1804 noted: “The good priests had covered [the carved Hindu figurines in the cave] with a smooth coat of plaster and had converted the whole into a chapel.”
The time of the portuguese was limited though, as they were faced with a wiler enemy - the British. They teamed up with the Marathas and persuaded them to go to war with the Portuguese and destroy them. Under Chimaji appa, they besieged and defeated the huge Portuguese fort of Vasai and then wiped them out of the Mumbai area, which included Borivli. This was of double advantage to the British, as the Portuguese were thrown out, and the marathas were fatally weakened at the same time, enabling the British to defeat them within a few years.
"In the 18th century the church was desecrated after the Battle of Bassein in which the Marathas defeated the Portuguese. They uncovered and worshipped the rock-cut sculptures again, but towards the end of the 18th century the British defeated the Marathas and the caves once again functioned as a place of Christian worship. After the end of colonial rule the church fell into disrepair and the caves gradually reverted to the worship of Siva. The church, including its roof, has been destroyed, but older local residents recall playing among the aisles and the nave of the church when they were children."
Mandpeshwer caves have sculptures of Nataraja, Sadashiva and a splendid sculpture of Ardhanarishvara. It also has Ganesha, Brahma and Vishnu statuettes. These works depicted the mythical tales of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Even today an elaborate sculpture representing the marriage of Shiva with Parvati may be viewed from the large square window at the south end of these caves
I saw that this place was becoming a live temple again, with people praying there and offering flowers and stuff. I have mixed feeling about this - on the one hand, I strongly believe that ancient monuments should be left alone and properly preserved, and we tend to mess up temple areas very fast. On the other hand, it brings the old temple to life when people pray a bit and offer bright flowers. It gives you a little glimpse of what it must have been in the old days.
The funniest part of all is the fact that people apparently know about this cave, but do not care about it. I told my mom about it, and she remembered the location as she had lived in Borivli many years ago. But she had never been there, and didn't seem impressed with the idea of a 2000 year old rock cut temple.
I spoke to various friends living in Borivli, who either had no idea about the existence of the place, or if they did - then had not been there - or if they had been there, were not sensible about the importance of the place.
In Europe, every small thing is celebrated as a Unesco world heritage site - an olive plantation, some obscure town and watchtower, some small road, anything.
This is a national treasure, and even the locals dont know anything about it, and care even less. So weird.
The church of Our Lady of immaculate conception - which must be an offshoot of the same church which was built on top of this ancient temple - was full for Sunday mass, and I couldnt help but notice the difference in the fortunes of this temple and that church.
I wouldnt want it to be locked up behind ASI fences and rendered inaccessible, but definitely we should nurture and protect this place and make more people aware of this.
Mumbai has a great history, and hopefully we will protect and enjoy it in the future as well.
Another monsoon Sunday! ITS TREKKING TIME! AND CYCLING TIME!
Delzad was out of town so this time I convinced Adi to join me for a trek. He was excited and scared at the same time.
‘My back is paining bro’ he complained, but I convinced him to come along – we will do a simple trek. I also wanted to do some good cycling, and after some research, decided on Kondana caves. I saw it in Harish Kapadia, and then read Ashutosh Bijoor’s amazing blog on his cycling trip there. As soon as I saw the photos I was hooked...what an amazing carved cave temple! I want to see this.
This would be the longest one way cycling trip yet – about 70 KM! Kondana was near Karjat.
I started at daybreak – about 6 AM - and set out on the Bombay Pune road. I had done Karnala earlier, and it was the same route till Panvel, where the highway split into the Bombay Goa road, and the Bombay Pune road.
It took me about 5 hours, but luckily it was cloudy and slightly rainy, and that kept the temperature cool. Adi slept off in the morning, and set out late – but that turned out to be a good thing, as it took him only an hour to reach karjat and he caught up with me as I was having some wada pav for breakfast.
I loaded the cycle in the Scorpio and we went off to kondivade village. This is also the starting point of the trek to Rajmachi fort.
I was a bit taken aback by the crowds on the trail – it was packed! As this is a pretty simple trek, and easily accessible by road – you get a lot of first level trekkers, and also since packaged treks by companies are becoming a big thing, you get a lot of organised groups as well. There was a group of children and another couple of groups of adults there, and also a lot of family groups and local people as well, and Indian crowds being what they are, there was a lot of noise and the inevitable litter and garbage.
But on the other hand, it is a good thing that these people are stepping out of home and malls and seeing the hills and valleys and ancient culture of our country. Maybe they will develop a love of trekking and become mountain and history lovers. So good for them.
We found a villager who volunteered to show us the way to the caves, and that was lucky for us as he showed us a fairly unused and virgin way to the caves and avoided most of the crowds. It was doubly lucky for me, as I dropped my cap on the way and it was still there when we came back down.
The kondane caves are amazing! What carvings! What artwork! What a location!
They are 2000 years old, and still look regal and outstanding. The main Chaitya hall has a intricately carved entrance, and the wall carvings are superb.
Kondhane caves were first discovered by Vishnu Shastri in 1850. Kondhane, Bhaja and Karla are caves that are located around Lonavale. In fact, Dr. D. J Wilson in his writings mentions that the name Lonavala may be corruption of Lenavali – or the grove of caves
The stupa is in a damaged condition, and one can see large rock pieces on the floor that could have been part of the roof. A large part of this damage is presumably due to severe earthquakes in the Pune region that occurred between 1752 to 1812
The whole portico-area is carved to imitate a multi storeyed building with balconies and windows and sculptured men and women who observed the scene below. This created the appearance of an ancient Indian mansion. The carvings are truly exquisite, with clearly visible features such as the garments, weapons and ornaments they wore, as well as peaceful happy expressions on their faces.
Its simply amazing – I was very impressed.
We soaked in the place for a while, and then made our way down. It would be really nice to come here on a weekday, when there would be less crowds.
It was a pretty small trek, but then it was a longer ride so it was a Sunday well spent.
After the trek to Visapur, Delzad was very enthu about doing more trekking. I was also enthu about doing some long cycling, and so I thought of Karnala fort. Its close to the highway, so easily accessible on cycle – and it was quite a nice trek – not too easy, not too difficult.
We decided to go on a Friday, so as to avoid the crowds. I would leave early on cycle, and Delzad would follow later in the Scorpio and we would meet at Karnala.
Home to Karnala was about 45 KM, which was not too bad but definitely not a pushover either. It would be important to focus on proper nutrition to prevent cramping. I carbed up in dinner, and carried some electrolytes and a couple of chapattis.
It took about 3 hours, and the only unpleasant part was the disgusting state of the Bombay Goa road – more holes than road. It was a nice climb up the Karnala ghat at the end of the ride and the Police guy at the gate was very impressed when he learnt that I had cycled all the way from Mumbai.
Delzad timed the driver perfectly and rolled up a few minutes after me, and we loaded the cycle into the Scorpio and locked it.
Other people also seemed to have had the same idea as we did, of coming on a Friday to beat the crowd, and they created a crowd of their own.
There was a corporate group which was assembling there, so we decided to leave fast and go ahead of them. But after a bit of a climb, we ran into a group of school children.
‘How many children are there?’ I asked an organiser
‘120 children...and 45 parents too’ he answered glumly.
Shit! No way I am going to get stuck being 165 chattering children! I engaged turbo mode and climbed like a demon and zoomed up the trail – and overtook all 165 of them! Simply left them behind in my dust!
And once I was ahead of all of them, it was so incredibly quiet and pleasant. It was like being in heaven!
The Karnala fort has the most incredible setting – it sits right on top of the spire of the hill and looks like a fairy fort. Its an ancient fort – built about 1200- 1400 AD, and commanded the hill passes of Raigad district. It was built probably by the Devagiri Yadavas in the 1200s and further fortified by tughlaq rulers in the 1300s – which makes it really old – pre mughal. As the area was ruled by various dynasties, it was controlled by Gujarat sultans, then Nizam shah of Ahmednagar, then the Portuguese (who were really powerful back in the day), then the Marathas under Shivaji, then Mughals under Aurangzeb, then back to the Peshwas, until the British borg assimilated everyone.
Now the time of forts has passed, and the remains sleep. The hill has been declared a bird sanctuary, and there is only peace and quiet. The fort commands an awesome view all over the surrounding area, and you can see all the way to the sea. In fact you can see the forts of Prabalgad, Manikgad, Haji Malang, Chanderi fort, Matheran, Sankshi fort,Dronagiri fort, and Rajmachi from the top – which is pretty awesome.
There is a magnificent stone pillar right at the top – a natural basalt formation, its the remains of the lava flow from when it was a volcano. And magically, there are huge natural water tanks right at the base of the basalt pillar. Brave people do rock climbing on it, I believe – but obviously that is not possible in the rains.
The fort was incredible, and I climbed right to the top to avoid the crowds which would follow, and enjoyed almost half an hour of peace before the sweaty and reproachful face of Delzad appeared at the base of the fort. He had tried to engage turbo mode as well, but ran out of gas and was forced to march right in the middle of the gang of children. Poor fellow, he was completely fagged out and went to sleep at the top for a bit.
We decided to climb down before the kids did, and enjoyed a quiet and peaceful walk down and had an excellent lunch in a nearby hotel and then drove back home in the Scorpio. This ‘bike up, trek and drive back’ is an excellent idea.
This Sunday I decided to avoid the cycle ride and do a trek instead. This was because Bawa - the actual owner of the cycle, from whom I have ‘borrowed’ it (wink wink)- requested me to go for a trek with him. As both of us could not fit on one cycle, we decided to drop the cycle and do only the trek.
‘But where shall we go?’ he asked.
‘Don’t worry re.’ I replied ‘I shall consider and decide on the day’ and spent Saturday evening watching ‘Deadpool’ and drinking a lot of Single malt whisky.
On Sunday morning we met up at Vashi, and had an excellent breakfast at a roadside idli wada stall along the highway. After reading ‘Trek the Sahyadris’ and consulting with SHE-WHO-MUST-BE-OBEYED I decided on Visapur fort.
Visapur fort had many things going for it – it was easily approachable by the expressway and NH4, we could bypass Lonavla city and avoid the crowds, I knew the way as it was close to Lohagad where I had been several times, it was a fort I had been wanting to visit for a long time, it would be much less crowded than the nearby Lohagad, and we could visit Sheetal da dhaba for an excellent lunch after the trek!
The easily findable part of it was crucial – as we were two navigation challenged people, who had managed to get lost and take the wrong turn on a single lane highway in Ladakh, and had reached all the way to Tanglangla pass before we realised that we were going the wrong way.
And sure enough, here also I managed to miss the turn to Malavali station inspite of having been there umpteen times, and had to take a U turn to get back on the right track. We drove past Bhaje caves and up the ghat and found the turnoff to Visapur. We parked the car there, and started walking.
Visapur and Lohagad are twin forts which guard the Mandavi river and the approach to Pune. Out of the two, Lohagad is much older, being in existence since the time of the Satavhanas – which would make it about 2000 years old.
Visapur was built much later – in 1713 – in the reign of Balaji Vishwanath, the first Peshwa. Unfortunately, the Maratha empire did not last very long after that, and the British conquered the fort in 1818, using 380 european and 800 native soldiers and a battering train summoned from konkan, artillery from Chakan and 2 british battalions. On 4th march 1818 Visapur was occupied, and the British bombarded Lohagad fort from there and took over that as well.
After that, they blew up the whole fort with artillery and dynamited the entrances so that it would be unusable to the Marathas ever again. So there is nothing remaining in the fort but some walls and few ruined buildings.
Now, two and a half centuries after that day, the fort is so forgotten that even finding a path to the fort is difficult. If not for directions by the villagers and the arrows painted by trekking groups, you cannot even find the way up. We walked right past the turn and went on for quite some time before the villagers turned us back.
The stairway to the fort has been completely destroyed, and it becomes a waterfall in the rains. It was great fun to climb up that.
We reached the top and we were the only people there. It was an amazing feeling to wander around the deserted and desolate top of the fort. It was green and rainy and foggy – an absolute paradise.
After exploring the top for some time, we made our way down the waterfall again, and due to the rains the water flow was much more. It was great fun to make our way down that way.
We were completely soaked when we got down, and it was great to change out of wet clothes and get into the car. And ho – now for Sheetal dhaba and amazing food!
Bawa was so tired that he fell asleep in the car immediately in the return journey and snored all the way back to Vashi.
It’s a Sunday – Let’s ride! Its the monsoon – Lets trek!
Lets do both- Bike and hike!
I tried to get She-who-must-be-obeyed to come for a trek, but she was still traumatised by the huge crowds at Tikona last Sunday and refused to come.
‘It’s a Sunday, and I am going to sleep!’ she announced. ‘I have to get up everyday at 6 to send your kid to school, and I need a break once a week!’
‘My kid?’ I said ‘I thought it was your kid...’ I broke off as a dangerous light came into her eyes.
‘If your stupid alarm goes off at 5.30 in the morning and wakes me up...I will find you...and I will kill you...after I finish cutting you!’
So I decided to go for a ride instead, and went through Ashutosh Bijoor’s blog for places to go to. I saw this post about his ride to Uran fort, and I was fascinated. I knew nothing about Uran except that it houses the new (well, not so new now) dockyard of Mumbai – the Jawaharlal Nehru Port trust – and is the place where millions and millions of trucks go to.
The idea of it being a historical place, with an ancient fort, fascinated me. I had to see this.
On Sunday I woke up bright and early (with a silent vibrating alarm, to save my life) and set out for Uran – about 45 KM away, via Vashi and Palm beach road.
I had attempted to go to Vashi earlier once, but I had been really scared by the very fast heavy traffic. It had been early in the year, so it was quite dark in the morning so visibility was an issue. But now I learnt that the trick is to avoid using the flyover, so that you can stick safely to the side of the road and out of harm’s way.
I crossed Vashi bridge for the first time on cycle, and was very amused to see the many people fishing from the bridge. They were very poor people and it was really basic fishing – they didn’t have a fancy pole or anything – just a plastic string and a hook. And there were so many of them! I wondered if they actually caught anything or this was just a way to get out of the house and away from the wife.
I turned on to Palm beach road, and really enjoyed that part of the ride. Nice wide roads, green and scenic, not much traffic – it was fun to ride on. I passed the huge Seawoods lake, and was amused to see a replica of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ out there. I had passed by this place a million times, but had never noticed it before.
I turned off the Palm beach road on to the Uran Panvel road, and the road quality went down sharply. The heavy truck traffic and dirty potholed road made riding a bit of a challenge, and I had to be extra careful on waterlogged roads. You never knew how deep the hole would be, and going into a deep hole at high speed was just asking for a toss.
But it was not unbearably bad, and I got through it and entered Uran. I asked a policeman where Dronagiri fort was, and he gave me a contemptuous look.
‘There is no fort here – there is only a hill called Dronagiri’
I shrugged it off – I knew from experience that people didn’t know about the riches in their backyard.
I followed the cop’s and Google maps directions and made my way to the hill, and found myself looking at quite a big hill. Hoo boy – trekking was going to happen here!
I had forgotten my bike lock at home, and so I asked a local if I could park my bike at his house, and he graciously agreed. He asked me where I had come from, and was flabbergasted when I told him that I had come from Mumbai.
How long did it take me?
Three hours – I replied, and he was even more shocked.
It takes 2 hours by ST bus!
That’s because ST bus makes many stops – I tried to soothe him by my explanation – I came non stop.
How long would it take me to climb to the fort? I asked. 45 min to an hour, he replied.
Hmm. That’s a proper trek.
I set up through the village and they pointed me on to the right path. It was small and nondescript, and certainly did not look like it was heading anywhere. I would have missed it if not for their help.
As soon as I cleared the village settlements, I entered into the magical world of the mountain. It was green, and verdant and calm and quiet and simply amazing.
And in sharp contra-distinction to last week’s crowd fest, I was the only person on this mountain.
The voluntary trekkers groups do a lot of good work in the hills, and a group had posted a sign board on the trail giving information about this fort.
It explained that this area and port – now called Uran – was known in ancient times as Dronagiri. In those days the village of Uran was enclosed in fort walls for protection, and some of these walls are still visible today. The name ‘Mora’ is mentioned in the records of the Satvahana kings, and there are records that the Chalukyan king, Pulakeshin had annexed this village and its capital of Gharapuri. Its possible that this fort was built around that time – which would make it about 2000 years old!
The Portuguese conquered this fort in 1530 (500 years ago!) and a padre called Antonio de Porto built a church here in 1565. It was conquered by Adilshahi forces in the 16th century and then later by the British as it was strategically important for them to have this fort and dock so close to Bombay. The Marathas under Manaji Angre conquered the fort in 1739.
Because this hill oversees strategic locations like the ONGC terminal and JNPT, this hill is technically a restricted area and there is a nice yellow sign for you.
I started the climb, and followed the arrows put there by the trekker groups. Good thing they were there, as there were a lot of confusing little paths everywhere. Combine that with my world famous sense of direction and I would probably be there still if not for those arrows.
It was a beautiful route, punctuated by streams and and hill turmeric flowers, and soon I was at the entrance of the fort – the rear entrance presumably – as it was a small stone archway rather than imposing battlements.
There was a CISF hut there and I went there and tapped on the window, startling the two guards who were relaxing in their banyans. I explained that I was checking out the fort and just wanted to keep them informed of my presence. They invited me in and offered me a seat and some water, and we had a pleasant chat where they presumably checked me out and were assured that I was harmless. Seeing a trekker in cycling shorts and helmet is pretty weird, so I explained to them that I had biked from Mumbai and hiked up the hill and they were suitably impressed. Though of course, they were army people, so this would be probably just a light warm up for them.
And like most people, they were curious why I would come so far and spend so much energy to see ruined buildings.
Just beyond the watchpost were the ruins of the Portuguese church - the Chapel of Our Lady of Penha of Karanja. It was a very evocative ruin, and enjoyed soaking in the poignancy of the place, standing there in the light rain, all alone – looking at the ruins of the faith of foreign people from far away lands. I wonder if there is any memory in Portugal at all about these lands which their forefathers fought so hard for, and made so much money from, and affected so deeply in their quest to spread their faith.
There was a group of dogs chilling out at the guard post, and they decided that I was their new best best friend and they decided to join me for the walk.
I saw some ancient fort walls, and a little way away saw the ruins of the main doorway. Not much was left of it, but someone had rescued the Ganesha from the arch and covered it with the holy ochre ‘shendoor’.
I followed the arrows up the hill and found a Vetal temple – I love these temples, they are protoplasmic faith points. There is no idol, no carving, no temple – just a rock which has power because it is covered in ochre. Awesome!
Followed more arrows, and found myself at an ancient water tank.
The arrows ended out here, but I followed a small path and came out at the top of the hill. There would have been an awesome sea view from here, but ONGC people planted trees out here and they have blocked out all the view.
I met a farmer family up there, who were rather startled to see me, but immediately relaxed when I waved at them, and spoke to them in Marathi. They shared their chakli and coconut with me, and told me that they had come to leave their bulls here.
‘Leave bulls?’ I asked
Yes – the ploughing was done, and now there was no need for the bulls. The bulls can have a nice holiday up here as there was plenty of grass and water, and the farmer also has no hassle of taking care of them. They would come down on their own in a couple of months.
This looks like a Bear's paw print!!!
I chilled out on the top for a few minutes, and then turned back. I crossed the vetal temple, main door and church and said goodbye to the CISF people. Bye bye – they said – be careful going down – it’s raining.
And by Jove it was – I loved it! It had apparently been raining dogs and cats in Mumbai, and now the cloud front had reached Uran. It poured down, and it felt amazing! Sahyadri rains are the best.
As I neared the village, I met some people coming up – there were four of them and a goat. We looked at each other in puzzlement. ‘Anybody else up there?’ they asked, and I said no.
I was wondering why people would take goats up here, when I saw another 3 people – slightly older. They suddenly sat down and said ‘Man, I need a drink!’ and pulled out a bottle of whisky and opened it.
Then I saw a whole line of villagers trudging up the path. Some were carrying large cooking vessels, some were carrying live chickens, some were carrying sacks of cooking material.
‘Whats this?’ I asked. ‘A party for Gatari?’ We were about to enter the chaturmaas – the holy four months where Hindus don’t eat non-veg or drink alcohol – particularly in the month of Shravan. So, on the day before shravan, people have a massive blowout party where they freak out on booze and flesh.
‘Its our village tradition’ he replied ‘We have a goddess temple up the hill, and we will have a celebration there.’
Oh wow. Sounds like fun. Party!
I came down and collected my bike, which was still safe (!) and decided to check if the ferry was operational. After 45 KM ride and hike up the mountain, I was not in the mood to cycle 45 km back.
I cycled down to Mora jetty and YES!! The ferry was working! I was worried that it might be closed due to the rain.
They charged me Rs 66 for the ticket and Rs 10 for the cycle and in an hour we were at Bhaucha dhakka, and it was the home stretch. They are smartening up Bhaucha dhakka now, with new tiles and glass and a new touch. Lets hope that they develop the coastal ferry network a lot more. Ideally whole of Bombay and surrounding areas should be connected by ferry.
It was about a 20 KM ride back, and home sweet home.
That was a good day – Bike and Hike!
She-who-must-be-obeyed stood up and struck a dramatic pose, waggling her finger at me.
‘Today we shall go for a trek!’
I raised my eyebrows, and she immediately took that as an insult and scowled at me, and I rapidly lowered them.
‘I WANT COFF COFF...’ I waited for her to complete the sentence, but she only made a sound like a truck grinding its gears. After a second she continued. ‘I W ANT COFF COFF’ and again stopped.
‘Coffee?’ You want coffee?’
She just glared at me. ‘I WANT to go on a trek...coff coff. Cough cough’ Oh, she was coughing, and that frightening sound was her clearing her clogged throat.
‘Dude...you are not well...you are sounding like Ajit instead of Mona darling, and coughing away like a machine gun.’
‘Er...I mean...do you think that its a good idea to go for trek in the rain when you are down with a cold?’
‘tchah.’ She said. ‘Watch this.’ And she took a big breath, and growled ‘OK, all you germs...GET OUT!!!!’
And I swear, I could almost see all the germs, viruses and microbes rushing out of her body in sheer terror.
‘OK, let’s go.’
‘!@$#%@%%#(@ You STUPID SON OF A BLIND BAT! STAY IN YOUR LANE!!! @$$%&& GET OUT OF MY LANE YOU SLOWCOACH!!! #%$%*@#@ BLOODY ROAD HOG...WHO GAVE YOU A LICENSE??? #&*#!#^@@ TURN OFF YOUR BLINKERS YOU FOOL....’
This was me cursing at the traffic on the Expressway, because all the other drivers seemed to have taken an advanced degree in moronry with an additional elective of idiocy.
‘Dude...dont get so upset.’ SHE said to me. ‘You should be calm like me.’
‘Eh? Calm like who?’
‘Like me. Unflappable. Ice cold. In control of your self.’
‘Eh? Yesterday when the birds came and chirped at the window you cursed and threw things at them. One bird had a heart attack and died of fear when you glared at it. The dhobi still quivers and pees in his pants because you shouted at him for bringing the clothes late...and...’
‘Oh shut up. Be calm like me. See, once we get on the trek how calm and energised I will be. Everyone should trek in the Sahyadris in the rains. Everyone.’
‘@##@*@$T#@# THESE STUPID MORONS. #@$#@&~ HOW DID THEY DARE TO COME ON THE SAME MOUNTAINSIDE AS ME?’
Unfortunately for She-who-must-be-obeyed, it seemed that the whole of Mumbai and Pune had listened to her and decided to go trekking. SHE had chosen Tikona fort as our first trek destination this year because it was easy to reach and an easy climb, but it seemed that so had everyone else. There were vehicles lined up all over that narrow road, and huge crowds of first time trekkers caused traffic jams up the fort, and were making noise and generally disturbing the peace. It was like being at Dadar station in the rain. I was astounded, I had not seen crowds like this here ever.
‘@$^7#@ STUPID MANNERLESS BUMPKINS...MORONS...JAYWALKERS...HAYSEEDS....’ she was mumbling away.
‘Hey ...what about being unflappable and ice cold?’ I reminded her, but she only glared at me.
The weather was nice, it rained and soaked us, the mountain was green and the Pawna lake below looked wonderful. Tikona is a lovely little fort, with a lot of nice little sites – the entry gateway, the maruti bas relief, the water tanks, the Vitandeshwar temple on top, etc. It is part of the chain of fort in the Maval area – Tung, Lohgad, Visapur, etc. Its a very ancient fort – with traces before 07 AD – which makes it more than 2000 years old. It has changed hands many times over the centuries – the Nizamshah, Shivaji, mughals, Marathas, and then British. But by the end, warfare itself had changed, and Pax Brittanica made warfare obsolete and so all the forts became relegated to relic level. During the rains, it is a lovely place.
The only problem was the hordes of people. As the poet Heber puts it
‘Though every prospect pleases/ and only man is vile’
Oh well – what are you gonna do? We finished the trek in record time and came down off the mountain and sat in the mighty muscular Scorpio and roared confidently for about a minute when we were flagged down by a biker.
No go, he said – a bus has managed to get itself bogged in the mud and is completely blocking the road. Nobody is going anywhere until that bus moves.
I went to see, and sure enough – this idiot of a buswala had managed to get completely stuck and block the road so totally and even a two wheeler couldnt pass. The whole population of the bus had got behind it and was pushing and the bus engine was making groaning noises as it tried to climb out.
Oh well, they will get it out, I thought and we went off to have a bhutta till then. We got the bhutta, and went back to the car to eat it. We chatted and finished the bhutta and chatted some more. And then I suddenly noticed the silence. No shouts, no screams, no groaning of the engine, no car horns or engine noises.
What was going on?
I got out of the car and went to the bus, and it was just sitting there glumly. No driver, no pushers, no gawking crowds. What happened? Everyone seemed to have lost their mojo. I noticed a tractor stuck in the mud next to the bus.
‘Oh we couldn’t push the bus out.’
‘So we called a tractor to pull the bus’
‘Then the tractor also got stuck in the mud.’
‘Eh? What kind of tractor gets stuck in mud? Who’s this incompetent tractor operator?’
That guy got a bit stung. ‘I am the tractor operator. I can’t get the tractor out because there is a car blocking my path.’
‘So push the car away’
‘No...it’s locked, put in reverse gear and locked with hand brake.’
‘Oh...’ We all looked at the car. One another guy got all agitated. ‘Let’s pick up the car and move it!’ he said. He was a bit drunk.
‘Pick it up? How?’
‘Arre...there are so many people here...just pick it up.’ He went to the car and pushed with all his might. He went purple, but the c ar obviously wouldn’t move.
‘Dude...you can’t pick up a car. If you try it, the bumpers will break off.’
‘Who cares man...it’s not our car! Who told that stupid prick to park it like that?’ and soon there was an animated discussion on whether it was possible or not. Finally it was decided that it was not possible.
‘Then let us break the windows!’ the fellow said in frustration. ‘Someone give me a stone!’ he held out his hand dramatically. No one gave him anything. He just stood there with his hand out for a bit and then put it down embarrassed.
Everyone was just milling around doing nothing. I looked at the sky – luckily it wasn’t raining, and it was still daylight. I wouldn’t want to be here and in this situation in pouring rain and in darkness. Both could happen soon. And definitely not with such a huge crowd of kids and girls – asking for trouble.
I caught hold of the tractor man. ‘Let’s pull out your tractor by hand.’
‘But how...’ he said
‘You have a cable attached. We will pull that, and some guys will push from behind. Your engine is very powerful, and just needs a little bit of help.’
We got a group of people together who pushed and pulled, and the tractor guy revved away and revved away and BOOM – he back on the road! Everyone cheered! YAYYYYYYYY
Then he attached a steel rope to the bus and revved and revved. The rope promptly broke! Shit !
But the bus had moved a bit, and we were all heartened. The bus driver got in and started the bus engine, the tractor guy re-tied the rope, a couple of friends came to help him, and the drunk guy got a bunch of people to help push the bus.
VROOOOM VROOOM.....DUM LAGAAKE HAISHAAAAA.....VROOOOOM VROOOOM......DUM LAGAKE HAAAAAISHAAAAAA.......VROOOOOOOOOOOM VROOOOOOOM
The smell of exhaust, and burnt clutch plates filled the air and PAAACHHAAAAAK the bus moved and surged and broke free of its muddy prison!!! YAYYYYYYYYY. Every one screamed in joy and excitement and high fived.
Quickly the bus moved out of the way and we moved out of there and didn’t stop till we hit the expressway!
‘So aren’t you happy?’ I asked She-who-must-be-obeyed. ‘the trek was a bummer, but at least you got a bit of excitement at the end.’
‘Oh shut up and drive.’
It’s another Sunday, and it’s time for another Sunday morning ride!
Today I was off to Jogeshwari, as I had been extremely intrigued by Ashutosh Bijoors blog about his visit to Jogeshwari caves.
Just imagine! A 2000 year old rock cut cave in the middle of Mumbai’s suburban area, and no one seems to have heard about it! I had to check this out. It was just under 50 KM round trip, and would be a nice ride in the rains.
I hit the road by 6 AM, and cycled across the Eastern express highway and then hit the Jogeshwari Vikhroli link road, and then asked my way to the caves.
And when I found the caves, my jaw really dropped!
What an awesome cave temple complex! It was huge – one large central hall, where there is a temple of Jogeshwari devi, one large outside chamber where there are some excellent friezes of Shiva Parvati, and several interconnected passages where there are temples of Ganesha, Maruti etc.
The ASI has done an excellent job of cleaning up the place and removing encroachments – as can be testified by the broken remains of the illegal buildings around it. Its a nice clean and safe place to go to, and since it is a live temple, there are always people around.
As per the ASI board outside, the caves were excavated in 6th century AD, when the Hindus started imitating the Buddhist practice of excavating rock cut caves and making Hindu temples and viharas, rather than Buddhist ones. Other famous temples of this type are the Elephanta caves, and the Ellora rock cut temple, and also the Ajanta caves – which are even more awesome, as they are better preserved.
It is very close to the other rock cut temple complexes of Mumbai - Mahakali caves and Kanheri caves – though these are Buddhist caves and probably older.
Just think about it – a 2000 year old rock cut temple right at the junction of JVLR and Western Express Highway! Right in the middle of suburbia!
At both the entrances you can see remains of what must have been a richly carved maha dwaar – with large dwarpalas on both sides and sculptures of Shiva on top. At the entrance to the main temple, there are friezes in better condition than the others – imposing large dwarpalas on both sides and panels on top – showing Shiva’s marriage, Shiva being worshipped by Ascetics and Shiva and Parvati in family life.
The pillars and layout of the caves are amazing, and really awe you with their majesty. In their heyday, it must have been an amazing site.
Do check out Ashutosh Bijoor’s blog for more details
Rather than reiterate what he has presented, I would like the highlight an important point.
We have been always taught that Bombay did not exist before the British – that they were the creators of Bombay. The lands were pointless and undeveloped before they came, and the only thing they liked about it was that it was a safe harbour. Even the name 'Bombay' comes from ‘Bom bahia’ - which is Portuguese for ‘good harbour’. And then they developed this worthless land, filled in the creeks and reclaimed the land, etc and created a city.
But that is completely false, as we can see from these amazing relics of the past.
Mahakali caves, Jogeshwari caves, Kanheri caves, Elephanta caves - these are all giant projects which would have required huge investment, huge sophistication and a rich civilisation. We have Mahim fort – which is more than a thousand years old – but is completely encroached upon.
There was a rich and awesome civilisation here since millennia, and we should be proud of it, celebrate it and protect it.
But we don't.
In any other city in the world, this would be one of the great treasures of the city – but here in Mumbai, it is just a sleepy little forgotten place.
But things are getting better - this temple is no longer dirty and encroached upon. The ASI has done a great job of cleaning it up, and the locals have kept it clean after that.
Reflecting on this, I donned my helmet again and set out for the return ride. It rained, and I was a happy man! Singing in the rain.
Continuing my Mumbai exploration and Sunday morning ride, I was on my way to my longest ride yet – Ghodbunder fort – on the outskirts of Mumbai. It was about 85 Km return trip and would be the longest ride so far.
Ghodbunder fort was fascinating to me, because it is such an important fort – controlling the Vasai creek, and overlooking one of the oldest harbours in the Mumbai area – and is reasonably close to the city...but no one seems to know about it. People who have lived in Thane or Borivili their whole lives, spitting distance away from the fort, have no idea that such a thing exists.
I myself had no idea either – and I am a history and travel buff – until I read about it on Ashutosh Bijoor’s blog when I was searching for forts and historical places around Mumbai.
I had the runs all day on Friday and Saturday, probably Mohammed Ali’s revenge from eating the iftaar street food, and was thinking sadly that this puts paid to my Sunday morning ride. I actually settled down to watch the Euro cup match on Saturday night, when I suddenly realised that I had not been to the pot pilgrimage for some time now! Maybe I would be Ok for the ride. So I put the alarm on for 5 AM and went to sleep.
The wife cursed at me when the alarm went off in the darkness, and would probably have strangled me there and then if I had not smartly jumped out of bed and muted the alarm. Shaking at my near escape, I fumbled for my clothes in the dark, as I did not dare to put on the light.
All geared up, I hit the road at first light and started on the journey. I normally like to listen to podcasts when I ride, but in the pouring rain it was obviously not possible, so I did the ride in silence with only the voices in my head for company. The Eastern express freeway is a pretty good place to ride your cycle – the roads are broad, and mostly in good condition, there is a service road where the slow vehicles can go, and on the actual highway there is enough room for the fast vehicles to give you a wide berth. You can maintain a good cadence and speed without having to jam on the brakes all the time.
Good speed is a relative concept of course – I was swiftly overtaken by multiple cyclists - but I did not try to race or catch up. It was a long journey and it was important to pace myself.
I passed the Airoli bridge turnoff, where I had gone to see the wetlands around the pumping station, and then was very happy to reach my first waypoint – the Thane toll naka! It was the first time I would be going out of Mumbai, and it was a sort of halfway point for the ride.
I continued on to Ghodbunder road, and after about 15 KM, hit another waypoint – my first ghat! The Gaimukh hill ghat on the road might not seem much on a motorbike, but you can certainly feel it it on a cycle. I shifted to first gear and toiled up the slope and was very happy that I managed to cross it without stopping or dismounting anywhere. Soon I was crossing Fountain hotel at the NH8 junction, and followed a much smaller road to Ghodbunder village and asked my way to the fort. The last guy pointed me up a steep slope and I huffed my way up it, hoping that it was not just a sadistic joke – but no, at the top of the slope was the fort!
And what a lovely fort! I was pleasantly surprised! It commanded a nice view of the Vasai creek, and was clearly the boss of the area. Anyone with a cannon force here definitely was the controller of the waters. And it was a big fort too. Most of the forts in Mumbai area are pretty small as forts go – Worli, Bandra, Sion, Sewri, etc. Mahim is a big fort – but you can’t enter it, because it is full of squatters.
This was a pretty big fort – comparable to most Maratha forts. But this was not Maratha built, but Portuguese built. The Portuguese came to the area in 1530, probably guided by the arab sailors who used the monsoon winds to come to India. The very word ‘monsoon’ comes from the word ‘mausam’ which means season. And this was the very port preferred by the arabs to land the horses they had brought to sell – that’s why it’s called Ghod – bunder (horse port).
The Portuguese immediately saw the value of such a good port and started making a foothold in the area. They started fortifying the hills, and completed this fort and called it Cacabe de Tanna. They had powerful enemies in the form of the Marathas and the British – and both were not happy about the Portuguese having so many powerful forts close to each other – Ghodbunder, Vasai, Virar, Arnala etc – and kept attacking them. They resisted several Maratha attacks – notably a powerful one by Shivaji in 1672, but were finally defeated by Maratha forces under Chimnaji appa in 1737. The Marathas themselves were conquered by the British, and the brits took over the fort in 1818 and made it the district headquarters of Thane.
But all that is history now – and the place is in ruins. The ASI has made some efforts to preserve it, and the ruins are picturesque and atmospheric. As it is in the midst of the village, there were some locals playing cricket in the ruins. Normally I would think that this a desecration, but somehow this was not. I found it quite charming actually – that Indian villagers were playing a British sport in a Portuguese fort.
There were beautiful views of the Ulhas river and Vasai creek, and the feeling of being in a ruined fort in the monsoons is simply amazing.
A little bit away from the main fort was an intriguing structure – first I thought it’s a mosque.
But when I went there, I found out that it was a church, which had been repurposed to be a hotel, but now was abandoned and in complete squalor. The whole place was broken up, and monkeys were taking refuge from the rains, and children were engrossed in a game of marbles. After the majestic ruins of the fort, seeing the more modern ruins of this hotel was very poignant. I wondered who’s dream project this must have been, and how much money he must have lost in this. Wouldn’t it have been better to have left it as an old church?
I observed the old port for some time from the hill top – it must have looked just the same back in the 1500s when the arab traders were bringing in their horses.
Then it was time to leave – I had a long ride back home, and I was winded and crampy – but very happy when I reached home. I had cycled 85 KM in 6 hours in the rain and was now really looking forward to my limbu pani, hot shower and hot lunch.
BTW, on the way back I saw the bands practising for the upcoming Ganesh festival. They practise under the flyover bridges – which is a great idea – they are protected from the rain, and are away from developed areas so they disturb nobody. The interesting thing nowadays is the amount of girls in these bands – especially playing the big Dhols, which used to be a male bastion. Check out these power girls freaking out on the drums. What a sound!