Travelling through time: Along the river Ulhas and up to Kondane Caves

Karjat to Kondane


Journeys in India are like time-travel. Within a span of a few hours, one is transported through ways of living that span centuries, even millennia, but one would have to ignore a few mobile phones and fitness centers along the way. Just last weekend, we experienced time-travel during an impromptu visit to Karjat for short break from the heat of pre-monsoon Mumbai. We drove along the old Pune highway through Navi Mumbai and neighbouring areas into the gentle rolling, uncharacteristically dry Western Ghats to Karjat, a small vacation town in central Maharashtra. We were quite happy to leave the industries behind as the landscape began to get less urbanised. Google Earth displayed several places of interest in the neighbourhood of Karjat, temples, an Emu Park, Rajmachi Fort and the ancient Buddhist caves at Kondane.

Spring solstice and the full moon

The first evening, we were greeted by a brilliant creamy moon rising up from behind the Sayadri range. I regretted leaving my DSLR behind and tried some acrobatics with our phones, peeping from behind trees, beside buildings and by the water to get interesting shots of the moon.
The stars too seemed closer, with Sirius beating all the others to it as they slowly began to appear, remained outshone by the brilliant moonlight.

Full moon night in Karjat

It was impossible to capture even a fraction of what we could see. And when, just before daybreak, I stepped out to look at the moonset, I was gifted with two (see figure below) and instantly, my mind went to the story of Baby Krishna and his exploits.

Baby Krishna, Yashodha and the full moon


As the story goes, one night on seeing the full-moon, Krishna asked his mother, Yashodha what it was. To him it appeared like a brilliant lump of butter and baby Krishna would do anything to get his hands on some butter. Desiring to ‘play’ with the moon, the god-child persisted in his demands, unconsoled by the many distractions that Yashodha provided him with. “I want to play with the moon” he insisted. “But the moon is a toy of god”, his mother replied, “you can’t have it”. Wanting to fulfill Krishna’s demand without accomplishing the impossible, Yashodha filled a vessel with water and handed to Krishna a brilliant reflection of the moon. The story doesn’t end here, since Krishna had a much larger plan, as legend has it, for me, the message was different. Children will always want things that, for some reason or other, they cannot get. I’ve always found the motivation for parents to provide children with “everything that money can buy” to be quite unnecessary, even harmful. Children must know there are things that are out of reach for them, and a parent can convey that in many ways. Yashodha’s strategy was a clever one. This story always stayed in my mind when my children were young.

Heading out on an impulse: Karjat to Kondane, hopefully

Our decision to explore the caves was spontaneous on our next morning at Karjat. We thought it would be a great way to test our legs and to celebrate the spring solstice and the full moon. The next morning, as the moon set behind the hills in the West, we started our journey towards the east, guided by the rising sun and google maps. We also decided that the journey, not the destination was our focus, and if we couldn’t make it up to the caves, well, it would have still been a nice walk. With this flexible plan and minimal planning, we set off with little other than half a litre of bottled water and our phones. The morning was quiet, and we trudged along quite briskly for the first several miles.

A semi-English medium school?

Our first encounter was a huge sign outside a school building that proudly announced itself as ‘Geeta English medium and Semi-English Medium School’ but decided to leave the question of Semi-English medium for another trip. Perhaps it was their oblique acknowledgement to recent calls for multilingual education.

Semi English medium school!

The sun was bright and the air was cool so we put several miles behind us, passing villages, organic farms, and even a one-room fitness centre on the side of the road where a rather muscular instructor was chatting on his phone. The room stood quite isolated and alone in the largely agricultural area, and we wondered who and how many people would visit his place. Some youngsters on motorcycles who passed us by seemed likely clients.

Ulhas river, just a trickle in comparison with the monsoon season

By and large the landscape was dry and apart from the mango, mahua, peepal and jamun, most of the trees were bare. The barest of all were the red silk cottons, with just a few clumps of wool clinging to erupted fruit that the wind had failed to dislodge. Occasionally, an eddy of dry wind would raise dust, twigs and leaves as we walked, predicting a fairly dry day as is typical of this time of year. Before the monsoon hits later in the summer, this is the driest spell in the valley, but we walked on unconcerned, enjoying the chugging sounds of the Matheran train on an adjacent hill. Hours later, on our way back, this sound would reassure us that we weren’t seriously lost in the hills, and the Rajmachi trail was somewhere close.

Beating the heat

Although google maps was quite clear about the directions, the (Indian) urge to ask for direction showed up and we needed reassurance that we were on the right track. We stopped a young man on the side of the road to ask. But as is common, the young man (with a dark, impressive moustache, a black round kajal bindi and a blue shirt that seemed to catch the sky) didn’t stop at that, he became quite involved with our journey and even stopped a passing (empty) bus to check if that was the direction in which the bus was headed. “Hop in” the driver gestured to us, and we got a brief relief from walking as we bounded along the rough road along the river. We could see women and children by the water, washing clothes, themselves, some buffalo. As I shook with the bumps on the road, I remembered my grandfather telling me that the cows need to walk and buffalo need to soak…..if you wanted a good output of milk! Ahhhh! Memories……

The Rajmachi trail

The bus took us a couple of miles ahead to Rajmachi village. The driver said he’d been hired to drive a group to another village for a wedding ceremony and we thanked him and disembarked, feeling a bit lost in the open space just outside the village. This was also the village with a couple of temples that looked quiet and welcoming, but we wanted to head straight on to the hills, sort of reassured by the faded sign of food available for purchase at one of the shacks along the way. Having left well before the morning meal, we thought this would be quite welcome on the way back and exchanged knowing smiles with each other at the synchronised thought.

The village was quite decorated and we noticed at least five couples whose wedding ceremony was announced for that day. Freshly painted homes and bright white rangolis bordered the yards outside the homes. Perhaps this was one of those community weddings one hears about.

Closed for a wedding trip

The Rajmachi Trail

We were aware that the Rajmachi trek starts from this village and goes on beyond the caves to the Camp and Fort of the same name. We were on track!

As we took a left turn from the main entry to the village to start our climb, a young boy of about ten ran up behind us, waving in the other direction, speaking in Marathi……his dog gave us a detailed sniffing and I could feel its damp nose on my calf muscles, wondering if they were going to be his next meal. He hadn’t barked and those are the most dangerous ones, I seemed to remember. Fortunately both of us passed the threat test followed up on the boy’s signals, going around the turn and onwards towards the east, still along the hill and not upwards. The concrete road had come to an end, and finally, about another mile ahead, we saw the sign. This was Kondane village.much smaller and more dispersed than the last one. This is the village that the caves were named after, and the starting point of the climb. It was still early in the day, and the sun was still reasonably mild. The brief bus ride had raised our enthusiasm and we started to climb, only now opening our precious reserve of water to drink.

Start of the Rajmachi trek

Google maps

The gravel road to Kondane signalled the end of the concrete track and we watched the Matheran train chug along on the adjacent hill, passing through the final tunnel before reaching the tourist spot. It looked like a toy-train, and completed several trips back and forth before our trip ended. When we got lost among the boulders of the non-existent stream, the sound of the train provided reassurance. On reaching Kondane village, we saw some movements of people in their huts, but the maximum noise came from the hens and their numerous chicks, a couple for lazy roosters cried out their announcement of delayed daybreak and we passed a young child around 8 years old sat in a hut by himself, one couldn’t see any adults around.

A child by himself in an open hut. No adult in sight

Between us, we haven’t been able to agree whether google maps misguided us on our climb or helped us get back on track. Somewhat out of shape and also out of practice, we took several breaks on our way up. With no one else to compete with or accompany, we chatted with birds, sipped on the diminishing water supply and listened to the wind. For most of the way up, we didn’t cross any other person, local or other, and we believed no one else knew we were up here, we were wrong!

Except for the climb where we started to follow a rocky water path, now dry, we did quite okay. The steep climb and the increasing distance between the caves and us was alarming. We decided to backtrack and return to the dusty trail.

Now becoming more thirsty we began to conserve our water….the track would otherwise be filled with streams of fresh rainwater, but at this time, it would be hard to find any on the way, we thought. Yet, we didn’t really know what to expect since some websites claimed that there were shops set-up near the caves, but it was lean season, and shops need clients, so we prepared accordingly, pacing ourselves.

The Same Sky: Look up during one of our several breaks

Finally, we saw he board announcing the climb for the caves and began our ascent. The Rajmachi trail is a pretty steady and an easy climb, but things don’t always go as they should. After a pretty arduous stretch, we decided we couldn’t go on this way and googled our way back to the clearly marked Rajmachi trek. I guess the map helped us back on track.

Finally a view of the Caves

About a mile from the caves, to our relief, we encountered two people, a man and a woman, who were transporting rocks to the caves on their donkeys. Soon after that, a smartly dressed young man (he was wearing an embroidered shirt and a round black kajal bindi like the man with the moustache who found us the bus ride) climbed from behind us and we got chatting. This was Ankush, an employee of the Archeological Survey of India, and his job was to man the caves every day. He carried with him a bag with food and water. We could have hugged him with relief.

Ankush from ASI

“Watch out for the bees”

Ankush started by warning us to take a breath. “There are bee-hives here, and they get agitated by the smell of sweat and fatigue, and if you have on khushboo, then even more”. “No perfume” we assured him as we sat down beside him on the final steps before the caves. We had also seen a warning sign about the bees further down, but much of it was in Marathi. Anyway, not wanted to be received by a swarm of angry bees, we sat down, and even stretched out for a bit, looking up at the blue sky, the euphoric feeling of reaching a summit taking hold of both of us. We watched Ankush as he folded his legs and sat down, looking ahead to another regular day at work!

Closer to the caves
The main hall to the right with a wooden archway
The main stupa, partly destroyed by an earthquake in 1900
A damaged bust and etched name in Brahmi script
Looking up at the bees
Beds in the dorm
The dormitory
Cave with a view

The smaller stupa at the entrance of the hall
A reservoir that fills every monsoon
Another perspective
The Grandeur of the Caves

Ankush spoke with great affection about the bees, making sure we didn’t trad into their territory. Especially when we neared the reservoir, we realised that a whole bunch of them seemed agitated, he advised us not to explore any deeper into the rest of the 16 caves. The stance that he took towards the bees was fascinating to encounter, it was with humility, affection and respect that he spoke about them. His information about the caves was also delivered with a sense of an acceptance of its presence and history, rather than the awe that we were experiencing.

Voting patterns in the village

Ankush mentioned an interesting trend in voting patterns in the village. He said that when he was younger, whole villages used to vote unilaterally and everyone know who the vote would go to, there would be no surprises. Now a days, he said that families have splintered in their opinions, they’ve become more secretive, they say yes to everyone and take the benefits if they are offered and do what they like. Although most families vote for the same party, that is also not always true. Father and son can land up voting for different people. Voting patterns have completely changed, he claimed.

Finding our way back

Shit has its uses

We started our trek back after about an hour around the caves, now much more knowledgeable about the place and its people after chatting with Ankush. He, of course, said that he hadn’t yet told us “anything much” and we should return another day. He has camping and other equipment in case we ever want to come back. With a gesture of dismissal as a farewell, he set us on our way back.

On getting lost again

As we climbed down, we crossed the bunch of donkeys again, and realised in our brief encounter with the young man, that he knew (as did Ankush) exactly which path we had taken on our way up. How we knew this was when he pointed to another track what was slightly “shorter than the one you took this morning”, we were shocked that he knew, that they knew…..maybe many more people knew about this crazy couple climbing up on their own on a warm day in April. This realisation was quite heart-warming. Had something happened on the way, there would have been help available. Anyway, we did get lost again, and did find our way back again, this time guided by the lumps of donkey dung that we spotted when we went off track.

Just before losing our way, again!
Mother and child

Half way down, we passed this young mother and her (around 3 year old) child who were sitting under a low branch and playing, the woman talking and the child playing with the mother’s sari. As my husband passed, the child pointed to the bottle of water. Immediately, he handed over our last sips of water to the child, who drank it up. I stopped to take a picture and was deeply moved by this generous act, after all, we really didn’t know when we’d get to a source of water, right? Well, it worked out fine as we descended briskly down the path and into Kondane village. Not a person was in sight and even the chickens were quieter. We passed a cow trying to ask for food and a sleepy dog on the road…..apart from that the village was quiet and we headed on to Rajmachi, hoping for better luck there. By this time, I began to feel parched, and I am sure that my husband was too, but we didn’t speak about it.

Finally, signs of village life
Kondane village street

Finally, we made it to Rajmachi and we were told that all the shops (except one) were closed and we could get water. In minutes, we downed a litre of water each, cooled our neck and face and headed on again, the river guiding us on the way back. Somewhere along the road we saw a shack where vada pao was announced and found a man working behind the table, readying for his day. Food is available he said,and we were relieved. Up until then, I think the thirst was predominant and we hadn’t really thought about food, but we had been walking for about four hours now and needed something to eat. The kanda bhajia was fabulous, as was the vada pao with homemade garlic chutney and fried green chillies. Of course, the accompanying conversations was the highlight of the encounter.

Bhaji by the River

We talked about the people who visit and local people and some youngsters who have started to spoil the area with their drinking. “But my wife is the best, she is educated, she hasn’t had any fights with others in the village and both my sons are good boys. They study and they help with this shop andalso manage the land. One of them is doing a masters and the other is going for computer training” Adding that “I owe everything to having a good wife”, he said. We also had a couple of exchanges about the impending elections.

Final ride back home

Travelling companion

AFter the vada pao and bhajia, we started on the last leg of our journey when I began to feel like I was burning up. Dragging my feet, I suggested that we find a ride back home from the next village. We passed (another?)buffalo soaking in the river and wanted to do just that. The water we had bought went into trying to cool down my palms (for some strange reasons, my palms were heating up). Finally we came to a village that had several tuk-tuks lined up as well as a bigger vehicle that was waiting to fll up. We knew our residence was just a couple of kilometers away, but we jumped into a three wheeler and accompanied by an Usha sewing machine as a travelling companion, we headed home. We passed another village on the way and a woman was standing by the side of the road with a bag in her hand. He slowed down as if to pick her up, but this was not a ride, it was a perfectly synchronised lunch-box pick-up that his wife had cooked for him. Nice timing. We too got back, bathed, cooled down and had lunch before crashing out for a long and well-deserved nap, the cool wind and bird-song in our hearts.

Back home safe and sound and ready to eat! Papad decorations done by me

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