Barefoot Notes: Who does Sahyadri belong to?

It does not take long for a murmuring river to turn into a raging cascade, yet it is no match to the prowess of the tall terraces of northern Western Ghats. The rapids are strong to make crossing the river difficult, but not enough to complete the journey to the foot of the mountain. It falls, only to rise in countless little fractions of its former self as mist, dancing to the tune of the winds orchestrated by the mountains themselves. It is only when the waters rage on, fueled by the south-west monsoons, do they spill down the amber facades of the Ghats, touching their feet as they reform their ancestral channels.
Walking the leopard's path, with an inverted waterfall to the left, and other two forming Kalu river downhill
The range officer pointed to a high precipice from where a river came crashing down, and he said, that’s where we’re headed. Under a shroud of torrential rains, we could glimpse at the full glory of the fall whenever the clouds dispersed. To the right of this gorgeous fall of the Kalu River, an inverted waterfall rose into the skies, inching slowly to the ground with the intensity of the rains.

Mountains and rivers: call it love, or war, this union is as divine as it is magnificent. Kalu River begins its journey as an inconspicuous stream high over the plateau of Harishchandragad, a mighty natural fortress with one of the largest of man-made forts of the Western Ghats built by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Gushing through a deep gorge carved downhill, it makes its way to the westerly Konkan plains of Thane plateau to join Ulhas river, which forms the large Vasai creek north of the city of Mumbai as it spills into the Arabian Sea.
Mud flower? - A maze-work of harvester ants (Pheidole sp.), to avoid rainwater runoff from entering their underground nest.
We were walking under the shadow of these giants, one cast by the mountain itself, one by the south-west monsoons, and one cast by the history of this place. Our conversations hovered around the natural richness of this place as we spotted fresh leopard scratch marks, an indolent fan-throated lizard, a rabble of Common Crow butterflies, the finest architecture of the harvester ants, and a timid green keelback snake, and trailed slowly towards its cultural history.
An ancient Navagunjara
In the corner of the grove, a Hanuman idol, painted in saffron, rested in a temple, the only rock-carved, probably a century-or-two old, idol down this part of the ghats, and in another, the usual, mysterious chimera of animals that is associated with stone-forts of northern Western Ghats, the adopted sigil of Sahyadrica. We walked past the remains of blocks carved out of rocks once used as pillars to a temple. I subconsciously placed a hand upon it, and a thought caught my mind. I was imagining a world that was, of the stone sculptors, the architects, the priests and the preachers. How different was this place then – were there tigers here as there are leopards today, was this a different forest than it is now? My thought became stuck on one particular question: who does Sahyadri belong to? To the recent adopters of this land, to our ancestors who forged entire forts out of stone, or to nature, to whom we all invariably belong?
Treading the trail of Kalu river, with the Kalu waterfall in the background
We were conducting a workshop for local youth, at the behest of the forest department, on how to become the stewards of this landscape, to conserve it but also to create awareness among its visitors. They are to be the first formal nature guides of this region – similar to the nature guides you might have interacted with in tiger reserves of India. The forest department is investing intently on developing this area for eco-tourism, with a policy to actively engage local communities. Here, they are leading the way towards conserving this landscape by preaching about its cultural and natural history. The temple that I thought was abolished by forces of nature, was in fact still standing tall – in memory as in heart – hidden among the wilderness, and priests and the preachers, whom I thought were lost too, are alive among these communities.

What began as a knowledge-imparting process turned into knowledge-sharing. In the company of people rich in folklore – of tradition, medicine, and wildlife – we were in for a conventional workshop turned an adventure camp.

After barely making it to the base of the Kalu waterfall and exploring the foothills of the towering Naneghat, we turned our attention to another landmark of this landscape: Ganpati Gadad.
Ganpati Gadad
Ganpati Gadad is a little below the half-way mark (around 500 m) of a giant 1200 m tall portion of the Ghats which continues as Naneghat to the north. Beyond the precipice lies Junnar taluka of Pune district. Also called ganesh leni in Marathi (leni is a holy shrine, mostly in a cave carved out of stone), it is an isolated cave complex closely related to the more famous Lenyadri – a composite of cave systems of religious significance, lying about 20 km from Ganpati Gadad as the crow flies east towards the Ghats of Junnar.

Having scarce knowledge of where exactly we were headed at the time, we assembled with the trainees who’ve scaled these mountains for countless number of times. Turns out, they were our trainers and the most effervescent nature guides I’ve had the privilege of trekking with. The village of Sonavale lies a few yards from the base of Ganpati Gadad and has an active Ganesh Leni Charitable Trust (if you want to visit, contact Deepak on 9209285718) which looks after conservation of the traditions of the leni and its protection from unruly trekkers who damage or litter the surrounding.
Yours truly had to pose under the beloved mahua tree.
Our path, led by the members of the trust, began under the biggest – and the oldest – mahua tree that I have ever seen. Gazing up at this living giant, I felt a force that calmed me and put me in its awe, a feeling we get when looking at something spectacular, something of gigantic proportions – physical as well as metaphysical – something out-worldly: what do we call such a thing? Divine? God-like? This was my first thought, and as we clicked pictures to tell of our little tryst with possibly the largest mahua tree of Western Ghats, I wondered how many seasons it has seen. How many children has it seen play under it, how many animals fed on its delicious flowers and fruits, how many birds nested in its boughs. I did not just halt under this tree. My mind paused, only to absorb all the glory of its splendour, lest I never see it again.

Why was this the only tree that was spared from the axe when all the trees in this cove were hacked and felled at least once in their lives? I was told that every axe-man who’s ever walked under its shade has refrained from hacking at it because of its menacing size. I had wished for a more spiritual reasoning. Could this tree’s calming presence have any effect on a person's mind? I cannot tell for sure, but this tree is protected from ever being hacked by the impact it has on anyone wielding an axe. Talk of divine intervention – if something like this exists, I have found it within this tree, and that would explain why the giant trees are often associated with divinity.

The mountain we were to tread shadowed this tree by many magnitudes. Ganpati Gadad was built in a convex arc within it, probably a natural cavity formed by an ancient cascade that exposed the bedrock – the igneous Deccan trap – which was then chiseled by hand. There are about seven caves, built side-by-side, at places one-upon-another, with a few water tanks and what appears to be granaries or storerooms. The main cave, which lies above the smaller caves, is the largest, containing two smaller rooms on each side. It houses idols of Lord Ganesha, with stone pillars composed of intricate symbols and designs bearing the weight of the mountain.
An ephemeral waterfall flying over the edge of Ganpati Gadad.
Roughly around the centre of the caves a waterfall tumbles down into the valley, but the cave system remains dry throughout the wet season. Long ago, there was a wide platform in front of the caves which has since caved in.

Ganpati Gadad, for being so isolated, has a rich history. It is said that these man-made caves were already here when many of the villages down the Ghats were established. It is not known when it was built, but we can speculate that it was constructed around the same time the caves of Lenyadri were built between first and third century AD – nearly 1900 years ago. Ganpati Gadad itself is free of any scriptures, but Naneghat, only about 10 km from this place, is an archaeological treasure.  Georg Bühler (1837–1898), a scholar of ancient Indian languages, said, “the Naneghat inscriptions, which belong to the oldest historical documents of Western India, are in some respects more interesting and important than all of the other cave inscriptions taken together” (Mirashi, 1981).
The main cave at Ganpati Gadad, maintained by local communities.
Before being rediscovered as a holy shrine and a trekker’s delight, I was told that Ganpati Gadad was home to a large colony of bats. Now, only a handful few, such as the lesser mouse-tailed bat, remain. Before being discovered by bats, it was inhabited by man – priests and possibly monks – as well as wayfarers.

Along with Naneghat, Ganpati Gadad lies in the part of the Ghats which formed a trade route between the low-lying Konkan region and the Deccan plateau of India above the Ghats. It possibly joined Lenyadhri from where traders also once passed through. Whatever the ships brought to the shores of Vasai, or up Ulhas river to Kalyan, was hauled up – on foot by wayfarers as well as on horses and carts – the Ghats. This region was a literal gateway between the sea and the mountaintops.
An ancient stone directing the path of the trade
route to traders and porters. It was possibly one of the many placed
along the way up the Ghats. This one is possibly displaced.  
Then came the reign of Marathas when giant forts were built atop the ridges – Harishchandragad to the north, Jivdhan that towers over Naneghat, and Machindragad and Gorakhgad further south, this was a strategic location for military as it was for trade.
NH 222 leading up to Malsej Ghat
Times have now changed. Today, the forts and the caves that once cradled a civilization – or helped in formation of one – are all empty, as are the ancient trade routes, save for the occasional visitors who trek along to relieve history or the herdsmen who migrate from Deccan to Konkan. Interestingly, the trade still exists. The National Highway (NH) 222 passes through Malsej Ghats, a gap between Harishchandragad and Naneghat, linking, like before, the Deccan with the Konkan.

Yet if this age is of any significance, it won’t be remembered for its highways. This is a time of reminiscence and preservation. What I learnt from my short visit to this part of the Ghats is that history is still alive in the region, natural as well as cultural, and that there are people, in this fast-paced age of virtual living, still living with the leopard, still harvesting wild bounties, still herding livestock, still growing paddy, still preaching to the ancient stone gods that guard the natural endowment they adopted from their ancestors, who swear an oath not to a king but to nature herself, not 100 km from Mumbai.
Remembering the ancient cultural and natural history of Sahyadri, from under the mountain.
Coming back to my question: who does Sahyadri belong to? Definitively, there is no answer. Man has come and gone time and again, but there is one thing that has remained constant throughout history as it will in the future: nature; in background as a misty waterfall trailing the contours of the mountains or in the foreground as a tender sapling adorning the mountain’s waist.
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There is, of course, a long way to go. With tourism of any kind – ecologically conscious or conventional – it is bound to increase footfall and waste, and its management is going to slowly resemble that of commercial tourism. How we tackle this will determine whether tourism will indeed save this part of northern Western Ghats from the wildfire that is unplanned development.

This is where we come in. Hundreds of groups go trekking or for picnics in the recesses of the Ghats and other natural spaces every weekend. If nature beckons you, hear her out as well.

Here are ten things (some are responsibilities, some are suggestions) to remember before venturing into nature:

Responsibilities:

1. Loiter, not litter. Do not litter, do not throw anything what-so-ever if you’re out trekking or just chilling with a basket full of foodstuffs. No plastics: these things often choke small rivulets which are destined to form giant rivers. No papers, not even that banana peel or that mandarin peel or seed: they form a part of a diet of an animal which does not eat it, or, they sprout and, at times, end up becoming invasive in the area. Leave behind nothing.

2. Don’t break, cut, trap, or capture anything. It is not wise to take away anything – even a flower – away from nature. If you think about it deeply, that flower is not going to serve you any purpose whatsoever. That leaf you plan to press in your book is not going to bring you any luck. Why break something and take it away from where it belongs? A flower serves a more important purpose on its stalk than it does on your head or in your pocket. Photograph it. Bring back only memories.

3. Don’t play loud music. It is quite ironic to see people playing music on speakers while on a trek. You’re here escape the cacophony of the daily world, if you bring your chaos to the mountains, you’re only holding back to that state of mind – and ruining others’ and that of the wildlife around that you could possibly see. Don’t yell either, unless you need help.

4. Don’t carve or make graffiti! If you want to express your love in some way, tell it to that person or write it in your diary. A tree is no object to be cut open for your unashamed selfish love. The caves of Ganesh Gadad are diseased with graffiti, often written with markers, whiteners, and even oil paints! This is not only unbecoming of you, but also illegal.

5. Respect the local culture and the people. Whenever out trekking, you may have to interact with local people who come from a different cultural background. Respect their lifestyle and don’t pass comments. If they want to welcome you with flowers, accept it. If they want you to start your adventure by receiving blessings of their deities, generally while passing on your way, do it. Don’t be mean and rude to those whose home you’re treading. If you want to decline food, do so politely.

Suggestions:

6. Don’t go wandering alone if you’re with a group. While this is the responsibility of the trek organiser, it is your duty to abide by the rules. Wandering off on your own little adventure, if you’re a part of a trekking group, is a silly thing to do, lest any calamity befalls you.

7. Do your homework about the place before you go. Going on a trek is like going for an interview, although it is more exciting to be on the former than the latter. Even so, do a little bit of homework before you’re visiting that place. It will help you prepare better for what’s to come. Going unprepared also has its own quirks, but if you do not have a regular habit of trekking, a homework is good way to begin. Inquire, if possible, about the place, whether you’ll need to hire people to guide your way up, and strike a decent deal with them.

8. See and observe. When you’re finally out, don’t just look at your path, see around, observe this world that is so different than yours. Get lost in its beauty, register everything you see.

9. And, write about your experiences. If not for anyone, for yourself. Ten years from now, it will serve as a beautiful reminder of your adventure – perhaps even coaxing you to go on your next. 

10. Don’t bargain with tribal people selling something along the roadside. Often during monsoon, tribal ladies and gents may sell delicious forest fruits along the roadside – these fruits are completely organic, pure and unadulterated. Try these if you want to, but don’t bargain unless it’s some preposterous cost being offered. In my experience, their prices are always modest, and we must respect this. Don’t bargain with them, for this is your contribution to their lives whose home you are visiting without invitation or without giving anything in return. I experienced eating alava (Meyna laxiflora), the most pungent smelling fruit I’ve ever tasted, for the first time here (I came to like its unexplainable taste after a while). It was being sold by tribal ladies along the highway that climbs up to Malsej Ghat. It didn’t cost them much in harvesting it – not economically – but it took them a lot of effort to get to it which can’t be easily translated into money. Remember their effort, and oblige them their offer. There are many fruits, like alava, which we won’t get to taste again until the next season.

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