Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kanheri Caves (SGNP)

Dated: May 19, 2012.

Kanheri Caves (SGNP)
Since we had an extended weekend coming up, I and a couple of my office colleagues decided to plan a trip out. None of my colleagues were keen on an overnight trip so I suggested we head for Kanheri Caves post our night shift for a day trip. Although I have visited national park before as a kid I have never been to Kanheri caves. This would be my first trip to Kanheri caves and I was looking forward to my weekend.
Our night shift ended at 09:30 AM IST and we changed over from office wear to an attire more suitable for the trek we had planned. We have office transport that leaves for Borivali station at 10:00 AM IST daily. So we planned to board it and get off at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and continue the journey on foot from there on.
The best way to travel to SGNP is to get off at Borivali Railway station (East side) and either walk it up to SGNP located on WE highway or board a BEST bus from station to SGNP.
Our transport left late and we reached SGNP at about 11:00 AM IST. We spent about half an hour grabbing a quick breakfast and packing some snacks for the way. We had carried some extra glucose water since we expected it to be a hot and sunny May afternoon.
The Entrance fee was Rs. 30/- per adult. We noticed that people were allowed to take their private vehicles inside at a nominal fee. Public transport was however not allowed in. We picked up our tickets and entered the SGNP gates.
There is a bus service operated by the forest department which charges you Rs. 30/- for a one way trip to Kanheri caves. Although we expected the temperatures to soar in the afternoon we weren’t keen on travelling by Bus or the Toy train of SGNP.
We wanted to travel at our own pace and make halts at places we found interesting. We noticed the forest department had put up a rent a cycle stall at the entrance.  At Rs. 40/- per cycle it was a good deal we immediately picked up the last three cycles left on the stall. We had to get the breaks tuned before we could proceed. A word of caution these bikes have been through rough use so it is advisable to have them checked before you get moving.
It was 11:45 when we started off on the cycles and we hoped to get to Kanheri caves within an hour. The cycles made the journey less tiring and less time consuming too. Also unlike the Bus or train they still allowed us the freedom to halt whenever and wherever we wanted to.
Our first halt was at a junction where the road branched off into two. The lane on our left was a Tiger safari route and the one on our right was our route to Kanheri caves. We posed for a few pictures and resumed our trip to Kanheri caves.
Our second halt was over a bridge on a dried up stream. A snake had been run over by some vehicle while crossing the road. We often get to see such sights on roads that pass through forest areas. For me such sights symbolise Mother Nature trampled under the wheels of modernisation.
After a few pictures and sips of glucose we were back on route to Kanheri caves.
It was after 45 minutes of cycling and three halts since we started from SGNP gates that we first sighted Kanheri caves. The way up was steep so decided to walk up, dragging our cycles along with us. A large hoarding announced an additional fee of Rs. 30/- for Kanheri Caves, but we saw no ticketing windows or entry post. So we parked our cycles and just moved in without any tickets.
As expected the caves were spread over a huge area and it wasn’t possible for us cover all of them in one day. These caves date back from 01 century BCE to 10 century CE. We explored a most of the caves located on the northern side and were amazed by the work effort that must have gone into creating these rock cut caves and mounds. Over a hundred viharas prove that this was a well organised colony of Buddhist monks. While the viharas were meant for study and meditation there are larger halls called chaityas which were meant for congregational worship. Each of these chaitya’s are lined with beautifully carved Buddhist sculptures and pillars. Some also contain rock cut stupas meant for congregational worship.
Cave 01 though appears massive on the outside is an unfinished chaitya and does not hold much on the inside.
Cave 11 is a huge hall with a front veranda. The hall has two cells with Buddha shrines carved next to each cell entrance. A huge rock cut stupa is placed next to the hall.
The most extravagant of these was cave 03 which is a chaitya consisting of a huge rectangular hall, a porch and a spacious court in front. Rows of 17 pillars on each side divide the hall into a central nave and flanking aisles.
A large stupa almost 7 meters in height adorns the far side of this hall. The facade of the hall has one large entrance with two smaller doors, one on each side. A large window above the doors provides passage for light. The side walls of the veranda are adorned with large sculptures of standing Buddha.
In addition to the caves there are several underground water tanks, almost one for every three or four caves. We noticed a security guard drawing water from one of these tanks and asked him if the water was edible. With a positive response he showed us his water bottle that he had come to refill. The underground water tanks had a small square opening to draw out water and yet when you peep in you would notice that each tank is cut in an exact square or rectangle. Even the base of these tanks was aligned to the ceiling. Even more surprising was the fact that almost all the water tanks we came across had a natural spring inside it. Although most tanks aren’t maintained anymore and have turned dirty, the guard informed us that there are three tanks which are still cleaned regularly and the water is edible. We drank some sweet water and moved on.
We continued our climb upwards visiting several caves on the way. As we reached higher we realised that beyond the caves and the water tanks this location offered a beautiful panoramic view of northern Mumbai. After a short break and some pictures we started our climb downwards.
Some village women were hawking cucumber and lemon juice at the base of the caves. We allowed ourselves a second break before we could start cycling back to the SGNP gates. Rakesh couldn’t help comparing today with our childhood days when we would go cycling and enjoys gola’s, nimbu pani and stuff like that on our pocket money.
We returned to the rent a cycle stall only to be informed that at Rs.40/- per cycle had a two hour time limit to it. After a successful argument that we were not informed of this condition the forest officer let us go without any extra charges. There are no rate-cards printed or banners put up to display the cycle charges or conditions involved. Most people assume these forest guards are police officers due to similar uniforms and pay up without any complains. Before leaving we did suggest to them that they display rate charts to avoid such instances in future.
Despite having worked a night shift we had spent the day well, visiting a place that is such a treasure in a city like Mumbai and yet some many of us take this place for granted. Some people never visiting it in their entire life time. Over 2000 years ago this place was a thriving university and today it is almost forgotten. So near and yet so lost...

Monday, January 30, 2012


Dated: January 07, 2012

My first trip to Matheran was as a student of St. Xavier’s College and since then I have been to Matheran several times. Every time I visit Matheran I find something new I had not seen or experienced before. When my friend Merwyn posted on Facebook his plans to visit Matheran on January 07, 2012 for a day trip I wasn’t sure if I’d want to go. More so since the trip was planned to start at 07:03 hours from Dadar station and I was scheduled for a night shift on Friday ending at 10:30 hours. Nevertheless when my cousin Savio expressed interest in going on this trip every other plan had to be dropped and the trip was ON. My wife Perpetua had a weekend off so she too agreed to join us for the trip.
The plan was to meet up at Dadar station and board the 07:03 local for Karjat. Merwyn and his friend were already at Dadar when we left from Andheri and we just about made it in time to catch the train. We switched compartments at Kurla to join Merwyn and his friend Fletcher and finally the group was together on its way to Matheran. We reached Neral in about 90 minutes and got to the business of getting ourselves a ride. A taxi booking counter is set up at 2 minutes walk from the station. Prepaid taxis cost Rs. 60 per head and each taxi (Maruti Omni Vans) would ferry 5 passengers per trip.
On the way up to Matheran
The way up is a beautiful ride and view is breath taking. During the monsoons this route is lined with beautiful waterfalls. These Taxis drop us at the Dasturi PT as vehicles are not allowed beyond this PT. We had Egg omelette and chai for breakfast at a restaurant run by an old couple.

Before leaving we picked up some water bottles and chips for the day ahead. The centrally located market place is 40-50 minutes’ walk from the Dasturi PT. If you are here for an overnight trip it is best to hit the market place first and get yourself a place to stay and cover PTs like Echo PT, Edward PT, King George PT, Cecil PT, Lord PT and Lumley Seat. These PTs are close to each other and if you start early you should be done before lunch. We however chose to visit the Garbut PT which was about an hour’s walk from the entry PT and would require us to walk back if we had gone to the market place first. With no intention of booking a place it made sense to visit Garbut PT first and then head to the market place for lunch.

Our trek to Garbut PT was long but the weather was perfect and no one seemed tired of the walk. The forest cover was dense and at times trail got us walking on the edge. The journey was exciting and the destination wasn’t any less.
On our way to Garbut PT we met Prakash and Anup who were also headed for Garbut PT. Prakash was a carrying a DSLR and was glad it was a sunny morning. He was enjoying his photography and offered to take some pictures for us. We exchanged emails and Prakash promised to send us the pictures later. I must state here I did receive the pictures and they have come good. Prakash is indeed a very good photographer.

We reached Garbut PT in an hour and half I believe. The PT offers a grand view of the plateau and the Garbut village below. We took some pictures, climbed a tree and then rested for some time.

We realised that we could see the Matheran market place across the valley and wondered how long it would take to get there walking.

Not sure of how long we would take to reach the market place we started on our way back. Our plan was to have lunch at a Vegetarian restaurant in the market area. Why Veg? Because Matheran not very popular for its Non Veg food. On the other hand local vegetarian food is awesome.

Our journey from Garbut PT to the market lasted a little over two hours and by the time we reached the market place it was time for lunch. The market place is a colourful sight with locals selling handicrafts, red hand pulled rickshaws parked all along and hotels banners on display on each side.

Merwyn guided us to a vegetarian restaurant he knew. The restaurant was packed but managed to get a table for us. The food like I said earlier was good and I especially liked the fruit salad. There was no limit on how much you can eat so the waiters would keep coming back to serve you more. It was a fun experience.
Refreshed we started on our way to Echo PT which s located southwest of the market. We walked for about an hour to reach the Echo PT.

The best time to be here is in the monsoon when mist covers the valley and gives you the impression of being over the clouds. But that’s not what Echo PT is famous for. People come here to scream out their name or their loved ones name and listen to its echo in the valley below. That’s how this PT gets its name. We noticed that a flying Fox cable was set over the valley adjoining the Echo PT and people were enjoying the experience.

From here we moved on to Charlotte Lake which is south of Echo PT and requires another 30 minutes of walking. This is a huge lake in Matheran and is the prime source of water supply in the area. When it overflows in the monsoon it results in a huge water fall which drops over the cliff somewhere between Lord PT and Cecil PT. There is river crossing organised here both over the water fall area which was now dry and over the Lake. The crossover distance over the lake was much larger than the one we had seen over the valley at Echo PT. However we did not see any participants here. Across the lake there are a few joints that serve refreshments. The trails to Lord PT and One tree hill start from here but go in opposite directions. An ancient Pisarnath temple is located at this junction.
Since Lords PT is closer we decided to cover that first and then return to head towards One Tree Hill PT. In terms of view this Lords PT appeared a lot similar to Echo PT. There were a couple of vendors selling cold drinks here and another chap had set up telescopes here offering tourists a view of the valley at a price. Peppy recollected being here before and having seen the Prabal fort through the telescope. We returned to the Pisarnath temple junction and halted for some fresh lime juice.

While we waited for the juice to arrive we inquired about the trail to One Tree Hill (OTH). We asked a couple of locals and were informed that its only another 15 minutes from here going by my past experience a villagers 15 minutes equal our 60 minutes.
With that information we set off on our trail to One Tree Hill PT. The trail was long as expected but beautiful nevertheless. On the way to OTH PT we made a halt at Belveder PT.

Most points in Matheran are clearing on the edge of the plateau and so was this one. However compared to the Echo PT and Lords PT this was one was a much larger clearing and yet without any fences. As you enter this area there is a water fall on the left and towards the right there is a clearing with huge rocks on the edge. It was nice and sunny so we stopped by for some pictures. I did a little exploration and found a tiny fresh water spring in the vicinity.

It was now getting close to evening and we realised that we not only had to reach OTH PT before sunset but we also had to return to the market place before it gets too dark. Those who have been here for overnight stays know that in Matheran it gets dark immediately post sunset due to the dense forest cover. Also there is not lighting on the trails beyond the market place and it gets difficult on the trails at night.

We started towards OTH PT in a hurry and hoped we could get there before sunset since it was already past 1700 hours. It had been almost two hours now since the villager had told us its 15 minutes from the junction and we were hoping it wasn’t too far away now. And it wasn’t. We reached the OTH PT in another 10 minutes as we walked out into the clearing we noticed the sun wasn’t too far from the horizon.

Getting back was still on our mind until we saw something we couldn’t believe. A young 20 something girl was climbing the One Tree Hill as if she was a mountain goat. I rushed in for a closer look and noticed another foreigner sitting at the base of the hill. He was here with his girl friend who was a trained mountaineer and although he was climber himself, he didn’t want to risk climbing the hill. He was honest to admit he wasn’t as good as his girl friend at mountain climbing. I decided to capture her descent on video and am posting it here for all to see. I’d like to place one piece of warning here: If you are not professionally trained in mountain climbing, you shouldn't try this yourself.

Soon after her descent the South African couple left and we didn't have much time on our hand too. We left soon and hoped we make it to the market place before it’s too dark. We knew our way back and we walked fast enough to get back in time. At the market place Peppy, Savio and I discussed and decided to stay back for the night since both I and Peppy had Sunday offs and Savio was anyways on a vacation. Merwyn and Fletcher had other plans so they continued homewards to Mumbai. We parted ways with Merwyn and Fletcher and immediately got to the task of getting ourselves a place for the night. We managed to find one that cost us Rs. 400 per head excluding food. The room was fine and after refreshing was set out for dinner. Savio and Peppy were keen on having Non – Veg for dinner so we inquired and found ourselves a restaurant that looked decent and we hoped the food was good. It wasn't and we cursed ourselves for even taking the chance. It was a waste of money. We headed back to our room with no intention of eating anything now. I remember the first time I had come to Matheran we had stayed at a hotel with Muslim owners the food there was defiantly good. That’s however a long time ago and I don’t remember that place now. Until I find out which hotel that was that I am not eating non vegetarian at Matheran.
We then retired to our room and exhausted by the trek all day we were soon sound asleep. We woke up early next morning and checked out at 0930 hours. We had omelette for breakfast at a nearby restaurant and were soon on our way back to Mumbai.
This was my third trip to Matheran and I am already planning my forth trip scheduled for this weekend if I get some company. This time however I plan trek up from Karjat. This it would be my first trek on this route and am looking forward to it. Let me know if you are interested. Join me on Facebook - and of course follow my blog.
CiaO! Will get back soon from another trip with another tale.