Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raigad: In the Chhatrapati's Kingdom - Part One

There are some places that you visit just to get away from your daily drudgery. Such places may not have the best sights in the world, but that is never the point. With nothing really particular to visit, all you plan to do is relax, take a stroll and generally take whatever comes your way. On the other hand, there are some places that you visit with a pre-determined purpose. Such places have a particular magnetic attraction and an aura that invites thousands from near and far. For me, and most people in Maharashtra, the fort of Raigad is one such place. The capital of our state’s favourite son, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, has long held a fascination for me and last weekend, I finally managed, along with my B-school group, to reach the fort, which is literally the heart of Maratha pride.

Saturday early morning saw us (Anjali and me) jumping in the hired car and, picking others along the way, off we went on NH-17 towards Raigad. With the monsoons especially playing truant this year, we all were sceptical of the weather we would get there. Nothing we saw on our way there really gave us any relief. It continued to alternate between sunny and partly cloudy, with not a drop of rain in sight. And we could see many fields, all ploughed and sowed, ready for the showers. We were praying for the rains to give us relief, they were praying for their livelihood !!. We reached the foothills of Raigad by around noon, after a five hour drive. There we went to the base station of the famous Raigad Ropeway for a quick ride to the top. One tribute to Raigad’s prowess as a fort (it is sometimes called ‘Gibraltar of the East’) is that there is still no motorable road to the top. And before the ropeway started, the only way to reach the top was to walk the 1500 odd steps, as in olden days. Two of our group members did take that route, whereas the rest of us took the easy way out and were at the top within five minutes. Contrary to what I had read beforehand, the ropeway ride was a smooth one (though thankfully there was no wind at that time). And by around 12.30, we had reached the back door entrance of the fort.

The operators of the Raigad ropeway have accommodation facilities (strictly functional, I might add) besides the ropeway station. Hence, we checked in, freshened up and went off to explore the fort. And it is a big fort to explore!! It was certainly one of the biggest forts that I had visited (a walk from one end to the other is a good couple of km). And literally, each square foot of the fort smelt of history. The ‘Balle Killa’ (Main Fort) had the main ‘darbar’ with the Chhatrapati’s throne at the head (with his statue still proudly holding court). One could easily visualize a court session in progress, with the ministers deliberating over matters of strategic and social importance along with Maharaj himself. Behind the darbar were Shivaji’s main chambers and behind that, the chambers for the queens. Walking further ahead from the darbar, we saw the main market place of the fort. The market place consisted of a wide walkway in the middle flanked by shops on both sides. Again, the scene of a typical market day with traders (who all used to endure the three hour climb of the staircase everyday)* selling their stuff to the fort occupants arose vividly in my mind. At around this time, the weather started changing for the better !! Grey clouds started building up, the wind picked up and the approaching rain could be smelt. We stopped by at one of the few huts on the fort for a quick meal of traditional ‘zunka-bhakar’ prepared by the locals. This again was different experience for us. Sitting in that dark hut (no electricity at the top except for the two ‘resorts’), with eyes watering because of the smoke of the ‘chulha’, we had a satisfying lunch. And as we left their hut to return to our rooms, the rains hit us, with the clouds in tow. And within a few minutes, the entire scenery was transformed. The market place suddenly seemed a different place with visibility reduced to not more than 15-20m (see pic). The rains had finally come to our rescue !!!. Enjoying ourselves in the drizzle and feeling on top of the world, we returned for a good late afternoon rest.

- More to follow….


* Regarding the traders, the most famous story is that of Hirkani, a lady living at the foothills of the fort who used to come to the top everyday to sell milk. One day, she was late in finishing off in the evening and consequently, when she reached the gates of the fort in order to go back to her place, she found that the gates had closed for the day. With her infant waiting in her village at the foothills, she scaled the fort walls and then literally descended a steep cliff and got back to her village. Shivaji Maharaj named the cliff ‘Hirkani Buruj’ in her honour and looking at that, the mind boggles as to how she could have even attempted it.

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