Mahabaleshwar Diaries # 2 – Pratapgarh – our own Machu Picchu!

Well it’s Day 2 of the weekend getaway to Mahabaleshwar and I plan to spend the morning visiting Pratapgarh. I walk out of the hotel to find this lovely small joint serving hot piping Kanda Pohe – the home-made variety. I learn that the place exclusively serves only Kanda Pohe and Chai for couple of hours in the morning. Already they have run out the stuff but they assure me that a second batch is on its way and I need to wait only for five minutes. It turns out to be worth the while as I finish a light breakfast to set the tone for the trip.

pratapgarh fort sunset

The local State Transport also offers a convenient ‘4-hour-trip’ to Pratapgarh and we start off around 9:30 in the morning. Overnight the weather has changed in Mahabaleshwar – I learn that it rained all night and the power went of around 3 AM! Thanks to the inverter at the hotel I was quite unaware of the chaos in the town. The rain continues but it is a light drizzle right now and our bus again trundled off the ghat only this time it is in the opposite direction to yesterday’s trip.

I meet quite a few people who also did the Mahabaleshwar trip the previous afternoon and we make a casual acquaintance. En route to Pratapgarh we stop at ‘Shivkalin Khedegaon’. It is a reconstruction of a village during the times of Shivaji’s reign. We have a 30 minute window to explore the place. It is interesting – we get a traditional welcome, the ladies get to sport a traditional ‘tikka’ in the shape of a half-moon. There are montages of Shivaji’s soldiers, a royal elephant and the crowd gets busy clicking ‘selfies’ as usual. A traditional handicraft shop too has been set up outside the place but it fails to attract the attention of the crowd who look around rather desultorily and decide against shopping.

We now move on to the base of Pratapgarh – the bus conductor convinces the passengers to shell up a modest fee of INR 15 / – that would enable us to hire a guide who will show us all the important places of interest in Pratapgarh and also ensure that the group comes back within the allotted time for the trip.

Our guide steps into the bus and introduces himself. He is a localite who is well aware of the rich legacy of Marathi King from the 17th century – Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. He is most comfortable speaking in Marathi but throws in a few words in Hindi and English for the benefit of the audience that is not able to follow his instructions in the native tongue. While I am well aware of the legendary ‘face-off’ between Shivaji Maharaj and Afzal Khan that laid the foundations of the Maratha Empire, it is still interesting to hear the guide enunciate some lesser-known facts about the fort and the battle.

 In particular he dwells on the construction of the fort using basic stone blocks and limestone (chuna) without modern equipment and engineers within a period of 3 years. Looking at the fort I am suddenly reminded of the Peruvian ‘Modern-Wonders-Of – The- World’ – the ‘Machu Picchu’. “Machu Picchu is an Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru, above the Urubamba River valley. Built in the 15th century and later abandoned, it’s renowned for its sophisticated dry-stone walls that fuse huge blocks without the use of mortar, intriguing buildings that play on astronomical alignments and panoramic views. Its exact former use remains a mystery.”

The parallels are startling – it is about the locals celebrating their rich cultural legacy in the face of onslaught by the marauding invaders (Spanish forces and the Mughals in the respective cases). The construction is simple but effective and it’s amazing how resilient structures were constructed using elementary material and equipment. That these have survived the test of time to proudly narrate the ‘local’ narrative is obviously a matter of great pride for the natives.

Indeed Marathi cinema has found inspiration from the lives and times of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and on occasions they have lamented about the current state of affairs wherein things have been on the decline for the original inhabitants of the land. I read about a similar story in Che Guevara’s road journey – ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’.

Our guide was a martinet who drove us on even though the rain kept on pouring. It got a while to get used to it but eventually we all enjoyed moving around while getting drenched to our skins. We got to see the skillful planning of the fort that enabled ‘guerrilla’ warfare and overpowering the enemy who would significantly outnumber us. It was inspiring to see the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj that was inaugurated by our first Prime Minister, Dr. Jawaharlal Nehru. The original recognition was replicated across the state and even spawned a political movement aimed at empowering the locals.

The weather improved and the Sun came out. And we were able to see the stunning vistas from the fort including the road from Mahad towards Konkan, the Savitri River. The final point – Kadelot – was spine chilling. Apparently traitors were faced with a brutal death for their disloyalty to the King – they were bound hand and foot and packed into an empty Gunny Sack. The loaded sack was then simply thrown down the steep valley from the fort’s top. Obviously there were was no real chance of survival.

The descent was made interesting by the antics of Monkeys who appeared to be plentiful – it was a treat to observe the baby Monkeys clinging to their mothers and trying to appeal to us for some food. The roadside vendors were retailing  ‘Chaas’ (Buttermilk) made the traditional way using stone vessels. A little way down we found vendors selling Jamuns (Indian Blackberry) and Karvand (Bengal Currant) for a trifle – INR 5 – that were spiced up nicely with red chilli powder. Really there was no way one could resist the temptation of feasting on those.

The trip was nearing its end and the timing seemed to be just right to enable us to reach Mahabaleshwar market and treat ourselves to a well-earned lunch. Having tried ‘Pithala Bakhar’ the previous day I planned to have some fiery Misal today to spice things up.

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