ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY drive down the Konkan Coast from Mumbai to Goa to discover quaint homestays, a Burmese palace in Ratnagiri, a temple built by Arab sailors and delicious Malvani cuisine
Located just off the busy NH-17 or Mumbai-Goa highway lies a slice of Konkan many tend to overlook. Hop on a flight or an overnight bus bound for Goa and you are likely to miss the charms of the countryside, but take a drive down the coast and a magical world reveals itself. Pristine beaches, seaside forts, unusual temples, imposing palaces and dramatic landscapes are always close at hand from Konkan’s diverse homestays, which range from tree-houses and organic farms to earthy cottages of wood and laterite.
However, Konkan’s biggest draw is its signature cuisine, spiced with kokum, tempered with coconut and synonymous with iconic dishes like kombdi vade (chicken curry-puri), Malvani mutton curry and a wide array of sea food. Lesser known, but as varied as the creatures of the sea, is the diverse world of Konkanasth Brahmin cuisine. Mild yet full of farm-fresh flavour, meals are usually eaten off a banana leaf plucked straight from the tree and washed down with kalan (Maharashtrian kadi) and that amazing Konkani concoction, Sol kadi.
As the road weaves past Khed, the perfect mid-stop is Ratnagiri, about 350km south of Mumbai. Though famous for its hapoos (Alphonso) mangoes, the historic town is also the birthplace of freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The unobtrusive double-storey house with sloping tiled roofs is a showcase of his achievements and personal memorabilia. But what’s surprising is a palace in Ratnagiri for a Burmese scion.
After the British forces defeated and captured Thibaw, the king of Burma (Myanmar) in 1885, they shipped him here to prevent a possible revolt by his subjects. When the rented bungalow where he was placed under house arrest proved inadequate, the British permitted the king to build a royal residence for himself known as Thibaw Palace. Set on the far end of a grassy field, the stupendous red edifice has quaint windows with wooden slats, a small museum and unusual artefacts like a bed made of medicinal herbs!
Soon, the busy town of Ratnagiri slips away and we reach the village of Kotawde. Surrounded by hills on three sides and located on the banks of the Kusum river, Atithi Parinay is a beautiful homestay on a 3 acre patch. Choose from immaculate rooms with wooden floors in the main house constructed out of laterite and stone, or a tree house overlooking paddy fields, a Swiss tent with a stone floor and two rooms with a designer cowdung floor. Medha and her mother Vasudha Sahasrabuddhe offer the sattvik (vegetarian) delights of Chitpawan Brahmin cuisine and leisurely walks to the river and paddy fields.
The homestay is an ideal base to cover Ganpatipule, the sandy lair of Lord Ganesha, where the waters of the ocean come up once a year to touch the image as a symbolic oblation. As per legend, a cowherd’s cows refused to give milk and would magically empty their udders on a rocky reef. A stone image of Ganpati naturally emerged from the hillside and a temple was contsructed by Shivaji’s minister Annaji Datto Sachiv. Ater a quick stopover at the cultural showcase of Pracheen Konkan we visited lesser known beaches like Aare-Vaare and Marve before heading down the coast to Devgad.
South of the virtually impregnable bastion of Vijaydurg and the nodal town of Jamsande is the quiet seafort of Devgad. The coastal road continues to Kunkeshwar where a 400-year-old Shiva temple stands on the shore lashed by waves. Ironically, it was built by Arabian sailors who survived a storm and erected the shrine to the region’s patron deity as thanksgiving.
The entire coast is dotted by such unusual temples, each with its own mythology. Mithbav nearby, has a Betaal Mandir dedicated to a wandering spirit that bears a malefic influence on passersby at dusk. Equally fascinating is the Gajbadevi temple overlooking Tambarde Beach, where the goddess appeared in a dream and instructed villagers to install her there for safe passage.
Our base for this sector Pitruchaya, is a sweet homestay near Shirgaon on SH-117 or the Devgad-Nipani Road. Surrounded by brick factories and Devgad’s legendary mango orchards, the house has a stunning terrace suite and bamboo furniture from KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo & Cane Development Centre) at Kudal. Vaishali and Vijay Loke also run a Malvani restaurant for occasional drop-ins and we are treated to unusual fare like kalva (clams) and modka, a small tasty fish. The real surprise however, is Mr. Vijay’s 106-year-old mother Savitri Devi, who still washed her own clothes and cut vegetables!
We find ourselves back on the highway and turn from Nandgaon past Kankavali and Kudal to Sawantwadi, our final destination. Blessed with a 60% forest cover (the highest in Konkan), the town is swathed in green. Tucked away in a 12-acre cashew, coconut, banana and pineapple farm at the base of a small hillock is the picturesque Nandan Farms. Its mud walls, terracotta tiles, wooden beams and furniture lend an earthy appeal while Amruta Padgaonkar or Ammu’s cooking and warm hospitality make the stay worthwhile.
The cultural hub of Sawantwadi teems with rare arts and crafts. At the ivy-laden 17th century Sawantwadi Palace, artists hand-craft Ganjifa (traditional playing cards) under the guidance of the queen Shatwashila Devi. Across Moti Talaav, families on Chitar Ali (Artist’s Lane) busily churn out lacquerware toys. Dilip Aklekar of Dwarka Farmhouse takes us to Pinguli Art Complex, where Prakash Gangawane strives to nurture the 11 loka-kalas of the Thakar community – leather puppetry, Chitrakathe and performing arts.
After a wet trip to Amboli Ghat, a 690 m misty pass riddled with waterfalls, we are greeted by an elaborate meal at Dwarka. The 15-acre farm with cashew, coconut, banana, pineapple and 230 hapoos trees follows a plant-to-plate philosophy and acts as a migratory corridor for elephants, wild boar and exotic birds.
Dilip remarks ‘Next time, visit Sagareshwar beach and Aronda backwaters; you’ll forget Tarkarli. In fact, you’re so close to Goa, you can take a ferry from Kiranpani to Tiracol’. But we realize, the best part about Bombay to Goa is what lay in between, as we head back up the magical Konkan coast.
Getting there: From Mumbai, take the Goa highway (NH-17) to Ratnagiri, 329 km south. Continue south on the highway till Nandgaon and turn right on SH-117 towards Devgad via Shirgaon. Take the coastal route via Kunkeshwar and Mithbav to Malvan and Vengurla. Or continue on the Mumbai-Goa road to Sawantwadi via Kankavli and Kudal. From Sawantwadi, it’s just 46km to Mapusa or a 525 km ride back to Mumbai.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 16 May 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online.