ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Maharashtra’s Valley of Flowers during the annual bloom to find out what makes it a UNESCO World Heritage Site
All around, the Sahyadris rose in green velvety ridges. It was easy to understand why it provided the perfect backdrop for Bollywood. Anybody would love to break into a song and dance here. Not us. We wished to wander among the wild flowers of Kas Plateau, Maharashtra’s very own Valley of Flowers, one of the 39 sites in the Western Ghats notified a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fascinating stories about the brief annual blooming phenomenon after the rains, had driven us to get a first-hand experience. All it took was a 7-hour train journey from Mumbai and a short drive.
A post-monsoon train journey is a great way to unravel the charm of the countryside. Mountains and fields enrobed in neon green and the train’s whistle echoing eerily as it entered the dark mouths of mountains, emerging into dazzling brightness of green on the other side. People spilled out at the popular hill station of Khandala and ten minutes later, we halted briefly at Lonavala, the twin hill town, named after a series of caves or rock shelters in the region. Vendors swarmed into the train and sailed passed our window, selling boxes of the famous Lonavala chikki, an irresistible candy prepared from peanuts and jaggery, sesame or puffed rice. We bought a box as our mid-morning snack with tea and settled down for the rest of the journey to Satara.
We didn’t wish to waste any time getting mired in the heat and dust of Satara so we hailed a cab for Kas (26km away). A short drive from Ath Rasta (8 road junction) with its quirky Eiffel tower brought us to Nana junction. The left turn through a small tunnel went to Sajjangad and Thosegar Waterfalls while we turned right on Kas Road. The steady uphill drive swirled around the rocky ridges where little tufts of flowers and shrubs bobbed in the wind. Satara with its smudge of houses dropped below while the lofty Ajinkyatara crowned by a fort, rose up in the centre, surveying the scene.
We pleasantly discovered that Nivant Hill Resort was located in a horseshoe curve of wilderness en route to Kas and was the ideal base. With all fifteen rooms offering a splendid valley view, a nip in the air punctuated with birdsong and good hot food laid out in the open restaurant, could life get better than this, we wondered? The helpful hotel staff suggested that we do an evening drive for great sunset views. Large water bodies like the Koyna and Urmodi dam only added to the scenic beauty.
It was a 14km cruise along the quiet tree-lined road into dreamy countryside past Yewateshwar with the pyramidal tip of its ancient Shiva shrine peeping over the tree canopies and the hillock of Petri with a temple dedicated to the deity Petreshwar. The windswept ridges dating back to millions of years rose and fell in waves of green and black. Village women returned from farm work while cattle grazed with a tinkle of bells and fenced fields of yellow sonki flowers swayed in the breeze. Rustic India somehow seems to shrug off time and create its own leisurely pace. Gradually, the upland road cut through a densely forested area shouldered by a basalt rocky ridge before continuing past open meadows and roadside eateries serving Malvani cuisine.
And with the suddenness of surprises, we were staring at unreal pink and purple fields that seem to stretch for miles. After paying a token fee, we took a stroll in this natural garden. Protected by a fence, like a colossal Monet painting of Giverny, the meadows were stippled with flowers on either side of the road right to the edge of the horizon. An ethereal vision of nature’s cosmetic palette – exotic shades of lipstick, eye-shadow and blush left open and abandoned on a high ground. Everywhere flowers fluttered and trembled like butterflies in the wind. The last rays of the sun kissed the petals creating a magic that inspired poetry. It was slowly turning dark and we returned to our hotel overwhelmed by our curtain-raiser to Kas.
The night at the hotel was no less spectacular. Nivant was clearly Satara’s best getaway. Waiters bustled about with kabab platters, assorted Indian breads, muttons sagwala and Malvani chicken as the guests rolled in. The city lights glowed like scattered diamonds and gold dust in the blackness. We even discovered the wonderful co-incidence of the no. 17 formed by the street lights, which some erroneously believe gave Satara its name! Satara, the erstwhile capital of the Maratha rulers was named after sat-tara or seven hills overlooking the city – Ajinkyatara, Sajjangad, Yawateshwar, Jarandeshwar, Nakdicha Dongar, Kitlicha Dongar and Pedhyacha Bhairoba.
Seven seemed to have a special significance here. Bapu Sahib Jadhav, the hotel owner told us “Sadly, you won’t get to see the rare topli karvi (Pleocaulus ritchei) that blooms once in seven years.” The mysterious shrub, with its strange overturned basket-shape turns into an explosion of blue. The last major bloom took place in 2008, so we still had a three year wait. Sensing our disappointment, he added, “But you’ve come at a perfect time during the week! It turns very chaotic on weekends, with lots of visitors from Pune and Sangli.”
His treasure of memories and anecdotes about the region kept us entertained long after dinner. He fished out an envelope and an image of a handsome leopard that he had photographed. “It was on our property…15 days ago. We are surrounded by a real forest! When I bought the property, everyone said I was crazy! I’d drive up here from Satara with a small picnic hamper just to get away. When I threw a party for my friends in 1980, no one knew about the place. But now with UNESCO recognition, the flowers have drawn global attention. I thought it would be a good idea to develop a resort. Set out early morning when the flowers are dewy fresh”, Bapu Sahib advised.
At dawn we set off again to capture the morning glory of the meadows. It was still misty and we drove with our fog lights on. Just a kilometre short of Kas plateau, to our amazement we saw three barking deer leap graceful across the road into the thickets. The ecological diversity of the region supported a wide variety of animals, from rodents and wild boar to bear, hyena, palm civets, pangolin and wild cats. Besides a fascinating number of birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and butterflies, the region also harbours several medicinal plants and herbs making it a hotspot of biodiversity. Over 1500 types of plants have made Kas and Koyna valley their habitat. Of the 175 flower species found at Kas Plateau a few were found nowhere else on earth.
The geographical nature of the region with basalt and porous laterite rock compounded by a hot dry climate and forest fires, makes it difficult for things to grow. But a crucial monsoon ensures that the plants resurrect themselves from yearlong dormancy. It’s their only window to propagation of life before the unrelenting October sun scorches them. And so, the flowers defiantly sprout from the rocky strata and thin top soil like a phoenix rising from the ashes. They befittingly invade the mountains in rainbow waves that last a few weeks.
Each flower species slashing the mountain with its typical hue turn by turn! Imagine the whole hill as a wiggle picture or lenticular print… every week, the flowers wink at you in different colours. Starting off cobra lilies, lilies and terrestrial orchids followed by dark blue and white smudges of Bladderworts and Eriocaulons. We were met with the blush of Impatiens in vivid pinks and magenta and noticed the sunny yellows of Smithias poised to take over.
One can spend hours flower gazing. The endearing local names and stories associated with the flowers can make anyone fall in love with botany or marvel at man’s imagination. We learnt that the Utricularia purpurascens, a little blue flower waving its lone petal like flag was called Seeteche Aswe (literally, the Tears of Seeta) after Sita, Daughter of the Earth. According to folklore, when Ravana abducted Sita, her tears fell on this plateau as they flew towards Lanka, permanently marking the flower with a tear-shaped dot on its inky petal! In complete contrast to its daintiness, it hides its insectivorous side, quietly devouring micro insects underground!
The climber Vigna Vexillata or Elephant’s Trunk, locally known as Halunda has a peculiarly shaped petal that creates a helipad for insects to land. The weight of the insect cleverly draws out a trunk-like organ bearing the anthers, style and stigma. The insect dusts off pollen and rubbing on some more to go about cross-pollinating, unaware of the devious plot! Incidentally, Smithias are fondly called Micky Mouse and Donald Duck for the petals remind one of mouse-ears and the duck’s bright yellow beak!
Around the small marshes and wetter patches was an outbreak of Eriocaulon with snowy exploding heads bobbing on slim stalks. Near the fence broad bands of golden yellow were created by Senecio known as Sonki in Marathi. Bursts of deep purple drew us to a patch of wild Catkins that resembled a bed of violet arrows. There was a tiered green flower of the Common Hill Spurge, quirkily named Square Root plant by Dr Sanjay Limaye, a botanist who lost his life in the Tsunami in Nicobar. Owing to its milky discharge it is called Dudhi locally. Time flew as we walked for kilometres, stopping to take a closer look at snails locked on stalks of Curcuma (wild turmeric) and admire the fine filigree of patterns on flowers with petals no bigger than the pupil of the eye!
A crab sidled up to a pond where a large toad peeped from under a cradle of rocks. And all around us was a dominating carpet of pinkish purple. After the flower chase, we drove 4km down the ghat road towards Bamnoli to see the glistening waters of Kas lake, the source of the Urmodi river and nourisher of Bhambali-Vajrai waterfalls. The lake had a dilapidated British bungalow nearby. Kas village, with a shrine dedicated to Goddess Kasani was located on the west side of the water.
After a late biryani lunch at Nivant we were off to Thosegar Waterfalls, Satara’s most famous cataract located 26 km away. We wove past pastoral scenes of farmers leading handsome oxen, trundling bullock carts and sunflower fields set against the backdrop of high plateaus. A haze of windmills swirled hypnotically in distant Chalkewadi. Thosegar – an askew rusty board indicated and we swerved to the left. A Rs 5 entry fee and we were skipping down the steps to the vantage point.
Straight ahead of the gorge was Mota Dhabdaba (big fall) plummeting 250 m in wide tiers and towards the right was Chhota Dhabdaba (small fall) where three ribbons of white thundered down the green and brown mountainscape into a dark green pool masked by a cloud of mist. The monsoons are a treacherous time to venture to the falls as the rocks are slippery and the devastating force of water can easily threaten one’s balance. A warning board with a long list of lives lost in drowning accidents deter any act of daring.
On our return, we stopped by at the lofty 2000 year-old fort of Sajjangad. Known as Ashwalayangarh in the old days, this was the tapobhumi (place of penance) of Ashwalayan rishi, the final resting place of 17th century saint and social reformer Sant Samarth Ramdas and the stronghold of mighty emperors. A flight of steps past two small shrines leads to the first arched doorway, Sri Chatrapati Shivaji MahaDwar. Three donkeys regarded us with sagely sobriety. The spiritual air of Sajjangad is so palpable, it seeps into everyone be it man or beast. Yet, it also has an equally impressive royal history.
Earlier known as Parli ka kila, it was the seat of the Shilhara and the Bahmani dynasties before the Adil Shahis took over. When Mughal ruler Aurangzeb won the fort on 12th April 1700, he renamed it as Navara Sitara. A stone tablet near the gateway bears a Persian inscription. Later, when the great Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji secured the fort, he organized a conclave for holy men and requested Samarath Ramdas to set up an ashram who renamed it Sajjangad or “Fort of Good Men”.
The sprawling premises is dotted with a few ancient architectural ruins and shrines including an old Hanuman temple, a temple built at the site where the sage breathed his last, prayer hall and shops selling religious books and paraphernalia. A small room of Samarth Rishi holds a collection of his humble possessions, including two large copper pots. It is said that his favourite disciple Kalyan Swami filled the pots with water from Urmodi and bore them up the mountain every day, for his guru’s ritual bath! If you aren’t spiritually inclined, you can still savour the tranquillity of the place, seated at edge of the fort wall.
Our night drive to Kas was quite an adventure. An abrupt storm had changed the dynamics dramatically. We crawled uphill gingerly as visibility was poor in the dense fog. The hotel was engulfed by a cloud and seemed suspended in mid-air as neither sky nor Satara valley was seen. In the morning we set off to a lake on the far side the plateau to see feathery Nymphoides indica or kumud, an aquatic flower. Crested larks caught worms in wet earth. The rocks were slippery and the mud road towards Mahabaleshwar and Tapola was full of puddles. The royal route, referred to as Rajpath was once a dirt track used by the British.
We finally reached the lake that exuded a zen-like stillness. The entire surface was a sheet of pale green with tiny lotus-like white buds waiting to bloom… we sat on a rock watching the magic unfurl slowly. Known as the Water Snowflake or Floating heart, this fluffy white flower has a yellow centre and floats like a piece of lace luring bees and dragonflies to caress them open and sip their sweetness. Nearby tufts of tiny pink flowers jutted out of the dark brain-like folds of laterite and other unusual blue flowers hid like naughty children in the shrubbery.
After breakfast we took a spin around Satara. The old Rajwada (royal home) had been converted into the Pratap Singh Gadh School. We learnt that it was the lights of Palace Street (upar ka road or upper road) and Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil Road (neeche ka road or lower road) that were responsible for the number ‘17’. Several luminaries including Dr BR Ambedkar and Justice Gajendra Gadkar hailed from Satara and the 13th generation of Shivaji Maharaj, still lives here.
After hearing everybody extol the greatness of the city’s famous kandi pede (a round sweet that also comes in kesar flavour) and amba barfi (a mango-flavoured sweet), we headed to Ladkar’s and Modi sweets, the two biggest names in the business. Started by Mohan Baburao Ladkar in 1940, the sweet stall enjoys a booming business till date. We visited the Shivaji Museum which displays a fine collection of paintings and wall murals done in the Maratha style and a room filled with arms and weaponry including the infamous Tiger Claw knuckle-duster.
The beauty of Kas plateau touches people in ways that are hard to define; often transforming doctors and amateur photographers into intense researchers and chroniclers of nature. Boatrides in the Koyna backwaters, explorations and treks to the numerous caves dotting the hillside… and more flowers to find. There were so many reasons to return to Kas. Back in the concrete jungle of Mumbai, we tiredly curled into bed talking about the wild flowers of Kas. That night we dreamed in the colour purple.
Getting there: Koyna Express (11029) leaves CST Mumbai at 8:40am and takes 7hr 17min (via Khandala and Lonavala) to reach Satara at 15.57. Kas is a 25km drive from town.
When to visit: Kas Plateau is at its showy best during October-November when the first burst of sunshine after the rains triggers the first bloom and the flowers appear in waves over a few weeks, before drying up
Nivant Hill Resort
38/3/1, Sambarwadi (Yavteshwar), Satara – Kas Road, Satara
Ph +91 2162 282678/9, 9922999226, 9890087874
Tips: The Forest Department and vigilant volunteers strive to maintain the sanctity of environment here. People can register themselves online and entry is restricted to 2000 visitors a day with a fee of Rs.10 per head. Parking isn’t allowed along the 7km stretch. Visitors must walk along designated paths to avoid trampling the flowers and destroying rare species and littering is prohibited.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.