Sinhagad: A visit to Sinhagad Fort while visiting Pune is a must. The 12th century edifice dominates the horizon even from the suburbs. On a clear day, the twin masts of the television towers and the distinctive cut of the ramparts in the distance reminds one of the historic significance of the city of Pune, much before the advent of the IT boom.
Ever since 1328, when a Koli tribal chieftain, Nag Naik, stubbornly staved off a nine-month siege by Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq, Sinhagad has witnessed the passage of warring dynasties. Three centuries later, Shivaji wrested away Sinhagad from the Mughals by bribing a commander. Much to his distress, he had to cede it to them again by the Treaty of Purandhar.
Getting there: Sinhagad and Khadakwasala Lake are about 25 kilometres from Pune. Take a bus to the foothills from Swar Gate in Pune. From the village the trek is refreshing. Or else, take a jeep or a car from the city and visit the NDA and the fort for a day's trip.
Where to stay: The easiest is to stay in the city of Pune. The adventurous can opt for the Cubs Resort on the fort where one can get a bed in a dormitory for Rs 150 or a room for Rs 500. One can make reservations at the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation counters. I recommend an overnight stay in the tents that can be hired locally. The early morning atmosphere is divine.
Best Season: Though out the year. But the favourite time is just after the rains, when the hills are carpeted with new grass and the clouds covering the fort itself for most of the day.
The fort was built to protect the jagir of Pune from the kingdoms to the south of Pune. Originally named Kondana, the fort was renamed Sinhagad after the Maratha general Tanaji Malsure who scaled the sheer cliff using giant mountain lizards and ropes to recapture the fort for his king Shivaji. Tanaji lost his life in the battle and Shivaji lamented his loss saying that the fort has been won but the lion has been lost and then named the fort Sinhagad, quite literally meaning the lion's fort.
Today the fort is well known for the treks and day trips that a visitor to Pune can undertake. The winding road from the city takes one along the banks of the Khadakwasala Lake, famous for the National Defence Academy (NDA). The shore of the lake is a famous getaway from the crowds of the city and one can relax taking in the breeze and munching on roasted corncobs.
Taking the parallel road to the other side of the lake, one can reach a small cove named Peacock Bay. This wooded, secluded area is home to numerous birds, which take refuge in the thick grass along the lakeside.
There are a few hotels along the bay serving the usual Punjabi fare. Since the Bay falls within the premises of the NDA, one has to take prior permission to enter. Once inside the campus, one can visit the famous institution that has been untouched by all that has gone wrong with India. The Sudan Block and the Martyrs Memorial are worth every second that one gets to spend there.
The actual road to the fort starts at a small village at the foot of the hill. One can stock up on bottled water and biscuits since the same would cost at least 50 per cent more on the fort. The narrow and badly maintained road bends and twists and gives one a good idea of the topography of the hills of the Sahyadris. In the distance one can see the cancerous growth of the city claiming the once-pristine land.
The shimmering lake created by the dam on Mutha River and the red dome of the Sudan Block in the distance completes the skyline. On the day I took this trip, I could see crew-cut boys from the NDA puffing along on their run, which is rumoured to be part of the punishment meted out to them for some misdemeanours.
At the final turn to the steepest part of the road is a small shack of Vithal, a shepherd, tea-vendor, honey collector and guide. He claims to be the descendant of the soldiers who fought the famous battle alongside Tanaji. Take it with a pinch of salt or with a bucketful, this man can sing a mean povada, the folk songs that speak of the valour of the men whose blood is seeped into the walls.
The summit of the drive is on to a flat piece of land housing a few dozen sheds that cater to the hunger that mysteriously strikes at the wafting scent of onion pakoras. Legend has it that even the most diet-conscious cannot resist a bite of these pakoras. Walking some distance along a narrow path, the Pune Darwaza or Pune Gate, which accesses the fort, is imposing and even today one can see the pits that were used to boil cauldrons of oil to be emptied on to the heads of the enemy.
A walk along the ramparts will give an idea of the scale of the planning that went into the building. There are cavernous enclosures that housed horses and ammunition. Within the fort are two ponds that are perennially full. Gandhiji is said to have asked for the waters of the Dev Taka - one of the ponds within the fort - whenever he was imprisoned in Pune. A few temples from aeons ago lie scattered within the fort. There are nooks and crannies where you can find carved figures and images that speak of the continuous changes that have gone on in the last 800 years.
The small-but-proud memorial of Tanaji and the memorial of King Rajaram are a few of the historic landmarks, the other being the bungalow where Lokmanya Tilak spent considerable time thinking and planning his agitation for a free India and also wrote his doctoral thesis on the Aryan race. A must for literature aficionados is the bungalow of Ga Di Madgulkar, the famous Marathi poet.
Lunch on the fort is a relishing activity. On the menu is the spicy pitla and bhakri. Pitla is a gram flour mix spiced with curry leaves, green chillies and coriander cooked on a wood fire until it reaches the consistency of a slightly thick batter. Bhakri is bread made of millet flour. Add a dash of chicken curry, spiced the Malvani way, and your day is made.
I got talking to Kausabai, the old woman who served the food. She lives in a village on the southern side of the fort. I was amazed to know that she climbed up every day carrying all the material required for the day. I accompanied her to the unexplored part of the fort and she pointed the tiny dots a few kilometres away. This spot has an intact gate, which goes around in a few turns, designed to confuse the attackers.
From that spot I could see in the distance a small procession walking along with a palkhi on their way to the temple of Vithoba at Pandharpur. Then I could see the passage of generations before me who might have witnessed something similar for centuries.