Mahuli – Scaling Thane’s highest
It’s been a while since this one happened. We were on an idea (and still are…). To cover the 40 odd major hill forts Maharashtra had on offer. (The comprehensive list including tiny “ignorable” ones to mammoth stars (Like Lohagad) ran well over 200.) It all started as a drunken bet. A CD named “Heritage forts in Maharashtra” (should have been named “Each and Every” fort in this state!) materialized itself with the booze. The list wasn’t exhaustive. There is a difference between exhaustive and encompassing. I personally was a bit amused at the whole aspect of a kingdom having more forts than it could handle. But it seems the rulers were on a roll. And like most booze sessions in hostel rooms, some random dude I hadn’t laid eyes on before banged his fist on the bed (spilling half the drinks) and yelled “Let’s do them all!” and got his 5 seconds of fame, promptly applauded for his “innovative” idea. This idea was forgotten before the hour was up! Sprawled people all over the place, a friend, Kaushani and I decided to head out for a last smoke before hitting the sack...
“So, how about it? She asked.
“How about what”?
“Covering all the hill-forts in Maharashtra….”
You know people have lost it, not when such an idea comes up, but when doing it in 6 months “is the idea”.
We were kicked. A day of intense googling and we came up with a list! The 40 odd, major ones (according to us). The time limit be damned. Mahuli was the first. For the simple reason that Kaushani liked the name… (People can behave pretty loony at times, it takes a while getting used to…).
Mahuli at 2815 feet is Thane’s highest point. A supposedly intensely beautiful place in the monsoons (That’s true for most of the Sahayadris in Maharashtra, they are heaven in the rains….), the best time to Visit Mahuli is obviously the monsoon (June – September). But we were all raring to give our idea a try and 2 days later found ourselves in the Local train to Asangaon. (Random tip: Catch a train to Kalyan, There are frequent trains to Asangaon). Took an Auto to Shahpur and finally caught a State Transport bus to Mahuli Village. (Seemed like we were the only ones who did so). Mahuli is not an easy trek. And for globe shaped humans like we were, it seemed paradoxical.
The trail started off innocently enough as a plain road. There is a small shop selling snacks, poha and other tidbits on the right just when the trail starts. A few bottles of water and a couple of biscuits is a good idea, yes... A smoke break isn’t a bad idea either…An hour into the trek we were dying for anything edible…The hill (It’s got a very 3 pronged characteristic visage) looked achievable. Near enough to do within the next hour or two. And then the Mahuli tourism board sign appeared. (They should put up a warning sign next to this board here stating: Beginners are requested to turn back here…) Things escalated alarmingly fast from here on. The incline became steeper, and the sun more relentless. Bad timing. During the monsoons this place might have been much more appealing, but with the sun beating down at close to 9am things got a bit too “heated”.
Rest stops became as frequent as the Govt. changes in south India. The trek isn’t all that easy. It’s definitely not a cake-walk. It’s far from it. Being the first of the Maharashtrian hill forts I was doing, I was exhausted. On almost all the treks after Mahuli, save for Lohagad, I have wondered at the absence of a proper path to the top. Seemed like the trail had gotten more conspicuous by the decades. If it hadn’t been for horses, getting to the top and back must have been some fitness regime for the people of that era. Building a fort at the top of an excruciating trek is no joke, regardless of the weather. But there is no denying the fact the absence of a proper path to the top is what gives the whole place the mystical feeling. Who wants knees anyway? I am sure the rulers never intended these places to be picnic spots and had better things on their mind than building a flight of damn stairs to the top for your damn selfie pics….
After a taxing 2 hours we reached the top at probably one of the hottest periods of the day. The summit was a find! (It was more of a pseudo-summit – more on that later.)Devoid of people, it was a great place. The lone orange Maratha warrior flag was a sign that we had reached the top! (The orange flag was a ubiquitous sign at most forts in Maharashtra – A sign that we had made it to the top!). Now the thing about Mahuli is when you do reach the top, (After an iron ladder) and reach the place with the flag, you are clueless. Nope, no Sign, no path, just a great place, a stellar view and that’s about it. It seemed unlikely that we almost died on the way for this…before you slowly give yourself a 360 turn and sight the famed “pronged” rock formations in the far distance…with a plain plateau in between. (Now you know why it’s the “Pseudo”-summit!) The trek after this was essentially a walk. (Random tip: We did carry a map (obtained from questionable sources: questionable because it did not help us at all!! No sir, we never made it to Kalyan Darwaza, in fact searching for this precise point of interest got us lost and getting lost at Mahuli is easier than you think! Get an app like MapMyHike or GPS waypoints and make sure you mark your trek from the flag point. If you do get lost, finding your way back should be easy. MapMyHike saved the day, but more on that later).
A short walk from the flag point brought us to a place where a path went down. A quick descent down this flight and we saw this!! The famed Mahuli Mahadev Mandir!
And some beautiful caves next to the Shivalinga.
The whole experience was marred by fools who deemed it fit to throw paper plates all over the place. The Caves are apparently used by people to stay overnight which is not a problem at all, but then using it as a dumping ground is sad. It wasn’t limited to the caves and the save for the Shivling we were in paper-plate and plastic tumbler land. The caves aren’t bad and a few campfires remnants were apparent. The view from the caves is exotic though.
Back from the caves we tried to make sense of the map and decided to find one of the attractions – Kalyan Darwaza. There were multiple trails leading the way and since they essentially led in one direction: we decided to tag along. The walk was undulating and wasn’t too exhausting. The prongs are visible and it is easy to follow the trail. The prongs remain in your sight (not sure about that in the monsoons) and you seem to get nearer all the time. There are dense shrubs growing on either side of the main trail and it was kind of a bit surprising to see trails running off in every direction every couple of meters. (Guess one of them led to Kalyan Darwaza…)
This is where it all got a bit alarming. The main trail led on to a cliff drop – a big divide with another hill starting on the other side….
Mahuli , as I mentioned before has a very characteristic appearance with the 3 pronged visage and we realized, the place where we had seen the Maratha flag and assumed we had made it was at least a good 2-3 miles away from those “prongs”.
It was on the way to the prongs that the divide arrived. I initially though that it would be impossible to “trek” our way onto the next hill, but it seems there was a trail (an excuse for a trail really) which finally brought us to …..Another ladder!
The tiny ramshackle of an iron bridge later we, were on one more trail. (Thankfully it wasn’t multiple and was a sole singular trail). The walk seemed endless before it all ended abruptly and we were here. At the edge of it all. (No clue what the place is called (we named it point zero!), but it’s at least an hour’s walk from the caves and the prongs are unbelievably close) (You would need some remarkable rock climbing skills to go anywhere near those prongs sir!). I personally had no clue where Kalyan Darwaza and those exotic ruins were (I frankly didn’t care anymore – Point zero was phenomenal). Going any further than point zero would require a few sturdy ropes, a helmet and a couple of carabineers. The drop was vertical, there was no way an unaided climb was happening here. The place wasn’t beautiful, it was stellar. A panoramic photo of the place made us realize (much later…) the sheer magnitude of it all. This was the edge of Mahuli. This place precisely. Our ( self-christened): “Point Zero”
We were alone, deserted at the edge of a huge plateau with 3 magnificent rock structures rising before us. It was impossible to be not mesmerized. I will leave the pics here to do the rest of the talking.
The “mesmerize –ation” took a bit longer than we expected and we realized it was 2pm. I still had no clue where Kalyan Darwaza was and after being awed by the sight of the prongs we guess anything else save for the summit of those prongs would pretty much underwhelm us now (Which was a pretty stupid assumption to make; you never know how a place’s gonna be, unless you take the trouble of going there in person…). Nevertheless with 4 hours left for the place to turn into a dark forest (let alone being pretty dense) we decided to head back. The trek back to the divide from point zero was pretty straightforward Enthusiastic fools that we were, we had conveniently forgotten to take note of any markers on the trails before the divide and realized much to our dismay that the multiple trails leading off into the woods (in multiple directions!) had all converged to the divide! This was made worse by the fact that we were the only guys there and the last humans we saw were at the caves and it would be almost impossible to make our way there once darkness fell. Anxiety turned to panic to Dismay before we finally turned to our phones. I had left the MapMyHike app open since base camp to calculate the stats of the entire trek. (MapMyHike just needs GPS and works without an internet connection as well once it has locked onto Satellites.). At close to 3.30, after an excruciating 90 mins of wandering off on random trails, going around in circles and finishing the last of our water, we finally arrived at main trail. (This even included a trek back to the divide to get to know the correct main trail!!!). Things got back into place and we were at the caves by 4. The descent was more relieving than tiring. When I did look back up at the prongs about half way during the descent I realized, the gravity of the situation we were in. The plateau before the prongs is pretty massive. The main trail from the caves to the divide and further onto point zero is a considerable distance from the Maratha Orange flag. And the place though not a really deep forest has shrubs at enough height to intimidate people. For a first timer, who would be alone here, if he did manage to get lost, finding his way back would be pretty arduous. The markers are few (The rocks with the painted arrows) and rare and the trails are numerous. I have a pathetic sense of direction anyway. I could get lost in a parking lot, let alone a woody trek. But point zero made up for all that!! The sole rest stop before the base camp made for some of the most exotic pics for the day. Turns out we were down just in time for the last bus to head to Shahpur for the day. (At around 5 pm). No worries, even if you do miss the last bus, The shop selling snacks and Poha at the Base camp aides in booking a car to the Shahpur bus stand….
P.S – To save people headed to Mahuli from anguish and to prevent them from Wandering around like lost souls, Kaushani and I have extensively researched the net and with the photographs we took, we finally made sense of where we actually were. The attached pdf file was the result! It’s available on my website. www.motornomad.com
P.P.S – we are headed to Mahuli a second time this monsoons to finally finish what was left off the earlier time and visit point zero and capture it’s brilliance in the rains… (A picture blog will follow up soon)
Till next time folks.….