Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bhimashankar to Karjat, October 1997

My friend Kuldeep and I took a bus from Pune to Bhimashankar, a village in the Sahyadri Mountains at the source of the Bhimashakar river. The village is perched on top of a steep cliff that drops straight down roughly a kilometer into the long, wide valley below. Looking off the cliff to the left a lower sharp, rocky ridge comes out and then rises to a spike before dropping off. At the top of the spike there used to be a small post where a guard would sit during the time of the warrior king Shivaji and watch for invaders. In addition to the path that goes from Bhimashakar into the valley, villagers also have the option of climbing down a ladder that goes all the way down the cliff. This ladder is not used during the monsoon season.

We walked into the forest to try to find the shrine at the river source. At the entrance to the forest was a sign with a painting of the various dangerous animals we'd have to watch out for. There was a tiger, a bear, some sort of spotted feline (jaguar?), and various poisonous snakes. We didn't find the shrine, so we went to the top of Nag Fani, or Snake Head, a nearby peak on top of the cliff.

Directly at the foot of the cliff was a jungle. Leaning our heads over the cliff we could clearly hear every little insect, bird, and critter down there. Leaning back just a few inches, we could hear absolutely nothing. There was an invisible wall beyond which sound did not travel.

We decided to climb down into the valley the next day. Kuldeep wanted to go to Karjat, a town reputed to make the best wada pav, a Maharashrian potato patty street snack. Since villagers in India are notorious for giving directions that are misleading, confusing, or just plain wrong, we decided to ask several people how to get there and how far a walk it would be. Most people said if we just went down the cliff we'd get there anywhere between two and six hours. One guy said that we could get there in less than an hour and that someone brings milk from there every day. One other man said we were crazy to think of walking to Karjat, that it would take a week. Since all but one person told us could do it in less than a day, we decided to give it a go.

We got up at sunrise the next morning and started walking. As soon as we hit the trail we met an old man who was walking in the same direction, so we walked together. It was hard for us to keep up with him even though we were in our early twenties, he was about seventy, and we were going down hill. The path took a gradual slope down the side of the cliff and went through some thin-treed woods. When we arrived in the jungle that we saw from the top of the cliff there were many large spider webs across the path inhabited by fist-sized yellow and black spiders. The mist gave the jungle an eerie quality.

We came to a clearing. The old man pointed to a house just off the path where he was going. He pointed to another house down in the valley and told us that his brother lived there. We should stop in when we pass it, he said, and if we went straight down the path we were on we could reach the house in about 45 minutes. We thanked the man and continued walking.

A friendly dog started following us. The dog would often walk ahead as if it was showing us the way. Somehow we got onto a different path from the dog. The path became steep and we lost elevation quickly. We could hear the dog barking to us from somewhere in the woods, but we had dropped so far that we didn't feel like backtracking. As the barking faded away, so did the path. It got smaller and smaller until it ended at a dried up creek bed of boulders under the canopy of the jungle. At this point there was nothing to do but go down the creek bed. It would lead to the valley eventually.

In the shade of the trees and the relative humidity of the creek bed the swarm of mosquitoes was horrible. We tapped each boulder with our walking sticks before stepping on it so as not to startle any snakes that might be resting underneath. Kuldeep chose this moment to point out that if a snake jumped out at us from a tree we were probably fucked. I thought about the predators we had seen painted on the sign the previous afternoon. We thought maybe the cats were nocturnal, but we weren't too sure.

After at an hour or two of this nonsense, we reached the valley floor and the jungle gave way to something like a savannah. There was no path, just thorny weeds and dead brown grass. Looking back and up we could see Nag Fani and the cliff wall dominating the valley.

Eventually we came to a wadi, the smallest type of Maharashtrian village. The wadi was a square of huts with an open area in the middle. As we walked through the entrance children stopped playing, women stopped picking stones out of rice, men sitting in front of their houses stared, and all the dogs started barking furiously. The barking dogs conveyed the surprise and alarm the villagers felt at seeing us. They barked for a very tense ten seconds or so until an old woman threw some stones at them. The way the people looked at us we might as well have stepped off a spaceship and had antennae growing out of our heads. Here we were, a Westerner and a city slicker from Pune, dressed in jeans and wearing large backpacks, arriving without warning at the back end of a remote village that had no road, nothing modern, nothing to tie it to the outside world except a foot path. When we told them that we had just come from the jungle, they thought we were mad. Didn't we know there were tigers in there? A mob of children gathered around us as we filled our water bottles at the back of someone's house. We asked for directions to Karjat. They pointed us down the path to a village with a road and said we'd be able to get a bus from there.

As we were walking down the path we came to a farm. There was an old man, a young woman, and a cow. The man gave us a couple glasses of milk from the cow and Kuldeep told him our story. I didn't understand the conversation, but as we left the farm Kuldeep told me the old man ripped into him. Said something to the effect of, "You city people have no idea what it's like out here in the villages. You could've gotten killed in the jungle and nobody would've known. You were so foolish," and on in that vein for a while. Kuldeep felt bad and took the old man's admonition to heart.

We continued on the path under the noon day sun. Kuldeep told me there was a cave nearby that had been inhabited by the Pandavas, the five brothers from the Mahabharata. We eventually arrived at the village where the road began. We were told by a shopkeeper that a bus would arrive that afternoon. We went into small shrine and rested.

The bus arrived. As we got on we learned that Karjat was about 60 km away. The one Bhimashankar resident who told us what we didn't want to hear, that there was no way we could walk there in one day, was the one who was right. A couple hours later we were in Karjat. Wada pav never tasted as good as it did that day.

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