Before we hit travel mode, a bit of mythology. Legend has it that Rishi Valmiki stayed atop the mountain here. A pregnant Sita, forsaken by Ram, had trekked up this mountain to seek refuge in a hermitage. Valmiki took paternal care of her till she delivered her twin sons: Luv and Kush. The villagers, as a tribute to his infinite hospitality, call this mountain Ajobagad, or the Fortress of the Grandfather.
You don’t have to undertake a three-hour trek to the hermitage to partake of the excellent hospitality of this region. Its present right at the foothills of this mountain: in the twin villages of Kondicha Pada and Dehna in Satara.
Inir Pinheiro, the founder of Grassroutes, who has taken up village tourism as his mission led the motley group from Mumbai. We have gone ahead and separated the group into four distinct categories, and there was enough and more for each one of us to cherish.
For the lazy bum
Our base was Dehna, a village of 17 houses belonging to the Patekars. This village has an interesting origin. During the British rule, a well-to-do patriot was lodged in the Pune Central Jail. He promised to reward the jailor for allowing him to escape; and when he did, he invited the jailor and his relatives from Satara, and gifted him the entire village of Dehna. The 17 Patekar families that inhabit this village today trace their origin to this largesse.
The beauty is that they keep the tradition of generosity alive. If you so decide, you can walk into any of their homes and stay put as if it’s your own. You can watch them as they go about their daily chores; and in the afternoon, have a siesta on the cow-dung smeared floor under a green canopy in their verandah. You can help the women-folk fill water from the borewell; and after a spartan dinner, lie down in your own sleeping bag laid out in their vegetable garden. And, when a star falls in the sky studded with a few thousands, make your own wish. Chances are, you will wish you were born here in your next birth.
For the heritage heady
Ajobagad is much like Churchgate. Just as in Churchgate there is neither a church nor a gate, in Ajobagad there’s neither an ajoba (Marathi: grandfather) nor a gad (Marathi: fort). But for those who dig heritage, it's a trek worth its climb. As you set out from Dehna, you first encounter an adivasi village called Chinchwadi.It’s a village of over a 100 houses; their walls made of the Karvi plant that blooms once in a blue moon. Just outside one of the houses, we saw a mother making a ‘ber’ chutney with turmeric and salt, and feeding her children — perhaps, as a medicine or as an appetiser. At another home, we spotted a teenage boy with his thigh torn apart by a wild boar. The previous night, he was on guard at his father’s farm along with others, in the village. He couldn’t get out of the way when the wild boar charged and paid the price for his valour.The trek to the top of Ajobagad takes nearly three hours. Half way up the mountain is Sage Valmiki’s Samadhi. Almost near the top is Sita’s Cradle: the cave in which her sons Luv and Kush were born.
On the way, we met a group waylaid by Google Maps. They wanted to go to the nearby Ratangad, and landed at Ajobagad instead!
For the nature buff
The morning walk was along the bed of Shayi River that flows down from Ajobagad — the same river where Sita must have bathed Luv and Kush. On a khair tree there was the unusual sight of about a dozen Drongos perched at various heights. Normally, these are spotted alone, or at best in pairs. A closer look revealed that termites attacked the tree, and the Drongos had decided in favour of a community lunch. On another tree, a male Paradise Flycatcher, with its long, white trailing tail was displaying its aeronautic skills. Next, we spotted a beautiful butterfly that we haven’t yet identified yet, a Koel, a Crested Serpent Eagle, two Grey Hornbills, and the Asian Brown Stonechat. Later, a line of Palas trees in full bloom, and a lone Mahua tree that had just started flowering, caught the eye. The adivasi guide who took us on the forest trail showed no signs of slowing down. We had to plead with him to take a breather. That was when Inir shared an amazing fact. Apparently, biometric tests on adivasis have shown that their heart rate does not increase even when they climb mountains. Probably, the hunt for India’s Olympic champ in athletics and other events should begin and end with adivasis.
For the foodie
Pinheiro has an interesting programme for the foodie. It involves the entire food cycle from growing grains to making the final product to, of course, consuming it! Depending on which season you are travelling in, you can partake of ploughing the farm, sowing the seeds, transplanting them, harvesting them and even transporting them on a bullock cart. But at any time of the year you can pound rice, or grind rice in stone grinders by hand, and learn to make the perfect bhakri. Since it was Maghi Ganesh season, we were only privy to their staple vegetarian diet. We learnt to make the perfect Zunka, Ghevdyachi Bhaji (from locally grown beans), Khurasni Chi Chutney (flaxseed chutney), Thecha (fiery accompaniment!) and Aamti (sour daal). After helping some of the villagers prepare the dishes, we had our fill seated on mats spread out on the cow-dung smeared floor.
Did you know?
Residents of Ajobagad are believed to practice ‘ghotul’. But it’s kept under wraps. The only other tribe who practice it are the Bastars in Chhattisgarh. A young man and a woman live together for a year, to decide, if they are compatible. If, and only if, they believe so, are they married off by the village elders.
How to get there
Dehna is approximately 145 kms from Mumbai.
>Take the Eastern Express Highway to Thane
> Move to the Bhiwandi
Bypass to Kasara which is nearly 100 kms from Mumbai.
>At Kasara, turn right to Dolkhamb and proceed to Dehna.
> It’s about 45 kms after you take the turn.
How to Move around>>
It is best if you have a car to negotiate this area.
How to sign up>>
Call Inir Pinheiro on 9969101861 or Sushma on 9769651849
Email inir.pinheiro@ grassroutes.co.in for details about their next tour, and details of stay at the site.