I remember coming to Lonavla and its chikkis many years ago with my family. I don’t remember any details of my first visit except that we visited Karla Caves the next morning on a day of light drizzle. I remember climbing up to the caves. I remember being awed by the majestic chaitya hall. I remember taking pictures of the hall and a stone stairway nearby. I later printed these black-and-white pictures in the university darkroom. They still grace my early photo albums for a lasting memory.
I wake up at quarter to six and freshen up. I divide my luggage into two parts. I take food, water and essentials for the two-day hike. The rest I leave at the cloak room at Lonavla train station.
‘I’ll come back tomorrow evening to collect my bag,’ I tell the man at the counter.
‘You can come back anytime,’ he tells me. This service is available only if you produce a train ticket. I have a ticket from here to Kamshet where the hike starts.
I arrive at Kamshet at quarter to seven. I stop at a restaurant for tea.
‘Can you do chai with ginger?’ I ask.
He doesn’t understand Hindi very well. Worse still, I don’t know the Hindi word for ginger.
‘Masala?’ I ask.
‘Chai masala?’ he asks in return.
‘Yes, chai masala is fine,’ I settle the matter without knowing what to expect. The tea is hot. It tastes like any normal tea. I wonder what he meant when he said chai masala. At five minutes to seven I start on my walk through Kamshet. After fifteen minutes I arrive at the highway. Across it, a road leads towards Bedsa. I chat up with a villager.
‘Is there a bus to Bedsa village?’ I ask him.
‘There is a bus to the village of Karunj. You can walk to Bedsa village from here. It is only 2 kms,’ he replies. The bus arrives. The countryside is beautiful as the bus climbs and winds its way on hilly slopes. We arrive at Karunj at quarter to eight. In another half an hour, I pass Bedsa village, its rice fields, its haystacks, its wicker baskets and its cow sheds. I pass a temple of devi. I climb up a well-laid flight of steps to the entrance of the caves. The landscape is still shrouded in mist. It’s beautiful to be up here so early in the day.
The chaitya hall is apsidal and supported by octogonal pillars. The pillars connect directly to the entablature without any capitals. Some pillars bear symbols of the Buddha and Buddhism – chakra, lotus, triratna, spiralling whorls. The votive stupa at the far end of the hall is plain. The semi-circular dome sits on a cylindrical base decorated minimally with palisade motif. The stupa is topped with a peepal tree in stylized representation.
The entrance to the hall is through a decorated porch with tall pillars and elaborate bell capitals. The capitals are topped with elephants, lions, horses or bulls with male and female riders. These figures bear similarity to the Mathura school of art with Greco-Roman influences. The outside entrance walls are covered with typical chaitya style arches and palisade motifs.
To the right of this main cave, is another apsidal cave. It is not a chaitya hall but a monastery (vihara) with cells all around it. Each cell has two beds. The doorways to these cells are plain but the lintels are chaitya style arches which are linked to one another by the palisade motif. This decoration is similar to what I had seen in Cave 19 of Panduleni Caves near Nashik. As I admire this scene, making a sketch at the same time, morning light streams through the entrance and warms the beautiful carvings from another age. The hills in the distance are framed by the entrance. The clouds are floating by from one hilly peak to another.
Outside, water tanks have been excavated in the rock. Many of these tanks contain a storage of water. I wonder about the source. It is unlikely to be an underground stream. We are on a hilly slope. This isn’t exactly the time of the monsoons. How come there is still water in these tanks?
I linger at the caves for some more minutes before I continue the hike. To the left of the caves are some steps cut into the rock. I take to this path and soon I am on a steep slope and dangerously clinging to thick grass on loose soil. The combined weight of me and my backpack makes it too risky a climb. There must have been easier path which I must have missed. It is too late to think of it now. It is time for action. I leave my backpack amidst the grass and climb to safety. I take note of the spot and intend to retrieve the bag later in the day with help from villagers.
I keep climbing and arrive at the base of Bedsa Hill. I go around the hill, taking in wonderful vistas all around. What really bothers me is that I have no water or food. I have left everything behind with my backpack. At about noon, I meet Bahgu, an old man grazing his buffaloes on these slopes. He is from the village of Malewadi which is also known by the name of Visapur. I accompany him to his modest hut of stone and mud. He offers me water in a large tumbler. I gulp down most of it. Some of his children, one grandchild and kids of the neighbourhood hover about me with interest.
‘Do you go to school?’ I ask one of them.
The little boy nods. The old man complains that teachers are not regular at school. Most of the days they don’t turn up. I ask the kids one by one their names. One girl is bold enough to translate numbers from Hindi to English.
‘Che,’ I prompt.
‘Six,’ she says. She does well till ten but gets stuck at elevan.
The old man spreads out an empty gunny sack. He lays down his sickle by the side. I take my seat on the sack outside the hut. The old man shouts. A little later a woman pops out for a brief moment and serves me a cup of tea. A chicken and her chicks peck around the courtyard as I sip my tea. A cat dashes out of the hut and gets chased by a dog. There is a brief uproar and the children run behind the dog.
After tea is done, I am invited into the house for a meal. The room is dark. The village is electrified but there is no power at the moment. Behind me a buffalo is tied up. I can barely see it in the darkness.
‘I bought that for forty thousand,’ says the old farmer.
‘How many litres does it yield?’ I ask him.
‘About three,’ he says. I learn that his eldest son sells the milk for twenty rupees per litre. This village has no road. One has to climb down the hill to get to Malavli. It is about an hour on foot.
Meanwhile, roti has been cooked and served to me on a plate. It is accompanied with broad beans spiced and cooked tastefully. I am told that the roti is not of wheat but of rice. It is a little hard and too dry but goes well with the vegetable. I thank them for this simple meal, drink some water and continue on my hike.
The earlier plan to walk to Visapur Fort and spend the night at Lohagad Fort is to be dropped. I need to get my backpack back. The ramparts of Visapur Fort stretch for quite a line along the top of these hills. I enjoy the pleasant afternoon and the excellent views from these hills. I walk down to Malavli station in the valley below. I am just in time to take the train to Kamshet. I then buy some coir rope and retrace my path to Bedsa village.
At the village, I ask for help. I meet Pravin Agade. He is preparing to be a fitter at an ITI in Lonavla. It is Sunday today and his day is free. He walks with me to the caves. He gets additional help from a cowherd Ganesh, a deaf man I had met earlier today. Together we go up an easier path leading up from the caves, a path I should have taken this morning in the first place. We search at a few places for the bag but it is not to be found. I point the exact location where it could be but the men are afraid.
‘That’s too steep. We never go there,’ they exclaim with great concern.
We try a few other approaches but we cannot get to that spot, the place I remember to have stashed away the backpack. It is close to sunset and darkness is beginning to set in. Pravin and I return to the village as Ganesh takes to rounding up his herd. I regret having lost much of my travel notes and all my pencil drawings.
Pravin promises to try again on Tuesday with more help from the village. We exchange addresses and phone numbers. I meet his family – his mother and his many sisters. His mother is in the verandah picking stones from the rice. I am invited for dinner. I am keen to get back to Lonavla early. I plan to catch a train to Mumbai and stay with my cousin there. But their hospitality pleases me and I cannot resist this rare chance of a village meal. I sit down for a simple dinner of rice and potato curry. Rice is grown in their own fields and so is the potato. Salt is served on a small platter but the curry is already rightly spiced and salted. I have a wonderful meal while everyone is curiously looking at me. I take leave of the family amidst smiles, byes and waves. I leave Bedsa village with many conflicting memories.