Kaas – Flowers, Valleys and Tabletops

Pink Flowers in Kaas

Pink Flowers in Kaas

I first read about Kaas in the in-flight travel magazine of Jet Airways on a flight just after I had moved back to India. The article spoke rapturously about a place in the Western Ghats where, at the end of every monsoon, little flowers bloomed with such profusion that all one could behold was carpets of colour. The colours would change every week, or with the rain. I made up my mind on the flight that if I ever ended up in Mumbai at the right time of the year, I would go to Kaas.

Fate has a strange way of making wishes come true. Two years later, I was working in Mumbai. My wife came across a web site run by a wonderful organization called the Bombay Natural History Society (www.bnhs.org). BNHS was organizing two fully guided tours of Kaas just after the monsoon. We signed up for the second guided tour at the end of September.

Timing is very important, so it’s important to track the fading of the monsoon.  Typically, early – mid September is the right time to go. But in 2012, the monsoon was considerably delayed. I was pointed to a Kaas website run by the govt of Maharashtra Forest division to register for a visit. The website worked as often as a cool shower in a desert (it’s a lot better now). When I finally got access to it, I called the contact numbers listed on the site. The persons on the other end were very helpful and informed me that the best time to visit, given the late monsoon, would be end of September. We lucked out.

Kaas is a tabletop, a plateau, overlooking the town of Satara in Maharashtra. There is no place to stay in Kaas. The closest town one can stay in is Satara, a typical small Indian township,  at the foothills of Kaas. Satara is a 5 hour drive from Mumbai. Perhaps because the flowering is a seasonal event that lasts just a month, Kaas / Satara still remain relatively obscure. As a result, there are neither any tourist trappings nor any tourist amenities in Satara. The best hotels on offer are 2 star calibre. You could label a few as 3 star but it would be a stretch. If you’re looking for a comfortable stay, it  might be better to stay in nearby Wai or Panchgani. Be prepared to drive an extra 30 – 45 minutes to Satara, and then add another 45 minutes to get to Kaas from Satara.

The view of Satara on the way to Kaas

The view of Satara valley on the way to Kaas

It’s a lovely drive up the mountains from Satara to Kaas. There are no indications, not even the tiniest hint, of what awaits in Kaas as one drives up. All one sees are green mountain sides, valleys, lakes, the Venna river, and flat green tabletops. There are some picturesque lodges, including one that looked haunted, and a few dhaba-style restaurants along the hillsides.

Mickey Mouse Flowers

Mickey Mouse Flowers

As one gets closer to Kaas, the flowers start to show on adjoining tabletops. The good thing about going with BNHS was that our trip guide knew when to stop and explain the intricacies of the flowers to us. We stopped en-route to see the famed “Mickey Mouse” flowers as well as lesser known flowers such as the lantern flower.

You know you’re there when you hit the last tea stall and restaurant at a makeshift entrance onto the Kaas plateau. There’s a car park to leave your car behind at the entrance and walk the last 2 or so kilometers.

The Lantern Flower

The Lantern Flower

If you have a driver or are in a bus, you can get dropped off at the very entrance and save yourself the walk. It’s a healthy walk amidst greenery, so there’s nothing saved by not walking it. Unless there’s rain (it’s the last vestiges of monsoon, remember?) or time is of the essence.

At the entrance, the forest officials will charge you a nominal entry fee, and an additional fee if you are carrying a camera. The area has been recently fenced off to protect the flowers from being picked and destroyed by passers by. It was unfortunate, but once inside, visitors were blissfully squashing the flowers in their attempt to get a Bollywood like photograph while laying down amid a bed of flowers. Children happily plucked flowers while the parents watched on, unmindful of large signs prohibiting the plucking of flowers.

The carpets of flowers are truly a sight to behold. The flowers are tiny. One should not expect a field of sunflowers or lilies in Kaas. However, there is such a large bounty of these little flowers that size truly does not matter. In fact, the small size creates the illusion of a finely weaved carpet, somewhat like a finely pixelated image.

At the Kaas Table top

At the Kaas Table top

Pink flowers, blue flowers, yellow flowers, white flowers, embroidered by lush green grass, and an occasional tree. Wherever we turned, that’s all we could see. The first afternoon was cloudy, but the next morning was bright and sunny. Thanks to the changing sky, we got to see Kaas in two completely contrasting moods. On the first day, the colours of the flowers stood out against a dark broody sky. On the second day, the flowers shone with delight, as they soaked in the daylight.

From the table top, we went down the other side to a serene beautiful lake. Here too were unique flowers along the shores. Not weaved into carpets, but sticking to trees and branches like little necklaces. As we reached the lake side, the scenery was of a kind that could have been anywhere. It could have been the US, or the UK, or Europe. I felt like I had seen this lake side many times in many countries. Pure, calm, serene. It was the temple that was the give away and brought the mind back to India.

Kaas Lake

Kaas Lake (temple on the other side)

The lake was large and we drove from one end to the other. At the other end, people had parked their motorbikes right by the lake and jumped in for a swim. It was the perfect thing to do on a warm sunny day. We were not swimsuit prepared and so all we could was vicariously enjoy the water before we headed back to Mumbai.

Kaas is often called Maharashtra’s equivalent of the Himalayan Valley of Flowers. It’s a lazy comparison. Kaas is not a valley, it’s a flat top of a mountain. The flowers are seasonal and tiny. Yet Nature remains unconditionally generous, offering the same beauty and healing to all, regardless of whether the “all” treat Nature with respect or disregard.

You can see more Kaas photos on my Flickr page.

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A visit to Kanheri Caves in Mumbai

Kanheri Cave

A cave at Kanheri, Mumbai

While browsing the Mumbai suburbs on Google maps one day, I noticed a vast expanse of green called “Sanjay Gandhi National Park” stuck plumb in the middle of the greater Mumbai mainland. Intrigued, I researched further and found it to be quite popular with the locals in the Northern suburbs. After some online searches combined with some non-Quoraesque Quora with colleagues, I discovered that the park was home to leopards and some ancient Buddhist caves called Kanheri caves. Notwithstanding the cats, the caves, and the park itself, was worth a visit, I was told.

A heron in Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Garden

We decided to check out the caves on the long weekend of MahaShivratri. Big mistake. We got to the park by 9 am only to discover hordes of people , mostly poor, queuing for a bus ride to the caves. Cars were not allowed and the government was sponsoring bus rides to Kanheri for all. Quite shocked to see such a resurgence in Buddhism in Mumbai, I asked a local park official what the commotion was all about. He informed us that there was a swayambhu (spontaneous) Shiva lingam in the Kanheri caves and we had stumbled into a national pilgrimage event in local Mumbai. So we contented ourselves with a glimpse of a heron in the Mahatma Gandhi memorial garden in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and headed home.

Some months later, and wiser, we set out early morning on a Sunday, – perhaps the only time every week when Mumbai is once again a civilized city – to visit Kanheri once again. As we entered the park at about 8:45 am, it was like entering an oasis. Once can see signs of encroachment, a few shanties here and there, but the greenery was vast and overwhelming, especially after being hurled through the crippled roads and haphazard concrete of Mumbai for the prior few months.

The caves were about a 15 minute drive into the park. The park was definitely popular with locals. There were joggers, cyclists, couples on bikes, walkers all along till we got to the caves. One could park the cars at the entrance to the mountain sides that contain the over 100 caves, some small and some major, that were built from 1st century B.C till 11th century AD.

The touring area had been developed reasonably well with railed pathways and stairs for all ages. Yet, one could turn the visit into a moderate exercise by walking up the hills rather than taking the easier pathways. The caves were obviously used by monks for meditation, but it seems highly likely that the monks had lived around there, sponsored by local kings at a time when  Buddhism flourished in India post Ashoka.

Each cave contained statues of Buddha in various different styles, some cut into rock, some of Buddha as Avalokiteshwara,  or on a lotus, or lying down, indicating the different eras when the caves were built.  Seeing the various statues, I thought of the derision that is sometime poured on devout hindus for practicing idol worship. Yet, other religions create their own idols, be it in sculpture or painting, so why point fingers at a people practicing worship in their own way?

Buddhist art in Cave 67 in Kanheri

One of the caves looked like a dining hall, some other caves looked like they might have been used as places to sleep, and some were clearly meant for meditation.  There were about 110 caves dotting the hillside, but caves 11, 34, 41 and 67 were marked as must-see  for their size and for the artistry. Cave 67, for instance, had 1000 sculptures of Buddha. Cave 34 had a colour painting, but it was on the roof and hard to spot in the darkness.

Walking in and around the caves does create a sense of history and awe, given that that Buddhist monks walked on the same ground some 2000 years ago. However, completely unexpected was the visual treat one gets as one climbs up the hills. Dense greenery, stains on a mountain hinting at an impending waterfall once the monsoon kicks in, a solitary white temple eaten up by trees, the wonderful vistas of Mumbai city in the backdrop of lush green hills.  Most wonderful of all, a cooling breeze smelling of fresh air, drying off a sultry Mumbai. It was, of all things, the hardest thing to leave behind as we wound our way down before the noon heat kicked in.

A few helpful tips, not available anywhere on the net unfortunately.

  • You can drive all the way to the caves, or you can park at a couple of spots along the way and walk the rest. Car costs Rs. 80 per person.
  • Alternatively, there are buses available at the entry point of the park to the caves.
  • The entry point on the Western Express Highway is at the junction for Borivali station.
  • Unlike in the Canary Islands, one has to pay the government here. Rs 5 entry to the caves for Indians. Separate price for foreigners, not sure how much.
  • Cameras, with flash, are allowed but I would not recommend using the flash..

A view of Mumbai from Sanjay Gandhi National Park

More photos on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chetanroy/sets/72157630263765370/

UK and Bengal

I’ve said this before and gotten flak about being a Bengali anglophile, but I’ll say it again. When I take the train through rural Bengal, I sometimes feel like I’m traveling in the UK. The same lush green, lakes, rolling fields. A few differences in vegetation – banana trees, mango trees, broad banyan trees. But the same lush green.

Some photos to illustrate my point. Here are some photos of Bengal and Kolkata from the plane on a recent flight.

 

And here’s UK. A little blurry, but this is what I could get from the web.

Driving across the world: a Transworld Expedition

At the party mentioned in the previous post, I came across Nick, a Frenchman who has decided to drive around the world. He is now in Mumbai but leaving shortly for Kolkata, then on to Bangladesh and eastward till he is back in NYC.

Some great stories. Take a look.
www.TransworldExpedition.com

A wonderful afternoon in Kolkata

After a sumptuous lunch at home, I sat down in my living room right before my favourite view. Through the windows, I could see my small verandah, almost an awning of sorts. Beyond the awning, two tall plantain trees and another tree in the back yard were directly in my view. If I focused out enough, it felt like I could only see foliage.

As I was looking out, listening to some quiet music, the sky grew dark and a wind began to blow. The leaves of the plantain trees fluttered like elephant’s ears in the breeze. Imminent rain filled the air with its smell.

Within minutes, oceans came down in full fury.

I walked out to the verandah to smell that earthy fragrance of rain falling on thirsty leaves, to hear the sound of patter in the trees, to hear the splattering of water on hard ground, to feel the spray in my eyes. As I stood taking it all in, I suddenly remembered how, as a little boy, I used to stand in the same spot that I was standing on now and watch the rain for hours. I would rush home from school to catch the rain from the verandah. On the two holidays of the week, I would take a stool and sit in the verandah watching the rain fall from the sky, through the leaves, down to the ground.

The 1978 monsoon was especially powerful. The ground floor was completely flooded. The water level had come up 15 feet or more almost to the level of the first floor, which is where we were. I would sit in the small verandah with my friend from upstairs. We would make paper boats and throw them down to the water hoping they would land just right and sail away.

Somehow, I had just chosen the exact same spot where I used to sit, or stand, nearly 30 years ago.

A wonderful way to spend my afternoon.

Recovering from malaria can have joyful moments.

A new way to leave from JFK

One learns something even as one is leaving New York.

My car driver, a Yugoslavian married to an Italian, took me on a whole new route to JFK, all the while cursing out the American lack of intelligence, the dependence on money, the Iraq war, and the erosion of values in American society.

While I did not learn much from the commentary on American society, I did learn that Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is the shortest route to JFK. There are some traffic lights, but one is guaranteed to reach JFK within a certain time. That’s a whole lot surer than being stuck on the LIE, the BQE, the Grand Central Parkway or the Van Wyck.

It took me 50 minutes from Pavonia / Newport, Jersey City to get to JFK. This includes heavy traffic on Canal Street and in Brooklyn.

I also discovered that luggage carts at the airport now cost $5. That’s to take luggage about 100 feet from the entrance of the terminal to the check in counter. What a rip-off!!