Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bhandardara- A bounty(bhandar) of little delights

Bhandardara is situated in the Sahyadri Hills, in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. The hundred kilometre drive from Shirdi to Bhandardara felt longer than the three and a half hours it took us to reach. The drive along the sometimes florescent green fields and sometimes dark, black soil expanses formed a nice contrast to the bright blue sky above and could have signalled unbridled joy, except that the tar on the road (or the lack of it) had decided not to extend us that courtesy. Thankfully as the Western Ghats got closer and we began our ascent, the hills started bombarding us with a slideshow of panoramic views as if in compensation.

The Western Ghats are a sight to behold during, or fresh from, the monsoons. Lush green here explains itself needing no help from either Webster’s or Oxford. The vistas got our sleepy eyes awakened and battered bones rejuvenated and we soon pulled over at the parking bay of MTDC`s resort at Bhandardara. At first instance it is easy to feel let down looking at the slightly unkempt property especially after being pampered by our regular holiday time sharer ,Club Mahindra’s quality and attention to detail. This was a downsizing we had prepared for but didn’t want to accept. But one look at the view awaiting us in front of our cottages and every thought of possible discomfort vanished. The Bhandardara Lake and its backwaters silently screamed for our attention. And we were only too glad to oblige. Our choice of resort was also vindicated when we realised that Anandvan, a star resort in the vicinity, in spite of its premium tag and Yash Resorts another,in spite of it swimming pool had nothing even close to offer in comparison. MTDC, located on a hillock is at a vantage point and offers the best possible view from anywhere in this area.

Mount Kalsubai near here is the highest peak in Maharashtra. The Wilson dam built in 1910 is one of the oldest dams in the country with the Arthur Hill Lake being one of the largest lakes. The lake is so vast, the MTDC resort is at a pick up point meant to ferry people across to their villages. Little bands of people waiting to be ferried to some obscure village somewhere along the stretches of this beauteous lake make for a charming, even mysterious sight. Still waters, as the say, run deep. The placid waters of Arthur Hill Lake go down a 110ft. Bhandardara`s reputation had more than just trivia riding on it.

The first evening was a boat ride to the ancient Amruteshwar Temple at Ratanwadi. Said to be built in 1100 A.D., this was a 1000 year old temple built in a style called the Hemadpanti architecture. A small but intricately carved temple, its peculiarity is a Shiva Ling (representative statue of Lord Shiva) which is perennially under water. The temple’s inconspicuous size is compensated by the absolute beauty of its location. The forty minute ride on the lake to the temple, the long winding backwaters and the hills all around gave its tiny size a more than perfect setting for focus and devotion.  There are Vedanta classes held here, organised by a priest who is surprisingly an MBA degree holder and has made it his mission to propagate the merits of the Vedas. The temple precincts are an ideal setting for his tutelage. Prayers done and the intricate carvings digitised in our cameras, we headed back. The temple started disappearing from sight and we realised it was fading light and not distance that caused this. The boatman, worried, was now in a hurry to get us back because it would soon be dark and navigating the functional motor-boat back to the resort in the dark would be difficult. Fortunately old Hindi songs in the form of Antakshari (a spoken/sung parlor game of Bollywood songs) calmed our nerves-and his, and we arrived at the shore as soon as visibility became zero. A vivid memory here is that of a clear, star spangled sky, giving us a visual representation of what a billion could look like all at once.

Food options at the resort were rudimentary. Thankfully, the food was tasty and being a government set up, it was not priced high either. Other options for food were a good five kilometres away. With a trek scheduled for the next morning, we moved to our cottages after a quick dinner. Flies and scores of unfamiliar insects, attracted by the lights, emblazoned the cottage walls and made for a sight more eerie than unpleasant.

Early next morning, fully charged from a good nights rest and a refreshing cup of tea, we proceeded for our trek aided by our guide. One of the trekking options was to Mt.Kalsubai. But preferring something less taxing for our untried feet we opt for a shorter, easier trek. We would now trek across a few villages to a hill behind our resort and back. On your way up the hill, the reach of the backwaters comes into view. They stretch almost beyond sight into the horizon. The guide then points to a small speck in the distance. It is the Amruteshwar Temple we had visited earlier. This spellbinding view of the dam’s catchment made us wish we had taken the Mt.Kalsubai trek. Another point we didn’t visit was the Ratangadh Fort, which has many myths and legends.

 Once back from the trek we decided to make good use of thecottage lawns and that spectacular add-on, the panorama in front. Out came the pack of cards, the bed spreads on the grass and along with it the customary game of Antakshari. This was bliss; in one of the many avatars it had paid us a visit with on this sojourn.
 “Save the best for the last”, goes an old refrain. We had unknowingly done so for an experience on this trip that would make it one of our most memorable. During one of our casual conversations with the locals, we gathered that many of the villagers came to the lake every morning to bathe. The water was potable and the lake was not known to have any undercurrents. It was presumed safe to swim in and was in fact a routine with most of the people who came to bathe. There was a small temple across the lake on the opposite shore. Some regularly swam across to pay their obeisance.

 The next morning, our last there, we took a dip near the shore to test the waters. Clear,cold and crisp. And invigorating. And to think that this was only the “beta version” of a swim we now believed would be etched in our memories for a long, long time if we decided to do it. We were going to swim across the lake to the opposite shore, visit the temple and return by boat. A distance of a little more than a kilometre, we would swim the entire length with the boat alongside us as a precaution. The boat would be carrying the rest of the group (just the two of us were adventurous enough).
The sheer joy and ecstasy of being surrounded by hills in such a vast expanse of water, for me, nay, us, had no equal. We swam ashore to the temple and thanked the lord for an experience which could be called one. This swim was one of the best I could ever have imagined.

The beauty of Bhandardara and the unexpected delight it gave us is something we will always regale acquaintances with.

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