Harishchandragad – via Khireshwar

HARISHCHANDRAGAD ( 12,13 June ’09)

I had heard and read reams upon reams about this place . The famed Konkan kada , the long hike , the temple at the top had all contributed in creating a huge aura about the place . And believe me , Harischandragad did not disappoint one bit . This is one place you would feel like visiting time and again . I used to think initially , that people who have done that trek some thirty – forty times got to have a screw loose , but I have changed my opinion now . Anyways , let me start from the beginning itself , try and describe something in words which even photos and videos will fall woefully short of ! . Here goes …

I started from my house on the evening of the 11th of June , all set for the trek to Harishchandragad . As usual , I was the lone guy from Navi Mumbai , and ended up travelling all the way to Thane all alone . No issues , just that it gets a bit boring ! From Thane , another train to Kalyan . This was the first time I was travelling in one of the new purple rakes of the railways , and I was impressed ! . Chrome plated handle bars for standing passengers , more space , cleaner, and with a digital board which displayed the next station . Cool ! Plus a voiceover which read it out , incase you cant / dont read . ( the voice keeps repeating the name so many times , it bugs you in the end ! ) It was a pleasant uneventful journey . I also met Nilesh Patil , our trek leader , couple of stations before Kalyan , and we spent some time chatting about past treks , which is what most trekkers do when they meet on a trek !
Alighting at Kalyan , I made my way to the common meeting point , the display board on platform one . Mohit and Mudit and another guy , Bhandari I think , were already there . After the usual hi hellos and getting introduced to each other , we waited for the others to arrive . They all did one by one , or some times in twos or threes , till there were about 20 of us on the platform . One girl , some Khushi Punjabi , hadnt reached there yet . The ST for Khubi Phata was about to leave , and as every moment passed , it made us even more anxious . Finally , Nilesh asked Vikram and Bittu to at least get evryone into the bus . One party could go on its way .
As usual , it was utter chaos outside the station . We proceeded to the bus stand , located right next to it , after dodging the dozen or so rickshaws and the dozens of pededstrians who came in our way . Good thing we had reserved seats in the bus , so everyone got a place to sit . Nilesh , Vikram and Khushi had to unfortunately take another bus , which left half an hour later .
The long drive to Khubi phata in Malshej Ghat was spent in total darkness . No one spoke much and for long the only sound I could hear was the bus’ engine . We wound our way up the ghat near Junnar . When we returned two days later , in the daytime , I would realise what a pristine valley we were driving over ( with enough thrills provided by the bus driver ! ) In the black of the night though , it was just another drab ghat ! . We finally reached Khubi phata at around 1 am . The driver had conviently dropped us off a stop earlier , so we ended up walking a further two kilometres !!
We finally began the long walk from Khubi phata to Khireshwar under cloud covered skies . Every now and then the moon would peep through a gap in the clouds , creating an eerie effect as the thin wisps of clouds around it gave off a dull glow . Most of us were new to each other , so there was plenty to talk about ! Made some really good friends on that five kilometre nocturnal hike !
We reached the village of khireshwar in about an hour , and made ourselves comfortable in the small open area in front of a house . I had postponed buying proper bedding yet again , and so found myself tossing and turning on the thin satranji I had brought along ! . Anyways , sleep did come finally , for about half an hour . Some bloody cock had started crowing . I checked my watch .. 3 30 am !!! . Worst part , that bird was on snooze .. it kept crowing every half hour !! I slept fitfully after that . Between the hard ground and the crowing cock , I couldnt expect much !
The next day dawned bright and clear . I had my first look at Harishchandragad . The top of the huge mountain was covered in thick white clouds . As the clouds moved , I recognised a nedha or natural orifice in the rock on the extreme left side . We freshened up , had our breakfast and soon began the climb up Harishcndrgad . ( henceforth Harish ) From Khireshwar , a dirt track led all the way to Tolar khind , the pass between Harish and an adjoining mountain . The hike was pretty simple , with a well worn track winding its way up the jungle . Our group of about twenty five , soon got split into two , with the seven – eight of us some distance ahead of the rest .
In a way that was good though , it afforded us some rest as we waited for the others to catch up .
The track wound its way through the jungle , some times rising , some times staying flat . The sun beat down on our backs as we made our way to the rock of Tolar Khind . I had forgotten to bring my cap along and soon had beads of sweat forming on my forehead ! . After trekking for about an hour and half , we came to a bifurcation in the track . A stone bearing a sculpture of a lion was placed at this spot , near a tree . Like with most other such artefacts , it too had been converted into a quasi temple , with saffron paint (shendur) and associated things near it .
Further on , we took the road to the left , and soon found ourself at the rock patch . It had plenty of holds carved into it , big enough to fit atleast one foot , if not both ! A rusted railing provided some more security . An easy climb up this part brought us to the second part of the rock patch . Perhaps , if I had done Harish earlier on , before Gorakh , Haji Malang , Alang etc .. that patch might have seemed a tad ‘ thrilling ‘ ! . Anyways , I soon began to climb the second part . Here too , holds , almost like steps had been carved out at nice comfortable heights . Apart from a couple of places , where I had to be careful about the narrow path , this too was an easy climb . Some great photo opportunities in this patch . Of the patch itself , the surrounding mountains , people climbing up etc . The track then traversed the mountain for some distance , again with steel bars stuck on its periphery for support ! . Some more scrambling up the scree and we were done with Tolar Khind ! . And almost as if to welcome us , one dude had set up a stall right there on that small plateau , with ready to serve Nimbu sarbat and buttermilk ( taak ) ! Since we had again pulled ahead , our small group decided to take a small break here . And with nothing else to do , we treated ourselves to some refreshing nimbu sarbat !!! .
A trail led to the left of the stall , then turned right towards the jungle . Here it again bifurcated , one muddy track descending on the left , another track going flat to the right . We took the one on the left . ( take this route if u want to skip hiking over seven small hills . The muddy track looks misleading at first , but takes you to the balle killa . The one on the right IS misleading )
After hiking some more , which involved skidding over scree a couple of times , we found ourselves at the base of the bale killa . Its strong walls could be made out from here , situated atop the small hillock . I could see many cows grazing on the little grass left on the hill . The hike continued for about half an hour more before the ___ of the temple became visible .It must have been about 12 by then .The intricately carved structure looked beautiful , especially with its golden ‘ shikhar ‘ shining brilliantly in the afternoon sun . I stopped to click photos as the rest of the group proceeded to the caves located some distance away . The temple was old , at least 1400 years , from what I had read about the place . Nearby was a pond , with steps leading down to it . Many small temples lay strewn all around the bigger temple . The unmistakable signs of a huge temple complex were there to see!
Must have been one heck of a place at its zenith ! I said to myself .
Proceeding to the cave , I plonked my sack amongst the others and sat down for lunch with my friends . The cave itself was quite cool , protected as it was by the hillside on three sides . It was one of 3 -4 caves carved out in the hillside by our Satvahan ancestors . We trekkers surely owe them a lot for making trekking a pleasure in the 21st century ! . Without the steps , caves , water tanks etc carved out by them a couple of millenia ago , trekking would be a pain ! . So , sitting in a cave , which was once the abode of monks seeking solitude from noisy crowds , we chatted and joked as we had our lunch . Basically that meant everyone eating everyone’s lunch ! .
My stomach full , I went for a stroll outside . In the distance I could see the top of the temple . The huge mountains of the Malshej ghat / Kasara region could also be seen quite clearly . Far far away in the distance , the top of Kalsubai stood out between the ‘ V ‘ formed by two lesser peaks.
Back in the cave , with nothing else to do , I took a small nap ! हो ! मस्त पाय ताणून ज्होपलो तीन तास !.
Finally , I was woken up at around four by Vikram . ” Time for Konkan Kada ! ” . I sprang to my feet . The crowning glory was right around the corner . We all trooped out of the cave , in a single file . The path climbed to the left , onto a small plateau . then it descended into a thicket further on . A small fifteen minute hike later , we came to a huge plateau . I started walking to its edge , to Kokan kada . Fact is , you cannot get even a hint of the sight until you are almost upon it . About ten feet from the edge , the huge gorge came into view . I gaped in amazement ( I also said something , but I cant write that here ! ) . I was completely unprepared for this amazing natural phenomenon . Millions of years of weathering had carved out a bowl from the mountain . If you could imagine a bowl 1700 feet wide , turned on its side , you might start to get an idea of Kokan Kada .
The wind blew strongly into my face as I stood near the edge , the latest among perhaps thousands of people to have stood there and admired the view , down the ages . The same wind , blowing across the Konkan had , over millions of years , carved out the Kokan kada from the side of the cliff . Layers of basalt which made up the mountain stood exposed , each carrying a tale of its own . I tossed a coin into the valley , only to see the wind pick it up and toss it back over my head ! .
Far in the distance , I could see Bhairavgad , Naneghat , Jivdhan and Khada parsi . Closer , the peaks of Sindola and Nakta stood out from the stunning landscape . We spent a lot of time here , clicking photos , enjoying the view ! Some of my friends from school had also , co incidentally , planned a Harish trek that same day ! I half expected to bump into them near the kada . But two hours passed , and no sign of anyone . By this time , the sun had begun to set . Peaks which stood out in great detail just minutes before , now turned into eerie purple – brown silhouettes . Clouds had gathered on the horizon , casting a grey shadow over the valley . Slowly but surely , the twilight gave way to the dark night as we made our way back to the caves . By the time we reached the smaller plateau , night had well and truly set in . With the dark jungle just a few metres away , and the lonely and dark mountain stretching out before us , it was the perfect time and place for some ‘ghost stories ‘ . Well , I learnt that not only Torna , but even Rajgad and rajmachi harbour spirits . So now , nocturnal treks to these places have become high priority ! . The talk meandered on , from one story to another , each one of them told as seriously as possible ! . From a shapeless ghost on a trade route to people appearing and dissapearing with no reason , the stories had everything .” I think I saw something move over there ” Ravi announced suddenly . ” Where ? ” someone asked him . I chuckled a bit . ‘ Ise kehte hain behti ganga mein haath dho lena !! ‘ Some of the guys then actually got up to check out if there was anything in the jungle . ” Dikha toh nahin … lekin tha waha par kuch toh . ! ” ” Yeah something big ” . It was all a prank of course , and they all settled down once more . One guy was a bit more than disturbed ” chalo chaltein hain . ” , he declared , his voice quivering slightly . I could hardly stop laughing . We wanted to stay , but he insisted , and we finally trooped off to the caves .
Very soon , we had a roaring bon fire going with the firewood we had collected . Dinner consisted of pithla bhaat , bhakri . Authentic Maharashtrian cuisine . We got it readymade , cooked by the villager on his chulah . I hadnt sat around a bon fire since a very long time , and it was really special , having dinner in shared plates with so many great friends . Hungry as I was , I quickly polished off most of the ‘ shared plate ‘ !! .
Dinner done , I sat around here and there , chatting with people . All of a sudden , I saw a couple of torch lights on the plateau next to us . They finally emerged out of the thicket , not one or two but 9 of them ! I was pleasantly surprised to see all my friends , though I must stay I expected to meet them much earlier , and was a tad worried . Even as we were busy shaking hands and wasting time in general his and hellos , somebody emerged from the jungle . He was bare , save for the large number of leaves around his waist . Smears of yellow paint on his bare torso and face and necklaces of beads and rudraksha adorned his neck . In either hand , he carried a blazing ‘torch’ or mashaal . Even I was startled for a moment ! . But Bhandare had done an absolutely fantastic job with the get up and make up . He seemed even more authentic when he did a bit of mono acting around the bon fire ! . My friends though , seemed to be startled out of their wits . Some welcome to Harishchandragad . !
Soon , long sessions of anectodes , songs , and other timepass followed . As the night wore on , a thick fog engulfed us . Very soon , it was impossible to see beyond a few feet and also a bit chilly. We continued our timepass for a some more time , then retired to the cave for a good night’s sleep .
Early next morning , a beautiful sight greeted me as I stepped out of the cave . A mist covered everything for as far as I could see . The outline of the temple stood out from behind the thin veil. I settled down with a cup of tea to soak in the pleasant atmosphere . Slowly , as the sun rose the mist dissapeared , and the temple came into view once again ! . Everyone else had by now woken up . But ideally , they should have been awake at least an hour earlier .
Next on the itenary was Taramati , the summit of Harishchandragad . The 3rd ( or is it 2nd ? ) highest point in the whole state ! . Almost directly opposite to the temple , a path led into the jungle , and upwards . Dry leaves and roots typical of deciduous forests covered our route to the top . We also spent some time at a huge tree , climbing onto it (all twenty seven of us ) , and clicking photos . Before long , the summit came into view . My school friends had started much earlier , and were now descending from it . The route to the top was windy , and steep in a couple of places . A steep rocky patch and we were nearly done . Taramati rose high and above over everything else in the vicinity . A huge carpet of clouds stretched out before our eyes . In fact , the summit seemed to lead into the clouds themselves . A pole , with torn saffron standards marked the peak . The strong winds had torn at the flags , but they still fluttered proudly , whatever was left of them . To the right , down below , I could see the huge ‘C’ shape of the Kokankada , as also the temple and to my left the village . Apart from that , the peaks of Malshej ghat presented an unparalleled panaroma .
I started descending at about 11 30 , and was done by 2 . One of my school friend’s bike had got punctured while travelling from khubi phata the previous night , so they had another adventure to complete ! . We pushed off by 4 30 – 5 . By bus to Kalyan . Then by local to Thane and finally to Sanpada .
A great and unforgettable trek had come to an end .