In the midst of Mumbai’s high-rises and endless traffic jam, it can seem like the city goes on forever. But geography does a nice job of containing the sprawl. Mumbai sits on an archipelago of seven islands merged together with reclaimed land to form a twenty mile-long peninsula that dangles from the mainland around a large bay. If you don’t have a boat, the only ways off the peninsula are via the suburbs at the northern end or the bridge to New Mumbai about halfway down.
After crossing the bridge, Mumbai disappeared in the rearview mirror, and smaller New Mumbai quickly followed suit. The air cleared up just a bit, and the rural foothills of the Western Ghats loom into view ahead. In our rented SUV, complete with driver and air conditioning, we passed factories and farms, lively highway-side food courts, and groups of schoolchildren in matching salwar kameez walking down dusty village roads. The tollway eventually took us on a winding ascent into the mountains until we reached Lonavala.
It’s not only the landscape that changed. Both Hindi and English are widely spoken in multicultural Mumbai, but out here in the Maharashtrian countryside, our driver’s language, Marathi, predominates. As we awkwardly found out a few times via my friend’s limited Hindi, Marathi poses a significant language barrier, even though the two languages are technically related. You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Marathi, but that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. If you want some perspective on the size of India, simply consider that Marathi, the local language of just one of its states, is the tenth most common native language in the world.
We didn’t spend any time in the town of Lonavala itself. It’s one of the favorite weekend getaways for people in Mumbai looking for a breath of cool air. With an amusement park, a lake, and a lively main street, I’m sure it’s a nice place to stay. The real draw, however, is the numerous outdoor attractions within easy reach.
We came first to the Karla Caves. From the parking lot, we could see only a few market stalls. We walked through the market to discover that the row of stalls continued as the path led steeply uphill. The crowded steps continued, passing stall after stall that all sold the same three items: pre-assembled temple offering kits, a regional specialty sweet called chikki, and red beanie hats that for some reason were flying off the shelves. This went on for quite some distance, and we began to wonder what we were even here to see when at last we emerged onto an open terrace on the mountainside. We were met on one side with a view of the valley below and on the other side with an entire monastery carved into a sheer cliff face.
Nearly twenty-two centuries ago, Buddhists established a monastic community in this defensible area along an ancient trade route. Rather than quarrying stones and assembling the monastery, they simply quarried the monastery and discarded the stones. We explored the now-barren bedrooms and shrines, wondering about the best way to sleep comfortably on a stone mattress.
The most impressive feature is the prayer hall. A high entryway leads first to a great foyer carved top to bottom with figures of humans, animals, and Buddha himself. Further in, through an elaborate archway, the prayer hall is like a subterranean cathedral, with a long nave flanked by two rows of stone columns topped with vaulting wooden beams that seemingly support the mountain that is the ceiling. The apse in the deepest part of the cave encompasses a bell-shaped stupa.
Back then, Buddhism had gained a significant following in India, but over the centuries, it was largely relegated to other parts of Asia as India readopted Hinduism. The red beanie-wearing people who bought the offering kits in the market stalls did not bring them before the stupa, but actually presented them in the more recently constructed Hindu temple that stands directly in front of the Karla Cave, nearly blocking the view of the main attraction.
The Karla Caves are just one of many such remnants of ancient Buddhism near Lonavala. We also stopped by the Bhaja Caves, which were very similar. The main difference at Bhaja Caves was the conspicuous lack of a modern Hindu temple, which meant that there were no market stalls and no red beanies. The place was more serene, as its builders had probably intended.
Before taking us to one of the final stops of the day, the tour agent called our driver. The conversation went on for some time in Marathi until suddenly the driver handed his phone to me. The agent asked me how the tour and driver had been so far and I assured him we were satisfied. “The next stop is supposed to be the fort,” he said, “but the monsoon washed the road out and the car cannot take you to the entrance – can you walk a few hundred meters?” Of course I agreed to this immediately – we’d just walked all those steps to reach the Karla and Bhaja Caves, what was a few hundred meters more? I passed the phone back to the driver, who got the translation and hung up.
A few minutes later, we turned onto a dirt road that ascended a mountainside. Is this where we would have to walk? The road was indeed washed out, but we drove on. We jerked violently from side to side as our driver impressively dodged both potholes and dropoffs while simultaneously navigating hairpin turns. Within minutes, we pulled into a parking spot at the entrance to Lohagad Fort, where we ate lunch and spent some time exploring.
The “few hundred meters” was in fact at least a kilometer, and very steep at that, so our driver and his SUV probably saved me from a mutiny. Considering SUVs are a relatively new invention, I can see why Lohagad Fort remained a stronghold in the region for nearly two millennia (just kidding)! Anyway, all that remains are a few crumbling walls and some panoramic views where we could survey the region one last time before making the journey back to Mumbai.