It all started with a knock at the door and a bag of fruit. My neighbour, Pilot, who flies 747s to India a couple of times a month, had come to deliver a consignment of ripe Alphonso mangos, purchased the previous day in a Mumbai street market. They smelt of tropical sunshine and tasted sublime. Between slurps of sticky mango juice around our kitchen table, the conversation turned to a passion the two of us share in common: travel in off-track parts of India. “Hey,” said Pilot “have you ever been to those mountains just outside Mumbai? Air traffic control had us flying figure-of-eights over them for ages last week and they look amazing.” A quick search on GoogleMaps confirmed the mountains in question were the northern extremity of the Western Ghat range, which runs in parallel with India’s coastline all the way from Gujarat to the southernmost tip of the subcontinent at Kanyakumari.
In the state of Maharashtra, they peak at 1,646m – not exactly Himalayan proportions, but a good notch higher than Ben Nevis. Further research revealed many of their summit ridges were littered with gravity-defying forts, ruined temples and rock-cut cave shrines linked by networks of ancient pilgrimage trails. I couldn’t believe that despite having passed through them several times I’d never paid much attention to these enigmatic, yellow-brown giants, known locally as the Sahyadris. Six months later, in the wake of the monsoons, with traces of greenery still in the verges and cauliflower-topped clouds building inland, Pilot and I were on our way to remedy this neglect.
We’d met in Mumbai, and set off into the mayhem of city traffic in a hire car with our driver, Lakshman. It took a couple of hours to break out of the gridlock. After a century and a half of confinement to the land reclaimed by the British, the Maharashtran metropolis has finally burst across the plains to its east. Giant skyscrapers, shopping malls, overpasses and huge hoardings advertising gated residences with rooftop pools are springing up alongside the recently built eight-lane expressway. India has entered a new age, though it’s one I’m always keen to leave behind as soon as possible when I visit. Which is why a broad grin spread across my face as we finally turned off the highway and started bumping along country lanes towards the dramatic wall of mountains up ahead.
Surging sheer from the plain, the Sahyadris form an imposing barrier between the Konkan Coast and higher, drier Deccan Plateau beyond them – a line of angular peaks standing shoulder-to-shoulder like a cordon of giant, square-jawed sentries. After weeks of planning and a very long journey, the first target on our hit list – Prabalgad Fort – was finally in our sights. Prabalgad is an outlier of the main range. In centuries past it was used by the region’s ruling dynasties as a citadel from which to dominate the trade artery stretching across the plain beneath it. We’d chosen the mountain because of its distinctive form. Shaped like a giant rhinoceros, the massif has a weird, conical ‘horn’ on its north side – the Kalavantin Pinnacle – which used to serve as a lookout post. I’d come across photos of it online and had been intrigued by the ladder of steps snaking up its near-vertical side.
To climb the rock tower, however, we first had to get to the village clustered below its base, on what is known locally as a machi -a kind of mountain balcony of cultivable land 300-350m wide. At an elevation of 400m, machis are invisible from below, and tend to be overshadowed by huge cliffs that ensure a steady supply of water. The resulting fecundity was much in evidence as we toiled through the heat of late afternoon to reach the rim of the hidden veranda. After the traffic of the expressway, arriving in Prabalmachi village felt like arriving in an Indian Eden. Fruit trees, banana groves and stately old banyans bordered dark-soiled fields grazed by herds of sleek cattle and goats. Colourful birds flitted between the branches overhead and bees were busy in the flowers. It was hard to believe the squalid fringes of Mumbai were only 14km away as the crow flies.
Most of the machi villages in the Sahyadris are inhabited by Adivasi communities – the so-called tribal or indigenous inhabitants of peninsula India. For centuries, the Adivasis seem to have been little affected by the political and cultural changes sweeping up and down the nearby road, collecting cliff honey, forest fruit and bush meat, and growing subsistence crops of millet and rice. Lately, however, their villages have been haemorrhaging young folk to the city. One such migrant was the eldest son of our hosts for the night, the Bhutambara family. Nilesh Bhutambara had studied computer sciences at college – the first ever graduate from Prabalmachi -and found a salaried government job in distant Chennai (Madras).