Bhimashankar proved a compelling change of atmosphere after the long ascent. Saffron-clad sadhus lazed outside its 18th-century Shiva temple, reached via a long, stepped walkway lined with stalls of flower offerings and freshly made milk sweets. Pilot and I ordered chai at a teashop, and watched the comings and goings in the shrine before beginning our long descent back to our waiting car and driver. Rather than race to another uncertain destination as the light faded, we decided to stop for the night in a government hotel at a place called Malshej Ghat, a couple of hours’ north, near one of the major passes through the Sahyadris.
Handily situated close to the trailhead of our next day’s route, the hotel looked like it had just come through a war, and so did the staff, sprawled on benches when we arrived (government hotels in India don’t see many customers). But the place soon sprang to life and the hotel employees took on our trekking mission as their own – quite literally. At 5am the next morning, a group of four – including the manager – had mustered in the pre-dawn darkness, dressed in matching purple Maharashtra Tourism tracksuits, to guide us across the nearby dam and onwards to the landform that would turn out to be the most spectacular of our trip: Harishchandragad, the ‘Mountain of Shiva’s Moon’.
In the wake of the previous night’s storm, the weather had grown cooler. The air was less humid, the light crisper. “This is actually starting to feel like a proper holiday!” grinned Pilot as we emerged from the tree canopy into bright sunshine. “My shirt’s even dry.” Three hours later, after a lung-stretching haul through forest, we arrived at the hidden plateau at the top of Harishchandragad. Interlaced by streams and smothered in greenery, its focal point is a sloping platform of basalt from whose midst rises an ancient Hindu temple, part hollowed from the bedrock, but with a corn-cob sanctuary tower made from carved masonry placed on top. Caves had been hollowed from the surrounding cliffs, along with bathing tanks of dark-green water for ritual ablutions.
The real show stopper here though was the Konkan Kada. Another 30 minutes’ walk across the plateau, the rock curled to a sharp lip, then plunged in a huge, over-hanging cliff to a tangle of dry river beds and scrub a kilometre below. Fluted ridges and towers swept up on either side of the escarpment to an amphitheatre of sharp peaks. Vultures spiralled in the thermals below. It was breathtakingly exotic – like stumbling across a tropical version of Scotland’s Cuillin or Torridon, only with a functioning Saxon-era shrine on its summit. If this were in Europe, the whole area would have been a national park. But there were no waymarked paths or interpretative panels here. Instead of a bothy or refuge, trekkers sleep in the rock-cut cave temples, just like pilgrims have done for thousands of years.
Harishchandragad, however, had saved one final secret for us. Returning to the temple, we came across an intriguingly large cavern hewn from the side of a stream gully. Inside it stood a monolithic Shiva lingam placed in the centre of a square pond, with the remnants of four pillars surrounding the central shrine. “Kedareshwar Cave!” announced our hotel manager, as one of his boys shed his tracksuit and dived in to worship the phallus. “The pillars are symbols of Hinduyugs.” He went on to explain that the yugs oryugas were stages of human history. After each had passed, a pillar is said to have collapsed. Only one – the fourth and final -remained intact: the column corresponding to Kali Yug, the Age of the Apocalypse’, characterised by “strife, discord and destruction,” Manager Saab intoned, finger raised in the air. This is the era in which Hindu theologians claim we currently exist.
Standing outside the cave in the warm sunshine, surrounded by leafy forest and high ridges lit by clear morning light, I thought of the tower blocks marching across the plains to the west. I recalled the ads for modern apartments that rose amid the fields we’d driven past, where soon bulldozers would be breaking new’ ground. It was hard not to feel there might be something in the old prophesy. Were we in Kali Yug, I wondered? Or at the dawn of a brave new’ world, as the ads suggest? I guess it depends on which side of India’s economic divide you’re from. Either way, it was a relief to discover that there remain, high in the Sahyadris at least, places in this country that have kept their heads above the rising tide of modern chaos. And judging by the view of endless peaks receding north, plenty more of them remain to be discovered.