Rediff Logo find
Movie banner


Mahalakshmi temple
A Long Weekend in Kolhapur
... to temples, forts and battlefields

Photographs and text: V S Srinivasan

E-Mail this story to a friend As my train chugs into Kolhapur, I gaze out the window at the rice-green fields that stretch out to the edge of the horizon.

Kolhapur, I have heard, does not have much to offer a tourist. Some interesting architecture; all designed by a chap named Charles Mant, who a Kolhapur maharaja hired in the late nineteenth century to change the look of the city. A peculiar person, Mant committed suicide after constructing some two dozen masterpieces because he was terrified that one of buildings would collapse.

But the town is surrounded by umpteen places -- some 250 temples -- that I was told were worth visiting.

Diety at Jyotiba But the Mahalakshmi temple, my advisors declared, was a must see. So I head straight to the temple on arrival

The shrine is crowded throughout the year and the best time to visit is in the afternoon when the crowd thins out. But still it takes at least thirty minutes before I can catch a glimpse of the tiny deity. And the crowds don't allow you to take a look at the gilded goddess for long. Not even a second look. You are swept along with the throng a few seconds later. Policemen hover around too, making sure that you exit soon. And it was no use carrying my camera. I was not allowed to photograph the shrine.

The only photograph I could take home from the temple was a framed photograph the vendors were selling outside the temple. The very same vendors, who with their great marketing skills make sure you enter the temple after purchasing some of their flowers.

I came away from the temple wondering what the fuss was all about. The temple did not have much to recommend for itself. But later it was explained to me, that for reasons of luck and religion, a visit to Kolhapur was not complete without a trip to this ordinary temple. One of those things, you see.

Jyotiba temple The darshan to the temple done, we headed out of the city towards the mountain temple of Jyotiba, another special pilgrimage spot. The country roads are lined with bricks kilns. Industrious Maharashtrian women, very traditionally clad, toil side by side with the menfolk at the kilns, ferrying bricks back and forth. An occasional buffalo, with unusually long curved horns clip-clops along the road at a rapid pace, even as its owner huffs and puffs behind, desperately attempting to keep up. The bright paddy fields undulate in the breeze. Beautiful countryside, this.

Jyotiba temple is around 15 kilometres away from the city. State buses do the circuit up to the temple from Kolhapur regularly. But I opted to take an autorickhaw; Rs 350 round trip

As the autorickshaw wound its way up the steep mountain, pretty ashtambar trees and mango orchards come into view. As I prepared to walk up the narrow path to the temple an astrologer waylaid me. "So you are an accountant?" he asks. I replied in the negative. "A journalist?" he questioned hopefully.

Jyotiba's sadhuI decided to sit down and talk to him. "I know a lot of things," he says. "You are from Bombay and I know so many people in Bombay." He immediately rattles off the names of the top bosses of various public and private sector undertakings, some of whom I am not even aware of. He refuses to let me take his picture. I sneak one. Obviously, he couldn't predict this one.

I move towards the temple complex. A cannon and a statue of Nandi (Shiva's mount) are located inside the temple complex. A strange sadhu sits just inside. His calm, very-much-at peace manner catches me unawares. He wishes me good health. But he refuses to accept any money. I try to talk to the sadhu. But he looks at me blankly.

"We do not even know whether he eats anything. He has been living here for the last four years and we have not seen him eat anything," says one of the priests, who is the caretaker of the small idol outside the temple. Clearly he is a bit paranoid of this sadhu. He implores me to give him some dakshina or offertory. I guess dakshina-taking priests are always suspicious of non-dakshina-taking sadhus.

Teen darwaza My rickshaw driver, Vilas Gurav, who hails from a village nearby, volunteers to introduce me to the temple priest. And when he learns I am a journalist he allows me to take a picture of the deity. And he puts a tikka (or holy mark) on my forehead with three fingers. "Why three fingers? And not one finger as it is usually done?" I ask.

"Because Jyotiba was formed by the amalgamation of the jyotis (souls) of three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva who took the form of Jyotiba to destroy the evil Ratnasur. By the way Jyotiba is also referred to as Dattatreya."

I start digging around for details about the temple.

"When was the temple built?"

"We do not know. It is centuries old," say all the priests in unison.

" It must have been shortly after Ratnasur was killed," says an elderly priest or bhadji very seriously. Not much help that.

But when was the temple renovated?

Again there are no answers. "That we do not know."

From Jyoitba I move on towards Panhala, 20 kms away from Kolhapur and a visit to the fort is meant to be the highlight of my trip.

Panhal fortThe road to Panhala is lined with banyan trees and gently ascends a mountain. Panhala, mythology says, got its name from the times of Mahabharat when snakes ruled the place. It was called pannga allay or the domain of snakes which was corrupted to Panhala.

The place has a colourful history and only a guide can give one the proper historical perspective of the fort. I therefore decide to engage the services of Yusuf Mullah. As we enter the fort Yusuf Mullah takes command and with extraordinary zeal he proceeds to describe in detail the tale of this huge fort.

He rattles off like a steam engine with no brakes..."Panhala was built in 1112 by Raja Bhoj from Madhya Pradesh whose domain extended over a very large area. The walls of this fort have a circumference of 8.5 kms. This is the only fort in Maharashtra where you can roam within its walls in your vehicle. During the times of Shivaji there were 600 people living in this fort. Today over 300 people reside here"...

He runs out of steam momentarily. And I take the opportunity to peep over the edge of the hill. It's a startlingly clear view for miles around. One can see 100 kms of countryside and the Sahyadri hills in each direction. The whole of Konkan country. And like a mirage I imagine that I can see the sea too! No wonder they chose this spot for a fort.

Baji Prabhu Deshpande At the entrance of the fort is magnificent statue of Baji Prabhu Deshpande. Shivaji won this fort from Ibrahim Adil Shah in 1659. But the Bijapuri army, lead by Siddhi Johar attacked the fort in 1660, with 50,000 men and formed a 50 kilometres ring around the fort and stayed put for a good six months.

When supplies ran out, Shivaji fled to Vishalgad and the brave Deshpande stayed behind to face the Bijapur wrath. Ambidextrous, he fought valiantly with two 15 kilogram swords and died in the Battle of Ghodkhind. By that time, however, Shivaji had reached Vishalgad. History has it that Deshpande, dying of a fatal wound, didn't stop waving his sword till he heard the cannon boom that signified that Shivaji had reached safely. A 52 kilogram bronze statue was built in his honour and here I was standing in front of it.

Vishalgad, 40 km away, is visible from Panhala fort. Panhala-Vishalgad is a popular trekking route. It takes trekkers 24 hours to reach Vishalgad. Shivaji however managed to reach the town in just sixteen hours seated in a palkhi or palanquin.

There's another chapter to Shivaji's story. When Shivaji realised he could not hold the fort, he sent a message to Siddhi Johar that he was surrendering. A barber named Shiva Kashisth, who looked very much like Shivaji, dressed up like the Maratha chieftain and surrendered to Siddhi Johar. Johar's forces began to celebrate. His soldiers promptly went on a drinking binge. Shivaji slipped back and retook the fort a short while later. The barber, needless to say, did not survive. But there's a statue at Panhala honouring him too.

Shiva Kashisth the barber The fort has a number of quirky features. One of the Bijapur monarchs, Ahmedi Shah, commissioned Andhar Bau . In Konkani andhar means darkness and bau means a well. It was an underground drinking water facility. Earlier enemies would infiltrate the fort and poison the water. But not after the Andhar Bau was built.

Like an anthill, the fort has several interesting secret underground channels. One of the passages stretches for a kilometre and a half.

Not far away is the impressive Teen Darwaza or the Konkan Darwaza. Three doors, one behind the other, with twenty feet in between, prevented enemies from entering the fort easily. There is also a chor darwaza through which people could enter in the night on saying a particular password.

Panhala is 3,127 feet above sea level. But there is no scarcity of water around here. Some seventy wells take care of that.

Mullah guides me to one corner of the fort. A small insignificant tomb is located here. It belongs to the wife of Gangu teli. Apparently when Raja Bhoj had a problem constructing one of the walls of the fort, he took the advice of a sage. The sage declared that if a woman with a new-born child was sacrificed, the wall would not crumble. A public proclamation was made. Gangu teli, an oil vendor asked his wife Jakkuhai to step forward with her new-born child. And hence, this is her tomb, a special pilgrimage site for the teli caste.

This little anecdote in history is the basis for popular Hindi saying -- Kahan Raja Bhoj, kahan Gangu teli -- that implies that the Raja Bhojs of this world will always gain and the Gangi telis will always be losers. Hence the difference between the rich and the poor.

The tomb of Gangu teli's wifeAt present the fort is undergoing a renovation job by the Archaeological Survey of India. The ramparts look pretty strong . And I wonder whether it really needs to be rebuilt. Probably no amount of our modern-day cement can match the mixture of lime and jaggery that went into the making of this fort. Yet there are men mounted on ladders and going about their job.

After Panhala I take a U-turn. And head back to Kolhapur. It feels a bit like a U-turn in time too. Back to the present.


Tell us what you think of this feature