I am looking out of the window of my room in Sindhudurg at the rain crashing down, as I sip the ginger tea (my fourth cup… fifth? since morning, I have lost count). It was clear and sunny just a minute ago. Just as I put my book away, finding rain-watching more absorbing, the downpour stops as if someone has turned off a shower knob. And so the rain plays peek-a-boo the entire morning, soothing us with its gentle whispers at times and catching us by surprise by its vehemence at others. Only the fragrance of wet earth is constant, competing with the aromas of lunch wafting from the kitchen beneath my room. Everything around looks washed clean by the rains, the water drops on the tips of the leaves sparkling like diamonds on an emerald setting.
Sindhudurg is the last district in Southern Maharashtra before the Goa border and gets its name from Sindhudurg fort, the floating citadel in the sea. The fort has three fresh water wells in the middle of its sprawling ramparts, called Doodhbaun (water), Shakkarbaun (sugar) and Dahibaun (curd). Looking at the abundant natural beauty of the region, it strikes me that there is some poetic justice in these names. Through most of the year and especially during and after the rains, Sindhudurg comes alive, covered by a lush green carpet. Tall coconut trees, inviting backwaters, colourful local temples, swaying paddy fields; it is very easy to imagine this as the land of milk and honey.
From the shore at Malvan town, Sindhudurg fort looks like a large ship slowly drifting close to the mainland. The tide is rising and tourist boats are not allowed to take the short ferry to the fort in the monsoon season. Catching sight of us staring at the fort, a man with unkempt long hair walks over and introduces himself. Pandurang Purandhar Dalvi is a member of one of the families that has lived inside the fort for generations, and still does. The fort is closed to visitors now and the families stay inside for over three months, braving the elements, just as the fort has done for over three and a half centuries.
We are disappointed about not being able to explore the Sindhudurg fort but a visit to Vijaydurg the next day makes up for this in some measure. Unlike most other forts of this region, Vijaydurg, the ‘fort of victory’ was not built by Chhatrapati Shivaji or the Maratha dynasty. It was built by Raja Bhoj of the Shilahar dynasty in 1205 and passed through several hands before it was finally captured by Shivaji in the mid 17th century. Upon acquisition, he immediately added three layers of outside walls to strengthen the security of the fort. The fort today, as under Shivaji encompasses over 17 acres and is enclosed by the sea on three sides, giving it the local name gheriya, meaning ‘surrounded’. Sindhudurg and Vijaydurg together established the unquestioned martial supremacy of the Maratha dynasty in the region.
However, forts are not the reason I am in Sindhudurg during the monsoon. I am hoping to relax and unwind completely, leaving behind the cares of my life back in Mumbai. All I want to do is drink tea and watch the rain and by this measure the first day has been a great success. Not so the next morning. I am cribbing incessantly – “I am supposed to be on holiday and that means waking up late”. It is really early and I am still bleary-eyed as we make our way in the faithful Tata Sumo towards the beach. The irritation lasts only till we hit Mitbhav beach.
The beach is empty; the tourists have not discovered it yet and the fishermen know how treacherous the seas are during this season and stay away. However, it all looks deceptively calm. As my husband starts to wade into the water, people from the huts along the shore rush out to warn him. They disappear back into their homes just as suddenly as they appeared and we have the beach completely to ourselves again. The sky turns from a dull grey to a soft blue, smudged with the yellows and oranges of morning. I sit on the powdery white sand and stare at the rising tides and finally concede, some things are worth waking up so early for, even when on holiday.
And from then, the holiday takes off into ‘active’ mode. I decide there is no point in fighting it and give in gracefully. And so we spend the rest of the day, attached to the seats of our Tata Sumo, taking in the sights and sounds of Sindhudurg. At this time of the year, the predominant colour of the region is green. All roads including the small state highways are in excellent condition, and I indulge in some silent flights of fancy. I think to myself that through the windshield, the vista ahead resembles a Kanjeevaram silk sari spread out – deep grey, with green borders. Not surprisingly, I do not dare give voice to this thought, knowing the kind of caustic responses it would generate.
We take the winding roads up towards Nivati and hike further ahead through the rough stone path towards Nivati fort. There is nothing left of the fort now except a few crumbling walls but the view from the top is spectacular; miles of blue sea lashing against the fine sands, the entire scene framed by the green arches of coconut trees. We stop for lunch at a local home that doubles up as impromptu restaurant for visitors and tuck into some delightful home-made Konkani food. Before the day is over, we head to a couple of other beaches including Bhogwe and Tarkarli and I find that I cannot make up my mind about which is the most scenic of them all.
The next day, we drive south, towards Sawantwadi, the last big town in Maharashtra before the Goa border. Sawantwadi boasts of a beautiful palace set right by the side of the scenic Moti Talao (translated as ‘pearl lake’). The palace looks simple from outside, especially since I am expecting an opulent structure on the likes of palaces I have seen in Rajasthan. The façade is cheerful, the red laterite stone (locally called chire) standing out even on this dull rainy day. Sawantwadi was the kingdom of the Bhonsle dynasty and the queen Satvashila Devi still lives in a part of the palace that is shut off to visitors. Apart from her efforts to restore and sustain the palace itself, the queen is also involved in efforts to revive the traditional arts and craft of the region, including lacquer-ware and Ganjifa, the three hundred year old art of painting the Dashavatar on a set of 120 round playing cards. The town is also famous for its wooden toys and though we do not intend to, we end up picking up a few colourful toys as souvenirs from the shops in the main market.
From there, we proceed to another site where there have been similar efforts to preserve traditional folk-art. We walk into Pinguli Art Complex, to be greeted by a tableau of rural life unchanged through the centuries. There are installations and paintings, all unique to the region and also a stage for performances. The Pinguli complex, also called the Thakkar Adivasi Kala Aangan, is the brainchild of the Mumbai-based organization Culture Aangan. It is maintained by the artist Parashuram Gangawane, whose family has been practicing the traditional puppetry art for centuries. He tells us stories about his forefathers who were patronized by the royal Bhonsle family. Sadly, this art is dying out slowly and he hopes it will continue to be passed on to the next generation through this enterprise.
Apart from this, Culture Aangan manages a cluster of homestays in the region where visitors get to stay with a local family and learn about the history and culture of the region. We are staying in one of these homes in Sindhudurg and head back there after the day’s packed sight-seeing itinerary. A hot dinner awaits us, served with warm smiles and I notice that I am smiling right back, despite all the tiredness. I am feeling content and stay firm in my resolve to use the last remaining day in Sindhudurg to recharge my personal batteries in peace and quiet, before we head back to the noise and chaos of Mumbai.
A version of this appeared in the September issue of ‘Windows & Aisles’, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways.