“So do you want to meet the queen?” Whatever I am expecting, it is not this. I turn to him with a startled look. I have been watching the manager with interest as he takes off his shoes and bows to the queen before talking to her. Of course, I would love to meet her but how does one greet a queen? As I briefly toy with the fantasy of a cute curtsy (should be able to get away with it – I am far away from home), the queen solves my dilemma by saying ‘hello!’ with a bright smile. She talks about the difficulty of maintaining the huge palace and the plans of converting it into a hotel. Oh yes, heritage hotel, you just cannot go wrong with one of those.
I am in the front courtyard of the Sawantwadi Palace and the Queen Satvashiladevi is sitting there, as part of the morning visiting hour. Built in the era of Khem Sawant Bhonsle III (mid 18th century), the palace is a simple red-stone building in the middle of town, easy to miss if you are not particularly looking for it.
The only section open to visitors is the main durbar hall at the back, with its ornate silver throne sitting forlorn and abandoned at one end. The room is cheerful though, with sunlight filtering in through the stained glass windows on all sides. Inside, the ganjifa artists are hard at work. This, explains our guide, is an initiative by the queen to revive and preserve the dying art of ganjifa painting. A senior artist whose head is intently bent over the cards suddenly looks up at us with a toothless smile and offers a demo. And in front of our eyes, a coaster is born as a horse takes shape on a plain round sheet of paper; possibly the one horse that this town is known for.
In the museum shop upstairs, we pick up some painted wooden boxes as souvenirs and head to the market for more of the wood stuff. I find that my husband has bought a train set when I am not looking, while my friends have gone berserk over wooden bracelets and toys – for nieces and nephews back home, they explain sheepishly. I mean, I know all about the child in each one of us, I just didn’t know how near the surface this child lived. However, the palace and town, pretty as they are, do not come even close to the morning’s experience at the beach.
We are the only people on that side of the beach on this chilly morning. At a distance, I can see a group of fishermen, tiny specks from where I am standing. The famous white sand of the Konkan coast that Maharashtra Tourism is justifiably proud of feels soft and cool under my feet as I walk towards them. The only sound is the harsh cawing of crows sitting on the fishing boats; the Konkan version of ‘morning raga’. Suddenly the bells ring out from the temple on the shore as the morning puja begins. We are on Sagareshwar beach in Vengurla, an hour’s drive from Nandan Farms in Sawantwadi where we are staying. I look at my husband and say, “remind me again, why do we not live here”? The husband looks as stricken as I feel as he says, “work”. Ah yes, I knew there was a reason.
We had earlier stopped at the jetty to watch fishermen busily arrive and depart on their tiny vessels, a spectacle that locals seemed to enjoy as much as we do, judging by the fact that small groups of friends and families are sitting on the concrete wall, facing the direction of sunrise. The lighthouse at a distance looks very inviting but also like a lot of hard work and so we give it a miss without any guilt. We are on holiday and hard work is not on our list of things to do.
So we make our way past the quiet Sagareshwar temple across the casuarina groves, back to Nandan Farms where Amrutha Padgaonkar the host is waiting for us with a huge breakfast. We devote ourselves to the task and tuck in, and look forward to a busy day of sleep as Amrutha recites the lunch menu.
Despite the fact that we have driven for over nine hours the previous day to get here, we have been up at the crack of dawn wanting to hit the beach early. The drive from Mumbai on the Goa highway had been pleasant, going as it does over innumerable tiny (and some quaint) bridges with streams flowing underneath and over miles and miles of winding ghat roads. And then the captivating road signs that keep your spirits up even on the rough patches – like the optimistic ‘Today is your no accident day’. Or the slightly suspect ‘Control your nerves on the curves’.
After a morning on a deserted beach, Goa later that evening comes as a rude shock. At Vagator, less than two hours drive from Sawantwadi, there are a hundred other noisy people watching the sunset. Most of them are locals, which is unusual in the popular northern beaches; recession is the word on everyone’s lips. Goa is a little tentative, with cops everywhere and the beach shacks are not jumping as they usually do in peak winter season. It is a nice experience though to spend a morning at one beach and evening in another and I feel like quite the hip beachcomber.
Beaches are all fine, but we cannot leave without watching the puppet show, we are told. And so, the next evening, we head on to the Pinguli Arts Complex near Kudal on the highway. Parshuram Gangavane is an embittered man as he describes the government’s grand plans for the cultural village, plans that have vanished into thin air. I hear echoes of what I have heard in the morning; from a queen then, from a commoner now.
As it gets dark, Gangavane and his troupe perform the puppet show, this time a story from the Ramayana. The performance begins with an auspicious salutation to Lord Ganesha (Maharashtra’s favourite Ganpati). Then there is the swayamvar, a bewildered Ram, Sita in bright clothes and Ravana with his ten heads and several other colourful gods and goddesses. Five minutes into the performance, the couple of children in the group fall silent, and the only sounds are from the performers.
As we step on to the empty beach again the next morning, I send out guilty thanks for the fact that some things have stayed undiscovered.
Getting there: Sawantwadi is 510 km from Mumbai, ten hours by road on the Goa highway or the Kolhapur Expressway. Or take the Mandovi Express or Konkan Kanya from Mumbai to Sawantwadi. The nearest large airport is Dabolim in Goa, just over two hours drive away.
When to go: The cool months between November and February are ideal, though the whole region turns fresh and green during the magical monsoon months. Summer, though unbearably hot, is the mango season and Nandan Farms organizes all-day fruit picking sessions for visitors.
See and do: Sindhudurg is Maharashtra government’s official Tourism District. Hit all the gorgeous Konkan beaches – Tarkarli, Vengurla, Kunkeshwar. Also take the short boat ride to Sindhudurg from Malvan near Tarkarli to see one of Shivaji’s greatest sea forts. Drive up to Amboli on the other side, a hill station discovered by the British cool-seekers.
Stay: Culture Aangan, a Mumbai-based NGO manages a few home-stays in the region including Nandan farms at Sawantwadi where we stayed. MTDC also has excellently-located properties all along the coast in different beaches, including Vengurla and Tarkarli.
Eat: The region is a sea-food lover’s paradise; stop at any of the small eateries (khanaval) for a home-cooked meal, complete with fish curry. Wash it down with refreshing solkadi that comes with a tang unmatched by any available in Mumbai.
Shop: In Sawantwadi, pick up a set of Ganjifa cards or painted jewellery boxes at the palace museum shop and wooden toys (especially the miniature kitchen set) and key chains in the market. The region is also famous for kokum and cashewnuts and in season, boasts of the best mangoes in the state.
This was published in the April issue of India Today Travel Plus as ‘Calm on the coast’.