Fireflies glimmered around the trees like fairy lights. Tiny pinpoints of yellow light bobbed, flashed and swirled down narrow lanes. Some blinked softly on the ground.
We were in the village of Purushwadi, Maharashtra to witness the mating dance of millions of fireflies before the monsoon. The tarred roads and mud were bathed in silver by the full moon. Gusts of wind swayed branches and shook leaves so that it sounded like we were afloat on the ocean. And in this surreal landscape, over the feverish chirp of crickets, a scattered swarm of fireflies would suddenly glow together, spinning gold as if in immediate response to a question obscured by the breeze.
Nothing had quite prepared us for the childlike awe and sense of mystery that can strike even the most cynical person surrounded by fireflies. We peered down the hillsides for thicker glowing clusters, automatically softening our steps, hushing up and slowing down. Scientists don’t yet know how this winged beetle regulates its lighting pattern. The bioluminescence comes from the combining of oxygen with a substance called luciferin, in cells under the bug’s abdomen. There are about 2,000 firefly species, and each has its own Morse code of light to attract mates; an interested female flashes back from her low perch as the male flits overhead. Courting doesn’t get more romantic.
We would have completely missed this tucked-away idyllic pastoral scene if it hadn’t been for Grassroutes, which has organised firefly tours here for three years, sharing the profits to help the villagers and preserve its biodiversity. Purushwadi is home to the Hindu Mahadeo Koli tribe, who are rice cultivators and herdsmen, in a matriarchal society that is believed to be protected by local goddess Zakubai. A hundred-odd thatched huts with tethered cows and unfettered goats dot winding, tree-lined paths. Visitors can try their hand at ploughing and chopping wood, and share simple meals at the villagers’ homes.
Nearly chopping off my foot with an axe was the closest I got to the farming chores. For us, this spontaneous road trip had been one glorious moment after another to the overnight (and a tad expensive) campsite. The shiny, new Green House Cafe on the highway was a great breakfast find, and the five-hour drive was bounded by expansive views of clouds scudding across the Western Ghats. The wind bustled about, lashing hair across faces so our photos looked like they belonged in The Ring. It really began feeling like a road trip movie when we passed a signboard for Sinnar, and Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man” began playing off the stereo.
At Purushwadi, we had immersed ourselves in a shallow river until it got dark, and we had lain under the brilliant star-filled sky until the wind blew us into our tents, where it shivered and shook the canvas until we were sure that we’d lift off, mattresses and all, into the night. But over the roar of the wind, the chirruping crickets, the massive bug-bite from sleeping in the open and the head-thrown-back laughter, it is the image of the silent dance of the fireflies that really pulls me back to that moment. Indecipherable, luminous, and somehow more real than the flickering screen in front of me. I am in the night forest again, spellbound by the tiny wonder blinking at the edge of my everyday world.
Orientation: Purushwadi is a tribal village in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, about 225km from Mumbai.
Getting there: The nearest airports are Pune, Mumbai, and Nashik. Catch a local train from Mumbai to Kasara, from where you can hire a jeep to Purushwadi or hop on to a state transport bus to Rajur. Alternately, take the scenic, five-hour drive along the Mumbai-Nashik Highway, or take the 190km, four-hour route from Pune via Peth-Umbraj and Akole. Grassroutes organises for a guide to point the way from Rajur Petrol Pump.
Seasons: Grassroutes’ Festival of a Million Fireflies is on from May until July, but the best time to see lightning bugs is said to be the two weeks preceding the monsoon; typically the first fortnight of June. Grassroutes also organises trips to Dehna, Maharashtra where the fireflies phenomenon can be seen in September. Dates for sightings depend on the monsoon pattern; call 0-8879477437 for details.
Stay: Grassroutes offers trips with tent accommodation, starting from the weekend rate of ₹2, 200 per head and the weekday rate of ₹2,000 per head, for a tent of maximum three adults or two adults and two kids. You can also opt for a village homestay at ₹2,200 per head on weekends. There is no electricity. The camping ground has bathrooms with running water. The costs include meals and guides, and are said to help increase the average household income by 25-35 per cent, reduce migration by 20 per cent, and create over 6,500 days of employment for the village. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 0-8879477437 or log on to http://grassroutes.co.in/village-holidays/purushwadi/.
Bhandardara is less than an hour’s drive (32.7km) from Purushwadi. TheMTDC resort is a good budget option, and has the best views of Arthur Lake and Wilson Dam on the Pravara river. Anandvan Resort is a more luxurious option with cottages and villas (www.anandvanresorts.com/bhandardara-resorts-hotels.html).
Explore: When in Bhandardara, visit Wilson Dam and the 1,000-year-old Amruteshwar temple. Trek to Ratangad Fort, said to be one of Shivaji’s favourites, and Mount Kalsubai, Maharashtra’s highest peak at 1,646m.
Good to know: Don’t sleep in the open at night as there may be scorpions and snakes. Carry a torch, drinking water, snacks, and milk if you’d like it with your tea. Mobile network is patchy in Purushwadi. Rajur has the nearest ATM and stores.