Maharashtra’s western coast is rightfully a much-celebrated travel destination, drawing visitors from not just within the state but across the country. But perhaps with the exception of some intrepid hyperlocal seekers, the sheer diversity of Maharashtra’s sights, ranging from smaller cities like Nashik to the geological marvels like the Lonar Lake remain underexplored.
As the Indian subcontinent slid into summer from spring, with temperatures still bearable during the day, I got a chance to explore a tiny bit of the state’s heartland, starting from the wine capital of India, Nashik, to the erstwhile Delhi Sultanate and Mughal capital of Aurangabad.
Nashik, with its volcanic soil, elevation from sea level and climate suited to growing the kind of grapes required for winemaking, is the undoubted ‘wine capital’ of the country. And no trip to the city is complete without a tour of its many vineyards. A number of popular brands produce their wines here, including Sula Vineyards, York Winery and Chandon India, among others.
I had a chance to do a quick tour of one of the more popular ones, Sula, and even got a lesson in tasting from the resident expert.
There were a total of six wines on offer, ranging from dry reds to crisp whites and even a dessert rosé. With instructions to hold the glass only by the stem and swirl the wine well before sniffing and taking a sip, I had my task cut out. All the wine-tasting, of course, is hungry work and the restaurant on the first floor is perfect for grabbing a spot of grub with plenty of breath-taking views of the vineyards around.
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Along Nashik’s roads, every few kilometres are marked by small eateries, often crowded with folks busy dunking their butter-soaked toasty pavs into a fiery red mole of spices and sprouts, topped with crunchy sev—famously called the misal. As far as culinary journeys go, a misal pav-tasting in Nashik is a must. However, there was one other local dish that made an even greater impression on me: the kaala masala, a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and other spices. This masala is used in a number of preparations, whether to accentuate vegetables or complement meats. I had the pleasure of indulging in dishes made with kaala masala at a number of restaurants across both Nashik and Aurangabad, and came away licking my fingers clean every time.
Then there were other local specialties such as thecha (a delectable pickle of green chillies, garlic, peanuts and coriander), pitla (gram flour curry) and bhaakri (flat bread made of grain such as millets or rice), which made for simple and yet delicious meals that were also perfect for the dry and hot weather we were experiencing.
History has a special place in these parts of Maharashtra, with Buddhist caves, temples and UNESCO World Heritage Sites dating back eons scattered across the region. My trip kicked off with the Pandav Leni caves on the outskirts of Nashik city. This group of 24 Buddhist caves sited on top of Trirasmi Hill date back to around 250BCE-CE600 and feature sculptures of the Buddha and Jain teerthankaras. Many of the caves have been demarcated by experts as viharas, used by sages as monastic refuges, and feature elaborate water storage and management systems, believed to be innovations for their time. The short climb up to the top is also worth it simply for the spellbinding views of the city from that point.
The most documented of Aurangabad monuments are the Ellora and Ajanta cave complexes. We only had time enough to explore one of Ellora’s caves, number 16, perhaps the most photographed one there. Intricate carvings depict scenes from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology including a ‘concise’ version of the Ramayana. It will take you hours to explore all there is to it, and that’s just one of the caves of a total of 34 in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Account for a whole day to fully experience Ellora in all its mystery and majesty.
If you are on a longer trip, head out to the Lonar Crater. The crater was formed over 500 millennia ago by a meteor and the lake in the crater bed was designated a protected wetland recently. It’s a four-hour drive from both Nashik and Aurangabad, and while the view from the top is quite marvellous, what hiking enthusiasts could do is take a route down to the crater bed. In the winter months, some migratory birds such as Brahminy Shelduck, Northern Shoveller and Green Sandpiper, among others, can be spotted here too.
And while it might not be advisable to splash around the waters of this otherworldly lake, if it’s some water sports you’re looking for, head to the Gangapur Dam on the Godavari, just a little outside Nashik. The MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation) has set up a boat club there recently and with state-of-the-art equipment, a wide variety of water activities to choose from, there’s something for everyone in the family to do here.
For fans of water sports, summer would be a good time to visit, so long as precautions are taken against soaring temperatures. The monsoons though, hold their special charm when the entire countryside sports new foliage and is awash in unbelievable shades of green. It’s weather that serves admirers of slow travel well; those who want to simply immerse themselves in local culture by feasting on flavours, patronising classical art and craft forms and delving into the region’s rich history.
Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.