There’s something comforting, grand, and mysterious about forts. As a child, I hid myself away in castles built with pillows and bed sheets. As I grew older, I spent rainy weekends trekking to ruins of Maharashtrian forts in the Western Ghats. Even though the walls were broken and large sections were often missing, the citadels felt sturdy. I usually didn’t know the history of the structures, but the hardiness of the walls made it easy to imagine stories of the war heroes who inhabited the battlements.
When Vithal Kamath decided to restore Fort Jadhavgadh and turn it into a hotel in 2007, he was doing more than protecting a little piece of history. He was allowing travellers to imagine, for a little while, that they were fearless Maratha warriors. Maharashtra has over 300 forts in pristine locations—high in the Ghats and on the pretty coastline—but Fort Jadhavgadh is the only one that is a hotel.
The fort is close to Pune, in the midst of fig and custard apple farms with a backdrop of the hill of Dive Ghat. Hills surround the structure, brown in summer and bright green in the monsoon. Despite the alterations, the original structure, built by Pilaji Jadhavrao, one of Chhatrapati Shahuji’s generals, is intact. Shahuji was the grandson of Shivaji and spent most of his childhood as a prisoner of the Mughals. When he was released in 1707, he picked a few warriors to build forts to protect his territory. Jadhavgadh was a safe haven and training centre for soldiers. The practical architecture lacks decorative carvings, but the durable stone and woodwork have endured.
Time travel begins at check-in. Next to the reception is a little room with photographs of the fort as it looked before its restoration. These photos are proof that the battlements have not been altered and only the interiors have been made habitable. The path to the rooms is filled with artefacts from the fort, including brass cooking vessels and a giant plate from which Raja Jadhavrao’s favourite elephant ate his meals. Most rooms have some part of the original fort walls as part of their design, enhancing the experience of being surrounded by history. Some have a stone wall and many others have balconies dotted with openings through which guns and cannons were fired.
A short fort tour is held for visitors, going through the different rooms, underground tunnels, and dungeons. It explains how elements of the original architecture have been put to new use. A dungeon that held prisoners is now a wine cellar, the water pond has been converted to a swimming pool, and the canopy, under which royal guests once enjoyed mountain views, is now the restaurant. Exploring this hotel is sometimes confusing. The majestic fort walls take you back to the Maratha era, but the touchscreen light controls throw you off. When you follow the steep stone stairs through a dingy tunnel, you don’t expect it to lead to the sunny swimming pool deck, where guests are sipping fresh fruit margaritas.
The complex also houses a museum called Aai that displays a vast collection of antique household items from around the country, most of which are thought to be around 300 years old. Though only few of the exhibits have a connection to the fort, they nonetheless offer an interesting glimpse into medieval Indian kitchens. Not all the items on display bear dates and there is not much literature about their antecedents. Some of the interesting exhibits are the walking cane made of elephant hair, 50 kinds of foot scrubbers, a room full of paan and tobacco accessories such as betel leaf and chuna holders, and delicate smoking pipes for women.
Hikes are organised every day at 7 a.m. These are easy walks through the nearby vegetable and fruit fields, and to small hillocks around the fort, but can also be customised to include longer, harder day trips. Small animals like rabbits and deer are commonly sighted.
Visitors don’t need to book a room to explore the fort grounds. Daytrips are permitted and include an extensive fort tour, entry to the museum, and meals. Entry to the Aai museum of antique artefacts is priced at a modest ₹50.
A weekend at this fort allows visitors to experience history first-hand, and with so much to explore, there really is no need to venture outside. But for the adventurous, there are some interesting stops that can be made on a slow day, or on the way back to the city.
The Balaji Temple at Ketkawale, 20 km south of the fort, is a replica of the Tirupati Balaji Temple in Andhra Pradesh. The colourful temple complex is exceptionally well organised and has staff who are very sensitive about cleanliness. Though hundreds of visitors come here every day, lines are never broken, toilets are clean, free meals are served on time, and the prayer halls are well maintained by friendly priests who don’t accept money. Donations must be put in the designated boxes only.
A trek around Dive Ghat is great during the monsoon and could include a dip in Mastani Lake. Another possible hike could be to Purandar Fort, 14 km west of the hotel. Views of the Sahyadris, deep valleys, and visits to old temples along the route make this a rewarding day trip.
Chhajja, the all-day coffee shop at the hotel, serves meals in an area that was once the royal balcony. The restaurant has thick, intricately carved teak pillars—part of the original fort structure—and affords views of Dive Ghat. Chhajja offers continental fare but food from Payatha, the Maharashtrian restaurant, can also be served here. The elaborate Maharashtrian menu features local dishes like kombdi wadi, pithla bhakri and mutton sukka. The Gadh Delight is a refreshing mocktail made of apple juice and locally grown figs. (www.fortjadhavgarh.com; +91 2115 305200; doubles starting at ₹17,000; doubles in outdoor luxury tents ₹16,000 inclusive of taxes, meals and one complimentary couples massage.)
Appeared in the June 2013 issue as “Time Travelling”.
Air Pune is the closest airport (23 km/30 minutes).
Road Fort Jadhavgadh is a pleasant 200 km/4 hours from Mumbai. It is south of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway’s final exit and most of the route is on smooth roads with a four-kilometre stretch through Dive Ghat, after which many signs lead to the hotel.
The hotel is visitor-friendly all year round. Summer afternoons are terribly hot but can be spent indoors or by the swimming pool. Evenings in contrast get cool and windy. Monsoon views are the best as the surrounding ghats are enveloped in various shades of green. Winter nights can get pretty cold. On nip-in-the-air evenings, the hotel has campfires on the lawns.