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Nasik and around

Lying at the head of the main pass through the Western Ghats, the fast-developing city of NASIK (also known as Nashik) makes an interesting stopover en route to or from Mumbai, 187km southwest. The city is one of the four sites of the world’s largest religious gathering, the Kumbh Mela, due to be hosted next in Nasik in 2015. Even outside festival times, the ghat-lined banks of the River Godavari are always animated. According to the Ramayana, Nasik was where Rama (Vishnu in human form), his brother Lakshmana and wife Sita lived during their exile from Ayodhya, and the arch-demon Ravana carried off Sita from here in an aerial chariot to his kingdom, Lanka, in the far south. The scene of such episodes forms the core of the busy pilgrimage circuit – a lively enclave packed with religious specialists, beggars, sadhus and street vendors touting puja paraphernalia. However, Nasik has a surprising dearth of historical buildings – even the famous temples beside the river only date from the Maratha era of the eighteenth century. Its only real monuments are the rock-cut caves at nearby Pandav Lena. Excavated at the peak of Buddhist achievement on the Deccan, these two-thousand-year-old cells hark back to the days when, as capital of the powerful Satavahana dynasty, Nasik dominated the all-important trade routes linking the Ganges plains with the ports to the west.

From Nasik, you can make an interesting day-trip to the highly auspicious village of Trimbak, from which a steep climb takes you to Brahmagiri, the source of the Godavari. Somewhat in contrast to its religious importance, Nasik is also the centre of Maharashtra’s burgeoning wine region.

Down on the riverbank, over 1km east of the bus stand, the Ram Kund, always buzzing with a carnival atmosphere, is the reason most people come to Nasik, although it can look more like an overcrowded municipal swimming pool than one of India’s most ancient sacred places. Among the Ram Kund’s more arcane attributes is its capacity to dissolve bones – whence the epithet of Astivilaya Tirth or “Bone Immersion Tank”.

Follow the narrow street opposite Ram Kund up the hill to arrive at the city’s second most important sacred area, the square around the Kala Ram Mandir, or “Black Rama Temple”. Among the well-known episodes from the Ramayana to occur here was the event that led to Sita’s abduction, when Lakshmana sliced off the nose of Ravana’s sister after she had tried to seduce Rama by taking the form of a voluptuous princess. Sita’s cave, or Gumpha, a tiny grotto known in the Ramayana as Parnakuti (“Smallest Hut”), is just off the square.

The Kala Ram temple itself, at the bottom of the square, houses unusual jet-black deities of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana; these are very popular with visiting pilgrims, as access is free from all caste restrictions. The best time to visit is around sunset, after evening puja, when a crowd, mostly of women, gathers in the courtyard to listen to a traditional storyteller recount tales from the Ramayana and other epics.

A steep fifteen-minute climb up one of the precipitous conical hills that overlook the Mumbai–Agra Road, 8km southwest of Nasik, is Pandav Lena, a small group of 24 rock-cut caves famous for their well-preserved Pali inscriptions and fine ancient stone sculpture. Cave 18, the only chaitya hall, is one of the earliest, dating from the first century BC, and is notable for its striking facade, while Cave 3, the largest vihara, boasts some superb exterior stonework. The most straightforward way of getting to Pandav Lena without your own vehicle is by auto-rickshaw, although the numerous local buses that pass nearby are not too packed most of
the time.

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