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
Crouched in the shadow of the Western Ghats, 28km west of Nasik, the village of TRIMBAK – literally “Three-Eyed”, another name for Lord Shiva, in Marathi – marks the spot where one of the four infamous drops of immortality-giving amrit nectar fell to earth from the kumbh vessel during the struggle between Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda and the Demons – the mythological origin of the Kumbh Mela. Numbering among India’s most sacred centres for Shiva worship (it houses one of the twelve must sacred Shiva temples, known as jyotirlingas), the Trimbakeshwar Mandir temple, in the centre of the village, is unfortunately closed to non-Hindus. Its impressive eighteenth-century shikhara (tower), however, can be glimpsed from the backstreets nearby.
Trimbak is also near the source of one of India’s longest and most sacred rivers, the Godavari; the spring can be reached via an ancient pilgrim-trail that cuts through a cleft in an awesome, guano-splashed cliff face. The round trip to Brahmagiri, the source of the Godavari, takes between two and three hours. It’s a strenuous walk, particularly in the heat, so make sure you take adequate water. From the trailhead at the edge of the village, the way is paved and stepped as far as the first level outcrop, where there are some welcome chai stalls and a small hamlet. Beyond that, either turn left after the last group of huts and follow the dirt trail through the woods to the foot of the rock-cut steps (20min), or continue straight on to the three shrines clinging to the base of the cliff above. The first is dedicated to the goddess Ganga, the second – a cave containing 108 lingams – to Shankar (Shiva), and the third to the sage Gautama Rishi, whose hermitage this once was.
The steps climb 550m above Trimbak to the remains of Anjeri Fort – a site that was, over the years, attacked by the armies of both Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb before it fell into the hands of Shaha-ji Raj, father of the legendary rebel-leader Shivaji. The source itself is another twenty minutes further on, across Brahmagiri Hill, in the otherwise unremarkable Gaumukh (“Mouth of the Cow”) temple. From its rather unimpressive origins, this paltry trickle flows for nearly 1000km east across the entire Deccan to the Bay of Bengal.
India’s wine capital
India’s wine capital
With its temperate winters, rich soil and gently undulating landscape, Nasik’s arid and dusty hinterland has over the past decade proved itself to be – incongruously enough – ideal for growing wine grapes, and the city has now firmly established itself at the centre of India’s fast-expanding wine industry. The best established producer, enthusiastically supported by Mumbai’s urban sophisticates, is Sula Vineyards, 14km west of Nasik, which runs forty-five minute tours of its winery (hourly 11.30am–5.30pm; Rs150; t0253/223 0575, wsulawines.com), a slick and professional operation that wouldn’t look out of place in California’s Napa Valley. Tours conclude with a generous tasting of half a dozen varieties – all eminently drinkable – on the congenial Tasting Terrace (open till 10pm, Fri & Sat till 11pm), which looks out over acres of neat rows of vines towards the scenic Gangapur tank.