Lying at the head of the main pass through the Western Ghats, the fast-developing city of NASIK (or 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 2000-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.
Somewhat in contrast to its religious importance, Nasik is also the centre of Maharashtra’s burgeoning wine region.