Vast and rugged, the modern state of Maharashtra is the third largest in India and one of the most visited by foreign tourists, though most people venture no further than its seething port capital, Mumbai. As soon as you leave the seemingly endless concrete housing projects, industrial works and swamplands of Mumbai, you enter a different world with a different history. Undoubtedly, Maharashtra’s greatest treasures are its extraordinary cave temples and monasteries; the finest of all are found near Aurangabad, renamed after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and home to the Bibi-ka-Maqbara, dedicated to his wife. The busy commercial city is the obvious base for visits to the Buddhist caves at Ajanta, with their fabulous and still-vibrant murals, and the monolithic temples of Ellora, where the astonishing Hindu Kailash temple was carved in its entirety from one single rock.

Despite Maharashtra’s early importance as a centre of Buddhism, Hinduism is very much at the core of the life in the state. Balancing modern industry alongside ancient associations with the Ramayana, the main pilgrimage centre has always been Nasik, a handy place to break journeys en route to Aurangabad. One of the four locations of the Kumbh Mela, the city is always a hive of devotional activity, and lies close to one of India’s most sacred Shiva shrines, reached from the village of Trimbak. In the state’s far northeastern corner, the city of Nagpur lies close to Sevagram, where Mahatma Gandhi set up his headquarters during the struggle for Independence.

Away from the cities, one of the most characteristic features of the landscape is a plenitude of forts. Rising abruptly a short distance inland from the sea, the Sahyadri Hills – part of the Western Ghats – form a series of huge steps that march up from the narrow coastal strip to the edge of the Deccan plateau. These flat-topped hills could easily be converted into forts where small forces could withstand protracted sieges by large armies. Today, visitors can scale such windswept fortified heights at Pratapgadh and Daulatabad.

During the nineteenth century, the mountains found another use. When the summer proved too much for the British in Bombay, they sought refuge in nearby hill stations, the most popular of which, Mahabaleshwar, now caters for droves of domestic tourists. Matheran, 800m higher, has a special attraction: a rickety miniature train. South of Matheran, a further series of magnificent rock-cut caves clustered around another town, Lonavala, provides the main incentive to break the journey to the modern, cosmopolitan city of Pune, famous for its Osho resort founded by the New Age guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, but most appealing for its atmospheric old town and burgeoning restaurant and bar scene.

To the west, Maharashtra occupies 500km of the Konkan coast on the Arabian Sea, from Gujarat to Goa. The little-explored palm-fringed coast winds back and forth with countless inlets, ridges and valleys; highlights include Murud-Janjira, whose extraordinary fortress was the only one never conquered by the Mughals, and Ganpatipule, the region’s chief pilgrimage centre, with kilometres of virtually deserted, palm-fringed beaches. By the time you reach Kolhapur, the main town in the far south of the state, famous for its temple and palace, Mumbai feels a world away.

Brief history

Maharashtra enters recorded history in the second century BC, with the construction of its first Buddhist caves. These lay in peaceful places of great natural beauty, and were created with the wealth generated by the nearby caravan trade routes between north and south India.

The region’s first Hindu rulers – based in Badami, Karnataka – appeared during the sixth century, and Buddhism was almost entirely supplanted by the twelfth century. Hinduism, in the form of the simple faith of Ramdas, the “Servant of Rama”, provided the philosophical underpinning behind the campaigns of the Maharashtra’s greatest warrior, Shivaji (1627–80), who remains a potent symbol for Maharashtrans. The fiercely independent Maratha chieftain united local forces to place insurmountable obstacles in the way of any prospective invader; so effective were their guerrilla tactics that he could even take on the mighty Mughals, who by 1633 had got as far as capturing Daulatabad. By the time he died, in 1680, he had managed to unite the Marathas into a stable and secure state, funded by the plunder gleaned through guerrilla raids as far afield as Andhra Pradesh. In response, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb moved his court and capital south to the Deccan, first to Bijapur (now Vijayapura) in 1686 and then Golconda in 1687, but still failed to subdue Shivaji’s dynasty. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century the power of both had weakened and the British were able to take full control.

Maharashtra claims a crucial role in the development of a nationalist consciousness. The Indian National Union, originally convened in Pune, held a conference in Bombay in 1885; thereafter it was known as the Indian National Congress. This loose congregation of key local figures from around the country changed the face of Indian politics. At first, its aim was limited to establishing a national platform to raise the status of Indians, and it remained loyal to the British. In the long term, of course, it was instrumental in the achievement of Independence 62 years later, with many of the Congress’s factional leaders over the years hailing from Maharashtra.

With Independence, the Bombay Presidency, to which most of Maharashtra belonged, became known as Bombay State. Maharashtra as such was created in 1960 from the state’s Marathi-speaking regions. Its manufacturing industries, centred on Mumbai and to a lesser extent cities such as Nagpur, Nasik, Aurangabad, Sholapur and Kolhapur, now account for around fifteen percent of the nation’s output. Textiles have long been important – the Deccan soils supplied the world with cotton in the nineteenth century after its main source was interrupted by the American Civil War – but this is now also one of the premier high-tech industry regions, especially along the Mumbai–Pune corridor. Still, the majority of Maharashtra’s population of more than 114 million are still engaged in agriculture.

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