Trans Sahyadri – Climbing 200 Forts

Photo Feature

Peter Van Geit

Majestic entrance of Ratangad fort

Majestic entrance of Ratangad fort on top of very steep rock cut steps in a narrow gully. The fort overlooks the Bhandardara one of the oldest artificial catchment areas located in the Ahmednagar district

I mapped 200 forts over four trans-routes and 10 distinct regions. The remaining 150 forts were spread out over 2500 km which I would traverse on motorcycle climbing up each fort in between.

After spending the entire summer in the India Himalayas crossing 120 high passes over 3500 km I was looking out for a suitable location for my next ‘ultra journey’. My eyes fell on the Sahyadri or Western Ghats, a mountain range that stretches over 1600 km along the western coast of South India. Lining the state of Maharashtra, these mountains are formed by ancient volcanoes creating near-vertical rock formations. During the 16th century India faced frequent invasions by the Mughals who came to plunder the riches of the sub-continent. The Marathas, led by the warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, stood up against these invaders by building 300+ forts across the Sahyadri. The forts were built on top of steep pinnacles rendering the huge armies of the Mughals ineffective with the Marathas waging a guerrilla style war from these impregnable fortresses.

I spent a few weeks mapping around 200 forts spanning 600 km across Mumbai, Pune, Nasik and Satara. Most of the forts are located along the north-south ridge line where the Deccan plateau (800 m) steeply drops down into the Konkan plains (200 m). The mountains reach a maximum height of 1600 m and forts are located in dense tropical forests with rich biodiversity and wildlife. As usual I executed my journey in alpine style—self-supported, self-navigated (without local guides) and with minimal gear carrying a 10L pack with basic shelter. I used offline Open Street Maps and contours to find my way through the steep mountains and dense jungles post the northwest monsoon. I got food rations along the way from hamlets dotted across the Sahyadri where friendly farmers showered me with heart-warming hospitality. During the initial two weeks I was running through monsoon rains which had got delayed by a month.

I mapped the 200 forts over four trans-routes and 10 distinct regions across the state. The trans-routes covered 50 forts connected through 500 km of beautiful jungle trails which would be runnable. The remaining 150 forts were spread out over 2500 km which I would traverse region-wise on motorcycle climbing up each fort in between. At a rate of climbing six to eight forts each day I would be able to complete my mission within two months returning home for Christmas. I set off during the last week of October and starting running from Lonavala to Nasik along the Deccan ridge through remote jungle trails climbing up each fort along the way. At many places I got treated with mesmerizing views running above the clouds where the Deccan ridge drops down steeply 600 m into the coastal valleys below.

While the connecting trails between forts have fairly limited elevation gain, the final route to climb up each fort would be very steep between, 300 to 500 m. The peaks on which these fortresses were built were carefully chosen based on their strategic location to overlook invading armies across ancient trade routes. To reach the top one has to climb through near vertical sections along narrow rock cut steps crossing through defensive walls and fortified entry gates. On top, each fort has large storage tanks cut out in the ancient volcanic basalt rock to store water, oil and food reserves for the local villagers to survive for months when under siege by invading troops surrounding the forts. Each fort would have multiple access routes to fight a guerrilla war against the occupying forces.

Trail running between and climbing up these four century old fortresses was a unique combination of endurance and travelling back in time. Each fort has a unique history - epic battles had been fought which would define the future course of India in some; others were birth places, capitals and final resting places from where Shivaji had ruled his kingdom. Each fort was unique in terms of remaining features found on top or the unique route to climb up. Most of the forts had little left but ruins weathered down through 400 centuries of heavy monsoons and frequent destruction by invading armies. The defensive gates and walls were built using rocks some as huge as the pyramids of Egypt - leaving one speechless, wondering how these fortresses were constructed on steep pinnacles, using manual labour centuries ago.

After running across the first 50 forts I borrowed a motorcycle from a friend traversed the remaining 150 forts region-wise optimizing travel between individual forts. Days were pretty long rising at dawn and climbing six to eight forts every day some of them hundreds of kilometres apart connected by broken roads in remote countryside. At the end of each day I would settle down in a temple or school of a small hamlet at the base of my next fort. Often a kind villager would invite me into his home treating me as part of his family. A hot shower, sumptuous dinner fresh from the farm and good night’s rest would replenish the burned calories and ready me for the next day. In some homes my host insisted I sleep in his bed while he would sleep on the floor next to me.

Climbing up a steep vertical rock face

Climbing up a steep vertical rock face leading up to the Dhak Bahiri caves. Nearby Rajmachi fort was used by pilgrims and sages for the pilgrimage to the god Bahiri

Settling down for the night on Nakhind hill

Settling down for the night on Nakhind hill in the Panvel range east of Mumbai with views of Chanderi fort

Climbing the famous 'AMK traverse'

Climbing the famous 'AMK traverse'— Alang, Madan, Kulang forts located in the Kalsubai range of Nasik. Majestically rising up from the surrounding plains one requires technical climbing skills as the original rock cut steps have been destroyed by the British

Steep rock cut steps leading up to Tikona fort

Steep rock cut steps leading up to Tikona fort with views of Pawna lake in the Maval region south of Lonavala

A 20 foot wooden entry gate of Raigad

A 20 foot wooden entry gate of Raigad, the capital of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj's kingdom. The entrance of a fort is usually L-shape to avoid any direct frontal attack

Sculpture in a cave at the base of Tringalwadi fort

Sculpture in a cave at the base of Tringalwadi fort in the Igatpuri taluka of Nasik overlooking the ancient trade route passing through Thal ghat

Overlooking the Sahyadri

Overlooking the Sahyadri, south of Mumbai from the Sankshi fort. This part of the Sahyadri includes Karnala, Manikgad and Sagargad forts. They are located near the coast—the southwest monsoon gives the region a lush green forest cover.

In the dense jungles in south Maharashtra, around the Mahabaleshwar region, finding ancient routes was more challenging. Centuries of monsoons and years of disuse had destroyed parts of these steep trails and covered them by dense vegetation. At times I would feel completely lost but then, on pushing away the vegetation, I would discover 400+ year old rock cut steps confirming that I was on the right path. In some places forts on opposite mountains were separated by large lakes in the valleys. To optimize travel time I packed up my small 10L pack in a dry bag and swam across some of these beautiful natural water bodies. In many places I came across wildlife including snakes and larger animals which usually fled as I was approaching them. Finding drinkable water was never a challenge given the presence of numerous streams, village wells and water storage tanks on top of the forts. In some remote sections I slept on top of the forts and inside jungles using a sleeping bag and lightweight bivvy tent.

On some forts the rock cut steps along the steepest sections have been destroyed with explosives by invading forces to render them less defensive after having faced stiff opposition and heavy casualties while trying to conquer them. These sections now require technical gear and ropes to reach the top. During the monsoon months from June to September the entire Sahyadri are covered with a green carpet of lush vegetation which quickly turns to golden brown in the months after the monsoon. The prolonged rain covers the steep rocks with a slippery layer further complicating the climb while exposed to hundreds of metres of vertical drop into the valley below. Majestic defensive gates along these steeper sections are built in an L-shape to prevent any straight, forceful attack on the 20 feet high solid wooden entry gates. Attackers were exposed to arrows, rocks and burning oil from above while approaching the gates.

Harihar fort

Steep rock cut steps leading up to the top of Harihar fort overlooking the ancient trade route through Gonda Ghat. "Exposure" to sheer drop below is the main challenge while climbing many forts in the Sahyadri which gets only trickier during the monsoon.

Konkan Kada

Konkan Kada, a steep near-vertical drop of the Deccan plateau into the Konkan plains below as seen from the famous Harishchandragad fort built to overlook the ancient trade route through the Malshej Ghat in Ahmednagar district.

fortified walls of the Revdanda coastal fort

Battered over five centuries by the sea waves, the fortified walls of the Revdanda coastal fort built by the Portuguese in 1524 overlooking the mouth of the Kundalika river

Dhom lake

Night gear is packed into a dry bag while swimming across Dhom lake, a source of the Krishna river, on the way from Kamalgad to Raireshwar fort in the Bhor taluka of Pune district

buffalo herder

A buffalo herder welcomed me in his mud home at the base of Jawalya / Rawalya twin forts 43 km north of Nasik

traditional Maratha turban

I wore a traditional Maratha turban during a talk in Karad on my Sahyadri journey to an enthusiastic audience of 300

Basgad fort

Hospitality in a small village at the base of 12th century Basgad fort. Nothing beats a home cooked meal and comfy bed in the house of a stranger after running up 8-10 forts from sunrise to sunset

Rajgad fort

Fortified entry gate to the top section of Rajgad fort - former capital of the Maratha Empire under the rule of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj for almost 26 years after which the capital was moved to Raigad fort

Further into my journey I covered some 50 forts along the Konkan coast north and south of Mumbai built to defend the Maratha against invading fleets of the British, Portuguese and Dutch colonial forces. Some of these are built on small islands inside the sea protected by 50 feet high defensive walls built to survive attacks by enemy cannon fire. Unavailability or expense of renting fisherman’s boats made me swim kilometres inside the sea to visit some of these forts which are still beautifully preserved after battering for centuries by sea waves. While travelling between these coastal forts on my motorcycle I came across some of the most idyllic beaches I had seen - white sands, crystal clear blue ocean waters bounded by thick forests of palm trees and lush green hills reaching up to the coastline. I had perfect night halts, watching the bright stars and sleeping next to a campfire on the beach, dreaming to the sound of the soothing waves.

As I progressed on my journey to travel throughout Shivaji’s kingdom, the news spread through Maharashtra where people still carry the legacy of their great king in their heart. Till today he is worshipped by people for standing up for freedom and fighting oppression. His bravery and strategic talent to fight off large armies of tens of thousands of Mughal warriors with a few hundreds of men still lives in the imagination of the common man. Now suddenly they heard that a foreigner was climbing 200 forts in just two months, which is more than most could imagine doing in a lifetime. Soon news interviews, public talks and ceremonies followed across various cities in the state and within a short time span, 20 thousand new followers were tracking my journey on social media, adding a totally new angle to my experience.

There are many magical natural wonders across the state but local people flock only the touristic destinations and forts. The beautiful Sahyadri and its rich legacy should inspire the young generation to fall in love of the outdoors. If the Sahyadri does not, then what can save the youth from falling victim to screen addiction and chasing an unquenchable thirst for materialistic pleasure.

In 2019, Peter Van Geit ran across 200 forts over four trans-routes and 10 distinct regions across Maharashtra. The trans-routes covered 50 forts connected through 500 km of beautiful jungle trails. The remaining 150 forts were spread out over 2500 km which he traversed region-wise on motorcycle climbing up each fort in between. At a rate of climbing six to eight forts each day he completed his mission with two months and was back home for Christmas.

About the Author see page 64

Special thanks to Saini Krishamurthi, Kedar Joshi and Vikas Kaduskar who were instrumental in planning my journey.

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