Panhala: Memoirs of a Fort

“Most of the 150 original wells of the medieval fort of Panhalagarh were snuffed out when this road was laid.” He does not say when, but it must have been sometime after 1842, when the British opened up the fort to other settlers. Arun and I are sitting in his auto at the centre of town. A local is pulling water out of one of the adjacent 35-odd surviving wells. The metal wheel rattles as it pulls up the pulley with a large plastic water pot on it. A bus, accustomed to feeling weary with the clumsy stiffness of its large body, crosses the square diagonally and turns all the way back, like a large, old pencil box on wheels, before it shudders to a stop.

Statue of Baji Prabhu Deshpande (by Ankur P)

Statue of Baji Prabhu Deshpande (by Ankur P)

“He (Shivaji) was not against any community, you know, just very strongly for the ryots.” Responding to my somewhat naïve ‘secular’ curiosity, Arun is extrapolating, from the idea that the graves I had seen might have been of Muslim soldiers in Shivaji’s army or might even belong to the attackers.

He has been a guide here since he was nine. He has been hearing these stories, learning to tell them, learning to change them when someone would correct his young self. He can remember getting excited at earning a rupee instead of 50 paise, for a tour.

I like to imagine what it might have been like for the little boy to make a relationship with those spaces, to narrate their stories of valour and cunning. Now, he says, he earns more and tells less. Thirty years of working at what felt like a romance once. I wonder if it doesn’t feel similar to finding you have made your livelihood through working in films.

Arun’s eyes stare unfathomably ahead, at me, while his lips rapidly pick up the new tales that he is opening out for my perusal. “Aurangzeb’s daughter, Zeenat, wanted to marry Sambhaji. And he agreed to marry the older woman, on the condition that…” The story has an expected, gory, despotic, valorous, miserable end. The image of the possibility of love acknowledged by two unlikely people, lingers.

A romance with another name lingers in the child-like eyes of a young man and his even younger companion who wants to be photographed next to the large, newly-made statue of the common man who resembled Shivaji, and who, says the story, to aid one of the stealthy escapes of the king, gladly gave up his life impersonating him.

Two children stand by me, peering down the fort wall by Sajja Kothi. A tapestry of landscape lies spread out below. One boy’s young eye loses itself in the gathering of village, township, lake, grove, road, interchanging positions all the way to and beyond, where the horizon begins to get hazy.
“This India is so huge.”
“India is even larger than this.”

Corrected, the child nods, but the nod is unnoticed by the part of his mind which has, perhaps for the first time, discovered an image for a hitherto textbook idea.

“Arabian Sea there, Bay of Bengal there,” he automatically points and continues.

The youngest of the trio in the lap of his young aunt sights his own classroom lesson and yells out “M-a-t Mat!” and points to a blue patch in his valley. “Don’t bore me now, little monkey,” says his aunt and takes him away from the edge.

“Be aware of monkeys,” says a billboard at Hotel Hilltop. I am: the children who come here, seem to be walking closer to their monkey selves in the open spaces, the sudden vistas of this quiet hill station. Watching the diversity of their responses perhaps tunes me better to adults, and to the diversity of small meanings this place might hold for us.

Night falls upon every kind of noise. Across a small meadow stands a lonely home, locked, lit by two lamps — one weak electric bulb on the porch, and a diya flame somewhere inside. Pine-like trees stand in young silhouettes before it.

I take a silent walk home. Beyond the city’s volleyball court, before the hotel ground, is a stretch of wooded dark that starts with a small shrine. I stand in the pleasant December chill and stare up… where the darkness lets me see an almost forgotten treat of childhood — the many veils of the sky, studded with stars. The ones closer by are brighter and suggest constellations. As you stand longer, you see the shier ones, very many of them, their quiet silver points making an intricate web in the night sky.

Things to see and do

The ruins in Panhala are scattered over its small area. They are from different times, and are often just vestiges. Although many offer a great vantage point, the bracing short walk that takes you to each of these ruins, your thoughts taking their leisurely pace to form in the healthy coolness of the hill air, is almost a must for you to appreciate their real and humble charms.

The bus adda is a useful centre for your navigation. And the locally available, almost standard tourist guide of the place is a good informant.


Amberkhana is a massive, well-preserved 11th-century granary, built by the famous king called ‘Bhoj’. A large crowd of peasants comes out of these old ruins that has impressively withstood the ravages of time. As I watch their silent walk towards their waiting bus, I wonder what they might make of the ghosts of the silos that used to be stored in that granary.

Amberkhana (by Ankur P)

Amberkhana (by Ankur P)

A little city girl tries to photograph her parents against the granary walls. “You look tiny next to it.” “Come closer, and just shoot the portion you get behind us,” says her father. “But I want to see all of it,” and she tries to gather the whole structure into the frame of her small hands.

Sunset Point

Sunset Point must have been a sunset point before it became Pusati Buruj — the northernmost and an important watchtower of the fort. Swallows and hawks continue to glide over the valley here. Elsewhere, the lone occupant of a small waterworks department office by one of the fort walls, has left his table to stand still on a metal grill he has propped against it. Here all fort walls make vantage points with a beautiful view of the Masai plateau.

Sajja Kothi

A single-storeyed structure, dating from the 11th century, Sajja Kothi is a great vantage point on the eastern battlement of the fort. The stone arches on its terrace, the open steps without railings, the overhanging canopy, all serve as framing devices for fun tourist photographs.

Tabak Van Udyan and Wagh Darwaza

Trees are allowed to grow any which how in Panhalagarh. They have space to make elaborate shapes for themselves, to drop and grow things from their barks, their roots, their branches. Some adventurous branches make wild circumambulations around the parent tree.

The hillsides are densely wooded with these free creatures. And every here and then, the city has built public parks around them. The most elaborate and enchanting of these is the Tabak Van Udyan. The hill beyond the original fort gate called Wagh Darwaza has been cut into a series of long steps from which radiate paths and forks to walk further into the tree cover. Stone benches gleam invitingly from their setting inside mossy rock-cut caverns. Strips of bark lie on the floor like snake skins. At the end of it all is a view of the valley (but of course), but before that, where the garden ends, two trees have clasped each other in a manic embrace over two adjacent tombs covered with brocade.

A must-walk, especially if you are with a child. Also contains a useful model of what the kite-shaped fort might have looked like when it was intact.

Tararani Palace

Built by Shivaji’s daughter-in-law. I hear that Dilip Kumar’s Ram Aur Shyam was shot in a school close by. Panhala has been a much beloved shooting site for many Marathi and Hindi films, including the old Bees Saal Baad.

Sambhaji Temple, Kalavanti Mahal and Dharam Kothi

Three structures, adjacent, separated by time. The Sambhaji Temple is intriguing for its deity, well worshipped locally. A knowledgeable local tells me it is Sambhaji II, not Shivaji’s son, as everyone supposes, who is worshipped here. Dharamkothi has a lovely façade. Its name, as well as that of Kalavanti Mahal, are convenient local nomenclatures: the Dharam Kothi was where alms were once distributed, and the Kalavanti Mahal/ Naikinhicha Sajja is said to have been the abode of dancing girls in the time of Ibrahim Adilshah. The local guide surmises that a dance performed on the top of the building was meant to be seen from Sajja Kothi.

Teen Darwaza and Andar Bav

Both have a military past, Teen Darwaza as a gate of Shivaji’s fortifications, the other as a trap for attacking soldiers, from the time of Adilshah. Adjacent, their grounds are now the site for a large tourist camp… a veritable Chowpatty of Panhala.

Teen Darwaza (by Ankur P)

Teen Darwaza (by Ankur P)

Nagzari and Parasher Caves

Nagzari and Parasher Caves are not very far from each other. Nagzari, an old water source of the fort leads onto Parasher Caves, where the famous 18th-century Marathi poet Moropant is supposed to have composed his greatest works. Near the town bus adda is a charming, active town library, which has in its possession, for viewing by visitors, a manuscript in Moropant’s own hand, with some of his verses.

Vishalgad trek

If it is monsoon, you could join the trek that follows Shivaji’s escape route to Vishalgad. Or do it some other pleasant time of the year.

Vishalgad (by Ankur P)

Vishalgad (by Ankur P)

The Masai Tablelands

The top of the Masai land formation looks like a large zigzag ruler has turned this way and that to gather the seven tablelands into its fold. All of them are made of a porous rock locally called ‘khadak’. You can take the 10-km trek to the top of the tablelands. Or hire a local vehicle. The skies spread out beyond you on either side. The black porous surface of the rock is unfriendly to plants and has only a coarse short grass as companion. Seven tablelands of this rock and grass spread out into the valley. If you take a few steps in this emptiness, staring down at the texture of the earth at your feet, you might suddenly feel that the scattered grazing buffaloes and you are both riding on the coarse back of an unknown being. Look up and you’ll feel the edges of the tableland pulling you towards them. Sit down on the dry grass by the edge and look end to end at what is spread out before and around you under the open skies… the sun is leaving the brown, bare slopes of the next tableland in the chain of seven; a road looks like a frozen stream; the sound of a drum, of livestock and a thin strand of music are rising up, from different points in the valley. And if you stare at one point where the greens and browns are rich in the evening light, you’ll see how one patch of dark earth has fat green lines drawn across it by a cherub’s finger while in the other, uneven green points are bursting out of the dark square. Small trees make stumpy shapes here and there among the farmlands, more solemn tall ones gather in groves at the borders. On the other side of the terrace, where the sun has left a chill and weak light in its wake, distant trees seem to float on pale green lakes.

TIP: You could trek to the Masai plateau any time of the year

Quick Facts

Location Historic Panhala is 3,000 ft ASL and 19 km from Kolhapur
Distance 415 km SE of Mumbai JOURNEY TIME By rail 11 hrs + 45 mins by road
By road 10 hrs
Route Mumbai-Pune Expressway to Pune; NH4 to Kolhapur; NH204 to Panhal
When to go The climate of Panhala is to be reveled in. In mid-December, there is a lovely winter warmth in the sun and a pleasant coolness in the shade. Panhala can be visited any time of the year, but the monsoon is heavy and best enjoyed by those who want its very particular pleasures

Tourist offices

Panhala; Tel: 02328-235048
Kolhapur Forest Dept Office
Tel: 0231-2651959
STD code 02328

By Hansa Thapiyal