In Huen Tsang’s records, the word Maharashtra was derived from the word Maharathi meaning the Great Charioteer. A great land with the Western Ghats and its thickly forested hills, enchanting plateaus and scenic valleys, ancient caves, pilgrim towns, street food, Bollywood, and more comprising the rich heritage of Maharashtra.
The state is not centered around one metropolitan city, but boasts of many cities like Mumbai, which is the Financial Capital of the country, Pune – the Oxford of the East, Orange City Nagpur – the Tiger Capital of the country, Nashik, Aurangabad, Ahmednagar, Kolhapur, Thane, Solapur, Jalgaon, Amravati, and Nanded.
Maharashtra sees a variety of tourists from across the country and the globe from time immemorial. With numerous ports, it was and remains a hub for trade and industry thus inviting large crowds from across the world.
Mumbai is the capital of Bollywood, the country’s booming entertainment industry that garners a massive global following. This is owing to not only the actors but also to the portrayal of the diversity of Indian culture, its heritage fashion and the film’s wonderful setting that set the tone to many tourists’ bucket lists. Apart from the large fanbase, there are many non-Indians who want to be associated with the industry. Oh Sea Young, famous South Korean action director and fight master, has worked with a few bollywood films such as The Fan, War, Zero, Junglee, and Bharat, considers his luck to have worked in Bollywood.
Looking back at the vast history of Maharashtra, it was ruled by many able rulers, the most popular being the Marathas. Prior to the Marathas, the area was under the reign of Mauryas, Satavahanas, Chalukyas, Vakatakas, Rashtrakutas, Yadavas and even the Cholas. These dynasties have left their imprints before the establishment of the Maratha empire.
The Chalukyas built some of the earliest temples in Maharashtra and this includes the Kolhapur Mahalakshmi temple. The famous Ellora caves and the Kailashnath temple were constructed by the Rashtrakutas. These caves are one of the finest examples of rock-cut architecture dating back to the 4th and 9th century AD. The Archaeological survey of India declared them as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
Of the 24 caves, one of the main focuses of this article is a remarkable piece, the Kailashnath temple. The temple, like most temples, has a Gopuram, Nandi Mandapa to house the sacred bull, a Guda Mandapa, a sacred hall and the Garbhagriha housing the shrine of Shiva. The entire temple stands on a podium that has a layer of large sculpted elephants. A rock bridge connects the Nandi Mandapa to the porch of the temple. There are other incredible and intricate sculptures on the walls of the temple depicting scenes from the epics and Puranas.
To say that the sculptors of ancient India were skilled and talented is an understatement. The Kailashnath temple is a 32m high monolithic structure carved from top to bottom in a span of two decades, with the most-simple tools- hammer and a chisel.
Apart from having made the temple look majestic, the sculptors have had a deep sense of regard for what the environment has provided them with. Green living or sustainable living was the concept of their days. This temple has been carved out keeping in mind the landscape around it, thus causing zero damage to any other structure. It is also noteworthy that a single rock cut from top to bottom has not used any foreign material to help build the structures. Economical and sustainable living- two lessons that can be inculcated by today’s architects.
Four hours away from these magnificent caves is the less explored Lonar lake. Lonar, named after the demon, Lonasura, was hit by a meteor, five hundred centuries ago, travelling at a speed of ninety thousand kmph. A hole 150m deep and 1.8km wide was formed following the hit and over time, the area around the hole was occupied by jungles and the hole is now a lake.
This lake was a well-kept secret in Maharashtra owing to many reasons. The trek to the lake and quick sands on the bank of the lake is treacherous and thus not many people ventured to explore it. In 1823, a British explorer, JE Alexander came to know of the existence of the lake when he was researching ancient temples in the region. He and many others believed that this was a volcanic crater until in 1961, Indian scientists NC Nandy and VB Deo came up with the explanation that this crater was a result of a single violent explosion and must be extra-terrestrial.
This lake is fascinating and mind-boggling to researchers around the world; it even has NASA racking their heads over it. Studies are conducted in Harvard, Smoithsonian Institution and the U.S Geological Survey.
The lake is both alkaline and saline at the same time, and supports the growth of microbes that are hardly found elsewhere on Earth. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that compasses fail to work at the center of this crater. A meteor’s impact can affect the magnetic properties of rocks. The rocks are broken into pieces and transported, and their original orientation is disturbed. This process can cause the magnetic directions to orient randomly.
Another interesting feature about the lake is the presence of magnetic bacteria, also known as magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). These bacteria align themselves south-west of the Earth’s axis. This is due to the presence of nano-sized structures within the bacteria known as Magnetosomes. Many scientists across the country have been studying Magnetosomes and magnetotactic bacteria for years now. Holarchaea, another type of bacteria in the lake, produces a pink pigment causing the lake to turn pink.
Many temples were situated around the lake and the notable one among them is the Daitya Sudan temple. The temple was built between the 6th and 12th century AD by the Chalukya dynasty. The temple is an example of the Hemadpanthi style of construction as it is built in the form of an asymmetrical star. The main deity of this temple is Mahavishnu standing on top of the demon Lonasura.
According to local belief, Lonasura was a demon who lived under the Earth with his sisters. Mahavishnu took the avatara of a young and handsome boy, Daitya Sudan, who slayed Lonasure and pushed him back into the Earth. This is believed to have caused the crater. The walls and ceilings of this temple have very intricate carvings that depict Lonasura’s slaying, the formation of the crater, Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu and more.
Apart from the Daitya Sudan temple, the place also houses a partially submerged Shankar Ganesha temple, the Ram Gaya temple, so named after the departure of Rama, and the Sita Nahani temple wherein Sita was said to have bathed in the kund in this temple. This kund is filled by perennial freshwater (quite mysterious) that feeds the lake below.
The forest around the lake inhabits many wildlife species and thus attracts wildlife enthusiasts especially bird watchers. A variety of local and migratory birds can be seen by the lake. These include red-wattled lapwings, blue jays, hoopoes, larks, tailorbirds, parakeets, barn owls and more. Animals such as gazelle, bats, mongoose, langur, chinkara and more inhabit the forest.
Speaking of wildlife, Bhimashankar wildlife sanctuary that only very recently came into tourists’ radar. The sanctuary is home to the Indian Giant Squirrel and a variety of species of mosses, epiphytes (plants growing on top of another for their survival), and bioluminescent fungi. The sanctuary is also home to hundreds of tribal communities who reside within and around the sanctuary. There are fourteen sacred groves within the sanctuary protected by these tribes.
Bhimashankar is also where one of the twelve Jyotirlingas are present. The linga is a swayambhu linga that originated on its own. The temple is a testament to the skills of Vishwakarma sculptors. Built in the 13th century, the temple was further glorified by the Maratha rulers in the 18th century. (Maharashtra is home to three Jyotirlingas- Trimbakeshwar in Nashik, Grishneshwar and Bhimashankar).
Maharashtra is a classic example of culture and heritage blending seamlessly with modernity. Warli tribes of Thane, Wada style of architecture, cultural merriment during Ganesh Utsav, Nag Panchami, Janmashtami, Ellora art festival, Kalidasa festival, and more are some of the few examples of Maharashtra’s rich heritage. Apart from Bollywood, Maharashtra is a feast for foodies. There are a variety of street-food joints in every corner of the city. An amalgamation of history, art, culture, cuisine, fashion, commerce, cinema and spirituality is Maharashtra.