Once upon a time, Nashik thrived as an encyclopedia of the exotic and the religious. Travellers thronged this holy city, on the banks of the river Godavari, for a holy dip, and wherever you walked, you encountered either intricate temples or colourful bathing ghats. You bumped into white travellers who murmured, "Finally, true India" in rapture at the temples soaked in incense, the flower-laden land and the colourful fruit market just beyond the ghat.
Perhaps you didn't agree with this sentiment, but you'd have to admit that exotic or not, there was something compelling about the intensity of life here.
At first glance, Ramkund, the bathing tank where pilgrims gathered for a holy dip or an evening arati, appears to be a place for a series of rituals on the path to liberation. But the closer you look, the more you admire the sheer faith that brings an assortment of pilgrims here.
Shankar, a tourist I meet, tells me he visits the Kala Ram Temple, east of Ramkund, every year not just because it contains unusual black stone representations of Rama and Sita, but because he believes that his troubles will be allayed at the town's holiest shrine. His faith moves me more than all the signs of religion I see all around.
Next up are the rock carved, twothousand- year-old Pandav Leni caves dating to 1st Century BC, excavated at the peak of Buddhist achievement. Critics frequently write home about Cave 19 and 23, and it's these caves that make the 20-minute hike up the mountain worthwhile.
Tours of the vineyard
But to come here only for the religious and the ancient is like exploring only the torso of the town and neglecting the face. Now more than ever, Nashik is morphing into a town where tradition meets a pulsing new modernity.
The fertile soil, cool climate and longstanding abundance of grapes make it a natural candidate for the wine country it's become. You'll find the devout sipping a glass of wine or tasting it in a stylish wine bar. You'll find droves of young people motoring to Nashik to experience the vineyards and following it up with a visit to the Trimbakeshwar temple. Some are as eager to learn about this shrine as they are to do a wine-making tour at the Sula Vineyards.
As you swirl the wine around in your glass, you overhear snatches of conversations between ladies discussing the Italian restaurants that have sprung up in wake of the flourishing vineyards. After this, they declare they are off to check out the wine bar at ChÃ¢teau Indage's Tiger Hill Vineyard Resort and Spa. They debate whether they have enough time to take in a grape seed massage in a rustic bamboo hut at the spa.
Yet another pilgrimage
Meanwhile, at the bathing ghat, Shankar is wondering weather he should return to Nashik for the Kumbh Mela the largest religious gathering on earth. Should he go tomorrow to Shirdi, the birthplace of Sai Baba, or instead visit the Gumpha Panchavati where Sita supposedly hid from Ravana? Debates about which activity to pursue whether sacred or profane or both have for long been raging on the same side of the bathing ghat.
What started out as a weekend getaway from Mumbai has became a pilgrimage, where different people seek different kinds of salvation.
Some come to Nashik to allay their troubles in wine, others come to allay their troubles in prayer as they light diyas and send them floating down the waters of the sacred river. But both these groups appear to leave singing a happy song.
Sonia is travelling around the world brandishing pen and paper when she's not lecturing at the St Xavier's College