Travel: India’s best-kept secret

Published on Nov 12, 2022 12:08 AM IST

In Maharashtra’s Sahyadris lies Phaltan, which isn’t just a hidden cultural gem, but an eco-warrior’s dream come true

The Shri Bhavani museum also boasts of paintings by Rembrandt, Francisco Goya and more, along with 3500 handwritten holy books
The Shri Bhavani museum also boasts of paintings by Rembrandt, Francisco Goya and more, along with 3500 handwritten holy books
ByKhursheed DinshawKhursheed Dinshaw

The only sound I could hear was the rustling of wind through the grass. The silence that surrounded me was surreal, almost too much for a person like me, accustomed as I am to the cacophony of urban life. But I continued to sit on the edge of a hillock, watching the sun transform from a flaming red ball in the sky to a mellow orange that would fade in just a few minutes. Out of habit, I reached for my mobile phone to capture this sunset over the Sahyadris. Then I drew my hand back. This experience had to be soaked in, not captured.

My reverie was interrupted by a loud swooshing sound behind me: one of the many windmills that dotted the landscape as part of the Pusegaon Windmill Farm. It was the first time that I had been so close to a windmill and it looked even bigger than I had imagined. The Pusegaon Windmill Farm is special simply because you can park your vehicle nearby and walk right up to these turbines. Even though I admired the foundation and tower of this renewable energy generator, the windmill’s rotor blades hogged the limelight.

The entrance to the Shri Bhavani Museum
The entrance to the Shri Bhavani Museum

To the rhythm of their swooshing, I happily unpacked the picnic basket that I had carried with me. After all, it is not every day that you can enjoy a sunset picnic under a windmill in the Sahyadris! Swiftly, the foldable carpet was spread on the dry grass, and bolsters were placed to support my back as I sat. Sipping hot ginger tea from a thermosteel bottle while munching muffins, I embraced my solitude. How rarely do I have the time to simply gaze above me at a clear blue sky dotted with floating white clouds.

Out in the fields

My base for my trip to Pusegaon was Hotel Jakson Inns Phaltan, India’s first platinum rated Green Hotel in its category. Constructed from fly ash bricks, the hotel produces 1600 KWH of energy through its solar farm. This gave me the confidence to enjoy my little vacation in the countryside, knowing that my tourist footprint would be as minimal as it could be.

The Phaltan Rajwada, which is an amalgamation of Western architecture with Jain and Hindu styles
The Phaltan Rajwada, which is an amalgamation of Western architecture with Jain and Hindu styles

The next day, I set off to explore the farms around Phaltan, which is located about 100 kms from Pune and 259 kms from Mumbai. It took just one field of sunflowers majestically swaying in the breeze to stop me in my tracks. The farmer, amused by my enthusiasm for these blooming beauties, explained that the seeds were still raw. Once they were ripe, he said, they would be cold-pressed for oil. His family had been using sunflower oil extracted through this method for the last three generations.

The thirteenth century Jabreshwar temple
The thirteenth century Jabreshwar temple

Further ahead, at a corn field, the farmer plucked a tender ear of corn for me. Yum! The freshness and crunchiness as I eagerly bit into it left me speechless. At a fig orchard, I got to walk between the fig trees and pluck ripe figs to eat. The simple joys of country life in Maharashtra’s rural hinterland had begun to grow on me.

The 21-dish mega Maharashtrian thali
The 21-dish mega Maharashtrian thali

Since I was in sugarcane country, I decided to visit a traditional jaggery making unit or gurhal, to see how jaggery and kakvi are prepared. On the way, I passed bullock carts carrying harvested sugarcane that would be processed at the gurhals. In rural areas, it is customary to offer a farmer jaggery when she or he comes home after working all day in the scorching heat, since jaggery provides the body with natural energy.

Hal, the juice of the sugarcane, was extracted and then transferred to a big container. Then the juice was strained and boiled, the workers stirring the syrup constantly to prevent it from burning. Once impurities are removed, the concentrated form is put into moulds that are cooled to create jaggery as we know it. However, the farmers also make kakvi, a liquid jaggery that is basically a concentrated version of sugarcane juice. This is eaten with chapati and puran poli.

A traditional jaggery making uni
A traditional jaggery making uni

Bring on the food coma

The sensory treat of the freshly prepared jaggery increased my craving to eat Maharashtrian dishes. And so, I seated myself at the Green Bean restaurant, which is known for its decadent thalis. My lavish vegetarian thali comprised 21 dishes, including bharli vangi made with brinjals, pithla that turned gram flour and spices into a mouthwatering dish, and masala bhaat or spicy rice that included ivy gourd. The sourness of the kokum with coconut milk in the solkadhi was a refreshing burst of flavour. I ended the meal with freshly prepared puran poli slathered with ghee and filled with melt-in-the-mouth jaggery and mashed split chickpeas. There was also the traditional shrikhand, but I couldn’t manage to fit even half a teaspoon of it in my stomach after this 21-dish banquet.

The jaggery made
The jaggery made

Incidentally, you don’t necessarily have to go vegetarian at the Green Bean. There is a non-vegetarian thali that includes chicken sukka, tambda rassa, pandhra rassa and mutton keema.

Satiated with the sumptuous meal, I had no option but to return to my hotel and collapse in a food coma. When I woke up, the cultural gems of Phaltan beckoned. Next to each other sit the 800-year-old Jabreshwar Mandir, that is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the rajwada or royal palace. The palace, unfortunately, was closed to the public, but I saw its grand façade and a corridor lined with marble lion statues. Next, I visited the Datta Temple and Ram Mandir, which have detailed architecture and wooden pillars. 

A windmill at the Pusegon windmill farm
A windmill at the Pusegon windmill farm

Chikoos and miniature art

On the last day of my stay at Phaltan, I strolled to the 350 trees that grow on the property of my hotel, plucking chikoo and figs. The trees are watered with recycled water while their organic manure is produced by vermicomposting. Rain water harvesting has ensured that the hotel has not used any water tankers in the drought-prone town of Phaltan. 

For miniature painting aficionados, the Shri Bhavani Museum in Aundh is a must visit. It is probably the only museum in India with such a massive collection. I gawked at more than 500 miniature paintings spread across 18 galleries. The minute intricacy and vibrant colours of the Bengal School and the Punjab School floored me, while the Raja Ravi Varma paintings showcased in Gallery 9 were my favourites. Oil on canvas by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt adorned the Western artist gallery of the museum.

A field full of sunflowers
A field full of sunflowers

Exploring the multifaceted town of Phaltan, I experienced and enjoyed the simple joys of life and the slow pace of living. It was rejuvenating and has started me on a journey of self exploration where I look forward to discovering other such gems of our country.

From HT Brunch, November 12, 2022

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