Highway histories

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A journey from Bengaluru to Mumbai on India’s National Highway 4 brings unexpected discoveries about the country’s past

The distance from Bengaluru to Mumbai is about a 1000 kilometres, through the plains of Karnataka and Maharashtra, until you reach Pune and the Western Ghats.

We began our journey at 6.30am from Bengaluru. Despite an early start, we could see the highways clogging up with trucks and buses. It took us an hour and a half to negotiate the traffic out of the city, and, having left the hustle and bustle of Bengaluru behind us, we stopped a little before Tumkur at Sri Rathna Restaurant for an excellent coffee and breakfast.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

Hitting the road again in earnest – with some serious distance to cover – we drove on the six-lane divided road, touching speeds of 110km/h. Coconut, betel and palms spread before us as far as the eye could see and it was picture-postcard perfect. There were frequent tolls along the road, and a common sight was the long transport vehicles carting huge wings – parts of windmills to be assembled later.

At 9.30 we passed Hiriyur, in the vicinity of which we saw several wind mill farms dotting the countryside. Soon we reached the town of Chitradurga, where a historic Fort on the banks of the river Vedavati and Tungabadra attracts many weekenders from Bengaluru.

The Chitradurga Fort and the ruins were very reminiscent of other Vijayanagar relics such as Hampi. It is claimed that this town is mentioned in the Mahabharata and was where Bhima married Hidimbi – even Ashokan era inscriptions have been found in Chitradurga.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

The fort was built in stages between the 15th and 18th centuries by the dynastic rulers of the region, mainly the Nayakas, the feudal lords in the Vijayanagar Empire, and they were responsible for the expansion of the fort between the 17th and 18th centuries. After holding up valiantly for many years, they were defeated by Hyder Ali in 1779, who later expanded and strengthened the fort. Inside you can see the statue of Obavva. She was the wife of the sentry in the army of the Madakeri Nayaka, who single-handedly vanquished several of Hyder Ali’s soldiers.

The fort itself was built in a series of seven concentric fortification walls with various passages, a citadel, masjid, warehouses for grains and oil, water reservoirs and ancient temples. There are 18 temples in the upper part of the fort and one huge temple in the lower fort. The masjid was an addition during Hyder Ali’s rule. The fort’s many interconnecting tanks were used to harvest rainwater, and the fort was said to never have suffered from a water shortage.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

We continued on and drove past Davangere, the headquarters of the eponymous Davangere district. The town is known for its Durgambika Temple and St Thomas Church.

We were soon driving through the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwar where the road becomes narrow and is only a two-lane divided road for the next 100 kilometres or so.

We passed by Belgaum and Shankeshwar Fort on the Hiranyakeshi River and by afternoon, we were in Kagal in Kolhapur district.

During the rule of the Marathas and the British, the town was the seat of a noble Ghatge Maratha family, who were among the most important in the princely state of Kolhapur. Historically, it is the birthplace of Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the grandson of Shivaji. By evening, we arrived in Kolhapur and booked into a hotel.

Despite the hot weather in the height of summer, most of the route was surrounded by green, fertile plains. Kagal-Kolhapur is very much the heart of Maratha country and Shivaji’s historic presence is everywhere: forts, statues, signs and banners loudly proclaim to the visitor that they have arrived in Peshwa territory.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

Kolhapur area was the site of several crucial wars between the Marathas and the Mughals, so there are quite a few reminders of those struggles too. During the reign of Queen Tarabai, the younger daughter-in-law of Shivaji, the town enjoyed the status of a capital city. Her statue is in the main square, and despite having been an extremely manipulative woman when it came to making her son the Chhatrapati, she seems to have been a feisty woman of quite extraordinary courage.

Kolhapur’s New Palace, built between 1877 and 1884, is well worth a visit. The ground floor accommodates the Shahaji Chhatrapati Museum, given over to memorabilia of the Kolhapur rulers including costumes, weapons, games, jewellery, embroidery and paraphernalia such as silver elephant saddles. A letter from the British Viceroy and Governor General of India is also among the exhibits. There is also one of Aurangzeb’s swords and a section with stuffed animals of various kinds.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

By far the most important tourist-cum-pilgrimage destination in Kolhapur though is the Mahalakshmi Temple built by the Chalukyas in the seventh or eighth century. It is one of the important Shakti Peethas and the deity is said to be very powerful. The outskirts of the temple – as with any pilgrimage centre – is given to shops selling many local wares such as the famed Kolhapuri chappals, special Kolhapuri jewellery, handwoven silks and cottons, and various other wares.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

Other attractions near Kolhapur include the Jyotiba Temple, 18 kilometres to the north on the Panchganga River, as well as Rankala Lake, Panhala Fort, Siddhagiri Museum, Kopeshwar Temple and the Dajipur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Kolhapur is one of the richest regions of Maharashtra – it is the centre of the sugarcane growing industry and Kolhapur jaggery is well known all over India.

On the main highway there is also the Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule University which gives us a glimpse at another recent history of the Maratha region: the struggle of the Dalits against the Brahmin hegemony.

Jyotiba Phule and his wife, who hailed from nearby Satara, spearheaded the Dalit resistance to Hindu caste dominance in the nineteenth century and were an inspiration to BR Ambedkar several decades later.

After a night’s pit stop in Kolhapur, we checked out early the next morning to be in time for the morning darshan at the Ketkawle Balaji Temple near Pune. After a breakfast of the local Kolhapuri Misal pav, we continued until we arrived at the magnificent replica of the Tirupati Balaji Temple near the village of Narayanpur. The entire project was undertaken under the guidance of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, and was dreamed up by Padmashree Dr B.V. Rao of the Venkateshwara Hatcheries corporate group. The temple was completed only in 2003.

Bengaluru to Mumbai.Indian Link

Narayanpur is the village of Sant Changdev, a great saint of Maharashtra. There is a famous Dattattreya Temple at the foot of the Purandar Fort – a historic fort on account of it having been fought over by the Marathas and the Mughals for decades. It was also a favourite retreat of the Marathas. Interestingly, during WWII, the British imprisoned some German prisoners of war there.

From Narayanpur it was on to the Reliance-built world class new Pune-Mumbai highway, passing through several tunnels bored through the Western Ghats. Passing Lonavla and making our way along the busy industrial route – the entire landscape is dotted with apartment blocks and new developments – you can’t quite figure out where Pune ends and Mumbai begins!