Panhala: Memoirs of a Fort

“Most of the 150 original springs of the medieval fort of Panhalagarh were thrown out when this road was built.” He doesn’t say when, but it must have been sometime after 1842, when the British opened the fort to other settlers. Arun and I are in his car in the center of town. A local gets water from one of the adjacent 35 remaining wells. The metal wheel rattles as it pulls up the pulley with a large plastic water pot on top. A bus, accustomed to feeling tired from the awkward stiffness of its large body, crosses the square at an angle and spins all the way back, like a big, old pen box on wheels, before coming to a stop.

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Standbeeld van Baji Prabhu Deshpande (door Ankur P)

“He (Shivaji) wasn’t against any community, you know, just very strongly for the ryots .” In response to my somewhat naive ‘secular’ curiosity, Arun is extrapolating, thinking that the tombs I’d seen may have been came from Muslim soldiers in Shivaji’s army or could even have been among the attackers.

He has been a guide since he was nine. He has heard these stories, learned to tell them, learned to change them when someone corrected his young self. He remembers being excited to earn a rupee instead of 50 paise for a tour.

I like to imagine what it might be like for the little boy to relate to those spaces, to tell their stories of courage and cunning. Now, he says, he earns more and tells less. Thirty years working at what once felt like a romance. I wonder if it doesn’t seem similar to the fact that you’ve built your livelihood by working in movies.

Arun’s eyes stare inexorably ahead of me, while his lips quickly pick up on the new stories he opens 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, courageous, wretched ending. The image of the possibility of love recognized by two unlikely people lingers.

A romance by any other name lingers in the childlike eyes of a young man and his even younger companion who wishes to be photographed next to the large, newly made statue of the common man who resembled Shivaji, and who, the story says, of the king’s stealthy escapes, he gladly gave up his life as if to impersonate him.

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Two children stand next to me and peer along the fort wall past Sajja Kothi. A tapestry of landscape is scattered below. A boy’s young eye loses itself in the collection of village, village, lake, grove, road, shifting points of view all the way to and beyond, where the horizon begins to blur.

“This India is so big.”

“India is even bigger than this.”

Corrected, the child nods, but the nod goes unnoticed by the part of his mind that may have discovered, for the first time, an image for a hitherto textbook idea.

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

The youngest of the trio in his young aunt’s lap watches his own lesson in class and shouts ‘Mat Mat!’ Out and points to a blue spot in his valley. “Don’t bore me now, little monkey,” says his aunt, taking him off the edge.

“Be aware of monkeys,” says a billboard at Hotel Hilltop. Me: The kids who come here seem to walk closer to their monkeys in the open spaces, the sudden vistas of this quiet hill station. Watching the diversity of their responses might make me more attuned to adults and to the diversity of little meanings this place can hold for us.

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The night falls on any kind of noise. Across a small meadow stands a lone house, locked up, lit by two lamps – a weak electric bulb on the porch and a diya flame somewhere inside. Pine-like trees stand before it in young silhouettes.

I walk home quietly. Beyond the town’s volleyball court, before the hotel ground, is a stretch of wooded darkness that begins with a small shrine. I stand in the pleasant December cold and stare up … where the darkness shows me an almost forgotten treat of childhood – the many veils of the sky, studded with stars. The closer ones are brighter and suggest constellations. Stand taller and you’ll see the lighter ones, lots of them, their silent silver tips making an intricate web in the night sky.

Things to see and do

The ruins in Panhala are spread over the small area. They come from different times and are often just remnants. While many offer a great vantage point, the invigorating short walk that takes you to each of these ruins, your thoughts taking their leisurely pace to transform into the wholesome cool of the mountain air, is almost a must for you to experience their real and humble appreciate charms.

The bus add-on is a useful center for your navigation. And the locally available almost standard tourist guide of the place is a good informant.


Amberkhana is a huge well preserved 11th century granary built by the famous king named ‘Bhoj’. A large crowd of peasants emerge from these ancient ruins that have impressively withstood the test of time. As I watch their silent steps toward their waiting bus, I wonder what they might make of the ghosts of the silos that granary were stored.

A small town girl tries to photograph her parents against the granaries. “You look very small next to it.” “Get closer and just shoot the part you have behind you,” says her father. “But I want to see everything,” and she tries to collect the whole structure in the frame of her small hands.

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Sunset Point

Sunset Point must have been a setting sun before it became Pusati Buruj – the northernmost point and an important watchtower of the fort. Swallows and hawks continue to glide over the valley here. Elsewhere, the lone occupant of a small branch office of a waterworks company has left his table through one of the fortress walls to rest on a metal grate propped up against it. Here all the fort walls make vantage points with great views of the Masai Plateau.

Sajja Kothi

Sajja Kothi, a single-storey building, dating back to the 11th century, is a great vantage point of the eastern battlements of the fort. The stone arches on the terrace, the open steps without railings, the overhanging roof, all serve as a frame for nice tourist photos.

Tabak Van Udyan en Wagh Darwaza

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

The slopes are densely wooded with these free creatures. And every now and then the city has built public parks around them. The most comprehensive and enchanting of these is the Tobacco Van Udyan. The hill behind the original fort, called Wagh Darwaza, is cut into a series of long steps, from which we radiate paths and forks to continue into the tree cover. Stone benches gleam invitingly from their surroundings in mossy rocky caverns. Strips of bark lie on the ground 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 hugged each other in a manic embrace over two adjacent tombs covered in brocade.

A must-walk, especially if you are with a child. Also includes a handy model of what the kite-shaped fortress would have looked like when it was still intact.

Tararani Palace

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

Sambhaji-tempel, Kalavanti Mahal and Dharam Kothi

Three structures, adjacent, separated by time. The Sambhaji Temple is intriguing for its deity, well revered locally. An expert local tells me that it is Sambhaji II, not Shivaji’s son, as everyone assumes, who is worshiped here. Dharamkothi has a beautiful facade. The 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 be the abode of dancing girls in the time of Ibrahim Adilshah. The local guide guesses that a dance on top of the building was meant to be seen from Sajja Kothi.

Teener Darwaza en 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 property is now the site for a large tourist camp… a veritable Chowpatty of Panhala.

Teen Darwaza (door Ankur P)
Teen Darwaza (door Ankur P)

Caves of Nagzari and Parasher

Nagzari and Parasher caves are not far from each other. Nagzari, an ancient water source of the fort, leads to Parasher Caves, where the famous 18th century Marathi poet Moropant is said to have composed his greatest works. Near the city bus, Adda is a charming, active city library, which holds a manuscript owned by Moropant, with some of his verses, for viewing by visitors.

Vishalgad trek

If it is monsoon, you can join the trek that follows the escape route from Shivaji to Vishalgad. Or do it any other pleasant time of year.

Vishalgad (door Ankur P)
Vishalgad (door Ankur P)

Of the Masai Plateaus

The top of the Masai landform looks like a great zigzag ruler that has moved this way, collecting the seven plateaus in its lap. They are all made of a porous rock locally called ‘khadak’. You can make the 10 km trek to the top of the plateaus. Or rent a local vehicle. The sky expanded on both sides. The black porous surface of the rock is unfriendly to plants and has only a coarse short grass as a companion. Seven tablelands of this rock and grass spread to the valley. As you take a few steps into this void, staring at the texture of the earth at your feet, you might suddenly feel the scattered grazing buffalo and the both of you riding on the rough back of some unknown creature. Look up and you will feel the edges of the platform pull you in. Sit on the dry grass at the edge and gaze endlessly at what spreads before and about you under the open sky… the sun leaves the brown, barren slopes of the next plateau in the chain of seven; a road resembles a frozen stream; the sound of a drum, of cattle and a thin strand of music rises, from different points in the valley. And if you stare at a point where the greens and browns are rich in the evening light, you will see how a patch of dark earth thick has green lines drawn across it by a cherub’s finger while in the other, uneven green points burst from the dark square. Small trees make stubby shapes here and there between the fields, more solemn tall trees gather in groves at the borders. On the other side of the terrace, where the sun has left a cold and dim light, distant trees seem to float on pale green lakes.

TIP : You can 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 hours + 45 minutes by road

By road 10 hours

Route Mumbai-Pune Expressway to Pune; NH4 to Kolhapur; NH204 to Panhal

When to Go Panhala’s climate is a treat. Mid-December there is a wonderful 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 special delights

Tourist offices


Panhala; Phone: 02328-235048

Kolhapur Forest Dept Office

Tel: 0231-2651959

STD-code 02328

Door Hansa Thapiyal

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