|Photo by Abhay Singh Palaha|
It was a cool Saturday in the month of February, 2010 when I first visited the impressive fort of Lohagad. The tranquil base village of Bhaje with its caves and the friendly locals, were welcoming. I was so impressed by it, that I made a trip with different folks another six times, during the same year. In the winters, it wore a brown coat of dried grass and a strong wind blew all over the massive plateau. In the monsoons, it was as close to heaven as one can get. The peak was almost never visible from the base - Bhaje Gaon, always shrouded in mist it seemed so inviting each time I landed up at Bhaje. I made a trip again in 2011 and was slightly perturbed at the number of people who had started visiting the fort and the caves at the base.
These weren't the usual band of trekkers that you encounter at popular trekking destinations such as Kothaligad, Rajmachi or even Kalsubai, these were tourists that you want to avoid at all places, especially on a trek. Playing loud music on their phones, shouting, hollering they moved about throwing plastic all around. The scene at the base where ancient Buddhist caves dating back to 100 century BC stand was even worse. In the small waterfalls that formed there, drunk men in their underwear danced about to Hindi songs, causing a major nuisance as one walked towards the parking lot.
2012, we never went to Lohagad but decided to explore Visapur in July. The rains had evaded us then, so no waterfalls, no drunkards and therefore we had a relaxed hike, a pleasant day. No complaints. Cut to the present, 7th July 2013, our bus pulled into Bhaje at around 9 am. Within a few minutes, there were hordes of people walking in from Malavali towards Bhaje. Dodging them and honking their way through were buses(of varying capacities) tempo travellers, SUVs and private vehicles! There were more eating joints than before and it seemed like every villager wanted to cash in on this trekking extravaganza! The public toilets (functional earlier) were locked, and instead locals offered their home toilets to trekkers who were left with no choice but to use them.
A small crowd had already gathered at the waterfall(that forms near the caves) where locals washed their utensils. We began our hike to Visapur and were largely left alone at the peak as very few of the trekkers/tourists came this way, they all went on to the almost-motorable track leading to Lohagad. We heaved a sigh of relief and had a good time on the peak. While descending, a roar filled our ears as we inched closer to the village. The source was the mass gathering of tourists in underwear at the same waterfall.
Loud music blared out of cars, incessant honking punctuated the music and men shrieked ridiculously. As we made our way to the bus, the scene deteriorated even further. I came across two groups of men, mostly in their (you guessed it) underwear or shorts passing lewd comments at the women walking by, at the same time gulping down booze. There were vehicles parked everywhere and were causing a major traffic jam. This would've been normal if this was a waterfall on the highway, except that this wasn't. It was a trekking spot, a sacred spot for us nature and history lovers. And it was being defaced.
The locals didn't seem bothered by this, for, this rowdy bunch of tourists bring in the most business. Most trekkers carry their own food, and maybe at the most have chai-nashta at the local dhabas ; versus the drunk-party wallahs who order Chicken and full course meals and are ready to shell out money. The economic dividends are sure paying off, as most dhabas near the parking lot have transformed themselves but as far as the social image of this erstwhile seat of Buddhism is concerned - it has degraded to a seriously low level.
There is absolutely no police presence, and the local administration of the village seems to have turned a blind eye to the decline of their own heritage. Littering is rampant and is not fined, unsustainable practices abound and this beautiful village is slowly turning into a suburban township with all its filth and greed. If one is to dwell on the history of this region, then one will know how coveted the Maval area really was. And how diligent soldiers laid down their lives to protect it from the enemy. The locals who live here are descendants of the great Mavalas - the foot soldiers of the Maratha empire, whose tales of bravery fill every Indian with pride. And yet, we are a witness to this.
But all hasn't been lost. There is a lot that can be done at this moment to restore some sanctity and sanity to Bhaje. The locals need to take matters into their own hand, if they can organise and direct traffic (and charge for it) then they sure can enforce strict rules. Rules regarding littering, making nuisance and most of all against drinking in public could be made and enforced by a dedicated band of youth/men from Bhaje. The group could establish themselves more formally and work towards providing a more meaningful experience by providing
- well trained guides who are well versed with the history, architecture and anecdotes of the region
- basic amenities such as toilets, changing rooms for a small fee
- Dustbins at key points
- Message boards discouraging people from playing music, consuming alcohol
- Informative boards of the locally available flora and fauna
Lastly, things can only change if the tourists visiting Bhaje take a conscious effort to preserve the sanctity of the beautiful surroundings. Trek organisers can play a major role here since Lohagad is touted to be the "Most favoured Beginners Trek", it could serve as an important platform to orient the new adventurers to the commandments of exploring the outdoors. By stressing on sustainable practices such as
- Leaving nothing behind
- Not defacing monuments
- Respecting local tradition and culture
- Not disturbing the local flora, fauna or even the locals of the region
- Enjoying the beauty of the region but without exploiting it