One cool autumn weekend, I decided I wanted to revisit the one real slice of wilderness on the borders of Mumbai’s concrete jungles – Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), known commonly as Borivali National Park. One doesn’t expect much from a forest reserve that lies adjacent to the country’s highly industrialised commercial capital but SGNP broke through my reservations with its large expanses of untouched nature, a stunning tiger sighting and the marvellously hewn Kanheri Caves.
It wasn’t my first visit here. Like every native of Mumbai, I had been here at least twice in my childhood but my memories were vague, overlapping at points with Jijamata Udyan a.k.a. Byculla Zoo, situated in South Mumbai. So, the only place that evoked concrete remembrances was the Kanheri Cave complex. And even then, it came as a surprise that there were 109 different caves in the mountainside, awaiting our awed exploration.
SGNP is best explored on foot or on bicycles, if you have the stamina for it. But families tend to drive down. So did we.
Narrow paths enveloped in silence and woods on either side greeted us as we drove by. Now and then, the muted shadows of the morning sunshine were invaded by a bunch of monkeys or goats, foraging for food and adventure. It was hard to believe that we were merely half an hour away from the sounds and odours of the city. And the deeper we ventured, the more natural it felt, to be a part of this jungle in my backyard.
We parked more than a kilometre away from the caves to allow ourselves the opportunity to walk through the forest. Picturesque detours tempted me to stray from our route and I decided to return another time and do just that. But on that day, we walked straight ahead to Kanheri Caves, the morning coolness and the rustling leaves keeping us happy company.
Kanheri, derived from ‘Krishnagiri’ or ‘black mountain’, was once a prominent Buddhist settlement and the caves were originally viharas, serving as the living, studying and meditating quarters of the Buddhists. Many of the caves are lined with Buddhist inscriptions, lofty statues with intricately carved features and paintings that remain unfinished in some caves. According to the government website, Kanheri has the largest number of rock-cut cave monuments in a single hill.
When we ran our hands along the walls of the first cluster of caves, I was reminded of Elephanta Caves, a ferry ride away from Gateway of India. But as we proceeded along rocky uphill climbs and treacherous stairways in the mountainside to feast our eyes upon soft brown chaityas and water cisterns, any signs of resemblance slipped away. In any case, the caves on Elephanta Island are Hinduism-inspired, with several paying homage to Lord Shiva. It’s amazing how every religion, community and dynasty has broken down a different frontier of art to create something of otherworldly, magnificent proportions.
It’s both humbling and immensely uplifting to witness first hand, the marvels that can be found at the confluence of nature, intelligence and creativity.
It was exhausting after a point to try and acquaint ourselves with every one of those 109 caves; so we skipped a few here and there. But my favourite clusters of caves were the ones beyond immediate reach, flanked by wilderness, fewer crowds and steep short-cuts in case you had little time to spare. I enjoyed peering at the sunlight streaming in through little holes in the walls and the way my voice ricocheted off the shadowy interiors of these bastions of time.
Once we’d had our fill of the caves, we decided to go on a tiger safari. These fifteen-minute joyrides in packed buses are notorious for their fleeting and fruitless nature but on that particular morning, we got really lucky. Our first sighting was nothing to write home about – it was a sleepy tiger locked inside a cage, probably a fixture in every safari conducted at SGNP. But a little way ahead, the bus suddenly came to a stop and a hushed silence fell over the group as the guide urged us to be quiet.
And then, everyone scrambled to reach the front of the bus because right outside was a large, healthy male tiger, sitting in the middle of the road and watching us curiously.
People jostled each other and hands reached for phones and cameras in a frenzy to capture that regal sight but I remained rooted to my spot, riveted by the sight of the animal that had eluded me on countless safaris through the forests of Madhya Pradesh.
Fortunately, my companion had fulfilled the mandatory task of photographing the tiger. Presently, the majestic animal rose and took a leisurely walk around the bus. In a comical sweep of movement, the crowd rushed back to the rear of the bus. With a final wondering pause, the tiger turned his back on us and walked away into the forest. The cheer in the bus was palpable as we returned and in sheer contrast to the bored faces of the unfortunate souls who had alit before us. As my friend said, you don’t have to ask to find out whether a person saw a tiger or not. It shows in the exhilaration in their eyes and the bounce in their step.
Lake and boating
Next, we proceeded to the lake and boating area, a favourite with families and children. But en route, we chanced upon a serene pond with a great bough arching across its olive expanse. And we had to sit by its banks.
An idyllic pink bridge had been constructed across the far end, making for a picture postcard sight.
There is also a garden adjacent to the boating area, where the statue of a tiger stands atop the garden name carved out of foliage, offeing some solace to those who didn’t see the real thing.
It was lunch time by then and we decided to head back to the concrete jungle we called home. If you plan a trip here, come as early as you can and be prepared to fork out a hefty fee for bringing vehicles inside. Other attractions include a toy train that passes over the deer park, a Jain temple and various walking trails. Also enquire about camping facilities if you fancy spending the night in the park.
To reach Sanjay Gandhi National Park, walk down from Borivali railway station or take a rickshaw. You can also drive down from Western Express Highway. The park opens at 7:30 am and shuts at 5:30 pm.
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