The black sand was soft and gooey under my floaters. I debated walking barefoot but decided against that. There was utter chaos in front of me, or what seemed like chaos but was in fact a highly organized, well-oiled machine, otherwise known as the Harnai fish auction.
Far out in the sea were the large trawlers with fading colours and exposed wooden slats. They stood almost like a naval fleet, the first line of defence as they offloaded their cargo into smaller row boats who brought it to the next line, men standing atop bullock carts, as if they were gladiators riding magnificent wooden chariots. As soon as the boats arrived the men would jump down fill their carts and race back onto the beach to the last line of defence, white mini tempo trucks, and load the crates of fish into the gaping backs. In-between the two lines lay all the action, the noise, sweat and fists, as large groups of people huddled around even more crates and baskets of fish and other sea creatures that changed hands quickly. The auction was for the seasoned and the experienced and has no room for the novice.
I stood back taking it all in as Hoshner immersed himself into the madness and was soon lost amongst a swirl of numbers and people. Big deals were made quickly, between men and women who spoke little and had their helpers carry crates and baskets away from the auction. On one side women were selling retail, and offered me a basket of medium sized prawns for a few hundred rupees. I almost said yes, that basket must have had at least a hundred prawns, a steal really! There were hammerheads, large surmai, black pomfret, eels, red snapper, octopi, crabs, lobsters and lots of others we couldn’t identify. I wondered if there was anything left in the sea at all!
While most were bought for cities far and wide, the auction also sells the fish locally to the few resorts and hotels around, of which ours was one. With low green hills in the background and the sea stretching for miles at the other end, the entire experience was a bit surreal. The oddest part was that whole place, filled with people, gooey black sand and thousands of fish, didn’t smell at all. At 5pm it was cool with a light evening breeze and the soft glow of the setting sun had given the village a warm feeling.
After an hour at the market asking the names and rates of all the fish and generally getting in the way, we walked over the makeshift jetty that served as a decamp point for the boat to Suvarnadurgh, one of the many sea forts that dot the Maharashtra coastline. The 17th century fort had been built by Adil Shahi of the Bijapur dynasty and later captured by the Maratha Navy and used as a defensive structure. But it was late and with no other potential passengers in sight the grumpy boatman who doubled as the ticket collector wanted to rent us the entire boat for Rs 2000. We politely refused and promised to come back the next day. It was time for some chai at our wonderful villa which, perched on a low hill, afforded sweeping views of the coastline and village.
Saffronstays Villa 270° sits right above the village of Harnai, a half hour drive from Dapoli, and as the name suggest affords a 270 degree view. There are five cottages built on levels and each has a cosy little sit out that lets you quietly watch the world with the large Suvarnadurg fort on one end and Anjarle beach on the other. We’d been to the beach the previous evening, hidden in plain sight. Driving through narrow village alleys we suddenly reached the end of the road that led to a wide expanse of soft golden brown sand with nothing but the blue sea in front and palm trees that hid one from the little civilization that existed.
The beach was incredibly beautiful, untouched and pristine, with only a couple of other people out for an evening stroll. Only a few hours south of Mumbai it was a bit hard to believe that this wonder existed with clear skies. Anjarle, along with a few other beaches on that stretch is also famous for the turtle nesting and hatching, which usually occurs end of February or early March. A protected site, as denoted by an official looking government board, the turtle nesting was under the preservation and care of the local village councils and environmental NGOs.
We spent that evening reading on our balcony and listening to the sounds of the ocean. There was a local wedding in the village and the quiet night air was soon punctured by sounds of Bollywood and some local folk songs, and while we would have been happier without the intrusion, it couldn’t distract from the beauty of our surroundings.
The next morning however the music, which had gone on all night, seemed to reach a feverous pitch and crescendo, and we decided to escape and explore the 3rd century caves the caretaker told us about. In those quiet unencumbered surroundings, sound travelled far. We’d come across references to these caves earlier and were curious about them, a mix of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu caves. While we’d seen Buddhist caves in other parts of Maharashtra, Hindu caves are not that common, especially with detailed carvings and statues. The road to Panhalekaji, which is marked on the map and has a few sign boards along the way to help you, isn’t too bad, though the last stretch is quite rocky but the little blue brio made it.
Situated along the edge of the River Kotjai, the 29 rock cut caves are easy to miss except for a small board and a couple of men hanging about who turned out to be caretakers and guides. The tourism department in Maharashtra, while great in certain parts of the state, really needs to up its game in other areas, with proper information, signs and tourist friendly infrastructure. At first it seemed like there was only a couple of caves and with very little information to go one we weren’t quite sure what to expect. But as you walk along the river you begin to see more of them, each one quite fascinating and unique.
Dating back to the 3rd century the oldest of the caves are Buddhist, with similar architecture to what we’d seen in Ajanta and Bhaja, though much more primitive in nature. The later caves, which are about a thousand years old are Hindu with carvings of Saraswati, Ganesh and other gods as well as stories from the epics. These were easier to decipher and we had an interesting time trying to figure out many of the panels and carvings. There was one cave which had a temple inside with intricately carved walls, arches and ceiling and it’s easy to marvel at the craftsmanship from centuries ago.
It took us a couple of hours to see all the caves. Despite the day time heat, the area was cool with the river flowing and the trees and foliage providing a think canopy. Each cave was distinctly different and while the guide there gave us some information it would be nice to know more. We haven’t found too much on the internet and it’s hard to know what might be correct and what isn’t, though the guide did tell us that the ASI is doing their research and one should hopefully know more soon. The caves were discovered in the early 70’s and have been under the ASI since then. In a state that has some amazing other ancient caves, apart from the more famed Ajanta and Ellora, this one is rather under explored and peaceful, which also then makes for a quiet viewing experience.
We headed back to our villa hoping the wedding celebrations would have abated, but we were not so lucky, though the volume had reduced a bit. We spent our last evening at this sublime location reading and simply taking in the sunset, with clean clear air and miles of open sky that curved down delicately to meet the blue waters; and as everything else faded into the background, one couldn’t help but gaze into the vast blue yonder. The next day we were going to head further south to explore more of coastal Maharashtra, but for that evening there was only us and the commanding presence in front.
Some Useful Information:
Where: Anjarle and Harnai are neighbouring seaside villages about 240 Km south of Mumbai, and about 200 kms from Puna. The region however is better known by the name of the major town in the area, Dapoli.
How to get there: Harnai is about 16 kms from the main town of Dapoli and main rail head for Dapoli is Khed. However the best way to do this journey is probably as a road trip, as there are a number of beautiful beaches in the surrounding areas to explore. The drive to Dapoli is about 6 hours, making it an ideal long weekend break from Mumbai or Pune
Where to Stay: There are a few stay options in the area but our pick is the stunning Saffronstays Villa 270° in Harnai, located right on the top of the hill, overlooking Harnai village below, Anjarle beach to the right and the Suvarnadurg fort to the left. Unbeatable views.