Mention to an Indian that you are going to see the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort of Delhi and their eyes will probably glaze over. Say that you are going to tour the forts of Shivaji and their faces will almost certainly light up. "I can see you are a true friend of our country," was one response I received, along with a bear hug.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (1630-80) was, and is, the great Hindu hero of India. He was the Maratha king who fought and beat the Mughals and the Muslim rulers of the Deccan, and overawed the British, Dutch and other European trading companies of the time. In the process, he created an empire of his own that stretched from the Central Indian plains to the western coast.
And his forts are magnificent. By the time of his death, he controlled well over 300 of them, many of them built or rebuilt by his followers. They dot the coastline between Mumbai and Goa and the high hills of the Western Ghats, whence he came.
It would take several years of travel to see them all, tempting though the prospect might be. However, several are within the compass of a day trip from Pune, Maharashtra's fast-expanding and sprawling technology hub. Or you can approach from the hill resort of Mahabaleshwar, which was founded by the East India Company as a health centre (and to encourage the families of company employees to come and stay in a cooler climate). With extensive vistas of its own, Mahabaleshwar is a town of resort hotels, patronised by Maharashtrian families enjoying holidays from the heat and rush of the cities.
Greatest of all the forts is Raigad. This was where Shivaji had himself crowned in 1674 with full Hindu rites, in a ceremony attended by representatives of the European trading powers as well as rulers and nobility from half of India. The local boy had made good and was determined to show it, and to show that Muslim might, which dominated all but the extreme south of India, hadn't got it all. (Three months later, he had to have a second coronation to satisfy the Tantric sect of Brahmins he had ignored first time round.)
Poised like a great beast on the Sahyadri range high above the broadening valleys below, Raigad fort is sufficiently visited by Indians to have warranted the installation of a cable car. Rather unnervingly called a "rope car", it takes you the 300 metres from the base of the hill up to the castle. Even more unnervingly, the noticeboard informs you that, if you fail to make it back the same way, the cost of your return ticket will be reimbursed to the address you have left behind. All of which might not be a huge comfort if you're lying splattered on the valley below.
For those with steady nerves (I kept my eyes shut most of the way), you sway up in a colliery-style car staring down across the valleys, until it suddenly stops before being winched over the lip of the cliffside. Alternatively, you can clamber the path the full way up to the massive gates of the walls.
Like all of Shivaji's forts, indeed like virtually every fort in India, the gates are there to overawe and overwhelm the attacker, two huge bastions forcing the enemy soldiery into a confined "killing space". Should they have succeeded in forcing the first gates they were then forced to make a sharp right-angled turn to the second set of gates, too tight to be able to use elephants to push down the doors.
But this was also a capital and a royal palace, where Shivaji housed his half-dozen wives and held court. The palace part is entered through a massive gatehouse designed to denote His Majesty; beyond lies the courtyard where Shivaji was crowned. You can also visit the shrine where his ashes are kept. It is rather touchingly accompanied by a memorial to his faithful dog, who, it is said, threw himself into the fire at his master's cremation.
Rather harder to reach, but just as impressive in its position and silhouette, is Rajgarh. Some 30 miles and a couple of hours from Pune, this is where Shivaji spent much of his time before making Raigad his capital. Rising in terraces above a tranquil valley of rice and sugar beet, it is a good two-hour climb to the fort, with the paths often difficult to find, but it is therefore all the more atmospheric and deserted when you get there. Its keep is like a bird's head rearing from the wings stretched below.
Two other great castles in the region are Pratapgarh and Purandhar. Purandhar, around 25 miles from Pune, looms above the sad ruins of a British barracks on its hillside and follows the spine of a high ridge of perilous narrowness. In one direction from the formidable gate is a temple perched (too precariously for me) on the outer peak. The other path takes you to a high point that was captured by the forces of Emperor Aurangzeb after a bitterly fought siege of several months in 1665. The surrender of the garrison impelled Shivaji to accept (though only temporarily) feudal obeisance to the Mughals. He made a visit to the imperial court that ended in disguise, feigned illness and escape.
Pratapgarh, only 12 miles from Mahabaleshwar, was a fort built by Shivaji himself, and the scene of one of the most famous and decisive encounters of his determined ascent to power. Faced by a superior invading force from Bijapur, he enticed the Muslim general Afzal Khan to a face-to-face peace parlay in the plain below. There the Maratha lord disembowelled his would-be conqueror (fairly or unfairly depends on your view of the man) with steel "tiger's claws" hidden in his clothing.
Pratapgarh castle is what the Indians call a "forest" (as opposed to "ground", "hill" or "water") fort, surrounded by dense jungle and rearing up above you like a clenched hand. Shivaji, who had a fine eye for topography and fortification, built a fastness of high walls and big circular bastions that clutch the top of the hill and extend out to a high tower on a razor-edged ridge.
All along there are water tanks and granaries to sustain a siege of many months. Where the cliffs were most vertical is where they tossed the bound figures of convicted criminals and enemies; where they were relatively weak, he placed huge round towers and doubled walls to resist artillery. Down below, the Muslim Nizam of Hyderabad rebuilt in munificent style the tomb of Afzal Khan in 1895; up above, in the fort, the Hindu prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru unveiled a mounted statue of Shivaji as a gesture of pride in the country's struggles against foreign occupation a decade after independence.
Shivaji's forts weren't just there for show. Like Afghan warlords, the Marathas were able to use them to store their treasure and find refuge after their frequent raids on the territories of their enemies, and on occasion their formal allies. Aurangzeb spent the best part of 30 years trying to crush the light-footed, rapid-action mountain people of Shivaji's army. In the process, he ruined his health and expended his treasury – fruitlessly, as it turned out, for the Marathas continued to expand their holdings for a full century after Shivaji's death. Finally, the East India Company, after three bloody wars (1775-82, 1803-05 and 1817-1818), took the forts by bribery and by hauling up their artillery to the tops of the surrounding ridges. It brought an end to the independent Maratha empire.
Hard men, hard history. But even without the narrative, and its hero, these edifices remain magnificent in their isolation. They are planted in some of the most breathtaking scenery in India, amid still-unhacked forests and hills, the views both terrifying and tremendous. In a week of exploration, we never met another foreigner. But there were plenty of Indian families enjoying their land and their hero, and all made us welcome as fellow devotees.
The only European airline with links to Pune is Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com), which flies from Frankfurt. With connections from Heathrow, the lowest fare is £800 return.
You can fly from a range of UK airports to Dubai with Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) or other airlines, and connect there to Air India Express ( airindiaexpress.in). Alternatively, you can fly to Mumbai on one of a range of carriers, and travel on by train to Pune. The journey takes around four hours and trains are frequent.
Both Pune and Mahabaleshwar have a good range of hotels. Pune has all grades of accommodation.
The writer stayed at the new Westin Pune Koregaon Park hotel (00 91 20 6721 0000; starwoodhotels.com). Doubles start at Rs9,350 (£131), including breakfast.
At Mahabaleshwar, warm hospitality, a family atmosphere and excellent food are offered at the Brightland Resort (00 91 21 6826 0700; brightlandholiday.com). Doubles start at Rs7,000 (£99), including breakfast.
To see the forts it is advisable to hire a car and a driver, since public transport is limited and many of the forts are some way from local habitation.
The writer's trip was organised by Greaves Travel, the Indian specialists, which arranged hotels and transport (020 7487 9111; greavesindia.com).
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