There was music in the air, but none for the ears. Perhaps for the sight and all the other senses There was a road that would wind, and a mind that would unwind. Or two mindsPuneet and minewhich were being rapidly freed of all their relentless agonies.
From Jakson Inns, our hospitable lodgings near Phaltan in Maharashtras Satara district, to the Pussegaon wind turbines was a blissful drivea lonely state highway amid bulbous hills with tablelands embellished with pea-sized herds of lamb, and the occasional train track. Savannah-esque grass, and scattered oak and coconut trees. At one point when we traversed a hill, a train whistled and whooshed past, momentarily completing a romantic image.
Pussegaon is unheard of, and so is Phaltan. In fact, the entire district is shrouded in mystery. Underneath its enigmatic blanket lie quaint towns connected by shabby tum-tums or local sharing-taxis and fine highways. But we do not know this terrain. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj of the Marathas, on the other hand, knew it in and out. Which is why his imprint is strongest in this part of his territory. Him, his land and a quaint homely spectacle of a hotel amidst this abundancethat was our Satara.
I had spent three years in Pune, but never really saw the full picture. Maharashtra had meant people and farmers and fertile land and plentiful monsoons. It had meant lush green ghats such as the one surrounding the Mumbai-Pune expressway. At Mahabaleshwar, it rains a staggering 6,000mm a year. But at Latur, to the east, there is a catastrophic drought. Vein-like cracks persist across the land, and groundwater is scanty. Satara, although not as bad, is drought prone and barren.
We all know hospitality means luxuryhotels with extravagant architecture, water-hogging swimming pools, ornamental fountains and wastage of food and beverages in inexcusable proportions every day. Water, water everywhere but not a drop is saved. However, Jakson Inns at Phaltan is distinctive. No, Im not talking about its opulence, which is more than so many other three-star properties (a star should be added for the ambience, comfort and dcor two for the hospitality) Im talking about its green initiatives and social conscience. In drought-trodden Maharashtra, where wastage is unforgiveable, we have a crusader.
First in its class in India with a platinum-rating LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the hotel is environmentally conscious in every aspect. At the front of the building is a line of trees surrounded by patches of grass and, interestingly, cauliflower. Ditesh, part of the hospitality team and our escort-cum-driver who also happens to know how to DJ, sing and has a large female fan-following, told us how no leftover water is discarded, and instead is collected and used to water plants. The roof is spacious and could have been used to create a resplendent bar-setup, but instead is used to generate 74kW of solar energy every day.
The 74 rooms too are absolutely lovelyvibrant, and neat, they are charming in their symmetry. Convenient too, as a sleepy me would just have to press one of the switches on the side table to shut the lights for the entire room. For the corporate traveller, a major client base, the motivating work-life based quotes on the corridor walls are refreshingly entertaining.
Phaltan is not very well developed, and Jakson Inns may just be a little too splendid for it. But thats because the hotel has an admirable proposition at playto develop its surroundings. It wants to nurture this place, and watch the tourism industry automatically grow around it as an end result.
Jakson Inns also has numerous social-initiatives to its name. One in every four staff members is female, many of them locals whose children spend time at Bhawana, the in-house day-care centre. Theres a lone female-traveller room, where the guest can see whoevers outside on a screen located inside. One of the floors caters entirely to the staff, because the hotel believes strongly in caring for its employees. If the staff is happy, the guests will automatically get happy by looking at them, says the GM, Gautam Banerjee.
A bubbly fellow with a penchant for hospitality-industry anecdotes, and the most Maharashtrian Bengali I have ever had the pleasure to meet, Gautam joined us at Green Bean, the sprawling greenery-themed restaurant at the hotel during one of our elaborate meals there (a soup, about two or three delectable starters and at least five food-gasmic main course dishes would be hurled our way for every meal. Oh, and there would be dessert. Puneet and I had to clone our stomachs). It was Friday and a gazal night, and a certain Mr Manohar Sharma, with an admirable evergreen voice, was reprising Jagjit Singhs Tumko dekha to ye khayal aaya, as we dug into some Chicken Malwani.
Now for Puneets favourite subject of photography and my favourite vehicle of weight gainfood. We ate all our meals at Jakson Inns, except for one at a horrible apology for a Punjabi restaurant, and overzealously insisted on as much authentic Maharasthrian food as we could get. Gautam and his chef, the jovial Chinmaya Parichha, were only too happy to oblige. Highlights included the lovely Bharli Wangi (stuffed eggplant, coconut and peanut), the explosively flavoured Kothimber Wadi (A basin and green-coriander snack shaped into little cubes) and the traditional Aalu Wadi (potato layers marinated with gram-flour).
But at the helm of our culinary experience was something a la rusticGautam cooking us mutton in a handi on a wooden chulha. This was the chulhe-vaala mutton, but we gladly proclaimed it the GM special mutton and it was very special indeed. We sat cross-legged on a blanketed charpoy and hogged the dish with the authentic bajrichi bhakri (millet chapatti).
For the spirited such as us, the stay would have been incomplete without cocktails, and we were lucky to sip them at the hotels Fulltoon bar. Maharashtra is abundant in sugarcane, so our sugarcane mojito (rum with sugarcane juice, lemon juice and mint) was apt. Our watermelon beer shandy had the fruits shell as a container, and for chocolate fans such as I, dirty martini (vodka with chocolate and milk) was a guilty pleasure.
Caught in comforts tight embrace, we could have spent each moment of our 72-hour sojourn in the hotel itself. But Satara beckoned. Satara literally means seven forts, of which we visited the two most famous onesSajjangarh and Ajinkyatara. The former is the final resting-place of the 17th-century saint, Sant Ramdas. Shivaji had gifted him the establishment, as a gesture of admiration. Here, Puneet and I discovered our mutual fascination for religiously-charged places and their unearthly energy. Ajinkyatara, on the other hand, made me shed a tear for the breathtaking 360 view of the underlying city of Satara, with lights that could have been stars if they had twinkled. I could shed another for the varied vegetation and the spectacular expanse of the tableland. But I could cry seeing how poorly, if at all, the fort has been preservedwild grass everywhere, and forlorn trees. We know there was once a massive dwelling on the tableland, but now its hollow on the inside, moth-eaten, weed-infested and scattered. Ive heard of diamonds mined and then chiselled into their incandescent form. This is the other way round. Ajinkyatara means the impregnable star, and was impregnable indeed when Shivaji ruled it in the 16th century. Today, it has fallen prey to time.
In the Maratha world, rajas are abundant. And when youre right in the middle of it, nobility is everywhere. At Phaltan, the nearest city to Jakson Inns, we visited the Rajwada or the palace. The city was once the seat of the Nimbalkar rulers of the Phaltan princely state, from where the first wife of Shivaji, Sai bai, hailed. Their palace is off-limits to most. But Gautam has his seamless way around things, and we were able to access the interior and marvel at its charm. A mix of Maratha and British architecture, we saw patterned curtains and velvety sofas and animal head trophies and elaborate chandeliers and exquisite two-poster beds and elaborately-sculptured pillars among numerous other features that I cannot delve on further if I want to stick to this features word limit. Ask Jakson Inns to arrange this one for you.
We also visited another Maratha relic, the museum in Aundh, which is a 70km scenic drive from Phaltan. It is on this drive that we stopped at least eight times, trekked numerous hills and watched the sun cast its shadow on the tired, wrinkled ghats. For us, this drive, to and fro and then once again, to and fro, was an oscillation that could never feel too repetitive.
For any connoisseur with any amount of passion, the museum is a sensory treat. Built by the Raja of Aundh, the late Bhawanrao Pant Pratinidhi, highlights include the gleaming marble European-style sculptures of gods and the trance-like images of Shiva by B.R. Koyalkar, with the god sporting a piercing expression everywhere (I was scared, honestly). The collection includes works of renowned names such as A.H Muller, F. Morelli and Henry Moore.
Jakson Inns had arranged for tea at the Pussegaon wind turbines, 45km from Phaltan. This particularly excited Puneet, who proclaimed with gusto, Ive loved windmills ever since I was a kid For him, the enclosure of the turbines felt, like entering a space station.
We also visited the Thoseghar waterfalls near Satara. Although just a trickle in comparison to its post-monsoons avatar, it was still very beautiful. The water had bared the rocks naked, or so the sheen indicated.
As a part of Jaksons bid to make us experience something extraordinarily close to nature, we were taken to a sprawling farm where sugarcane, tomato, brinjal and many other fruits and vegetables were growing abundantly. We picked our own in a basket, and eventually enjoyed them in a salad. Oh, how fresh.
Freshyes, that is an adjective I would use to sum up the experience. Unjust is another one. Unjustified is the places struggle to find mass tourism. You want creature comforts, theres Jakson Inns. You want history, there are the Marathas. You want religion, there are countless temples. You want drives, there are those along the Sahyadri ghats. You want culture, theres that too.
Theres also a little bit of magic. In the temple inside the Phaltan Rajwadas enclosure, we met a certain Baba affiliated with Baba Gagangiri Maharaj of Kolhapur. He first spoke to Ditesh, and then befriended Puneet followed by Gautam Banerjees young children and, finally, me. Interestingly, he handed out a ten-rupee note to each one of us and proclaimed in a humble tone, Do not spend it. Just keep it and you will be wealthy. Amusing, of course. In the end, we all decided to pose for a selfie which came out as magical as you can imagine. The bespectacled Puneet with his vibrant smile, the Baba with a raised palm showering blessings, the children jumping around boisterously, and Ditesh in an absolutely hilarious pose. I, on the other hand, just smiled casually, taking in the positivity of this place, and saying nothing at all. After all, Im pretty sure Satara had something to do with this.
Phaltan is a 110km drive from Pune and a 258km drive from Mumbai (via Pune). Jakson Inns is not exactly in Phaltan, but about 12km from the city. The closest railway station is in Lonand, 29km away. Koyna Express from Mumbai and Maharashtra Express, which also stops at Pune, stop here. Satara is 70km from the hotel, and 118km from Pune.
Where to stay
Phaltan has very few options, although Jakson Inns at Phaltan will not have you wishing for anything else (deluxe category rooms for 3,000, suites for 8,500 taxes extra www.jaksonhotels.com). They also have a bakery, elaborate halls for meetings, conferences and weddings, a restaurant called Green Bean, a bar called Fulltoon and a spa treatment-centre called Kundalini. If you wish to stay in Satara main city, there are some mid-range options including Hotel Om Executive (from1,040 www.hotelomexecutive.com), Hotel Radhika Palace (from 1,099 www.hotelradhikapalace.net) and Hotel Shreeman (from 800 www.hotelshreeman.com)
Where to eat
Jakson Inns, Jakson Inns, Jakson Inns Here, Chef Parichha can cook anything from Mediterranean to authentic Maharashtrian, and the menu itself is varied and diverse. Get the GM, Gautam, to make you his chulhe vaala mutton if you want something special.
What to see & do
Get the hotel to organise tea (or something stronger) for you at the wind turbines in Pussegaon. Here you can take in the splendid ghats view, complete with towering turbines in the backdrop, while sipping your wine. Spend an entire day at the Aundh Museum. There are so many exhibits here, and they are so well preserved that you might want to spend a while. Visit forts such as Sajjangarh and Ajinkyatara. Ajinkyatara, especially, is spellbinding. Pratapgad Fort is another historically relevant fort to visit. Visit the Rajwada in Phaltan. Royalty at its best is preserved here, and you must ask the hotel to arrange this. Gautam Banerjee knows a lot about this place, so do try to take him along. If you are visiting in August, you will find the Thoseghar waterfalls in their full glory and the Kaas Plateau abundant with flowers. Both these places are not to be missed.