The Old Jungle And The Sea

Coco Shambhala, a boutique hotel in southern Maharashtra, lies amidst the rugged Sahyadris and the silver Arabian Sea
The gorgeous infinity pool at Coco Shambhala
The gorgeous infinity pool at Coco Shambhala

When I entered the apartment-styled villa at Coco Shambhala, T.S. Eliot's words, "We cannot think of a time that is oceanless," came rushing at me. I started my journey to Shambhala on an especially rainy morning after landing at the newly-built North Goa airport. A few kilometres from the Maharashtra-Goa border, the way to Shambhala comprises undulating one-way roads with hapus (Alphonso) and cashew fields closing in. The dense jungles of Sindhudurg district, which share a border with Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary, would remind you of Congolian rainforests. And if you feel the grass is greener in Sindhudurg, it surely extends beyond the rhetoric.

In Eden

A few metres away from the property, the ocean interrupts—what feels like a jungle safari—and sneaks up on you. Next to the sea, Coco Shambhala sits on the rust-coloured rocky outcrops overseeing the Bhogave beach.

While some hotels aim towards building a pocket of paradise, Shambhala acknowledges the paradise around it. Inside, you won't find manicured lawns, but the continuation of the jungle that may look all-natural, but is painstakingly maintained by the staff. "Privacy is everything," said Suhas Malewadkar, F&B manager of Shambhala, explaining the thought behind the canopy-like garden. "We get a lot of A-list celebrity guests and ensure that they receive their much-needed time off from the limelight," Malewadkar added.

Amidst the lush foliage and echoes of songbirds, I sauntered along the Jamba (laterite) walkway that led me to the highest villa on the property. Designed by Giles Knapton, a UK-based architect who also happens to be the owner of the property, the villas are meant for those who relish a slow contemplation of the sea. The moment you enter your villa, the panoramic ocean view blindsides you with sudden euphoria. Designed like a Bali-style tropical beach house, the open drawing area has horizontal louvred panels carved from coconut wood with a life span of over 70 years. Other woodwork, including a curious Lovecraftian coat rack made of mangrove wood, is sourced from recycled driftwood.

"These tropical modern structures are housed under the local vernacular of a four-way, pitched, Mangalore tiled roof, so that from a distance, the structures blend with the surrounding village and do not look out of place," Knapton explains his architectural vision in one of his interviews. In summer, the protective glass frames in the living space are taken off. Without the usual glass walls, one can effortlessly slip into the private infinity pool after an afternoon siesta.

(from left to right): The open living space at the topmost villa; luxe decor by the infinity pool; ingredients for meals are sourced from within a 50 km radius
(from left to right): The open living space at the topmost villa; luxe decor by the infinity pool; ingredients for meals are sourced from within a 50 km radius

If the surrounding tropical beauty makes you want to pick up a paintbrush, Shambhala also organises a Chitrakathe art class taught by Parashuram Gangawane, a Pinguli artist from a pioneer family whose father won a Padma Shree for reviving their ancestral art form.

The Taste of Malvan

In his book, "Following Fish," author Samanth Subramanian stops by several shanties of Mumbai to taste two of the most authentic cuisines in Maharashtra—Gomantak and Malvani cuisine—which ironically became native to the region only after migrants from further south moved upwards. While Gomantak is common in Goa, Malvani sticks closer to the Malvan and Sindhudurg coasts.

At Shambhala, Malvani cuisine is served with precision and authenticity. From Malvani dosa to sol kadhi, each item reflects attention to detail. At dinner, Malewadkar told me how my smoked fillet (a snapper) was fresh out of the ocean and sold at the door only a few hours ago. Taking a bite, I again thought of Eliot and his salutation to "fishermen sailing into the wind's tail..."

Ilheos Queimados

Most people zip past the area after visiting the Sindhudurg fort—arguably one of the largest sea forts in the world. But when Knapton first came in 2005 as a backpack traveller, he decided on his own odyssey. As a result, a few experiences offered at Shambhala, such as the Walawal River boating, Waterfall trek and the Pat Lake birdwatching are derived from Knapton's first-hand experiences.

If you enjoy scuba diving, Sindhudurg has some of the best diving spots in the region. Fisherman's Cove, Fansaa Point and Temple Rock are popular snorkelling hubs located near the Vengurla archipelago—about 20 odd jagged islets. In the 15th century, when the western coast saw many Portuguese visitors, these islets were known as Ilheos Queimados or the "burnt islets"— some say due to their golden hue.

From the top-most villa, if you peer towards the left, you should be able to spot these sea-drenched rocks, including the one that houses the New Lighthouse (Vengurla Lighthouse), erected by a British officer named John Oswald in 1931. During stormy seas, the tides leap to over 70 feet, and waters become infested with tiger sharks and silver barracudas. The lonely lighthouse, with many haunting legends, will remind you of the sublime seascapes of Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse."

But far from tempestuous tides, Shambhala sits with a tranquil bird's eye view to the sea. It proves to be the "utopian existence" envisioned by Knapton, who named the property after a mythical Sambhala mentioned in Tibetan Buddhism and the Vishnu Purana.

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