The story begins on the banks of the River Panchaganga. Kolhapur is situated on the banks of this river at the point where an old and beautiful Siva temple stands in a state of magnificent ruination. Ebbing waters, a bridge a little further away and the majestic temple form the backdrop of this story I will tell.
Once upon a time, there lived a demon called Kollasura. He tormented the local people who prayed for deliverance from his evil influence to Mahalakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and protection. Soon the Goddess herself came and conquered him and that’s how this place came to be called Kolhapur. Gratitude to the Goddess gets displayed to this day. People, not just from Kolhapur, but devotees from far and wide come to make their offerings to Mahalakshmi at a temple in her honour located in the heart of old Kolhapur town. Here all activities revolve around the temple, with Tuesdays and Saturdays demarcated as special days during which crowds throng the temple premises, firm in their belief that Mahalakshmi will not only fulfill their desires but also help them attain salvation.
There is indeed a celestial beauty about this region, with its rivers and rivulets flowing unaware of their beauty, ancient monuments carrying their age with elegance, a disciplined population and administration that appears to be effective.
Situated in central India, in the state of Maharashtra, the city of Kolhapur has been the influenced by many traditions and cultures. Apart from its strong Hindu influences, in the 10th century it was a major Jain centre as well. Later, it became one of the territories ruled by the Marathas. In fact, Kolhapur, to this day, bears evidence of its close affiliation with the Great Maratha, Chhatrapati Shivaji, and his descendants. One of Kolhapur’s central squares has a beautiful statue of Rani Tarabai riding a horse. She ruled the region at one point after her husband’s death and led many military onslaughts against the Mughals. Her nephew, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the grandson of Shivaji, is also commemorated in this city. You can see statues of him at traffic roundabouts.
This sense of the past is characteristic of Kolhapur, where old architectural marvels mingle with the less imposing structures of modernity. The Rankala Palace is a good example. It manages to combine Maratha elements with those from the Chalukya and Jain periods. That is the essence of Kolhapur: It has something interesting for everybody. If the pious travel miles to offer their prayers at the Mahalakshmi temple, the compulsive shoppers also come here in the hope of making great bargain buys. It can be accessed from Miraj, which is its nearest railway station, or from Pune, its nearest airport.
So let’s see what the city provides for the shopaholics. First, there are those marvellous leather sandals that are branded by the name of the city: the Kolhapuri chappals. An entire neighbourhood, adjoining the temple, houses shops that only sell this locally made footwear, available in an infinite number of styles. If one likes costume jewellery, once again Kolhapur is the place to be in. Termed Kolhapur saz, one can get loads of jewellery made of silver dipped in gold, at affordable prices. Mangalsutras and artificial pearls are the more common pieces. They are well crafted, too. However, if one prefers gold ornaments, the city has an amazing variety to offer, from jewellery made with one gram of gold to much heavier pieces.
Kolhapur also offers a range of cotton textiles. There are ‘dhotis’ for men and saris for women and the latter come in soft cotton with interesting borders. Contemporary demand has helped to modernise the traditional sari industry, although the saris themselves have retained their original character. The readymade garments available here, however, are yet to acquire an international finish.
For gourmets, there is exciting news. While there is an assortment of vegetarian food on offer, it is for its meat preparations that the city is rightly famous. Finger-licking good, they come spiced with Kolhapuri chillies, which are not just red in colour but extremely hot to the taste. So be careful when you order! Although most restaurants today tamp down the spices, connoisseurs of Kolhapuri food feel the zing has been lost in the process. As for snacks to take back to folks at home, Kolhapur has a special savoury known as Deepak Chivda that is quite popular.
Given its location at the heart of India, Kolhapur offers a delectable combination of the cuisines of south and north. One can get excellent ‘idlis’ and ‘dosas’ just as good as the ‘paranthas’. What came as a great surprise to me was that one can get excellent tea as well as great coffee. As for Jain food, which comes without onions, garlic or potatoes, one can sample it anywhere in the city. There are hotels in Kolhapur for every pocket and they provide reasonably professional service. One of the reasons for the profusion of boarding options is the fact that this mid-sized city also caters to the business circuit with its leather and textile industries as well as it well-established sugar sector.
A holiday to Kohlapur need not be too heavy on budget. Since food and transportation are relatively cheap, it may be a good idea to splurge on the place of stay. Of course, the most luxurious option here is the heritage hotel, Shalini Palace, which was once the home of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj.
Overlooking Rankala Lake, it briefly was a college after it ceased to be the royal residence. From the hotel one can access a walkway that has been built around the lake and it is a favourite haunt for family outings. Called Rankala Chowpathy, there is a boat club from where one can take a ride on the lake. Children can have a great time too, because there is a park for them and lots of games and snack options, including the famous ‘batata vada’, for which this region is well-known. For the history buffs, there is also a museum inside the palace.
After you have done it all, packed your bags and headed for home, Kolhapur lingers in the memory. It seems to suggest, by its very existence, that life is to be lived fully and well.
(Women’s Feature Service)