Saputara: A verdant paradise

One never realized there could be so many hues of green. Drenched in monsoon showers, the Sahyadri Hills in South Gujarat displayed an artist’s delight in its myriad shades of green as we made our way to Saputara, the “abode of serpents”. As the road ran beside one stream after another that tumbled out of the gentle hills, one could just see green as far as the eye could see. The freshly washed trees presented shades of green, stretching high into the hills, while the shrubs and grasses were a harmony of more greens. Even the rocks and the odd house along the way were covered in green moss and lichen.
As the ongoing Monsoon Festival, from 3 August to 1 September, being held in Gujarat’s only hill station, beckoned to us, we realized how unspoilt the region still was. No tourist rush, no litter along the road and no tourist lodges scarring the hill-sides. Located enroute to Nasik and Shirdi from Surat, the hill-station is still being developed. Lodged on a plateau of the Dang forest, Saputara is part of the Sahyadri Mountain Range, at an altitude of about 1,000 metres. We were also to learn that this region is deeply associated with Indian epics and legends from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Recognising its tourism potential, the state government developed the hill station just three years ago. Targeting the local livelihood, the tiny hill-station has seen hotels and adventure sports facilities come up. Describing the place as a “sleepy, undisturbed city”, Principal Secretary, Gujarat Tourism, Vipul Mitra said it was a challenge to develop the infrastructure with minimum disturbance to the fragile environment. Home to six tribal communities, comprising Bhils, Warli, Kukana, Gavit, Kotwadia and Kathodi, the region has a rich cultural heritage, that needs to be preserved.

Thundering falls
Our first stop as we made our way in a steady rain from Surat to Saputara was at the Giradoot falls. A kilometre off the Saputara-Waghai Road, we entered a vast clearing ringed by tea stalls that doubled up as souvenir shops. Thinking it to be a routine tea stop, we were met by the sound of rushing water. As we trudged towards a rocky pathway we certainly were not prepared for the sight of the massive waterfall that beheld us. Almost horse-shoe shaped and fed by the monsoon waters, the picturesque falls emerged from the Kapri tributary to cascade into the Ambica River. We were to learn as we continued our climb towards Saputara that the rains transform the hills into a veritable sieve as water tumbles down rocky faces to join into bubbling streams as they make their way down.

Quaint town

In a bid to develop Saputara into a tourist place, an existing lake was developed complete with walkways and lake-side facilities, including boating and restaurants. Plans are afoot, informed Vipul
Mitra, to develop another lake, which would be three times the size of the present lake.
“Five years back, no one knew of Saputara,” pointed out Gujarat’s Minister of Tourism, Saurabh Bhai Patel. “There is so much beauty in Saputara that can’t be found in any foreign country.” Thanks to a team effort ~ various government departments, private parties and the local people ~ Saputara today attracts around three lakh tourists in a season. Stating that benefit to local people were kept in mind, Patel said employment through tourism should be increased. With tourists of different capacity visiting the place, he said facilities were being developed to meet all their needs, from high-end to low budget. Several activities, including adventure sports and nature walks have
been included to attract different groups of people.

Land of epics
For those with a religious bent, Satpura offers a bouquet of pilgrimage points. It was here that Lord Rama met Shabri, the old tribal woman who fed him ber, or berries, after biting them to see they were sweet enough. Shabri Dham and Pampa Sarovar commemorate this bit of the epic. This is also said to be the birth place of Hanuman, the monkey god. Anjani Kund, shaped like a prostrate woman with a pool at one end marks this holy spot, where only a small temple exists. With no rush of pilgrims and no priest, the soothing ambience of the pristine valley evokes a sense of peace. Pandav Gufa, Unai Temple and Sitavan are the other religious spots listed here.

Living pharmacy
The Saputara region is veritable delight for the Ayurvedic pharmacist as over 100 herbs have been identified. While these herbs are sourced by the Dang Ayurvedic Pharmacy, local “doctors” known as Bhagats are a repository of knowledge. Rohidas Mangu Bhoye, who has studied till Class VIII, has been practising for the past 16 years. Holding secrets handed down by his father, he showed us a list of his patients, most of whom had come from Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Zero pollution and herbs growing in the wild are said to be the secret behind the efficacy of the medicinal herbs found in the hills here. The state government has been encouraging the marketing of these herbs while promoting the Bhagats by giving them space to practise while regulating them.

To encourage local handicrafts and produce, the forest department has come up with a system of self-help groups. While the traditional crop farmed here is Nagli, a variant of Ragi, or finger millet, the local farmers now grow rice and maize. The forest department had also teamed up with Reliance and to set up Mart, to market the local produce.

Gala festival
As the inaugural day opened to gentle sunshine, the town prepared to begin a month-long celebration. School children trooped down to the town centre. As people waited for the inaugural function to begin, local dance troops began impromptu shows. The fast-paced and acrobatic
Dangi dance was clearly the winner as drum beats set the dancers swinging. Human mountains were quickly formed as the dancers kept rhythm. Masked dancers portraying the various characters from the Ramayana kept the crowds enthralled. The opening ceremony over, the dancers commenced on a parade to the auditorium, where cultural programmes were organized every day right through the month-long festival.

Trails into hills
As we moved away from the cultural frenzy and randomly picked our way across the nearby hill, we spotted a church in the distance. As we wound our way across hillocks and eventually reached the church that was attached to a school, a fine rain added to the magic of the place set against mist-laden hills. We stepped into the small octagonal church and were enclosed in its serenity that added to tribal-style paintings from the life of Jesus Christ along the top of the walls.
As we walked away it was a sense of mingling with nature that dominated our senses. The unspoilt, little trudged pathways led from one picturesque view to another. The shutterbugs among us could not get enough as we tramped through the verdant hills. The hill station does not require any local transport and is best covered on foot.

Adventure sports
For those seeking adventure there are treks organized to nearby villages, the Hatgadh Fort and the legendary Pandav Caves. A ropeway, comprising a ten-minute ride straddling the valley to the Sunset
Point, offers breathtaking views. A somewhat adventurous climb of around 1.5 km would lead one to the Valley View Point, which offers a bird’s eye view of the valley. Besides, there are several walking
tracks and camping sites that have been organized. As we made our way away from the verdant hills, we could only reminisce while hoping that the march of tourism development does not
overrun this dot of a paradise.

Artists Village
Walking through the tribal museum, which housed the art and craft of the six local tribes, we were directed to a private set up, Gandharvapur or Artists Village. We entered the well-laid out “village” to meet its founder, Surya Goswami, a sculptor who was so taken by the beauty of the place that he chose to stay on. Armed with a Masters degree in Fine Arts from the Maharaja Gaekwad University in Baroda, Goswami took up this place in 1983 on a 99 year lease. Goswami teamed up with his partner, Chandu Parmar, an artist, as well as an architect friend to encourage local tribal artists. Organising workshops and camps for the tribals and children, the duo is documenting local painting techniques and crafts. Huge tribal masks in the studio and walls lined with tribal paintings mark the passion of the place. Asked about the funding, Goswami informed that the tribal artists were not charged anything and that the place was funded from the sale of his and Parmar’s works.


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