This is, really, a most unusual destination. Its setting is dramatic. Our road arrowed through a barren, seemingly blasted, plateau of crusty, black, laterite: a cold and unwelcoming place. Further along the coast, however, this rugged terrain produces the famed Alfonso mangoes whose golden flesh is a gourmet's delight. Then, unexpectedly, we were out of this bleak landscape. The road soared over a crest and, suddenly, the sun illuminated a beautiful, wide-screen, water-colour of green and gold and blue. It was quite startling. The wooded escarpment tumbled down to the Konkan coast, spread into a broad and palm fringed beach, ended in an estuary where an olive-green river flowed slowly into the winking, twinkling, blue of the Arabian Sea. All across the verdant coastal plain, peeping through the masses of mango and palm trees, were the cheerful, red-roofed, cottages of the resort of Ganapatipule.
We snaked down from the plateau to the coast, past restaurants, shops, new lodging houses, parked cars and knots of tourists, into the red-laterite roads of the resort. India's great middle-class has discovered Ganapatipule. Most of them trod, hesitantly, into the sea and screamed with delight when the surf drenched them; a few swam, or pretended to swim with their feet planted firmly in the sand underneath. Then, after bathing and changing, they dined on the delicacies of Maharashtrian fare and fresh seafood.
In most of the other religious spots we have visited vegetarianism is the rule. In fact, in a Himalayan temple town which we featured in one of our TV episodes, people were shocked to find chicken bones in a garbage heap. It might have caused a major upset at the height of the pilgrim season but adroit priests and the local administration managed to convince the irate devotees that the flocks of crows were probably responsible! No such inventions are necessary here.
Mahrashtrian vegetarian food is lightly spiced and sits effortlessly on the stomach. Even their chillies have a bite only slightly more assertive than their diced and fried onions. These lent piquancy to the poha: puffed rice tossed with green dhania. Then there was that memorable Maharashtrian dessert, sreekhand, made of sweet, concentrated, yoghurt. The seafood, however, was heavily spiced and was probably influenced by the cuisine of the lively fisher-folk. The wide world over, few fishing families are vegetarian and their tastes have, clearly, prevailed in Ganapatipule.
Clearly, too, none of the non-vegetarian diners seem to consider it wrong to visit the benign Lord of Good Beginnings. Visitors make it a point to walk across to the temple of Ganapatipule. This ancient shrine is the heart of the township. Within it is the greatly revered, and natural, rock formation, worshipped as the benign, elephant-headed God and Remover of Obstacles: Lord Ganesh, also known as Ganapati. His other title here is Paschim Dwar Devata: the Western Sentinel God, presumably because his idol faces the Arabian Sea. Before the new temple was built, the sea would roll in, sometimes, and wash the feet of the idol. A wall holds it back today. While no one is quite certain how old the idol is, devotees believe that it was discovered when a cow, repeatedly, bathed it in her milk. Lord Ganesh then appeared to the animal's owner in a dream, inspiring him to build a small hut over his idol. Later, the hill rising behind the temple began to be revered as an even larger manifestation of the deity. When we visited the temple in the saffron light of sunset, we saw bare-footed devotees walking briskly around the hill, circumambulating it with all the reverence that they would pay to Lord Ganesh himself. Though we did not do the pradakshina (walk of the faithful), we did walk barefoot on the beach at dusk.
Here, again, we found a refreshing absence of moral policing. Though we saw no bikini-clad bathers, there were no groups of gawping ooglers smirking at women in soaked, clinging, garments emerging from the sea. The sand was firm and pleasantly gritty, the surf was gentle and caressing, and though we dodged cricketers and frisbee flingers at first, all activity came to a hushed stop when the bright orange sun began to make its descent into the gilded horizon. Sunset watching is a favoured activity in Ganapatipule, and the topic of much animated discussion till late into the night!
In fact, if we have to describe the all-pervasive atmosphere of this unusual place we'd say it was a feeling of innocent happiness. We spoke about this to a member of one of the priestly families attached to the temple. He was an articulate, educated young man who managed one of the many hotels that such families run in Ganapatipule. He was a little reluctant to speak at first but then when we assured him of anonymity, he opened up. "This should be expected, of course" he said with a smile. "Lord Ganapati is joy and innocence personified. For all his apparent ungainliness, he dances with effortless grace, he plays musical instruments. With his big ears he hears everything. With his gentle eyes he sees everything. Through his little mouse he learns everything. And yet he is never enraged, never vengeful. He is the most tolerant, most understanding of all gods. Can his Ganapatipule be any different?"
Of course not and that, frankly, is as good an explanation as we've ever heard.
Getting there: By air - Mumbai and then by road 375 km, or by rail to Ratnagiri, 25 km away
Accommodation: MTDC Holiday Resort which has deluxe A/C, Non-A/c Rooms, family suites and standard rooms. For reservations contact MTDC Reservations Tel: 022-22845678