In an effort to attract tourists to the State, Maharashtra has identified unique experiences to be promoted aggressively.
THAT tourism has tremendous potential for boosting economic growth is now a well-established fact. The success stories of Rajasthan and, more recently, Kerala are ample proof that if a State's tourism policy is sound, there are a tonne of benefits to reap. Maharashtra, for the past few years, has been promoting itself as a tourist destination. Mumbai is the first stop in India for many international tourists, and the State tourism department and private travel companies have realised the advantage. They have therefore been actively wooing tourists to the various sites across Maharashtra. Among their strategies is the tailoring of tours for specific tastes. Another would be to create a tour, such as a charming train journey through the State - coming under the category of "niche tourism".
In an effort to boost tourism in the State, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) will soon introduce a luxury train, which will offer tourists an eight-day sightseeing trip through the State. Called The Deccan Odyssey, or DO, the train will trundle through the kingdom of the Marathas, affording visitors an opportunity to wander through the State's pristine beaches, historic forts and opulent palaces. Much like Rajasthan's Palace on Wheels, the DO has been designed to have passengers stay in the lap of luxury on board the train. During the day passengers will be taken on sight-seeing visits.
The DO is the third such luxury train launched by a State government or tourism board. The Palace on Wheels and The Royal Orient (Gujarat) are the other two. "The train is all set for flag off," says Ashish Kumar Singh, Managing Director, MTDC. "We are waiting for the Prime Minister to launch it," he said.
Passengers will board the train at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which was earlier known as the Victoria Terminus and is perhaps the most spectacular landmark of the city. From Mumbai, it heads towards the Konkan coastline. It stops at the Ukshi station, from where the passengers are taken to Jaigad, Ganapatipule, Ratnagiri and the Bhatya beach. Jaigad is known for its fort, which is on a high cliff and has a beautiful view of the sea. Ganapatipule has become a popular destination for those who enjoy beaches, and Ratnagiri is synonymous with the king of mangoes - Alphonso. The Konkan area also offers a cuisine quite unlike the rest of the State. Passengers will get to enjoy some of its fare during the day.
On the third day, the train stops at Sindhudurg, where passengers will see the famous Sindhudurg fort. From there they will head towards Tarkali, which is famous for its virgin beaches. After a Malvani meal, visitors will go to Sawantwadi - a heritage town and the gateway to Goa.
On the fourth day passenger arrive in Goa to enjoy the fun and of course the history the State is famous for. And then it is on to Pune, the erstwhile capital of the Marathas. Among a host of other sights, visitors will see the David Synagogue, which is believed to be one of the largest in the world.
The next destination, Aurangabad, was an important city during the reign of the Mughals. Founded by Aurangzeb as his capital, it has a rich and varied heritage.
Yet, the more fascinating aspect of the day would be the visit to the Ellora caves, located about 30 km from Aurangabad. The caves now form a World Heritage Site. Lying on the ancient trade route, the caves are thought to be the work of priests and pilgrims. There are 34 caves cut out of volcanic rocks. The most intriguing part of Ellora is that there are Buddhist, Jain and Hindu caves in the same stretch of rock. The Buddhist caves date to A.D. 600, the Hindu ones as far back as A.D. 800 and the Jain ones A.D. 1000.
The DO's passengers will head toward Jalgoan, where they will alight to see the magnificent Ajanta caves, which date back to 200 BC. The caves, which were discovered by accident by a British hunting expedition, have the most magnificent frescoes perhaps ever found. At Ajanta, the Mahayana group, the Hinayana group and the Later Mahayana group complete the spectrum of Buddhist development in India. The paintings on the ceiling, particularly the elephant scattering the lotus, the charging bull, the black princess and the row of dancers with musicians, mesmerise tourists from all over the world.
After what might be a satiating existence in history, the DO's travellers get back on the train and head towards a few relaxing hours at Maharashtra's very own Bordeaux or Napa Valley. With several thousand acres of land under grape cultivation, Nashik is a leading producer of wine in the country. The passengers will be taken for a walk through the charming grape farms of the Sula Winery. Nashik is the last stop on the DO's exhaustive programme. A six-hour journey takes the passengers back to Mumbai.
Among the facilities and services available on the train are: two presidential suites, 48 deluxe suites, two lounge and conference cars, a speciality restaurant and bar, television and cable connections, fax machines, cell phones on demand, foreign exchange facilities, laundry services, 24-hour room services and a valet. All of the above will cost one $350 a night. Clearly, the DO promises to be an enriching experience for not just foreign tourists but also well-heeled Indians who more often than not prefer to go abroad rather than enjoy India.
A niche tour in Maharashtra, which is not in the price league of the DO, is a visit to the eight Ganesha temples in Maharashtra that form "Ashta Vinayaka". According to Satyanarayan Choudhary, a director of Choudhary Yatra Travels, the Ashta Vinayaka trip attracts lakhs of tourists from all over the country and abroad throughout the year. "This trip can be done on a budget as well as in luxury and so it appeals to many more people." Choudhary, who specialises in these tours, says the Ashta Vinayaka temples "are considered to be among the holiest". After Ajanta and Ellora, this tour is perhaps the next most popular in Maharashtra. The main selling point is that the Ashta Vinayaka tour is both a pilgrimage and a sight-seeing experience. Choudhary said that his firm had already conducted 22 trips this year, with an average of four buses in each trip.
It is believed the Ganesha idols were formed naturally. Eight of these formations were found in the State and subsequently temples were built around them. The temples and the idols are related to various episodes from the Puranas and other legends. For instance, the Mahaganapati at Ranjangaon is believed to have come to the aid of Siva in destroying the citadels of the demon Tripurasura. The Moregoan Ganesh is known as Mayureshwar or the peacock rider, who slew the demon Sindhu in response to pleas from the Gods. The other six places are Pali, Theur, Ozar, Lebyadri, Mahad and Siddhatek. All the temples are located within a 100 km-radius of Pune, which is about 160 kms from Mumbai. Travel groups take care of the entire trip, including board and lodging.
An area that is attracting tourists is a trek through the Sahyadri range. The mountains run parallel to the western coastline of the Indian peninsula. The average height of the mountains is about 600 metres in the northern part and 900m in the south. The Sahyadris are not very high but are extremely rugged, with some unique and arduous pinnacles for avid rock climbers. The hills are dotted with lakes and forests and are also known for the historic forts of the Marathas and several Buddhist caves. Several points on the range offer spectacular views and therefore make for exciting treks. A guidebook says that "parts of the Sahyadris must surely rate as one of the best trekking spots in India, especially in the monsoons".
The Sahyadris are known as the land of Shivaji. Stories of his life and exploits form the legend of the region, and the local people hold him in great reverence. Shivaji had 300 forts under his control. The walls of many of them have been vandalised. Similarly, many of the Buddhist caves have been desecrated. Trekking groups, which are passionate about the range, have begun a campaign to protect the sites. They hope the government will come to their aid in this endeavour.
The State government is attempting to make the most of the State's attractions. Whether it will reach Rajasthan's or Kerala's standard is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, attempts are being made.