Shoppers and devotees alike flock to this city of distinctive footwear, ancient temples and lip-smacking food.

Kolhapur on the banks of the Panchaganga river happens to be the setting for a celestial battle between good and evil.

A demon called Kollasura tormented the people, who prayed to Mahalakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and protection, for deliverance. The goddess defeated the demon in an epic battle and, to this day, people from far and wide offer their thanks to her at a temple in the heart of the old Kolhapur town. In fact, all activity in the town revolves around the temple, with Tuesdays and Saturdays held special to the goddess and marked by huge throngs at the temple.

There is indeed a heavenly beauty about this region, with its rivers and rivulets flowing oblivious to their own beauty, ancient monuments carrying their age with elegance, a disciplined population and an administration that appears effective.

Situated in central India, in Maharashtra, Kolhapur has been influenced by various traditions and cultures. Apart from a strong Hindu influence, in the 10th century it was a major centre for Jainism as well. Later, the Marathas gained control over it. In fact, to this day the city proudly wears its close affiliation with the great Maratha Chhatrapati Shivaji and his descendants. At a central square stands a beautiful statue of Rani Tarabai astride a horse. She ruled the region 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 with statues at several traffic roundabouts.

The Rankala Palace is a good example of the confluence of cultures, as it beautifully combines Maratha elements with those from the Chalukya and Jain periods.

That, in effect, is the essence of Kolhapur: It has something interesting for everybody. If the pious travel miles to offer prayers at the Mahalakshmi temple, compulsive shoppers too head here in the hope of great bargains.

The city can be accessed from Miraj, its nearest railway station, or from Pune, the nearest airport.

Shopaholics can choose from a range of marvellous leather sandals, whose fame is inextricably entwined with the city as Kolhapuri chappals. An entire neighbourhood adjoining the temple has shops exclusively selling this locally made footwear.

The city is equally famed for its costume jewellery, known as Kolhapur saz. The gold-dipped silver jewellery comes at affordable prices. Its mangalsutras and artificial pearls are in demand too. And for those who prefer real gold ornaments, the city offers an amazing variety — ranging from one-gram pieces to heavier creations.

Cotton dhotis and distinctive sarees with interesting borders find many takers.

For gourmets, besides an assortment of vegetarian food, on offer is a range of meat preparations that the city is rightly famous for. Finger-licking good, they are spiced with Kolhapuri chillies, which are fiery red in colour and taste. Visitors can take home the region’s special savoury known as Deepak Chivda.

Given its location, Kolhapur offers a delectable combination of the cuisines of south and north. One can get excellent idlis and dosas, as also delicious paranthas.

What came as a wonderful surprise to me was the availability of excellent tea and some great coffee. Jain food, minus onion, garlic or potato, is available throughout the city.

There are hotels for every pocket and they provide reasonably professional service. An important reason for the profusion of hotels is the city’s strong business association in the leather, textile and sugar sectors.

As food and transportation are relatively cheap, visitors may be tempted to splurge on a luxury hotel. Shalini Palace, once the residence of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, is there for the asking.

Overlooking Rankala Lake, the palace briefly served as a college before being converted into a hotel. From the hotel, a walkway called Rankala Chowpathy circles the lake and is a favourite haunt for family outings. The boat club here offers rides on the lake. The games and snack options, including the region’s famous batata vada, at the park makes it popular among children.

© Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on November 15, 2012)
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