Kolhapur doesn’t usually feature on a list of places to visit, but it should! Once ruled by the Bhosale Royal Family, the old city offers a glimpse into one of the more famous clans of the Maratha empire and a life that once was. Famous now for its eponymous leather footwear and spicy food, there’s plenty more to find. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find the city is perfect for a quick weekend break or a great pit-stop on a road trip.
Pitstop enroute Mumbai – Goa
It was a comment from a friend, about the cold mutton pickle, that got us to look at Kolhapur, not usually a place one would think of ‘travelling’ to. We usually break our journey in Belgaum, a convenient but drab pit stop. So on our next trip to to South Goa, we decided to drive via Kolhapur. While the drive to Goa can easily be done in a day, Kolhapur threw up some interesting sights that deserved more time. Plus, there was all that yummy food to be eaten!
Once ruled by the Bhosale Royal Family, the old city offers a glimpse into one of the more famous clans of the Maratha empire and a life that once was.
Start with lunch
We checked into our hotel and started our Kolhapur tour with the famed mutton thali at Dehaati – a popular establishment on the old Puna-Bangalore highway. At 2 pm the place was packed to capacity, with a line snaking outside. The smells wafting toward us were mouthwatering, and the menu enticing enough to warrant the wait. We ordered two different types of mutton thalis, and both came with delicious broth – rassa. Made from meat stock, the white gravy or tambda rassa was excellent, mild and full of flavour with coconut milk and whole spices; while the red or Pandhara Rassa was spicy, with sharp flavours (excellent to clear up blocked sinuses, if any).
A spot of sightseeing
Stuffed and happy we made our way to the ‘new’ palace of the Bhosale clan, which is now the Shree Chhatrapati Shahu museum housing many family heirlooms, and some members of the royal family. The Indo-Saracenic style palace, built in 1884 by a British architect is a behemoth that would be more at home somewhere in the rural Britain than the dry plains of Kolhapur! The maze of rooms inside are stuffed with furniture, arms, letters, curios from around the world and portraits of the portly Maharaja. But the piece de resistance is the stunning Durbar Hall with is disquieting taxidermy collection. With animals from as far away as the Americas, Africa and Australia, including zebras, rhinos, koala bears and what looked like an entire pride of tigers, the love for hunting is on full regal display.
Khashaba Jadhav (from a village near Kolhapur) went on to become the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in an individual sport for wrestling, in 1952 Helsinki.
The next morning was reserved for a visit the old town and the Motibag taleem (wrestling centres) before getting back on the highway. Maharashtra has a long and rich tradition of wrestling, and Kolhapur is at the heart of this. So, of course we wanted a taste of this before we left. Long before Punjab and Haryana became synonymous with award winning wrestlers, Khashaba Jadhav (from a village near Kolhapur) went on to become the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in an individual sport for wrestling, in 1952 Helsinki. As you enter the old town, marked by an imposing stone archway, one of the gateways of the old palace, you are greeted by a towering pillar with a marble plaque bearing the unmistakable five rings, mounted with a statue of Jadhav, arms outstretched in victory. Just beyond this jubilant testament was the taleem, and while Hoshner eagerly went in (women aren’t allowed, alas), I wandered into the old palace next door, which has little to see except a few more taxidermied beasts, and a family temple dedicated to the family deity, Bhavani Mata. A branch of the family still occupies part of the palace and much of it is closed off.
The old town, once famous for the palace, is now dominated by the Mahalaxmi Temple, a famous landmark in the state and even at 8 am the line to the temple snaked around the courtyard. Dedicated to the Mother Goddess, the older parts of the temple in dark stone date back to the 7th century and the white gopuras were added more recently, in the 1960s. The temple, which has been through several renovations, belongs architecturally to the Chalukya period and is similar in style to the old palace and main boundary walls of the old town.
Wrap up with breakfast
After admiring the delicate carvings and striking stone work, it was time to move on. To breakfast. We decided to skip the more famous traditional missal pav in favour of the street food we found outside the old town, where rows of ladies were serving up hot aape – steamed dosa batter in round moulds – with chutney. It was just what we needed, with hot chai before setting off on the road again.
Where to Stay
Kolhapur has several hotels just off Highway 48 that fit every budget, with Hotel Sayaji and Hotel Vrishali Executive offering a higher class of service.
While Kolhapur can be done in a day, there are some other interesting sights including the Panhala Fort, the largest of the Deccan forts about 20 km from the city; the Kopeshwar temple which is similar in style to the Hoysala temples in Karnataka and the Chandrakant Mandare Museum dedicated to the famed Marathi actor and artiste.
If you can’t spare a day, do make a pit-stop for lunch. Both Dehaati and Hotel Opal (where the mutton lonche is served as a cold pickle) are a 15 min detour from the highway.
Ambika Vishwanath loves stories and believes that there is one to be found around every corner in India. She is the co-founder of The reDiscovery Project and is always happy to swap experiences over coffee or whiskey.
Hoshner Reporter is a travel and documentary photographer and co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. He is currently working on a long term project focused on capturing the history and culture of India, through its people, festivals, and monuments.