Mumbai, with its 24/7 traffic, slum cloistered high-rises and heaving public transportation is amongst the most congested metropolises in the world, with pitifully limited access to open public spaces. Yet within the city limits of this concrete jungle there exists something unique, found almost nowhere else in the world. Another type of Jungle, one where Leopards, Deer and Monkeys roam, where there are hundreds of species of birds, butterflies, snakes and spiders and where streams gush down ancient hillsides and meander through dense forests.
The highest point in Mumbai is not the 42nd floor of a ‘New Cuffe Parade’ tower, but in fact within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park
Sanjay Gandhi National Park (also known as Borivali National Park), spread over 106 square km in northern Mumbai, is a protected forest. We went in, armed with cameras and curiosity, and found several different ways to explore this wonder.
Explore the ancient Kanheri Caves
In a city of glass and steel, the last thing you would expect to find is ancient caves! Here within the confines of SGNP are 2000-year-old Buddhist caves. Carved out of a basalt rock outcrop it’s hard to imagine how these caves survived, given that the western highway is just a couple of kilometres away. Though many of the 108 caves are empty (they served as a monastery once upon a time), a few of them still have carvings that have withstood nature and the ravages of time. The main cave is the most impressive, with an entrance flanked by two towering Buddha statues.
Cave 41 with carvings of the 11-headed god Avalokiteshwara, is the only archaeological site with this deity in India, and the earliest one recorded in the world. Cave 90, one of the oldest caves in the complex, is the only one with Japanese inscriptions. The stunning caves are hewn from the rock on multiple levels along the hillside, so make sure you walk all the way up to the top. You’ll be richly rewarded with incredible views of the park and the world beyond.
Spend a night inside the park
While most visit the park for day trips, a little known fact is that you can actually spend a night inside the SGNP. The forest department accommodation includes basic guesthouses, tents, and even a charming pine hut! Imagine waking up in Mumbai (in an actual jungle, not the concrete variety), and instead of blaring horns you hear babbling brooks and birdsong… So the next time you are looking for a weekend break in the lap of nature, away from the city, you don’t really need to leave the city, this lush green paradise is just a few kilometres away. All the stay options within SGNP can be booked through firstname.lastname@example.org
Trek to the highest point in Mumbai
Did you know that the highest point in Mumbai is not the 42nd floor of a ‘New Cuffe Parade’ tower, but in fact within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park? The Jambulmal trek to the highest point in the city starts at Kanheri Caves and winds slowly up, past the Gaumukh Plateau, through sheesham, teak and acacia forests and into the misty heights of SGNP. The 2.5 km trail takes you over 1500 feet, and the view from the top is spectacular – a panorama of the jungle you’re in, overlooking the Tulsi and Vihar lakes juxtaposed against the urban sprawl of northern Mumbai.
Prior permission of the forest department and a minimum group size of 25 is required for the trek, as it is in the park’s core area and home to SGNPs population of 40-odd leopards. There are a number of adventure and wildlife groups in Mumbai that organise this trek on weekends through the monsoon.
Related reading: Mumbai’s Best Kept Secret
Go on a nature trail in this incredible urban forest
The mystery of the leopards in SGNP often over shadows the myriad flora and fauna in the park. Think 274 species of birds, 35 species of mammals, 170 species of butterflies and over 1300 different types of trees! Besides the usual suspects like Rhesus Macaque, Drongos, Kingfishers and spotted deer, SGNP is also home to pythons, crocodiles, the lovely Paradise Fly Catcher, the extremely rare Ceylonese Cat Snake, the world’s largest moth – Atlas Moth – the majestic White Bellied Sea Eagle, the Indian Flying Fox and even the Striped Hyena.
Recently the forest department has allowed access to a number of nature trails like the Shilonda trail, the Malad trail and the Nagla Block trail within the park, led by trained naturalists who can open up this uniquely magical urban forest to you. Some of these trails can even be taken alone or with other organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). So take a walk down Mumbai’s wild side, who knows, if you are lucky you may even spot an elusive leopard lounging on a branch (even if you don’t, there’s enough here to fill you with wonder).
Related reading: A Wildlife Holiday With a Side of Heritage
Learn about Warli and other tribal communities
The original inhabitants of Mumbai, along with the Kolis, are the Warli and other tribal communities, who have lived in the forests around northern Mumbai and beyond, long before the area was designated a national park. Today a number of tribal families continue to live in settlements called ‘padas’ within the boundary of SGNP and on the fringes of the protected forest in places like Aarey Milk Colony. Known for their distinctive indigenous art, painted on the red ochre mud walls of their huts, these communities live off the land and through subsistence agriculture. Their unique culture also includes a distinct pantheon of gods and goddesses like Waghoba, a tiger / leopard deity who they worship as a protector of the forest.
The mystery of the leopards in SGNP often over shadows the myriad flora and fauna in the park.
You can understand and experience their life and culture through events organised by NGOs like The WWH Charitable Foundation (http://wwhtrust.org) that include Tribal lunches, Warli painting workshops and flea markets thats sell organic produce, chutneys and handicrafts made by these communities.
SGNP also hosts other activities like stargazing sessions at the Nature Interpretation Center, boating on the lake, cycling, a lion and tiger safari, and even riding a narrow gauge toy train that does a small circuit around the Gandhi Tekdi hillock!
Know before you go:
- Sanjay Gandhi National Park is located in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali and the easiest way to reach is via local train to Borivali Station and then a rickshaw ride to the park gate.
- The park is open every day except Mondays from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, and parking for cars and two wheelers is available inside the park.
- Entry is charged at ₹58 per adult and ₹31 per child (5 to 12 years).