TAKE A BREATHER AT SANJAY GANDHI NATIONAL PARK
In the northern suburb of Borivali lies the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). It’s often sneeringly compared to the most famous urban parks in the world, but at 103 sq km of actual forest, SGNP dwarfs New York’s humble Central Park (3.41 sq km) and London’s modest Hyde Park (1.4 sq km). Filled with 1,300 species of flora and fauna, parts of the park date back to the 4th Century BC.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai-Gujarat Road, Borivali (e), Mumbai 400 066. Phone: 022 2886 0389
It’s a pity Mumbaikars forget about this massive forest in our backyard. It takes a leopard venturing into a nearby residential area for us to sit up and take notice of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, aka “the lungs of Mumbai”. But the 103.83 sq km of forest is home to 1,300 species of flora and fauna, ancient Buddhist Kanheri Caves, a butterfly garden, and seven hiking trails. You can go boating on the lake, take a tiger and lion safari, or ride the mini train. The real draw, however, is once the monsoons arrive and the park starts welling up with rivulets and waterfalls. It is perfect for a picnic or a trek.
You’d be trekking through what, in the 4th century BC, was the route between Sopara and Kalyan, important ports that traded with the ancient civilisations of Greece and Mesopotamia. By the 1st Century BC, the Buddhists also made Kanheri their home, sculpting caves out of massive basalt rocks and settling in to create a renowned learning and religious centre.
The forest began its transformation into the park only when the British took over. First, in 1870, the British created the Vihar and Tulsi lakes to supply drinking water to Bombay. In 1942, they added the catchment area of these lakes and acquired some land from Aarey to create the park as we know it. From a 20 sq km park known as Krishnagiri National Park in 1950, it grew to the 68 sq km Borivali National Park in the late 1960s. Then the government added some more land from Thane district and finally christened it Sanjay Gandhi National Park in 1981.
How to get there: Borivali is a major station on the Western Railway line, so you could take the train. You can also drive down to Borivali via the Western Express Highway.
You need to purchase tickets for entry to the park, which can be done online. Cars are allowed inside, where there is parking space.
The park opens by 7:30 a.m. Get there early, and you can walk the 7km from the park gates to Kanheri Caves. It will take about an hour and a half or two, and you can break for a picnic lunch. Alternatively, you can also take the BEST bus number 188 Ltd, which plies through the park. The bus trip from the gate to the caves takes just about 20 minutes. The advantage of taking the scenic route or walking is you get to see the weirdly shaped trees, spot langurs en route, or buy the cucumber, raw mango, berries, watermelon, and star fruit that women sell by the road. Remember to keep any food either in your car or safely packed, because if the monkeys can spot it or smell it, they will come for it!
Separate tickets are available only for Kanheri Caves, or the mini train (called the Vanrani) that runs through the park, or the 30-minute lion or tiger safari, or a 15-minute pedal boat ride around a small man-made lake. These parts of the park are open from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., and if you plan to spend a whole day in the park, be sure to wind up by then, as the park closes by 6:30 p.m.
You can explore the hiking trails in the park on foot or rent a bicycle, which cost extra and must be booked in advance by calling the Information Centre. If you are a complete SGNP novice, it may be a good idea to go with BNHS or INTACH that organise walking tours of the park. If you are brave enough to camp in the park, the website has details on the kind of tents it offers.
On your way to the caves, a diversion leads to a quick climb up to Gandhi Tekdi, a small memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. Take this detour to log more miles on your FitBit, and you’ll be rewarded for your effort with gorgeous views of the forest and the city. Those who don’t want to take the stairs can also drive up to this point.
The Kanheri Caves are the highlight of the park. With 109 caves to pick from, it can be overwhelming to cover them all, so stick to the first set of caves that are the best preserved. The caves were built for monks to live, study, and meditate in. They are several viharas, i.e. monasteries, with domed meditation halls, dining halls, and even plinth-like rock beds in the sleeping quarters. Cave 1 is a vihara that seems unfinished. Cave 2 is a series of caves with a stupa and one of the most iconic images of the caves. Cave 3 is a large chaitya hall with intricately carved pillars and a domed stupa inside. There are two imposing Avalokiteshvara statues of Bodhisattva guarding this cave as well as a series of damsels wearing Satakarni jewellery marking it out as one of the most important caves. The views of the forest and the encroaching city from the cave’s vantage point are unbeatable!
A little dhaba outside will provide you with a cool drink or snacks to refresh you before or after you explore the caves.
While the big cats can be elusive, the tiger and lion safaris still come highly recommended. Apart from the mini train and pedal boats, these are the most family-friendly parts of the park and also its biggest draw. The lion and safari cages are large enough to simulate a wild landscape, and you can get quite close to the cats from the safety of the buses plying you there. Each ride is 30 minutes long, so if you don’t spot a big cat on your first attempt, you can go again.
Every now and then, SGNP seems threatened by the very city it replenishes. An ancient forest so close to you is a privilege few around the globe can enjoy. Reconnecting with SGNP won’t just fill your lungs with clean air and lower your anxiety – it will show you how important it is to have this environmental sanctuary in Maximum City. Don’t wait for the leopards to remind you.