On 1 June, Atul Keiche from Nashik district of Maharashtra will undertake a road journey of more than 30 hours to participate in a grand ceremony to mark the coronation anniversary of his idol, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, at the fort where he became king, lived and died three centuries ago.
The 24-year-old, who works as a pharmacist, will board a bus to Pune city early morning, then another bus to Raigad district, and then yet another bus to reach the foot of the hill fort in Mahad city. By then, it will be 9 in the morning of the next day.
Atul will then trek for three hours through a slippery but rain-drenched picturesque path to reach the fort, which Shivaji Maharaj made his capital in 1674 AD.
As this is the 350th year of Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation at the fort as king of the Maratha empire, celebrations are particularly majestic and are being overseen by the state government.
More than one lakh people, including dignitaries, are expected to join. As per Hindu calendar, the coronation anniversary this year falls on 2 June.
For Atul, however, this journey to Raigad fort has been a bi-annual affair for five years. He is one of the thousands of young men who voluntarily visit and help maintain the now-deserted Raigad Fort premises, solely to keep alive its illustrious Maratha legacy.
His first annual trip to the fort is around June for the coronation anniversary, and second in October or November to clean it. Raigad Fort is a popular destination for trekking enthusiasts, particularly in the monsoon in June and July.
Atul is usually joined by six or seven friends on these trips.
He told Swarajya, “We take garbage bags along and pick up the trash left by trekkers. At the fort, we clean the floor using brooms and light diyas around the murti of Shivaji Maharaj. We trek down the same evening.”
Like Atul, thousands of young men from across Maharashtra, particularly from the Maratha castes, make similar trips to the Raigad Fort round the year.
A little more than 30 years ago, the mission to maintain the fort became an organised affair with the formation of the Shiv Rajyabhishek Samiti in Raigad. The Samiti has ensured that there is always a group of men visiting and cleaning the fort every day of the year.
Atul though is not part of the organisation, as many others like him, who come to the fort of their open volition.
“My grandfather and father used to come to the fort for cleaning and lighting a diya. I inherited it as a family tradition,” he told Swarajya.
Sunny Tathhele, secretary of the Samiti, told Swarajya that the organisation maintains a roster of volunteers to go to the fort.
“People enter into spats with each other that they want to go first. Such is the enthusiasm. Right now, I have a roster for three-four months ready with me,” he chuckled.
This Swarajya correspondent met several such volunteers at the foot of the hill on 2 May.
Pawan Hire, a 35-year-old engineer from Nashik, said that he is an ardent devotee of Shivaji Maharaj and keeps a picture of him in his temple at home. He visits the fort three or four times a year.
“We take garlands of marigold flowers along, and offer to the murti besides tidying up the premises,” he said. The devotees chant ‘Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji’ on the way.
Hire said that Shivaji Maharaj’s murti is placed at the same spot in the fort where he was seated as a king and addressed his durbar. He said that although the aim of the samiti and independent volunteers is to ensure that at least one person turns up at the fort every day, no less than 15 people can be found at any given time.
“This is besides the trekkers who come for enjoyment. The 15-odd people come only for Shivaji Maharaj,” he beamed.
The annual coronation ceremony, organised by the samiti but assisted by other organisations, is grand and colourful. A set decorator is called in to make the fort come alive with depiction of the durbar.
Newly-wed couples are invited to participate in the puja, presided over by priests especially called from Kashi (Varanasi) for the occasion. The puja is held at Jagdeeshwar Temple built by Shivaji Maharaj.
Sardars of various villages at the foot of the fort bring their traditional weapons such as the sword or the bhala for worship.
The traditional Gondhal dance, which is a musical depiction of legends associated with revered deities, is performed by a caste-group called Gondhals.
There is an all-night Jagran conducted in praise of Ma Bhavani, who Shivaji Maharaj worshipped. Mardani khel, an armed martial art popular in Maharashtra that uses sword and rods, is also played by students from various schools that teach it across Maharashtra.
Sunil Pawar, the current president of the samiti, told Swarajyathat those proficient in mardani khel can fight a large group of people for three hours straight.
He said that around 70,000 people attend the coronation ceremony every year. “The number is expected to go up by 30,000 this time as several dignitaries would join,” he said.
For several years now, a ropeway has been operational for taking passengers directly to the fort without having to trek.
Pawar said that the facility has led to a surge in the number of visitors, but on a flip-side, the premises are often left messy by irresponsible tourists.
“Our men never take the ropeway. They always trek to the fort. One, that is how Shivaji Maharaj climbed up and two, our people pick up trash along the way,” he said.
In special additions this year, a music and dance narration of Shivaji Maharaj’s life will be performed, and an exhibition of books written in Modi script, in which the Maratha empire conducted their work, would be displayed, to keep the script alive.
Pawar said that for women, the major attraction at the fort has always been the Hirkani Burj, a wall dedicated to a brave woman from Shivaji Maharaj’s time.
The story goes that a woman named Hirkani, who lived near the foot of the fort and supplied milk inside the fort, was once left inside the premises when its gates were closed for the day.
Worried for her infant son who was to be fed, she undertook a dangerous journey to her home by climbing down a cliff-side. When she turned up at the fort the next day, people were left flabbergasted on learning that she had managed to exit the fort after it was shut — a feat considered impossible.
That Hirkani did it for her child moved Shivaji Maharaj so much that he named that cliff-side after Hirkani.
“Men and women, but particularly the women, touch the Burj and bow to the courageous woman,” said Pawar.
As we near the 349th anniversary of Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation, the service of people like Pawar and volunteers like Atul reminds us that history is a part of the present, and part of us.
Swati Goel Sharma is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
Mayur Bhosale is an undergraduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia University and an intern with Swarajya.
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