Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai: Visitor's Guide

A Protected Urban Forest with Ancient Buddhist Caves

Sanjay Gandhi National Park
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Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park is one of six national parks in Maharashtra state. It may not be as large or exotic as some of the top national parks in India, but its accessibility makes it very appealing. It's the only national park within city limits in India. Plus, it has more than 100 ancient rock-cut Buddhist caves. To enjoy nature amid the concrete jungle, this is the place! The park is also a great family destination, with plenty of activities to keep the kids amused. There are some important things to know before you go though. This guide has all the details.

History

Sanjay Gandhi National Park, as it exists today, is an amalgamation of forest and agricultural land, carried out over multiple decades. The park was initially called Krishnagiri National Park when it was formed under the Bombay National Park Act in 1950. Krishnagiri, meaning "Black Mountain", referred to the dark basalt rock prevalent in the park. A subsequent expansion of the park resulted in it being renamed Borivali National Park based on its location. Finally, the park became known as Sanjay Gandhi National Park in memory of the son of India's late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The park's Kanheri Buddhist Caves date back much further though -- all the way to the 1st Century BC, when a wide trading route brought Buddhism to the region. Kanheri was a major settlement for Buddhist learning from the 1st century BC to the 10th century AD, and the biggest Buddhist university in western India was situated there. The subsequent decline in Buddhism resulted in the caves being abandoned. The area ended up overgrown with forest until British archeologist James Bird rediscovered it in 1839.

Kanheri Caves.
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Location

Sanjay Gandhi National Park lies between Borivali, Thane and Palgar on the northern outskirts of Mumbai. The park's main entrance is on the Western Express Highway in Borivali East, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the city center. The closest Mumbai local railway station is Borivali on the Western Line (see map).

How to Visit

Sanjay Gandhi National Park opens early in the morning, at 5.30 a.m., for walkers. It remains open for day visits from 7.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. daily. Day tickets cost 64 rupees for anyone aged 12 years and over. Children aged five to 12 years pay 34 rupees. Children under five years old can enter free. Aim to spend a full day at the park to make the most of what it offers.

The park is managed by the government, so do expect some inconveniences. All tourist attractions and facilities (except Gandhi Tekdi and the Kanheri Buddhist Caves) are closed over lunch, from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m., and also on Mondays. Information and facilities for tourists are lacking. There aren't any brochures, and many of the park's sparse signboards are written in Marathi (the state language) making directions unclear. In addition, food options are limited. There's a canteen with a basic vegetarian Indian menu. You can also buy snacks and water from enterprising locals.

Substantial effort has been put into keeping the park clean in recent years. If you want to bring plastic items inside, you'll need to pay a refundable security deposit at the entrance. Bags are usually searched by park officials at the entrance. Curiously, plastic bottled water is widely available for sale inside the park.

Private vehicles (including bicycles) can be taken inside the park, and it's recommended that you do so to make getting around easier. The entry cost is 22 rupees for a bicycle, 45 rupees for a motorcycle, 215 rupees for a car, and 322 rupees for a bus.

Bicycles can also be hired inside the park, or at Harry's Bicycle Rental Shop (Phone: +91 9819439878) situated 500 meters before the park entrance. Expect to pay about 80 rupees for two hours, plus a 500 rupee refundable deposit. You'll need to provide appropriate photo ID as well. If you go on weekends, expect to wait as demand is high.

A shuttle bus runs between the park entrance and Kanheri Buddhist Caves, with departures every hour or so (except during lunch and on Mondays). The cost is 64 rupees one way for adults and 34 rupees for children. Separate tickets are required to visit the caves. These are to be purchased from the ticket office near the cave entrance, 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) inside the park. The price, set by the Archeological Survey of India, is 25 rupees for Indians and 300 rupees for foreigners. 

Unfortunately, access to most of the park is restricted, including the nature trails. It's not possible to hike along the nature trails without making a prior booking and being accompanied by a naturalist, so you'll need to plan ahead for an authentic nature experience. Anyone caught venturing off the park's main roads and designated areas will be fined 25,000 rupees. Bookings for nature walks must be made a couple of days in advance at the park's Nature Information Center (Phone: 022 2886-8686). The fee ranges from 75-300 rupees, depending on the trail. You'll also need to pay for the naturalist, costing from 400-1,000 rupees. Alternatively, the Bombay Natural History Society and other groups often organize guided walks on the weekends.

For the most peaceful experience, ideally visit the park during the week. It gets very crowded on weekends, especially Sundays.

Accommodations are available inside the park. These include pine huts and tents. You can expect to pay 2,500-4,500 rupees per night, depending on the number of people.

Kanheri Buddhist Caves
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What to See

The park covers 104 square kilometers (65 miles) and is divided into buffer area, tourism area, and core area. There are seven nature trails of varying lengths and difficulties through the core area. Currently, the only nature trail that doesn't require an advance booking and accompanying guide is the little-known Nagla Block trail. This is considered by many to be the park's most rewarding trail. However, it's situated in a remote northern part of the park. The trail entrance starts elsewhere, at Sasupada village, and ends on the banks of Vasai Creek. You'll need to pay an entry fee at the Forest Office in the village.

The magnificent Kanheri Buddhist Caves are a highlight and are worth visiting on their own. They're scattered over a hill and hand-carved out of volcanic rock. Cave 3 is the most impressive one -- it has the largest number of intact carvings, including two imposing Buddha statues, and one of the biggest prayer halls in India. If you continue up to the hilltop, you'll be rewarded with a panoramic view over Mumbai. Beware of the monkeys though!

The Vanrani (Forest Queen) toy train takes visitors on scenic 20 minute joyrides around the park. Tickets cost 55 rupees for adults and 21 rupees for kids.

Paddle boating on the lake is another attraction. Tickets cost is 64 rupees for two people, and 130 rupees for four people.

The park has a lion and tiger safari but the animals (two lions and four tigers) are kept in enclosures. Tickets for the tiger safari cost 85 rupees for adults and 34 rupees for children. The combined tiger and lion safari costs 108 rupees for adults and 43 rupees for children.

Those who want to learn more about wildlife can visit the park's Nature Information Center, which also arranges activities. The center's butterfly garden is a popular feature.

In addition, there are two prominent temples inside the park -- the Trimurti Digambar Jain temple with three towering white statues (Lord Adinath, Lord Bahubali and Lord Bharata), and Mahadeo Shiva temple near the Kanheri Caves.

Jain Temple, Sanjay Gandhi National Park
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More information is available on the Sanjay Gandhi National Park website and Facebook Page.

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