Nashik, approximately four hours northeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra, is a city with a dual identity. On one hand, it's an ancient and sacred pilgrimage destination with a fascinating Old City. On the other, it's home to the biggest winery region in India.
Nashik is closely associated with the great Hindu epic The Ramayana, which tells the story of Lord Ram. According to mythology, Ram (along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman) made Nashik his home during his 14 years of exile from Ayodhya. They lived in the area now known as Panchavati in the Old City. The city gets its name from an incident whereby Lakshman cut off the nose of Surpanakha, the sister of demon Ravan, after she tried to seduce Ram.
These top places to visit in Nashik reflect the city's diversity. An inexpensive full-day Nashik Darshan bus tour departs from the Central Bus Stand at 7.30 am and visits many of the city's attractions including Trimbak. It's best to book the tour at the bus stand the day before. Do note that it comes with a Hindi-speaking guide only. However, it's a great local experience!
In the heart of Nashik's Old City, Ramkund ghat is the most important place in the Panchavati area. It attracts both pilgrims and tourists to its holy waters. Lord Ram is believed to have bathed and performed the death rituals of his father there. Hence, many people come to immerse the ashes of their departed loved ones, to help their souls obtain liberation. The tank was built in 1696 and although it's unfortunately quite dirty and not well maintained, it's an atmospheric and absorbing place to spend some time. The adjoining vibrant vegetable market is worth exploring too.
There are as many as 100 temples in Nashik. Many of them can be found near the holy Godavari River, which flows through the city. The city's most sacred shrine, the beautiful black stone Kala Ram temple, is uphill to the east of Ramkund. It supposedly stands right where Lakshman performed the slicing of Surpanakha's nose. Nearby is Sita Gumpha, a claustrophobic cave where Sita is said to have hid from Ravan. There are some doubts as to its authenticity though. On the way there, stop by Naroshankar temple, which is close to Ramkund. Kapileswara is another famous temple in the area. It's a Shiva temple but the nandi (bull) is unusually missing from it.
In the opposite direction, Sundar Narayan temple is situated next to Victoria Bridge and offers a fabulous view of the Godavari River. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, it's a spacious complex with splendid architecture.
Buddhism also left its mark in Nashik, with 24 rock-cut caves that date back to the 2nd century BC. Inscriptions indicate that most of the construction happened during 2nd century AD and that the caves were occupied up until the 7th century AD. Following the decline of Buddhism, Jain monks began inhabiting the caves and contributed to their structure. Funding for the caves was provided generously by the rulers of the Satavahana dynasty, along with donations from people of all walks of life.
The main cave, number 18, is a prayer hall with a stupa. The other caves that hold the most interest are three and 10. Cave three is notable for its sculptures of idols, while cave 10 is structurally intact along with its inscriptions. It's believed to be as old as the Karla Caves near Lonavala in Maharashtra.
The Pandavleni Caves are located about 15 minutes southwest of Nashik, just off the Mumbai-Nashik Highway. Visit early in the morning before it gets hot, as it's a 30-minute uphill trek. Plus, the caves face east and their carvings are illuminated by the morning sun. There's an entry fee of 20 rupees for Indians and 250 rupees for foreigners.
Wine tourism is flourishing in Nashik. There are almost 50 vineyards in and around the city. Many now have tasting rooms, restaurants and accommodations for guests. Appealing discounts of 10-20% on retail price are also available on purchases. The vineyards fan out in all directions from Nashik though, so you'll need a car to reach them. Either that or take a wine tour. Head to Sanjegaon district (40 minutes before Nashik), Dindori district (45 minutes north of Nashik), and Gangapur Dam (20 minutes west of Nashik). York Winery and Sula Vineyards are both in the Gangapur Dam area. Boutique Utopia Farm Stay is conveniently located near these wineries.
Side Trip to Trimbak
Trimbakeshwar temple, around 40 minutes west of Nashik, is particularly revered and popular with pilgrims. This temple is one of the 12 jyotirlinga shrines of Lord Shiva, where he appeared as a pillar of light. Its substantial stone exterior is covered with intricate sculptures. Most of the action of the Nashik Kumbh Mela happens in the vicinity of the temple.
If you have kids, Shubham Water World is a fun place to take them on the way to Trimbakeshwar from Nashik. There's a small coin museum en-route to Trimbakeshwar as well. It's part of the Indian Institute of Research in Numismatic Studies campus.
Those who are feeling energetic can hike up the trail to Brahmagiri Hill not far from Trimbakeshwar temple. It starts out from the back of the MTDC Sanskruti Resort. Allow two to three hours to reach the top. You'll be rewarded with a fabulous view! A couple of temples are there as well. Auto rickshaws will go part of the way up. The hill is regarded as a huge form of Lord Shiva, and the holy Godavari River originates from it and flows underground before emerging at Kushavarta Kund in the Trimbakeshwar temple compound.