My First Diwali: A Trip to Pune and Mahabaleshwar

Althea Henvill, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of the author)

When I first came to India, I’d only heard of Diwali in passing. I had no idea how it is celebrated nor how big of a holiday it is. But as it grew closer, I began to get an idea. For weeks, all my coworkers talked about their plans to go home, I could hear fireworks every night, and when Ben, Sydney, and I finally decided to book our own travel plans — all the trains were sold out!

So, we pivoted and landed on flying to Pune and Mahabaleshwar. In Pune, we had breakfast at a cafe and visited the Aga Khan Palace before catching our bus to Mahabaleshwar.

We had croissants, an omelette, and chicken keema for breakfast. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Aga Khan Palace. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Tombstone on Aga Khan Palace grounds that reads “Here Rest The Ashes of Mahatma Gandhi” (Photo courtesy of the author)

After reaching our hotel in Old Mahabaleshwar, we explored the grounds a bit before heading to dinner.

The view from out hotel before sunset. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Ben and Sydney admiring the view. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Ben and Sydney swinging at the hotel. (Photo courtesy of the author)
We had palak paneer and bhindi masala. (Photo courtesy of the author)
A beautifully presented green salad. (Photo courtesy of the author)

On the actual day of Diwali, we decided it would be a good idea to “hike” to the popular viewpoints around Mahabaleshwar. We figured that since Diwali is a big holiday for people to get together with their families, then everyone would be home celebrating, leaving the viewpoints empty. How wrong we were.

The first hint of our miscalculation came when during our “hike” (a mostly flat walk along a paved road) there, plenty of cars and two-wheelers passed us by. We dismissed it as people heading that way to visit family and friends.

The second hint came when we noticed that every car and several buses that passed us were filled to the brim with people. We figured people wanted to avoid the hassle of parking multiple cars at their destination so, they took as few cars as possible.

Our third and final hint came when we got close to the first viewpoint, Elphinstone Point. The overflowing parking lot and cars lining the road made it abundantly clear that everyone was not spending the holiday at home with their family. They were spending it out and about with their family. And it was the same at Savitri Point, and Monkey Point, and Castle Rock Point, and Hunting Point, and Echo Point (where all of our attempts to make the mountains echo were unsuccessful), and Malcom Point, and Selfie Point, and especially at Arthur’s Seat.

Our route as tracked by Strava. (Photo courtesy of Ben Gellman via the author)

All in all, the hike lasted about 4 hours roundtrip, included 8 viewpoints, 1 cow sighting, and several monkey sightings. My favorite of all the viewpoints was definitely Arthur’s Seat. The platform jutting out over the valley allowed us to get a better view of the expanse (and better pictures). Though it’s definitely more walking than I usually do, I enjoyed our mini odyssey through the cool mountain air of Old Mahabaleshwar. It was a nice and welcome change of scenery from the dry heat of Ahmedabad.

Me at Elphinstone Point. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)

After spending the day checking out the viewpoints, we met up with Sydney’s friend, Shekar, to celebrate Diwali with him and his family. We spent the evening watching cricket, marveling at all the fireworks, lighting a few fireworks of our own, and having dinner. I also discovered my love of Kaju Katli as it was one of the sweets served.

The view from Elphinstone Point. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Ben, Sydney, and I at Savitri Point . (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)
Ben and Sydney at Elphinstone Point. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Me at Arthur’s seat. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)

Since we spent our first full day trekking 16 km around Old Mahabaleshwar, we decided to spend our remaining days just relaxing and exploring the city. We had hoped to find a patch and go strawberry picking, but we were too early. It would be approximately another three weeks before the famous strawberries of Mahabaleshwar were ripe enough to pick. All of the strawberries we saw at this point had been imported from California.

Of course, we still visited Mapro Garden and tried the strawberry shakes.

On our last day in Old Mahabaleshwar, we visited a few of the temples in the area. Some of them have been standing for millennia!

Me at Krushnai Temple getting water from the fountain. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)
Krushnai Temple in Old Mahabaleshwar. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)
Strawberry Shake from Mapro Garden. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Budding strawberry. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Down in Mahabaleshwar, we walked around the market and went to Meghdoot to try their renowned shawarma. They are definitely famous for good reason as it was the best shawarma I’ve ever had and I still think about it everyday.

The next day we went to Pratapgad Fort which has been standing since 1656!

Ben, Shekar, and I at Pratapgad Fort. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)
Ben, Sydney, and I at Pratapgad Fort. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Garvis via the author)
Indian Fried Chicken. (Photo courtesy of the author)
The view from the walls of Shaniwar Wada Fort. (Photo courtesy of the author)
We had pav bhaji before heading back to Pune. (Photo courtesy of the author)

And for dinner that night, we tried a new restaurant in the area, Rainforest Cafe.

The next morning, we took a bus back down to Pune. Since we had a late night flight, we opted to explore one of the city’s historical attractions, Shaniwar Wada Fort. Much of the fort burned down in 1828, but the walls of the fort were still standing.

For our final stop before the airport, we headed to a sports bar to catch the cricket world cup match of India versus New Zealand. The bar was alive with invigorating energy as patrons boisterously cheered India on. Making the most of it, we tried some desi bar food. The desi mac and cheese was a seamless blend of regular mac and cheese and Indian spices. While the fried chicken was coated in corn flakes and perfectly crisp.

All in all, I’d say my first Diwali in India and the trip overall was a success!

About the Author:
Althea is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Samerth Charitable Trust in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a curriculum for teaching adolescents from impoverished backgrounds about the importance of maintaining their mental health and having strong cultural pride. Althea recently graduated from Northeastern University with a bachelor of science degree in psychology. As an undergraduate, she participated in two cooperative learning internships in business services and market research, as well as participated in study abroad experiences in Greece and Italy. Her interests include gender equality, mental health, and children’s rights. Ultimately, she hopes to become a clinical psychologist that focuses on child and adolescent psychology. In her free time, Althea enjoys reading, practicing yoga, crafting, and photography. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Althea is extremely excited to foster her experience and knowledge in the development sector.



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