Shrouded in nearly a millennium of mystery and numerous cryptic temple ruins, the Polo forest is a hotbed of intrigue and a fountain of adrenalin for explorers
In the tranquility of our surroundings, we are privy to nature’s soulful symphony. The zephyrs continually come and go in the bounty of this foliaceous verdure, filling our environs with sweet fragrance. A loud whooping bird-call rings through the trees, seemingly in rhythm with the crinkle of fallen leaves under our feet. The forest speaks volumes and its language is soothing. Such is the magic of the Polo forest in Gujarat.
Tucked away in the foothills of the lush Aravalli range that borders with Rajasthan, Gujarat’s well-kept secret, the Polo forest is located 163 km from Ahmedabad, in the erstwhile princely Vijaynagar taluk of Sabarkantha district on the banks of the Harnav River. Polo gets its name from ‘Pol’, the Marwari term for gate as it is a secret gateway between Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Hidden away both from modern travellers and history books, since not many have bothered to explore the forest extensively, there will be little for tourists to find on Google which makes it all the more intriguing.
Polo has a plethora of sculpturally rich Hindu and Jain temples squirreled away, waiting to be explored. During 10th century, the Parihar kings of Idar founded their kingdom here, only to be conquered by the Rathods of Marwar in the 15th century. History records the picturesque region to have been a haven for kings and crooks alike, who sought refuge against enemies. One of the most common tales that spins around this place has it that Maharana Pratap, the legendary Rajput ruler of Mewar took asylum from the invading Mughal forces in the forest of Polo.
Begin your explorative sojourn of Polo with a temple. Of fifteen temples that once existed in the forest, eight of them still survive. They are scattered all over the woods, carrying with them an aura of mystery and mysticism. The 756-year-old Vireshwar Mandir, dedicated to Shiva whose idol is claimed to be self-manifest, is one of Polo’s major attractions. Close to the temple, on slopes of the forested hillock, is the umra or audamber tree, associated with Dattatreya, one of the pantheons of Hindu deities. The perennial flow of water from the roots of the tree is believed to be over 200 years old. While the origins of the water remain mysterious, it is nevertheless true that its flow does not cease even in the most torrid weather. The locals have nicknamed it Gupt Ganga and consider it as divine.
On delving deeper into the forest, one can see small bridges and streams flanked by trees that cast their brilliant reflections in the glittering waters. The pristine forest lies sprawled across 400 sqkm of enchanting landscape. Under the canopy of its diverse plants and deciduous trees, dwell a rich variety of animals. It is home to 450 medicinal and other plants, over 250 winged creatures, around 30 wild mammals and 32 species of snakes including viper, krait, cobra and the rattlesnake. Ideally, you should follow one of the many trekking trails, it is advisable to walk in single file, snakes often slither close to the trails and lie dormant, hugging the edges.
The Kathodis, a subsection of Bhil tribe, known for catechu-making, are one of 16 tribes that inhabit Polo. They earn their living by taking visitors for boating and fishing in the Harnav Dam. For adventure sports enthusiasts, there is a wealth of adventure activities that Polo has to offer. Adrenaline junkies could romance with zip lining, or hit a high with board walking, rope traverses, mountain biking and mountaineering or enjoy the more sedate boating on the Harnav river and trekking the various jungle trails.
OLD TEMPLE RUINS
There is a decaying Shiv Mandir, with its steps rubbing shoulders with the Lakhena-na-dera cluster of Jain temples. The best preserved of them has walls and pillars that are embellished with fine sculptures.
As the Sun sinks into horizon, it is the best time to visit the 15th century Saaraneshwar Temple, as its beauty is incomparable. Be charmed by its silhouette which looks majestic even in ruins under a star-speckled sky. Ravenous from the day’s trek and jaunts, one can enjoy a delectable dinner of authentic Kathiawari vegetarian thali at the government guest house. The entrancing foot-tapping tribal dance and music is the grand finale to the Polo trip.
Text & Photos: Chitra Ramaswamy