The rich flora and fauna of Sanjay Gandhi National Park attracts more than 2 million visitors every year. Tourists also enjoy visiting the 2400-year-old Kanheri caves sculpted out of the rocky cliffs which lie within the park.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), formerly Borivali National Park, is a large protected area in the northern part of Mumbai city (preferably called Mumbai Suburban district) in Maharashtra State in India. It encompasses an area of 104 km2(40 sq mi) and is surrounded on three sides by India's most populous city.
It is notable as one of the major national parks existing within a metropolis limit and is one of the most visited parks in the world.
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park area has a long written history dating back to the 4th century BC. In ancient India, Sopoara and Kalyan were two ports in the vicinity that traded with ancient civilisations such as Greece and Mesopotamia. The 45 km (28 mi) land route between these two ports was partially through this forest. The Kanheri Caves in the centre of the park were an important Buddhist learning centre and pilgrimage site sculpted by Buddhist monks between 9th and the 1st centuries BCE. They were chiselled out of a massive basaltic rock outcropping.
The park was named 'Krishnagiri National Park' in the pre-independence era. At that time the area of the park was only 20.26 km2 (7.82 sq mi). In 1969, the park was expanded to its present size by acquiring various reserve forest properties adjoining the park. After this, an independent unit of the Forest Department called 'Borivali National Park Sub-division' administered the area. Krishnagiri National Park was created in 1974 and later renamed as 'Borivali National Park'. In 1981, it was re-dedicated as 'Sanjay Gandhi National Park' in memory of Sanjay Gandhi, the son of ex Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, who was killed in an air-crash in 1980.
Constructed way in the 19th century, the Vihar (1860) and Tulsi (1868) Lakes are located within the forests of SGNP. In fact the need for a protected area like SGNP arose due to the pertinent need of protecting the water catchments of these 2 lakes which were created so as to supply drinking water to the city of Mumbai, which they continue to do so even today! Apart from the supply, these water bodies are places of immense natural beauty; they also harbor a thriving population of mugger crocodiles and are throbbing with migratory bird life throughout the year.
The Kanheri Caves
Situated within the national park is a 2000 year old complex of some 160 rock-cut caves popularly known as the ‘Kanheri caves’ a protected archeological site. Kanheri is derived from Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, which literally means black mountain. Visitors can view the magnificent relics of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and walk along the pillared corridors of the prayer halls chiseled out in the rocky outcrop.
TREKS AND TRAILS
This peaceful trail starts along the plains just before the Kaneri? foothills and winds along gently into a good long hike heading northwards. Once the home of a tribal settlement that has now moved away, nature has completely reclaimed this territory. The trail reveals the gradual gradation in the vegetation: from scrubland at the beginning to dense, tall evergreen forest ahead. This route is met – at more than one point – by rapid forest streams and wading through this knee-deep crystal clear water is nothing less than therapeutic for the city-weary soul.
Malad Trail Line
This trail runs along the western edge of the park and is dotted with varied vegetation beginning with dry-deciduous (Teak, Red Silk Cotton, Palash, Laburnum tree, Bamboo thickets, to name a few) and gradually gives way to evergreen growth. Another gentle trail, this one ambles along to an artificial water hole where you might be able to witness signs of wildlife activity from the previous night. But walk along further, and you find yourself at the very edge of the forest in the suburb of Malad, where the conflict between forest and this ever-expanding city is strikingly apparent.
Kanheri/ Upper Trail
If you’re up for some Sunday morning legwork, this one is for you. This trail provides great opportunities for birding and exploring natural habitats as these evergreen forests are host to a rich diversity of life forms. Well-shaded for the most part, this hike takes oyu to a small opening along a rocky edge of the mountain, a bit like a balcony. The astounding view from here is a sight for sore eyes. Cross the gurgling waterfall along the way (watch your step on the moist, moss-covered rocks), and a short climb later, you’ll be at the top of Kanheri Caves. The view juxtaposes the crowded suburbs of Mumbai with the calm forests of SGNP.
Bamboo Hut Trail/ Gaumukh Trail
Among the most popular birding trails in the forest, this one is gentle but long. It leads you to the highest point in the park at 1,000 feet above sea level and to the well known Gaumukh point at the top of Kanheri Caves. Right at the base of the trail (means at the start?) is a serene and picturesque water hole, which the locals refer to as ‘Phansacha? Paani’ (what does it mean). This waterhole is a magnet for wildlife all through the year and if you avail of the requisite permissions from the forest department, you can sit in one of the two tall watchtowers overnight and experience some thrilling wildlife moments in the forest.
Highest Point Trail
At other times continue walking along the Bamboo Hut trail, cross streams, negotiate rocky hill slopes, and breathe in the beautiful forest vistas as you continue to quench your thirst for a nice invigorating trek. If you do manage to reach the highest point, then you have a surreal panorama of the 3 lakes viz. Tulsi, Vihar and Powai in front of you against the back drop of the city. Along the way you will pass through ‘Ashok Van’ – a dense groove of Sita-Ashok (Saraca indica) trees. Make sure you spend some time here in this well shaded and peaceful place. According to the legend of Ramayana, the demon Ravana had also held Sita in captivity in one such similar grooves. The highest point trek is indeed a trekkers delight and that too right within the financial capital of India.
This interesting trek begins closer to the Lion Safari Gate inside SGNP and proceeds further north of the forest. The trek route entices the trekker with the silence only this forest can offer amid the bustling city.
Nagla Block Trail
One of the most exhilarating trails lies along the Mumbai-Agra highway at Sasupada. Around 17 per cent of SGNP’s land lies in the relatively pristine forestland beyond the Bassein/Bhayander creek and is a favourite among butterfly and bird watchers, and nature enthusiasts. A nature interpretation centre sits at the base of the gentle hilly walk. This trail reveals the confluence of mangrove and forest ecosystems in all their grandeur and this patch of forest harbours some of the most undisturbed and healthy growth of ecologically significant mangrove vegetation along the island of Mumbai.
In 2003, a tigress was found to have taken up residence in this area. No one had answers to where she had come from and where she eventually went. But that is the beauty of nature, it never ceases to surprise us. Hit the Naga Block Trail and make your own discoveries.