Onions, wine and the Ramayana are an odd choice of words to describe Nashik but each of them defines an essential aspect of this city, depending on the timeline you are looking at. So, despite its modern avatar as wine-growing country and an agricultural and industrial hub, Nashik has marched to a spiritual rhythm across time.
Located on the banks of the mighty Godavari, Nashik has been a spiritual centre for over 2,000 years. First referred to as ‘Nasikya’, legend has it that this is where the heroes of the Ramayana – Rama, Lakshmana and Sita – lived during their banishment. It is also here, in the Panchavati forest, that Sita was kidnapped by Ravana.
About 160 km from Mumbai, the city of Nashik on the eastern of the Western Ghats, has a history that goes far beyond the epics.
– The earliest literary mention of the city comes in a vārttika (a detailed commentary) by Sanskrit grammarian Katyayana, who lived in c. 250 BCE and referred to it as ‘Nasikya’.
Nashik was a part of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s territory before finding its place within the Satavahana Empire (3rd BCE - 3rd CE), which rose to power in the ancient Deccan. The secret to Nashik's prosperity was that it lay on the trade route from Paithan in Maharashtra to Bharuch in Gujarat.
Records show that the Satavahana rulers and the rulers of later dynasties that lorded over Nashik – the Western Kshatrapas (35-405 CE) and the Abhirs (203-270 CE) – donated generously towards the establishment of a group of 24 Buddhist caves carved between the 1st century BCE and the 3rd century CE. Locally called the Pandava Leni, these caves are among the oldest cave complexes in Maharashtra. Also referred to simply as the ‘Nashik Caves’, the sculptures here are early examples of Indian rock-cut architecture.
These caves have some crucial clues i.e. inscriptions that tell us about the times when they were built. For instance, in Cave No. 10 dated to 105-106 CE, there is mention of the defeat of the Satavahanas by the Western Kshatrapas, after which Ushavadata, the son-in-law of Kshatrapa ruler Nahapana, donated 3,000 gold coins for this cave and for the food and clothing of the monks. This is one of the oldest Sanskrit inscriptions, although a rather hybrid one, in Western India. Interestingly, Ushavadata refers to the city as ‘Govardhan’.
The most famous inscription here is probably the one in Cave No. 3, famously called the ‘Nashik Prashasti’. This is a eulogy for Gautamiputra Satakarni (2nd century CE), who is considered the greatest of the Satavahana rulers, by his mother Gautami Balashri. This inscription was made during the reign of her grandson Pulumayi II. The inscription mentions Gautamiputra Satakarni’s valour, his military victories and his mother’s gift of the cave.
The Nashik Prashasti claims that Gautamiputra “destroyed the Sakas, Yavanas and Palhavas”, alluding to the Western Kshatrapas, the Indo-Greeks and the Indo-Parthians, respectively. It further suggests that his rule extended from Malwa and Saurashtra in the north to the Krishna in the south, and from Berar in the east to the Konkan in the west.
– During this time, Nashik was also one of the largest weaving centers in Asia.
Interestingly, many European historians believe that the style of silk and gold brocade that Marco Polo (1290) found being woven in Baghdad and called ‘nasich’ and ‘nac’, originally came from Nashik. Since Nashik lay on the highway from Tagara (modern-day Ter in Osmanabad) and Pratishthana (modern-day Paithan in Aurangabad) to Bharuch, each of them a leading trading centre in Western India, Nashik was probably a hub that served as a resting place for travelling merchants.
Nashik continued to thrive under later rulers like the Abhirs, who called the city ‘Trishala’; and the Chalukyas of Badami, whose ruler Pulakesin II, arguably, made it his capital. Though the initial capital of the Chalukyas was Badami in Bijapur district, it shifted to present-day Nashik when the empire expanded up to the Narmada in the north.
Few know that under the Mughals, Nashik was renamed ‘Gulshanabad’ as a mark of its beauty. However, when the Marathas acquired the region in 1752, they reverted to ‘Nashik’. This period saw a hectic phase of construction, with palaces, wadas, gardens, vineyards and temples being built here.
One of the most magnificent buildings of this era is the 18th century Naroshankar Temple, richly embellished with sculptures. The fortifications surrounding the temple also have an enormous bell taken from a Portuguese church by Chimaji Appa (younger brother of Peshwa Bajirao I) during the Battle of Bassien in 1739.
Another landmark is the Kalaram Temple, made of black stone and crowned by a gold-plated dome said to have been funded by a Maratha, Sardar Rangarao Odhekar. This is the same temple from where, in March 1930, Dr B R Ambedkar led the protest known as the Nashik Satyagraha, which demanded that Dalits too have the right to access the temple. This shrine played a pivotal role in the Dalit liberation movement in the history of modern India.
Nashik also participated in the freedom movement but that's a story for another day. Right now, we are allowing Nashik to bask in the glory of spirituality brought here by the Kumbh Mela every few years. This city, which has been holy for centuries, continues to be a confluence of the ancient and the modern.