A Racket-tailed Drongo flew over my head even before I picked up my binoculars. I had just spotted a few hornbills and could not contain my excitement, when the owner of the homestay politely interrupted my bird-watching. I was in her sprawling farm house at Sawantwadi in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, barely a couple of hours away from Goa.
Sipping kokum sharbat and munching on delicious poha, I asked her if there are only Sawants in this vadi, or cluster of villages. She laughed and said: “No, but we are a royal clan, and we are ruled by the Bhonsles. Didn’t you see the palace en route?” I recalled the shadow of a monument standing tall against the dusky sky, and she promised to take me there. Sawantwadi, I was told, was the former capital of the Kingdom of Sawantwadi, which included parts of North Goa and Sindhudurg. Later, when the Portuguese colonised India, parts of Goa went under their rule, and Sawantwadi came under the Bhonsles, who fled the Portuguese regime.
The Bhonsles brought with them the arts and crafts, and even today, the Queen, Satvashila Devi, promotes them. The town is famous for its wooden toys. However, what really fascinated me was the 350-year-old hand-made ganjifa cards, made from circular pieces of paper — the cards are an ancient game that date back to the days of the Mahabharatha. The 10 avtaars of Vishnu are painted intricately on these cards.
I went to the palace in the afternoon. A beautiful façade of red laterite stone stood magnificently against the backdrop of the Moti Talao, or the pearl lake. Built in the era of Khem Sawant Bhonsale III (1755-1803), this is the royal residence of the queen. As I took a picture of the façade, I was interrupted by the Queen’s secretary, who told me that this portion of the palace was closed to tourists as it is the Queen’s residence. On learning that I am a travel writer, they took me inside and showed me the ganjifa cards. Artisans were at work painting them, and I learnt that quite a few families still thrive on this profession in Sawantwadi.