Hills and plateaux give Maharashtra a distinctive topography. In the west the state is guarded by the Sahyadri Range of the Western Ghats, which rise as an abrupt and almost impenetrable wall reaching over 1400 m in places, while the Satpura Range to the north forms a natural border with Madhya Pradesh. The volcanic lavas of the Deccan Trap, which poured out over 65 million years ago as the Indian peninsula broke away from the African coast, gave the plateau that stretches away towards the east both its name and its very distinctive black soils. East of Nagpur the lava gives way to gently rolling granite hills 250-350 m above sea level, an extraordinary landscape of huge open spaces and sweeping views. A number of important rivers rise in the Western Ghats. Most follow the trend of the Godavari and the Krishna, rising within 100 km of the Arabian Sea and then flowing east- wards across the Deccan plateau to the Bay of Bengal. The annual rains also send a number of streams and rivers westward across the undulating Konkan coastal lowlands, which reach their widest near Mumbai, tapering off to a narrow belt towards the border of Goa.
Most of Maharashtra is hot during the daytime throughout the year, the coast being very humid as well. Daily maximum temperatures are between 28°C in January and 33°C in May, although night-time temperatures fall considerably from November to March. Only the hill stations of the Western Ghats experience much cooler weather, a particular relief in April and May. The southwest monsoon normally breaks on the coast in the second week of June and finishes in September, bringing most of the region’s rain in often prolonged and violent storms. The Ghats give rise to a strong rain-shadow effect, which makes the coastal Konkan strip much wetter than the interior upland.
The name Maharashtra was first used in a seventh century AD inscription, but its origins are unclear. One view is that it is derived from the word rath (chariot) whose drivers formed an army (maharathis). They are thought to have migrated south and settled in the upland area where they mingled with aboriginal tribes.
The dry western margins of the plateau have sites from the earliest prehistoric settlements in India, and Nevasa and Chirki in the Godavari Valley, have palaeolithic remains. The relatively open lands in the lee of the Ghats were one of the major routes from North to South India but lacked the resources to become the centre of a major political power. In the early period from the eighth to the 14th century there were a number of Hindu kingdoms, followed by the first Muslim dynasty in 1307. The Muslim use of Persian as a court language left its mark on the development of the Marathi language.
The Marathas divided the country into Swarajya (homeland – a concept that re-emerged as one of the watchwords of the Independence struggle in the 20th century), and Mughlai (territory controlled by foreigners), and set about reclaiming the latter by means of a series of daring raids. The nonpareil hero of this process was Maharashtra’s late 17th-century leader Shivaji, whose name still generates a passion enjoyed by very few figures in Indian history. The state’s modern political life resonates with the myths of his military abilities, political cunning and Hindu revivalism. Matching the political skills of a Machiavelli to the military ambitions of a Napoleon, within four years of his coronation Shivaji had begun to retake the forts ceded under the treaty with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. By the time of his death from dysentery in 1680 he had re-established a powerful base around Pune and an expanding Maratha Empire.
On Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Shivaji’s former kingdom became a confederacy under the charge of a hereditary minister called the Peshwa and four main Maratha chiefs – Holkar, Scindia, Gaekwad and Bhonsla. By 1750 their power reached across India to Orissa, which they occupied, and Bengal, which they attacked. Maratha power was only decisively curbed when they were defeated at Panipat by the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali. On the death of the young Peshwa, Madhao Rao I, in 1772, the five Maratha powers became increasingly independent of one another. Weakened and divided, they were unable to resist the advance of British power.
Ethnically, Maharashtra contains a variety of peoples. The Bhil, Warli, Gond, Korku and Gowari tribal groups living in the Satpura and Sahyadri ranges in the north are Australoid aboriginals. The Kunbi Marathas found all over the state are believed to be the descendants of immigrants from the north at the beginning of the Christian era. Parsis first arrived in the region in the eighth century from Persia. Just over 80% of the population is Hindu, with Islam and Buddhism the most numerous minority religions. The Buddhists are recent converts from among formerly outcaste Hindus.
Marathi is the main regional language (spoken by 90% of the population), and has undergone a very political revival recently. Both Hindi and English are widely understood, especially in the major cities. Konkani on the west coast and Gondi in the north are important regional languages. Gujarati and its variants are also widely spoken.
The main regional dishes reflect Maharashtra’s transition position between the wheat- growing regions of the north and the rice-growing coastal lands, while millets are grown in the interior. Lightly spiced vegetables and sweet and sour dishes are popular, with a distinctive emphasis on dried and salted fish such as Bombay duck cooked with lentils. There are also recipes that use sprouted lentils. Konkan cuisine has more in common with the coastal food of Goa and Kerala, revolving around fish and vegetable curries flavoured with coconut. If you’re adventurous, try sol kadhi – a purple tangy and salty drink made with the sour fruit of the kokum plant mixed in coconut milk and flavoured with spices. Mumbai has the heaviest concentration of Parsis in the country, so try their cuisine here: dhansak, a special lentil curry with lamb or chicken cooked with five varieties of spice, or patrani machli, fish (often pomfret) stuffed with coconut chutney and coriander, steamed in banana leaves.
The majority of Hindu festivals are observed in the state. The highly colourful Ranga Panchami and Holi, marking the beginning of spring, are very popular. Janmashtami (July/August) celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna. Men and boys in local teams form human pyramids to break pots of curds that have been hung from high places. The winners usually take home a ‘matka’ of money as well. On Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai (August/September) massive figures of the ever-popular elephant god Ganesh (the god of overcoming obstacles and the city’s guardian diety) are towed through the streets and immersed in the sea; Pune has special celebrations that last 10 loud days. Dussehra (October), the last day of the nationally celebrated Navratri festival, is significant because it was the day on which the Marathas usually began their military campaigns. The Muslim festival of Mohurram, which commemorates the martyrs of Islam, is often observed by Hindus as well.
The old British administrative region of the Bombay Presidency had never coincided with the area in which Marathi was the dominant language, and the present state did not take shape until 1960, when Gujarati areas in the north and Kannada-speaking areas in the south were allocated to Gujarat and Karnataka respectively.
Maharashtra’s legislature has two houses; the Vidhan Parishad (legislative council) and Vidhan Sabha (legislative assembly). Except for an annual meeting at Nagpur, the old Maratha capital, these meet in Mumbai. The state is represented by 48 members in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and 19 members in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of the national parliament in New Delhi. The Hindu-Maratha chauvinist party, the Shiv Sena, under the leadership of the former satirical cartoonist Bal Thackeray, has been a force in Maharashtra’s politics for over 30 years. Its imprint is evident in several events, from the mass renaming of Mumbai’s streets after Marathi heroes (and significant party donors) to the communalist riots against Muslims following the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and, more recently, attacks against hand-holding couples, shops selling Valentine’s Day cards, and other supposed threats to Hindu purity. His estranged nephew Raj Thackeray heads the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (Renaissance Army) an increasingly jingoistic regional party that was responsible for widespread violence against immigrant workers in 2007.
Following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 that targeted elite destinations such as the Taj and Oberoi hotels along with the busiest local railway station, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was forced to resign and the state’s Minister for Industry Ashok Chavan took his place. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections the Congress and its allies won a surprise victory, gaining 25 of the 48 seats. The right-wing Hindu parties, the BJP and the Shiv Sena, won 20, leaving the field wide open for the Assembly elections to be held in October 2009.
Maharashtra has been described as India’s industrial and commercial backbone. The nerve centre of India’s stock market, the headquarters of a large number of Indian and multinational companies’ operations in India and a major manufacturing state in its own right, Maharashtra has not only India’s largest city, Mumbai, but a large number of rapidly industrializing smaller cities. These have been encouraged to develop through government policies aimed at stimulating decentralized industrial growth. With only 10% of India’s population Maharashtra accounts for nearly 25% of India’s total industrial output, with textiles, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronics and a wide range of other products. However, agriculture remains important, cash crops like sugar cane accounting for 30% of the country’s total sugar production. Alongside sugar, rice, sorghum, millets and gram are all important, while horticultural crops and fruit like banana, oranges, grapes and the almost-legendary Alphonso mango have rapidly grown in importance.