Vast and rugged, the modern state of Maharashtra, the third largest in India, was created in 1960, from the Marathi-speaking regions of what was previously Bombay state. As soon as you leave its seething port capital, Bombay, developed by Europeans, and now the epitome of modern, cosmopolitan, polyglot India, you enter a different world with a different history.
Undoubtedly, Maharashtra's greatest treasures are its extraordinary cave temples and monasteries. The finest of all are to be found near Auragabad, renamed for the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb and still home to a sizeable Muslim population (as well as the "poor man's Taj Mahal", Bibi-Ka-Maqbara). The busy commercial city is the obvious base for visits to the caves at Ajanta, with their fabulous and still-vibrant murals, and the monolithic temples of VeruL, where the Hindu Kailash Temple may look like a structural building but was carved in its entirety from the rock. From the second century BC, this region was an important centre of Buddhism; artificial caves were excavated to shelter monks, and the finest artists sculpted magnificent cathedral-like halls for congregational worship.
Away from the cities, the most characteristic feature of the landscape is a plenitude of forts - as the western borderland between north and south India, Maharashtra's trade routes were always important, but would also bring trouble. Inland, parallel to the sea, and never further than 100km from it, the mighty Western Ghats rise abruptly. The areas of level ground that crowned them, endowed with fresh water, were easily converted into forts where small forces could withstand protracted sieges by large armies. Less aggressive modern visitors can scale such windswept fortified heights at Singhagad, Pratapgarh, and Daulatabad - which briefly, bizarrely and disastrously replaced Delhi as capital in the fourteenth century.
During the last century, the mountains found another use. When the summer proved too much for the British in Bombay, they sought refuge in nearby hill stations, the most popular of which, such as Mahabaleshwar, now serve Indian holidaymakers. Matheran, 170km due east, and 800 m up, has a special attraction, apart from a cool climate, superb views and wooded paths- it is closed to all motorized road traffic. Instead, visitors board a miniature train that scales the hill via 281 curves. Beyond the Ghats, Maharashtra extends 900km eastwards across the Deccan plateau to the geographical center of the subcontinent, an area largely populated by the tribal groups.
To the west, Maharashtra occupies 500km of the Konkan coast on the Arabian Sea, from Gujarat to Goa; travelling has always been circuitous, as the coast winds back and forth with countless inlets, ridges and valleys, again peppered with forts. In the absence of its former seaborne traffic, this region of picturesque ports and deserted beaches cannot provide enough work for its young people, who are forced to move to Bombay, though the imminen