ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Asia’s only pedestrian hill resort on foot, palanquin, horseback and a heritage train only to find the experience anything but pedestrian
The steady clip-clop of horses, reminiscent perhaps of an old OP Nayyar song, could be heard from the moment we hopped off the slow train to Matheran. Just under 100km and a few hours from Mumbai, the hill retreat was established by the British in the upper reaches of the Sahyadris to escape the burning heat of the plains. Literally ‘A Forest atop a Mountain’, Matheran was a wooded Eden meant for leisurely walks, romance and rides into the sunset. What made it truly unique was that it was the only hill station in Asia where private vehicles were banned. The chief modes of transport were horses, manually drawn carriages, bicycles or foot. In an age of mechanized mayhem, the only motorized sound we could hear was the hum of an airplane 30,000 ft above in the sky.
How and when the grazing ground of adivasis like the Thakur, Dhangar and Kathkaris became a posh retreat for wealthy British officers and Parsi businessmen is anybody’s guess. But records mention that Matheran was ‘discovered’ by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the former District Collector of Thane in 1850. Lord Elphinstone then Governor of Bombay laid the foundation for its development into a hill station and sanatorium for the British. But it was Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy’s introduction of the Matheran Hill Railway in 1907 (later accorded a World Heritage status by UNESCO) that made the journey as special as the destination.
As we clutched our manually stamped Edmondson tickets, the train chugged up 20km from Neral over two hours, hugging the curves of mountains, gorges and valleys. We slipped into the fleeting darkness of One Kiss Tunnel, cheekily named by a British officer, as the length of the tunnel offered just enough time to steal a romantic peck. We halted at Jummapatti station for the downward bound train to cross us on the single track. A few hawkers sold berries, meetha imli and other stuff to passengers who seemed more interested in clambering on the engine and getting photographed on the train.
Waterpipe our next stop was where the engine was cooled. A little later, around a curve, a massive image of Lord Ganesha, vibrantly painted on a boulder suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Mount Barry, Panorama Point and Simpson Point slid by as lush forests spread like glinting sheets of emerald as we pulled into Matheran station in the heart of town.
The idea of hailing down a horse or hand-pulled carriage instead of a cab or an autorickshaw seemed novel but we decided to walk along the bridle path instead. Kapadia Market with its arched entrance and rows of shops displayed an assortment of leather belts, shoes, bags, dried flowers, chikkis and other colourful knick-knacks. The air was scented with a residual sense of lavishness as we walked past several bungalows that had seen better days. Luckily, we were headed for the finest address in town…
Neemrana’s The Verandah in the Forest, the former home of Captain Barr, was the second bungalow to be built in Matheran. A beautiful heritage property, the white, colossal two-storeyed structure was set in a wooded patch with a pretty wraparound verandah overlooking Prabal Garh. At 30 ft, it boasted the highest ceiling in Matheran. The spacious rooms were named after prominent Parsis and citizens – Jehangir, Jeejeebhoy, Peerbhoy, Kotwal, Petit, Albert Sassoon, Chenoy, Shankarshet and Kapadia.
Malet Hall served as the dining area whereas the royal suite Elphinstone was on a lower level alongside ‘before and after’ photographs of Neemrana’s renovation efforts. The regal reading room, colonial décor, polished crockery and attentive staff ensured that we got a true taste of a Burrah Sahib’s luxurious life.
As an Englishman observed years ago in the 1924 Handbook to Matheran ‘Roaming and riding seem to be the main business at Matheran.’ The 38 scenic points were spread across three different ranges covering an area of 8 sq miles and an 18-mile circumference. Each site bore an intriguing name, often attributed to a geographical position, natural feature or some individual of note. In the magic glow of the late afternoon sun, we strolled across to the shimmering Charlotte’s Lake. Juice stalls ran a brisk business as tired visitors, unaccustomed to walking, stopped for a breather. Monkeys trapezed in the trees around the ancient Pisarnath (Shiva) Temple.
After a brief stop at Lord’s Point and the elevated Celia Point, we came to Echo Point, which opened into a deep valley that bounced off every shout. The deep gorges and craggy reddish rock acquired a mesmeric beauty as the evening softened, painting them in colours of dusk. A group of Parsis and foreigners sitting quietly on park benches shushed a loquacious Gujarati expat to watch the sunset in silence. As if on cue, the red sun dropped down a perfect V-shaped silhouette of Prabal Garh with the uncanny outline of the Indian peninsula!
Silvery moonlight filtered through the canopy as we returned for a hot shower, a sumptuous meal and restful sleep at The Verandah. We realized in Matheran, you learn to leave your cars and cares behind. At dawn, we hopped over to the tree house for some birdwatching and after a hearty breakfast, headed to The Byke, Matheran’s oldest bungalow built by Captain Hugh Malet and named after his favourite racehorse. The original bungalow was intact with five heritage rooms while The Byke had developed into a popular resort.
At Hope Hall, another old property, we met Maria who lamented about Matheran’s fast changing landscape, ‘In 1875, Lakshmi and Hope Hall were the only lodgings. Today anyone with a roof claims to be a hotel while heritage properties can’t do any renovation or alteration without government permission. There’s rampant poaching of the Malabar Squirrel by adivasis, Maharashtra’s state symbol.’
After a delicious lunch near the bazaar we went on a 12-point horseback tour (Rs.350) to the famous lookouts. A frisky black racehorse called Rocky waited impatiently while his more sagely partner Bobby stood majestically as we slipped our feet gingerly into the stirrups and grabbed the reins. Santosh who trained horses as a kid took pride in how the animals responded instantly to his low whistle. “I earn Rs.250-300 for the 7km ride from Dasturi car park to town. That’s the nearest place for any motorized transport. The only vehicle here is an ambulance,” he said with a smile.
Lakshman, another guide said, ‘Jaisa gaadi showroom se nikal ke ata hai, ghoda bhi waise hi milta hai.’ We learnt there were about 462 horses in Matheran, procured mostly from Nasik and Shirdi. They are about 2-3 years old and cost Rs.25,000-40,000 for a gauti (country) or Rs.50,000-80,000 for Sindhi, Marwari, Punjabi or Kathiawari, which is like an all-terrain vehicle better suited for colder climes like Matheran. Arab horses didn’t fare well here.
We trotted past King George and Landscape to Honeymoon Point, which was linked by an exciting zip-line Valley Crossing to Louisa Point, the southernmost extremity of Matheran’s westward range. Developed by Edward Fawcett in 1853, Louisa was one of the oldest points and the earliest to receive an English name. The vertigo-inspiring vantage overlooked a deep valley and a rocky outcrop in the shape of a Lion’s Head. On a clear night, one could look beyond the historic Prabal Fort to see the distant lights of Mumbai!
As per a romantic legend, Prabal Garh was once the stronghold of Maratha ruler Shivaji and guarded by his deputy Prabal Rao. Being a devotee of Lord Shiva, he prayed regularly at the old Shiva temple near One Tree Hill, named after its lone tree. However, Matheran was under the control of his adversary and Mughal lackey Ramaji Rao, who wielded strange powers over a ferocious lion. This made Prabal’s daily visit arduous. One day, Prabal Rao aided by Shivaji, launched a surprise attack and killed the lion and Ramaji. The precipitous route he took came to be known Shivaji’s Ladder and the Lion’s Head was linked to this legend.
The northward trail continued past Malang to Coronation Point, created in 1903 to commemorate Edward VII’s coronation. Laxman regaled us with anecdotes of how the locals thwarted the Ambanis’ plan to take over Matheran after they bought properties like Rugby Hotel and Gulmohar. ‘The impounded vehicle in the police station belongs to Nita Ambani’ he smirked.
The saddle of a frisky horse wasn’t the best location to hear about the tragic tale of a skilled rider who lost her balance and fell off the cliff, along with her horse. Danger Point or Janjeera, a narrow path with a deep valley on one side, got its name from the grave danger of falling off the cliff because an ocean of mist filled the valley, making things invisible. We finally came to Porcupine or Sunset Point, the farthest extreme on the western range. The spectacular precipice afforded a breathtaking view with smoke billowing out of chimneys in a Thakar settlement down below.
With the southern circuit of Olympia Race Course, Alexander Point, Rambag and Chowk still on our list, we rued our impending return to Mumbai. At the busy bazaar area, we bought the famous Nariman chikkis and fudge, finally settling for a moonlit dinner at The Byke. A brisk morning walk led us back to the station and our train huffed out at 7am. Engine driver Rajaram Vaman Khade invited us over to ride in the engine. Co-incidentally, the Ganesha rock painting we saw enroute was made by him, taking time out of his busy schedule. He stalled the train at the temple for a brief prayer and rang the bell before hopping back on the train.
From types of engines to railway hierarchy and Matheran’s viewpoints, Khade was a tome of information. ‘You know what locals call Panorama Point in Marathi? Pandurang Point!’, he cackled, before continuing ‘On 1st May 1913 Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy gave his famous picnic party here in honour of WD Shepherd, commissioner of the southern division. A special train had run on the occasion from Matheran to Panorama Point!’
We learnt Alexander Point was named after the husband of Mr. Hugh Malet’s niece. Rambagh overlooked a dense forest of tall trees and Mr. Malet used the path to the foot of the hill on his return from Matheran. Navara-Naveri (or newly wedded couple) got its name after a wedding party travelling from Badlapur to Panvel mysteriously disappeared enroute.
‘You must come in the rains to fully enjoy the beauty of Matheran, when the landscape is lush green and small waterfalls criss-cross the tracks. Even though the train service is suspended in the monsoon, one train runs daily to inspect the tracks. You can ride with me!’ As we made our descent, we looked dejectedly at what we were leaving behind – clean air, peace and the rejuvenating spirit of Matheran. The only things that stuck were memories of stunning views and red dust on our clothes and shoes.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 June, 2012 in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald newspaper.