Slow train to Matheran

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY hop on the heritage Matheran Hill Railway to unearth the hill station’s sights, sounds and stories of a colonial past  

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When the train announcing Karjat-CST rolled into CST station and belched out its morning mob onto the Mumbai platform like a regurgitating python, we looked like a pair of mutant migrants stepping into the train. We were exiting when the world was entering the metropolis. It was like driving in the wrong direction on a one-way. But going to a hill station that prohibited motorized transport to prevent pollution is a rare luxury. Stations whizzed by and two hours later, we hopped off at Neral. A hand slipped under the ticket counter to hand us our manually stamped Edmondson tickets for the heritage train bound to Matheran – a permit to a cleaner, greener world.

Matheran emerged as a sought after refuge in the hills for the British in the 1800s. Though the region was home to the adivasis for centuries, it was Hugh Poyntz Malet, the District Collector of Thane in 1850 who ‘chanced upon’ Matheran. Lord Elphinstone, the former Governor of Bombay, laid the foundation for its development into a hill station and sanatorium for the British. Its rugged hills and welcoming cool air provided the perfect antidote to weary British officers and their families forced to suffer the muggy sultry weather of Bombay. Matheran, which literally means ‘Forest atop a mountain’ became a holiday haven; a feature that hasn’t changed ever since.

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The toy train lumbers up from Neral for 20km over two hours, its bogies jangling in a merry chug-chug as mountain panoramas and valleys unfold between quaint stations and quirky tunnels. We pass a board announcing ‘Ah What a Sharp Curve’. Sometime later, a board with two parrots squawked ‘One Kiss Tunnel’. This famous dark passage was named by a British Officer as it was short enough for lovers to steal a naughty romantic kiss.

At Jummapatti station we halted to make way for the Neral-bound train to cross the single track. Villagers vending snacks and fruit rushed in with woven baskets to woo passengers. Adventure seekers who trek up to Matheran along a forest trail often recount tales about the natural beauty and multitude of waterfalls around Jummapatti. Waterpipe station was the next short halt to cool down the engine.

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The railroad zig-zags around a scenic route that is best experienced post the monsoons, when trees are washed clean and the mountains are green. Sometimes the train would climb so slowly, one could actually hop off, walk alongside, shoot some pictures and hop back! We chugged past Mount Barry, Panorama Point and Simpson Point through a canopy of trees. A towering rock painted with the image of Lord Ganesha emerged round a bend that broke the colour tone of the surroundings with its vibrant maroon, turmeric and turquoise hues. Everyone scrambled for a picture. We learnt that the monolith was hand-painted by Rajaram Vaman Khade, our toy train’s engine driver!

The construction of a railway line from the plains of Neral to Matheran was nothing short of miracle. At a time when no aerial survey could be carried out and no proper communication system was in place, one man with a vision to create an easier access, made it happen. It was philanthropist Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, the first sheriff of Bombay who introduced the Matheran Hill Railway in 1907. He made a generous contribution of Rs.16 lakh and his son Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy accomplished the herculean task in 7 years. Four engines from the Orenstein & Koppel Company were sourced all the way from Germany.

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Impressed by the success of this overwhelming feat, the British Government knighted him as ‘Sir’ Adamjee Peerbhoy. Even today, the train halts at Aman Lodge Railway Station and whistles thrice as a mark of respect to the great soul. His beautiful bungalow ‘The Chalet’ was located just above the Aman Lodge Station, which incidentally is named after his late wife, Amina.

As we pulled to a stop at Matheran station in the heart of town, it was pleasantly quiet except for the twitter of birds, the neighing of horses and a straggle of porters. Declared an eco-sensitive zone, people who drive down to Matheran, have to park their vehicles at Dasturi, 2½ km away. With horses, hand-drawn rickshaws and walking the only means of getting around, Matheran was clearly designed for city folk to slow down and savour nature. The beauty of Matheran had captured the imagination of many. Its famous sights and landmarks like Lords Central Hotel find a mention in Salman Rushdie’s evocative ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.

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The overpowering influence of Bollywood was evident as we straddled Bobby and Singham, two majestic horses. Rocky, Auro and Krishh watched sullenly from afar. We gaped as a small pony called Chhota Bheem ferried a kid to school! There were about 462 horses in Matheran, acquired from Nasik and Shirdi to help transport tourists. With no fear of swerving through traffic, honks, smoke fumes or traffic jams, we trotted away past the ornate arch of Kapadia marketplace. Old shops were institutions by themselves – Nariman Chikki Mart, purveyor of specialty chikkis ran a brisk business in caramelized nutty bars, fudge and jars of honey while Deepak’s Tea and Cold Drink House seemed a popular haunt.

Matheran wore an old world charm with colonial buildings, old hotels and Parsi bungalows with garden sculptures in marble. Located close to the market and station was The Byke, the oldest residence in Matheran. Built in 1854, it was the home of Captain Hugh Malet and named after his favourite racehorse. Reinvented as Hotel Byke, modern rooms with more comfort had been added around the old heritage structure.

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We dismounted at a stand and walked past iron gates to discover a big secret hidden in a wooded estate – Neemrana’s Verandah in the Forest. The second building to come up in Matheran, it was the former home of Captain Barr. A beautiful 2-storeyed heritage bungalow named after its charming wide verandah, its 30 ft ceiling was the highest in Matheran. Luxurious rooms bore names of prominent citizens – Jehangir, Jeejeebhoy, Peerbhoy, Kotwal, Petit, Albert Sassoon, Chenoy, Shankarshet and Kapadia.

Indoor dining was arranged in Malet Hall while Elphinstone, the royal suite was located below with archival pictures of the bungalow and its renovation dressing the walls. A machan for birdwatching and a regal reading room stocked with coffee table books tracing the Raj era and Parsi history, colonial décor, crockery and attentive staff on call, you could spend endless hours of relaxation despite the chattering monkeys. Armed with slingshots, the friendly staff even kept Matheran’s notorious monkeys at bay!

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Based on the duration of your stay, you can decide how you wish to explore the 38 scenic points marked out for a visitor. It covers the three different ranges spread across Matheran’s 8 square miles in an 18-mile circuit. We opted for a mix of foot and hooves to get the best of both worlds! The evening walk took us to the ancient Shiva shrine of Pisarnath and Charlotte’s Lake, an emerald green reservoir that was the source of the town’s drinking water. Other walkers plodded on panting tiredly as we sipped glasses of sugarcane juice and the local favorite, kokum juice by the wayside stalls. Nearby, Lord’s Point and Cecil Point (also referred to as Celia Point) afforded stunning views of the Sahyadris.

We reached Echo Point at the magical hour of dusk. Across a wide open chasm, Prabal Garh was silhouetted against the setting sun that poured gold into the horizon before it sank into a V-shaped mountainscape. On our right, beyond a stunning horseshoe gorge that glowed in dusky pink tones like a half-eaten peach, we saw Honeymoon Point and Louisa Point with people miniaturized into living dolls by the distance. We returned to The Verandah in the moonlight for a sumptuous meal and rest as cicadas sang through the night.

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The next day was a 12-point horseback trail to more scenic locations. For 350 bucks, the ride across the countryside raises a muddy dust trail and halts at Matheran’s many vantage points, each riddled with odd legends. The horsemen double up as guides. “This is King George Point. Honeymoon Point is favourite of couples. Some say we get honey there. There’s also zip-line valley crossing – one is 1,300 ft starting from Alexander Point to Rambaug, another is 2000 ft from King Edward to Louisa Point,’ he rattled on.

Louisa Point, the southernmost tip in Matheran’s westward range was developed by Edward Fawcett in 1853, and ranks among Matheran’s oldest spots with an English name. Just below on the right of Louisa Point, is the famous ‘Lion’s Head’ a leonine shaped rocky outcrop presenting a spectacular view. In ideal weather conditions, one can observe the lights of Mumbai beyond Prabalgarh. The historic fort was a stronghold of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji.

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According to folklore, Shivaji’s agent Prabal Rao, was a staunch Shiva devotee who would often visit the shrine at Matheran’s ‘One Tree Hill’. When the region came under the influence of the Mughals, Prabal Rao’s routine visit was hampered by regular skirmishes with Mughal aide Ramaji Rao and a ferocious lion roaming in the area. It is said that Chatrapati Shivaji and Prabal Rao undertook a secret mission along a perilous route and killed Ramaji and the lion in an ambush. The risky uphill path was named Shivaji’s Ladder and the majestic crag came to be known Lion’s Head.

Continuing along the northward trail we sprinted past Malang to Coronation Point, opened a year after the coronation of the King Edward VII in 1902. A vein-like meandering path with a plunging valley on one side led us to Danger Point or Janjeera which ended rather abruptly. Even expert riders and horses have missed a step and lost their lives in accidents when the spot is engulfed by mist. Crossing Rustomjee and Chenoy Point, we finally reached Porcupine or Sunset Point, the farthest edge on the western range. We dismounted near a desolate tree and hurried down a walking path heading to the precipice. It was worth it. The perch commands an expansive view of the valleys and surrounding hills and is hugely popular as the best place to savour the sunset.

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Far ahead of Monkey Point, Hart Point and Mary Point is another belvedere. It is said that dawn unfolds at Panorama Point in a magical sunrise with all embracing view of two sides of Matheran. On May 1st 1903, Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy organized a special picnic party in honour of WD Shepherd, commissioner of the southern division and ran a special train from Matheran to Panorama Point. As the toy train inches up the tortuous track near Panorama Point, people say is impossible to figure if the train is ascending or descending. Curiously, some of the locals referred to Panorama Point as Pandurang Point.

‘Our Malet Point’ was named by Col Haigen in 1894 to honour Hugh Malet, the man who discovered Matheran. But with no board announcing this fact, people call it “Our Point”! Explore the south of Matheran past Olympia Race Course and Chowk to Alexander Point, named after the husband of Malet’s niece. Malet often walked through the dense forested tract below Rambagh down to the base of the hill. The stories didn’t stop there. We heard about the mysterious haunted ‘Red House’ and the tragic tale of a wedding party that disappeared mysteriously while travelling from Badlapur to Panvel. The spot was called Navara Naveri, referring to ‘groom and bride’.

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With a measly torchlight elongating our shadows, we came across several abandoned old homes, eerily silent and wrapped in various stages of decay, silhouetted in the glades. We reached The Verandah, lit up like a star, relieved that we weren’t waylaid by the spectres of darkness. The next morning, in the broad light of day we laughed when we learnt that except for a few rundown villas, most of them were lovely holiday homes with old toothless caretakers tending to the gardens awaiting the return of their rightful owners.

We heard the whistle go. It was time to board the slow train that shuddered slowly out of paradise. Interestingly, on the descent, train assistants crouched between boxcars to manually apply brakes so that the train didn’t over speed and go off track. The Matheran Hill Railway was an extraordinary feat of engineering genius and these lines written in 1924 in the Handbook to Matheran offer a fitting tribute: 

Hugh Malet who discovered this hill
Whom we all remember still
Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy for all his skill
In bringing the railway on the hill
Good paymaster with his intellect wise
Turning the lovely hill into paradise

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Matheran is 90km from Mumbai and about 2½ hours by road. Motor vehicles are not allowed beyond the car park at Dasturi. Besides local trains from CST, a few Mumbai-Pune express trains like Deccan Express (11007) and Koyna Express (11029) stop at Neral Junction. From here the heritage hill train takes 2 hours for the 21 km climb to Matheran.

Getting Around
To move around, walk, ride a horse or take a hand-pulled rickshaw. Porters are available to carry luggage. Sightseeing tours on horseback are available as per 7-point, 12-point or full day tour.

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Costs
Train tickets for Matheran Hill Rail cost Rs.210 (1st Class), Rs.35 (2nd Class Reserved) and Rs.20 (2nd class unreserved). Horses and rickshaws usually cost Rs.100-200/hour but rates can be negotiated as per package. Park your car at Dasturi for Rs.35/day. Charges for entering Matheran are Rs.40 for adults. Shared taxi from Neral to Dasturi (Rs.70/person).

Stay

Verandah in the Forest
Barr House, Matheran
Ph 02148 230810/230296, 9404810446
http://www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.3,500-7,000

The Byke Heritage
Ph 02148 230 365-7
http://www.thebyke.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

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