Panchgani: Beyond the Five Hills

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY drive from Mumbai to the erstwhile British escape and favoured Bollywood locale of Panchgani, with colonial homes, breathtaking views, farmers’ markets and strawberry fields

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As we checked into the swanky Ravine Hotel, the staff reverentially ushered us into a room as if it were a shrine. “Sir, this is the room Salman Khan prefers to stay in when he comes to Panchgani”, he whispered. Not exactly diehard Sallu fans sporting Being Human t-shirts, we preferred the campy appeal of the cliffside tented cottage with a private open-air fireplace instead.

Tucked away behind the main building, the camping section was formerly a quarry and offered unexpected seclusion. Landscaped around a waterfall, a fish pool with silken koi gliding in its depths and a sandy beach around a salt-water body were a few scattered tents. A little stroll took us to the edge where the hill plummeted into a wide ravine, dense with foliage. Like the pioneering duo John Chesson and Rustomji Dubash, who came to this region in mid 19th century, we stood there and regarded the scenic Dhom Valley below.

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Like most hill stations in India, Panchgani too, is an outcome of British intent to escape warmer climes. While nearby Mahabaleshwar was their first choice, they were forced to find an alternative to get away from the torrential downpour during the monsoons. Warrant Officer Wilson was the first Englishman to come here in 1850 to carry out a meteorological survey and recommended Panchgani as a suitable place for a military sanatorium. However, it was on a survey of the Sahyadris or Western Ghats that Chesson and Dubash recognized the potential of this nameless empty tract and its year-round appeal.

The place came to be known as Panchgani, because of its five (panch) adjoining villages – Dhandegar, Godavli, Amral, Khingar and Taighat. Some claim ‘gani’ means ‘hill’ or is derived from ‘gaon’ (village). Yet others suggest in this region of high seismic activity, it could be a corruption of ‘agni’, the volcanic fire that created the magnificent rock formations 63-66 million years ago. Thrust up from tectonic pressure of the earth’s plates, the high tablelands form part of the Deccan Traps, one of the largest volcanic flood basalt provinces on earth.

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Superintendent Chesson took charge of the hill station in 1863 and transformed its landscape and demography. Improbable as it may sound, back then this was a treeless zone. Chesson’s greening endeavor covered the hills with groves of silver oak, fiery poinsettia and other plants of the western world. He also helped populate the place with local labour to enable ease of living for the British. Tailors, butchers, washermen, vendors, building contractors; he encouraged all to settle here, reserving a gaothan (village site) below the bazaar.

Panchgani’s healthy climate prompted a Bombay doctor Rustomji Bomanji Billimoria to establish a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1912! The century old institution is still in existence as Bel Air Hospital at Dalkeith, managed by the Indian Red Cross Society. Blending the charm of colonial bungalows, old churches and elite residential schools with strawberry farms, fruit orchards, hiking trails, viewpoints and adventure; Panchgani is an ideal short break.

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We trudged up to Sydney Point, a small hillock near the hotel, taking a tricky shortcut to catch the sunset. A pony nibbled away in a wayside meadow. Beyond the railing at the top we caught sight of the sweeping Krishna Valley where the river curved around the hill to fill the reservoir of Dhom Dam at Wai. The site was named in honour of Sir Sydney Beckwith, former Commander in Chief of the Bombay Army in 1829. We rounded off the day with a delicious dinner by the fireside, under a blanket of stars.

The following morning we drove around town to discover institutions like St Joseph’s Convent School and Kimmins High School, established in the 1890s. Initially they catered only to European children with privileges extended to Indian royalty. Later, schools were established for specific communities but after Independence, they became more inclusive. The European Boys School became St Peter’s Boys School with late rockstar and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (then Farrokh Balsara), among its famous alumni! Parsi High School became Billimoria High School, Hindu High School changed to Sanjeevan Vidyalaya, Muslim High School became Anjuman-i-Islam High School while Baha’i School became the New Era High School. The film Taare Zameen Par was shot here and boosted Panchgani’s image as an educational hub of international standard.

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Beyond a tree-lined driveway, the brick red wall of St Peter’s Church lured us for a quick peek. There was no one around and we walked around its arched corridor. A nudge to the door and we were in the quiet hall. Chesson’s final resting place is a grassy patch in the church’s cemetery. His death centenary in 1971 witnessed an exceptional gathering of townsfolk to honour their founder.

A quick breakfast of cream rolls and buns from Roach, one of the oldest family-run bakeries and a cup of chai at a local café fired us up. The weekly Budh Bazaar (Wednesday Market) was on, where locals sold organic produce, leather goods, provisions, utensils and other wares. Farm fresh vegetables and fruits brightened up the stalls as vendors tempted us with boxes of glossy red strawberries. The old Beatles ode to innocence, Strawberry Fields Forever could very well be a theme song for this lovely town.

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During the annual Strawberry Festival, tourists can pick and eat berries to their heart’s content. After generous scoops of fresh strawberries in ice cream at the Mapro Garden café, we slipped the bottled goodness of squashes, jams and preserves – mulberries, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries into our bags before taking an excursion to Mahabaleshwar. En route we halted for a bite of delicious wood-fired pizzas and sandwiches at Mapro’s Food Court.

At Mahabaleshwar, the colonnaded ancient Mahadev or Panchganga Mandir teemed with people. At the edge of the tank, a relentless stream emerged from a cow-shaped stone spout that watered the valleys on its onward journey as the mighty river Krishna. The site is also the source of four other rivers – Koyna, Venna, Savitri and Gayatri. Most tourists flock to Venna Lake for boating while grabbing juicy steamed corn from the stalls.

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But we chose a hardier option – a trek to Arthur’s Seat. This picturesque highpoint encompassing gigantic masses of stratified rocks is dedicated to Sir Arthur Malet, who often sat here brooding over the death of his wife and child in a ferry accident along the Savitri river. The route had several scenic lookouts.

At Monkey Point the three natural rock formations hailed as Gandhiji’s famous apes that spoke no evil, saw no evil or heard no evil, sat motionless amidst a landscape of craggy mountain folds. At Tiger Springs, a favourite watering hole of big cats in the past, tourists collected spring water in bottles. Kate’s Point, overlooking Savitri Point and Castle Rock, is also known as ‘Echo Point’. Some hooted, shrieked names or made movie-style proclamations of love thrilled that the mountains bounced them back manifold. Hunting Point served as the hunting grounds for British officers.

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We drove to New Mahabaleshwar to reach Needle-hole Point, named after an intriguing rock formation. Near a precipitous escarpment we sat on a grassy meadow, gazing at the uninterrupted stretch of the Deccan Traps, wrinkled and furrowed like an elephant’s trunk. Sindola Hill, rechristened as Wilson Point after Sir Leslie Wilson, former Governor of Bombay, is Mahabaleshwar’s highest point. At 4710 ft, it presented panoramic views all around. The trekking trails were well marked with signboards noting historical highlights.

By evening, we were back in Panchgani atop Parsi Point. In its heyday, it was the chosen picnic spot for the elite. We zipped to Tableland, the town’s most popular hangout. Being the second largest volcanic plateau in Asia and the highest after the Tibetan plateau, it spans a 4.5 km stretch that has turned into a hub of activity. Like a chameleon, Tableland transforms into a cricket ground for youngsters, walking track for citizens, a magnificent lookout, filming locale, trekking terrain and a playground for horse-rides, mela-like stalls and eateries!

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Yawning caverns and caves like Devil’s Kitchen on the southern side of Tableland held mythological links, claiming to be the site where the Pandavas camped during the days of the Mahabharata. A few indentations in the ground marked by a rock circle were tagged ‘Pandava’s footprints’ and the Pandavgad caves in nearby Wai lent credence to this legend. Time flew by and we were soon enveloped in darkness under a canopy of stars. A horse nickered restlessly from afar. We steered towards the Ravine where dinner simmered at the Melting Pot.

On our way out, we stopped at Wai, a little hamlet that became Charanpur in Shah Rukh Khan’s Swades. Regarded as Dakshin Kashi of Maharashtra, the town has several beautiful temples and ghats. A rusty sign near Dhom Dam lured us down a small lane that ended at the exquisite doorway of Shri Narasimha temple. In the courtyard, a carved Nandi squatted in a pavilion set in a lotus-shaped tank, guarding Lord Shiva’s shrine. With arches, stunning carvings and a river flowing outside, this offbeat temple complex left us awestruck. We hiked up the bund to see the sparkling reservoir and temple of Dholya Ganapati, built in 1762 in the distance. Up in the hills, the mist rolled in. It was time to head back…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Panchgani is 285km from Mumbai and 100km from Pune via NH-4. Local attractions nearby include Mahabaleshwar (18 km) and Wai (10 km).

Where to stay: Ravine Hotel, Wai-Panchgani Road, Sydney Point, Panchgani. Ph 02168 241060 http://www.ravinehotel.com

Tours: Guides offer sightseeing packages covering Old & New Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani and Wilson Point, charging Rs.450 for 2½ hours per tour.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 July 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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