RATAN K. LALKAKA
‘Oh! Matheran Hill is fair to behold,
Its water is pure and its breeze ice cold,
The views from the Points well deserve admiration
And the English delight in this lovely hill station.’
(A translation from a collection of songs gathered on the Hill.)
FOR the stressed out, the fatigued in mind and body, the tired and weary, there are few places like Matheran for a quick and effective rejuvenation of the senses and a mending of tattered nerves – enabling one to meet the world once again with a lighter and fresher step.
If one looks directly eastward from Bombay during early morning one will see a low hill silhouetted against the rising sun. It is Matheran.
Matheran rises sheer from the plains up to its highest point of 2600 ft, a mere 22 miles from Bombay as the crow flies, within easy reach of those who wish to delve into its beauty and charm and savour its clean and fresh air even for just a weekend. An early resident, Mrs Oliver, in her definitive book on Matheran published in 1905 writes: ‘Here lies the modest, yet fascinating little sanatorium of Matheran, whose claim to be one of the prettiest hill stations in India has long been undisputed. There are, indeed, many travellers who assert that the peculiar beauty of its sylvan glades and wide prospects over the surrounding country will compare with any scenery to be found in the world. The name Matheran is at once expressive and explanatory… on the top a forest.’
The hill station was discovered in 1850 by Hugh Poyntz Malet, then collector of Thana, who made the ascent from the village of Chowk to the top of the hill and was immediately impressed with its natural beauty. Having apparently fallen in love with his discovery, he soon returned to the hill and made several subsequent visits when he took up his friends and relatives who built simple dab and wattle huts. In 1855 the Governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, visited the hill and for him it was love at first sight. With its salubrious climate and its proximity to Bombay he foresaw Matheran’s popularity.
In the early days, before the cart road from Neral to Matheran was constructed and the railway connected Bombay to Neral, a person wishing to reach Matheran had a laborious journey ahead of him. He took a ferryboat from Bombay to Ulva, a small bunder across the harbour, from where he took a tonga to Panvel, a small town a few miles inland and then rode a bullock cart to Chowk, the same village from where Malet had jumped off to ‘discover’ Matheran. From Chowk, the traveller climbed up to Matheran via the same trail traversed by Malet.
Later, when the then GIP Railway on its way to Poona reached Neral in 1854, the journey became quicker and less laborious. Still later, in 1907, when Sir Adamji Peerbhoy built the Matheran Light Railway with a gauge of two feet and a total distance of 14 miles from Neral to the hill station, the journey from Bombay to Matheran became even quicker and more comfortable. It was now possible to reach Matheran within four hours from Victoria Terminus.
The commissioning of the Ghat Road from Neral to Matheran and government commencing the allotment of plots for residential purposes had a salutary effect on the progress of the hill. Plots were leased out at Rs 5 per acre per annum with a limit of five acres for each lessee. The stipulation was that the plot boundary walls be kept low to facilitate the passage of animals. The progress of the hill station was now rapid, the 17 bungalows of 1867 rising to more than 200 in 1950, the majority of them built in colonial style with wide verandas sweeping around. A little township with a bazaar emerged along Matheran’s main road consisting of residential places, hotels and lodging houses, shops, bakeries and restaurants. A dispensary and a hospital came up, space for horse stables was allocated, all this to serve the tourist and the residents of the far-flung bungalows. The villagers came up the hill to sell local produce in the Sunday bazaar, making a colourful contribution to the proceedings.
Gymkhanas were established for games and provided entertainment and amusement for the steadily growing number of visitors. A Protestant church, St. Pauls, was consecrated in 1865, almost at the same time as the Roman Catholic one, to cater to the spiritual needs of the visitors. A mosque was erected in 1872. Several Hindu temples were also built; though the Pisharnath temple near the lake was in existence much before Malet even came up.
An enterprising family, Ms Jai F. Mehta and sisters, published a little magazine on the Hill, Matheran Jottings, twice each week during the season between mid April and the beginning of June. It was a unique publication, giving news of the Hill covering events that had occurred and were forthcoming. It encapsulated all that happened during that brief period.
Regrettably, I have been able to lay my hands on only one issue – that of May 1916. One learns from the columns of Matheran Jottings that Sir Pherozshah Mehta loved Matheran and spent many hours of his long life on the hill. Matheran’s popularity grew and it soon became Bombay’s favourite hill station where people sought refuge away from the hustle and bustle and from its stifling heat. If Malet was the founder of Matheran then Lord Elphinstone was the founder of its prosperity and popularity.
On reaching the top, by road or rail, one is soon in a thick forest which, with its ambience of total peace, is not unlike that of paradise. The first impact as you enter is as if a door to an airconditioned room has been opened and you are enveloped in a delicious coolness. In exhilaration you walk on. Matheran’s top is a small plateau of about 3.8 sq. miles, undulating and irregular, being a narrow uneven tableland with rocky headlands known as Points. The annual rainfall of 250-300 inches maintains this evergreen forest of trees and shrubs which is sustained by a thick layer of porous red laterite stone which acts like a huge sponge from which the roots of the evergreens drink deep throughout the year.
The forest lies like a mantle over the hill through which the founders laid out walksthat are shady even during the summer midday sun and which encourage you to walk on. The walks hug the contours and usually end at the rocky headlands commanding magnificent views of the surrounding valleys and hills. Openings in the forest called ‘Griffiths Peeps’ were made and designed for obtaining marvellous views from various angles. The scenery of the unfolding valleys is breathtaking and never fails to awe anyone who takes in the scene. The sunsets are always wonderful to witness, particularly during October when the atmosphere is washed and clean and the masses of clouds on the western horizon turn to orange and red as the sun descends to meet the sea.
Walks are the pleasantest and most rewarding pursuit on the hill. Francesa Wilson in ‘My Trip to Matheran’ said of this hill station:
‘It is like an enormous wood or jungle, with seventy miles of roads cut through it. The stranger who starts out for a walk, imagines he is alone with the mountain solitude, with no dwelling near him. He is charmed with the varied foliage, and splendid trees gnarled with age, that he frequently passes. Each turn in the winding road discovers more and more beauties, avenues of lofty trees forming arched roofs... His astonishment when he visits these Points is extreme; he walks along guided by the numerous sign-posts, little thinking what is in store for him. He sees no opening in the wood until close on to the Point, when suddenly he finds himself with the grandest scenery in front of him.’
On a walk, besides coming across a galloping horse or troops of monkeys on their aerial paths up above in the trees or down on the forest floor foraging for food, there is nothing else to disturb one’s peace of mind. The early British had wisely banned the automobile from ever coming upon the hill (a ban which is still in existence, making Matheran Asia’s only car-free hill station) and no internal combustion engine pollutes the pristine atmosphere. The fresh air is invigorating and after just a couple of days one’s steps become springier and there is a decided difference in the level of fitness. Nature is absorbed into one’s physical being, producing a totally relaxed feeling.
Another pleasant occurrence is the morning birdsong; just after dawn, in the jungle all around you, the birds seem to wake up in unison with a song to herald the waking day. Sweet melodies and lilting tunes colour the morning air – the thrush, the robin, the bulbul, the whistling schoolboy in season and many others sing to their hearts content just for a short while before breaking into silence once again.
During Matheran’s earlier and halcyon days, the style and desires of holiday makers were quite different from todays vacationers whose visits are primarily of a much shorter duration. Such was the pull of Matheran for us as children that we wasted no time in reaching it once school closed for the summer vacation. We took a train from Victoria Terminus to Neral and then climbed up to the Hill and home to ‘Woodlands’, a bungalow at Porcupine Point, a total walk of about three and half to four hours. Our happy vacation regrettably came to an end once the monsoon arrived during the beginning of June – exactly on time. In those days even nature kept to her schedule!
Our entire holiday was spent walking, riding, reading, listening to music and exploring the nearby hills. We enjoyed each and every day spent in the pursuit of nature and marvelling at her creations. The several gymkhanas were alive with games and tournaments and a fair degree of socialising enlivened the season as each bungalow entertained in style. This kind of life reached its peak just after the Second World War when the more affluent could not go abroad and had to congregate in Matheran for their holidays.
Although Matheran’s altitude is not high when compared to other hill stations, it is relatively cooler because of the thick forests and its closeness to the sea. April is hot but by mid May coolness pervades the atmosphere and a few showers further lower the temperature. By the end of May clouds begin gathering, announcing the monsoon which arrives bang on cue. The period from end May till the arrival of the monsoon is perhaps the most beautiful and spectacular on the hill. Mists rise up from the valley and shroud the hill; occasional showers and thunderstorms arrive in the evenings and then the monsoon hits Matheran, not in a gradual or gentle manner but in a series of gigantic thunderclaps and lightning.
From being hot and muggy, a delicious moist coolness envelopes the hill and the smell of fresh earth fills the nostrils. The coming of the monsoon, though a rebirth for the hill, signals the end of the season for the visitor and the tourist. The monsoon is very hard for the few inhabitants who perforce have to continue residence; everything remains damp, clothes do not dry and often it rains without pause for days on end. The continued cutting of trees has however decreased the rainfall from an average of more than 300 inches per year in the early 1900s to less than 200 inches now.
Let us now take a walk through the leafy paths of the hill station visiting several of its many Points and places of general interest which existed just after the war. Unaided by illustrations or photographs and in this case even by a map, words are inadequate to describe the hill’s sheer beauty and loveliness.
For no particular reason, but taking it as a central point of the hill, let us start at the Matheran Railway Station. Once a focus of great social activity as one rushed to meet the trains coming from Neral to check out who had arrived, there is now no such excitement and the arrival of a train has become a routine affair.
We walk on Matheran’s ‘main road’ alongside the railway track northwards till we turn east, leaving the road and the railway to go down to Neral. We pass Beatrice Cliff, a wooded bluff with a pretty view of a valley and proceed onto the easterly point of Garbut. This point appears to be at the end of a separate hill and the view gives a vista of the many ranges and villages that lie to the east, including Lonavla with its ‘Dukes Nose’ rearing up.
From Garbut we walk to Panorama Point, Matheran’s northern most point affording a sweeping vista of the east, west and the north. The view is indeed magnificent and worth the walk.
We double back and walk southwards but now on Matheran’s westerly flank, we pass Hart Point and Monkey Point, both with lovely views. We pass Elphinstone Lodge, an estate of more than 30 acres, the largest on the Hill. It was built in 1858 or thereabouts by Lord Elphinstone and still retains its original charm. Westwards now we go, passing the European Gymkhana which once boasted of six tennis courts and Malet Spring, so named after the hill’s Founder. Before the advent of Charlotte Lake and a piped water supply to the bungalows, water was collected from the various springs and carried by bhistis in pakhals made of buffalo skin.
From Malet Spring on to Porcupine Point, in my view the prettiest point on the hill. It has an unbroken view of a circle of hills from Panorama Point to Bawa Malang, all in an arc. The valley below is aptly named Maldoonga, literally a necklace of hills. On a clear day, especially after the monsoon when the atmosphere is clean and washed, the island of Bombay lies shimmering with its high buildings clearly visible. Unfortunately, with today’s pollution this is not possible. The sunsets are a joy to behold.
From Porcupine now walk southwards to Louisa Point from where again the view towards the west is magnificent. A promontory bearing a marked resemblance to a lion’s head is named so and is typical of these odd rock formations found elsewhere in the western ghats. Matheran’s sister hill Prabal runs alongside, a smaller hill in area but of the same height. Sir George Birdwood in his autobiography Sva mentions the sunsets seen from Louisa as the most poetic thing he encountered in life.
From Louisa you turn eastwards and then south towards Lake Charlotte, once Matheran’s main source of water. Today, water is pumped up from the Ulhas river but before that happened the length of your holiday in summer often depended on how long the water in the lake lasted! Across the lake lies Pisarnath temple, the foremost sanctuary in Matheran. People believe that Pisarnath can bestow favours like those attributed to shrines elsewhere.
As Matheran became the venue of fashionable society the need for a racecourse was felt. Olympia, as it is called, lies on a flat piece of land as we walk southwards. The Bombay Amateur Riders Club hold their annual mounted sports at Olympia over the last two weekends of May.
You now walk to One Tree Hill so named for the obvious reason that it has always only had one tree growing on it. Go to the two southernmost points, Little Chowk and Big Chowk, and make an about turn and return to the bazaar. That completes a circle of Matheran. A good walker can ‘do’ the whole Hill in less than a couple of days.
Regrettably, starting from about the 1960s a great change started sweeping over the once lovely hill. Because of its proximity to Bombay and Poona, with growing affluence more and more people started visiting the Hill. Matheran came under the avaricious gaze of ‘developers’ anxious to cash in on this tourist boom. Official statistics place the average daily influx of the floating population at 10,000 in 1996 compared to 4000 in 1977. Matheran’s ecologically sensitive region came under tremendous pressure from overbuilding of lodges and hotels.
To accommodate this rush, hotels proliferated and were built without regulations or rules. The worst that could have happened to the Hill happened – an onslaught on the environment. Trees were felled illegally and indiscriminately and the forest cover began thinning, resulting in an increase in temperatures.
Today, the Hill faces water shortages, periodic failure of electricity, traffic congestion and other pressures on its fragile infrastructure. There was also a determined attempt by vested interests to lift the ban on motor cars entering the township. Luckily for Matheran and its lovers, these attempts were thwarted and the ban stays.
Efforts made by local environmental groups have resulted in the government issuing a notification which declared Matheran and its surrounds an eco-sensitive zone. Lovers of nature and particularly of Matheran now pray and hope that the provisions of this notification will become effective and enable Matheran to be restored to its original beauty and glory. I end with another translation from a collection of songs gathered on the Hill:
‘The delightful shade of this garden is fitted to remove fatigue,
the cuckoos, parrots and other birds singing melodiously,
how much do they tranquillise this troubled mind!
The spray issuing from the playing fountain joins
the wind laden with the scent of flowers.’