Friday, March 30, 2007

Back to Basics: Welcome to Matheran

Picture this. A place just two hours journey from Pune, covered with dark, dense forest! A place crowded with ruined and deserted 19th century houses! A place where every road leads to some precipice, offering a panoramic view of nature at her best! This is Matheran, the beautiful hill resort sandwiched between Mumbai and Pune.
The best part of Matheran is that unlike many other hill stations, the worst of modern city life is nowhere to be seen. Ignore the market (and the deluxe hotel where you stay), and you are transported into a different world. Get down from the Toy Train at the station and you are back to the British era: forest roads with trees covering your way like canopies, monkeys crossing your path hunting for food, tribal women in their traditional costumes busy with their chores, and ‘rickshawallas’ and ‘ghorawallas’ waiting, at your disposal.
You’d probably like a horse ride. But before that book a hotel room and freshen up. There’s long road ahead. For staying accommodations, you’ve several options to choose from: from swanky ‘The Rugby’, The Byke’ to ‘Usha Ascot’, ‘The Regal’, to hotels such as ‘Girivihar’ and ‘Lake View’. There are also numerous lodges run by the locals.
Now, time for a walk! Don’t bother to wear good clothes in Matheran. While you walk on the roads, the dust of the rust coloured soil would invariably smear you. That’s the beauty of the place. You can begin your walk at any point. Matheran is a land of points. In every corner, there’s a point, each more beautiful than the previous one. There are in all 30 points which command panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.
You can start with Panorama point, king of the points, which offers a comprehensive view of the countryside. Looking eastward you can see a small train winding its way towards Pune. To the south lie the long lines of the Matheran hills. You can also view the village of Neral spreading across the valley like some miniature art. This point is ideal for watching sunrise. Mount Berry near Panorama point is one of the highest of the hills, offering a grand view of the Sahyadri mountain range. The Garbut point offers a brilliant view of the central railway. From Chouk point you can see the southern plateau and the broken ranges of Sahyadri with clustering villages.
Every point in Matheran has tales of the bygone days. There’s Charlotte Lake guarding three points, Lord, Celia and King George point. Lumley Seat was built in memory of the visit to the hill of the Governor of Bombay, Sir Roger Lumley. King Edward point and Coronation point are named after the coronation of Edward VII, king of England in 1903.
The Louisa point is the largest of all the points. At Echo point the hill will reverberate to your voice. You may also be able to see a waterfall in October. The Porcupine point is ideal for watching sunset.
And a visit to One Tree Hill is a must. The point acquired its name from the solitary Jambul tree that stands atop the hill. From here you can view the Bombay-Pune road, and the Chouk village at the foothills. If you are adventurous enough, you could climb down the hilly pathways called Shivaji Ladder to visit the sleepy tribal village below. This was the road through which Mr. Mallet climbed up when he discovered Matheran in 1850.
As a collector of Thane under British Raj, Mr. Hugh P. Malet once visited the village of Chouk, and discovered the hill of Matheran, which till now was a grazing ground. He was so enamoured by the beauty of the hill that he decided to build a bungalow for himself, ‘The Byke’ which is now a luxury hotel. Other British officials followed suit, and soon Matheran become a prized summer retreat. Then arrived the Gujarati and Parsee merchants from Bombay and by the end of 19th century Matheran turned into a thriving little resort with holiday bungalows.
The eight-kilometer Ghat road between Neral and Matheran was completed in 1855. In those days journeys to Matheran were made either on foot or by rickshaws, ponies or manchils. The Parsee gentleman Adamjee Peerbhoy looked for a suitable solution for the road and under his aegis the Neral-Matheran railway line was opened on 15th April 1907.
Today, besides the toy train, which covers a distance of 21 km in two hours to take the visitors to Matheran, there are also hired taxies to reach the place from Neral.
This is Matheran, situated on 18.58 North Latitude and 73.18 East Longitude. The area is about 7.35 sq. km. The highest spot of the hill is 803.47 m. above the sea level. As regards to climate, it is delightfully cool and crisp. In the summers the temperatures read between 20 to 30 degrees Celsius. In the winter season, it hovers between 15 to 25 degrees Celsius.
The original inhabitants of Matheran belong to three classes: Dhangars, Thakurs and Katkaris. They live on the slopes of the hills and speak a corrupt version of Marathi. Though their original occupation was agriculture and hunting, now they earn their livelihood by attending to the tourists.
The chief attraction of Matheran is its long and quiet walks. Sight seeing is secondary. The charm lies in the dusty soil road with evergreen trees to give you company. As you walk, some long deserted bungalows will pop up from inside the greenery, a broken wrought-iron gate will welcome you murmuring the tales of those forgotten days when these empty houses where sheltering people, giving life to this quiet and solitary place. You may also observe the 19th century architecture of these buildings, and marvel at the grand lifestyle the owners of these houses lived. Most of these bungalows are now taken care of by the malis while the decedents of the owners are either in Bombay or abroad. Some of these building are decaying slowly.
Matheran boasts of hundred percent ‘mineral airs’ and a rare silence from the noisy mechanical world, except for monkeys and birds, the horses and the human voices. From Dasturi, in Matheran no vehicle is allowed to enter, keeping the place as pristine as nature made it. You pay a capitation fee of Rs. 25, and you are left alone. You may hire a horse. The charge would vary according to distance; or you can get into a hand-pulled rickshaw.
The idea is to breathe freely and trust your feet. Give yourself a chance to get close to nature. Let your senses rejuvinate from the weariness of your hectic lifestyle. Welcome to Matheran.

How to reach Matheran:

From Pune station board Sinhagad Express to Karjat. From Karjat take a local to Neral. You can also go by Sahyadri Express, which halts at Neral station.
From Neral you can take the Toy train, which will take two hours. If you are in a hurry you can also take a cab to reach Matheran in 40 minutes.

Food and Accommodation:

Accommodation should be easily available, except for April-May, which is the peak season. You can stay at the modest MTDC resort at Dasturi, or opt for various hotels and lodges spreading over the place. If you are not looking for luxuries like sauna, Jacuzzi, or swimming pool, accommodation should not cost you much.
For food, you can rely on M. G. Road, i.e. the market. Try not to carry food while you walk. Monkeys are used to snatching eatables from visitors.

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