Monday, April 21, 2014

A holiday to Matheran

Text and photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Our short trip to Matheran, the smallest hill station in India, was exhilarating and depressing at the same time. The two contrary emotions reflected our mood just before we embarked on the holiday and just before it was time to return home, which came sooner than we thought it would. No one likes to see the last of a good holiday. You are never sure how soon your next one is going to be.

Nonetheless, the three-day holiday to the eco-sensitive region located 2,600 ft above sea level in the western state of Maharashtra, India, was as memorable as all our previous trips to the scenic hill station.

The rustic road to Matheran.
The charm of Matheran—which was discovered during British rule more than 160 years ago—lies in the complete ban on all kinds of motorised vehicles. Only a fire truck and an ambulance are allowed in. The two popular “modes” of transport from the base called Dasturi Point or Car Park, to the top of the lush green mountain, and within Matheran, are horses and handcarts, and your legs.

If you know horse riding, you can ride on your own; if not, the owner of the horse will hold the reins and walk beside you. You can ride at a trot if you like. The normal fare for a horse ride is between Rs.300 ($5) and Rs.600 ($10) though it varies depending on how far or close you want to go. Tourists often prefer to ride a horse to the various “points,” or places of interest, like Charlotte Lake or Echo Point or One Tree Hill or Monkey Point or Panorama Point. Others walk on uneven paths that cut through wild trees and brush on either side. There are no tarred roads in Matheran, only trodden paths of red mud. In fact, it’s a great deal more fun walking. The place is safer than a city.

Horses wait for riders.
The one-seater handcarts are manned by two men, usually of medium height and slight build, one pulling from the front and the other pushing from the rear. One man alone cannot pull a cartload of customer and luggage, unless the unpaved ground is flat. When you see the men panting as they pull and push their handcarts, especially up a steep incline, you cannot help thinking what some people won't do for a living. If you ask them about it, they say, “This is our bread and butter. We have been doing it for generations.” You are actually doing them a favour by hiring their services.

Panoramic view of Charlotte Lake.
Of course, the 107-year old Matheran Hill Railway plies toy trains on narrow gauge from Neral, the nearest mainline railway station, to the centre of Matheran, a journey that takes more than two hours. It winds up and around green hills and mountains and through some of the most beautiful scenery this side of the mighty Western Ghats, a mountain range. The train covers 12 km an hour and so slow is its momentum that you can walk next to it. The toy train service is closed during the rains, June to September, as is most of the hill station when its inhabitants come down to the plains in search of temporary livelihood.

There is more to Matheran than its horse-and-handcart economy. The hill station is popular for its patent leather goods, footwear, belts, and wallets, sold at nearly half the price than in the city. Shops selling these and other items like jam and chikki, a traditional sweet made from groundnut and jaggery, are lined on both sides of Victoria Road, the main thoroughfare. Matheran also has its own municipal council, a post office, a health facility, a fire station, a small public library, parks and gardens, and expensive and budget hotels and restaurants. 

Lord's Central Hotel on Victoria Road.
Some hotels, like Lord’s Central, where we stay every time, is one of the oldest and most charming. The hotel, run by generations of the Lord family, is quiet and comfortable and its owners make you feel at home. The hotel is probably the only one in Matheran with a spectacular view of the valley. It has lovely cottages and bungalows with columned porticos and large clean rooms. The hotel has a swimming pool, an informal library, a large dining room, a giant chessboard, a badminton court, and other games. Lord’s belongs to Matheran of yore, one of very few hotels that have kept the old charm and tradition of the hill station alive. Elsewhere, Matheran is being swallowed by commercial interests.

Our cottage at Lord's Central had a columned portico.
If Matheran is famous for its horses, it is notorious for its monkeys, particularly the Bonnet Macaques and Hanuman Langurs, which roam freely about the place. People, especially children, are warned against eating in the open as the monkeys snatch food right out of your hands. If shooed away, the big ones open their mouths and bare their teeth and are even likely to attack. They fear horses and stray dogs and the odd man wielding a stick or a catapult. Without its horses and monkeys, Matheran would lose its appeal. 

Valley view from the hotel.
Even a short holiday to a quiet place like Matheran—which means ‘forest on the head’—is rejuvenating. The three days were spent happily and without mundane distractions. The thought of returning to city life was painful. As we left our cottage behind, my wife said, “Look over your shoulder before you leave so that we come back again.” And we always do. 

Municipal garden in Matheran.