Like so many magical places on this earth, Mumbai’s most-loved hill station became one purely by serendipity. Just 50 km from the heat and chaos of the big city, Matheran has been offering a sweet respite to weekenders and day-trippers, all because a British officer decided to stretch his legs and take an evening stroll 170 years ago.
The officer, Hugh P Malet, Collector of Thane, was on his way back from Pune to Thane on a sultry day in May 1850. He was camping in a bungalow at Chauk, not far from the base of the Matheran hill, in the Sahyadri range in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. Malet decided to take a walk up the hill. Halfway up, he was overcome by the unspoiled beauty of Matheran and the jaw-dropping vistas it offered, and thought it worthy of further exploration.
Malet returned the next day and collected some water from a small stream, filled a basket with earth, and chipped some laterite stone to take away with him for careful examination. The far-sighted officer of the British East India Company realised that this could be a haven for British officers flagging under India’s relentless tropical climate.
In those times, the only relief from soaring temperatures and diseases in the colonies came either from early retirement and a ticket back to England, or extended furloughs in cooler climes. Since increasing military and political expansion in the 19th century made the first option unfeasible, developing hill stations across India was a better idea. Hence the abundance of colonial-style bungalows that still dot places like Shimla, Darjeeling, Ooty, Mussoorie and Matheran, a home away from home for British officers wilting under the blazing Indian sun.
Matheran has a more famous precedent – Shimla, one of the earliest hill stations to be developed in India. In 1827, when Governor-General Lord Amherst travelled all the way from Calcutta to spend part of the summer for preventive and recreational purposes in Shimla, the custom caught on. The other Presidencies followed suit, and officers in government departments, commercial firms and the military made it a practice to head for these mountain retreats.
In the Bombay Presidency, Mahabaleshwar was the first to be identified as a convenient hill station. In 1829, it was officially declared as the Presidency’s summer capital. But wonderful weather and natural beauty were not good enough for a hilly abode to be officially designated as a hill station. A set of stringent criteria had to be taken into account:
-The general features of the plateau/place/hill/slopes/altitude
- Approaches and accessibility potential
- Supposed cost and condition of the roads
- Climate, especially during summer and monsoon
- History of diseases such as cholera
- Availability of water
- Soil conditions
- Sites for barracks
- Construction material
- Flora and fauna
Matheran checked all the boxes. The small plateau covered in dense, evergreen forest on top of the hill was a perfect candidate. And so Malet returned in November to pursue his plans. This time, a temporary hut welcomed him. It had been built under the supervision of Madhav Rao, son of the ‘Patil’, or headman of Chauk village. Interestingly, the timber used to build the hut had been sourced from the broken mast of a ship which Malet had bought in an auction. He got it cut to size and dispatched it to Matheran from Bombay.
Malet stayed for a month, and during this time, he cleared many paths to several viewing points, which opened up into beautiful panoramas. At the time, the only other inhabitants of the region, albeit on the lower levels of the hills, were tribal communities. These were mainly Dhangars, who lived in 12 clusters or wadas, of two or three huts each. The other tribes in the region were the Thakurs and Kathkaris.
In February 1851, Malet returned for the third time. By then, he already had three more bungalows constructed, two of them temporary and one made of stone (now known as the Byke Hotel), the first pucca residence in Matheran. In the next 12 months, he obtained a grant of Rs 500 from the government for the improvement of the path leading to Chauk, through the Ram Bagh forest. It was via this path that Mrs Malet was carried up to Matheran, seated in a chair fastened with ropes to bamboo poles.
Malet was soon joined by his friends and family, who too built houses here. E G Fawcett built the second house, the Hermitage; Captain Henry Barr built the third (Barr’s House is a heritage hotel today); Captain C Walker the fourth (Walker’s cottage was taken over by wealthy industrialists from Bombay, the Sassoons and then the Petits); and Arthur Malet the fifth, Stonehenge (today the Readymoney Lodge).
This small group enjoyed their time in the wilderness of the mango, jambul, palm and other fine trees and also got the jungle cleared at certain places which opened out several beautiful viewpoints.
Shortly after this, Matheran had a near-miss of sorts. There were plans to use the hill station as a military sanitarium, and the Quarter Master General of the Army was ordered to conduct a survey. In 1852, a map of the hill was drawn, a road was laid out from the north to Neral (the nearest town from Matheran), and sites were marked for a church, a hospital, barracks for 200 men, a jail, and other public buildings.
But the sanitarium plan was given up in favour of Khandala, another hill station between Mumbai and Pune. The next year, in 1853, Captain Peacock carried out a survey that cleared some fresh paths and marked sites for private houses. A map of the hill was printed and the government, after reserving certain plots, authorised Malet to allot sites to the public. Matheran as we know it today began to take shape.
A public notice was issued, inviting applications for allotments of plots, which were to be leased at the rate of Rs 5 per acre per year. Before the monsoon of 1853, about 70 sites were snapped up, and the next two years saw frenetic construction activity in Matheran. Thus, while Mahabaleshwar served as a vacation resort for East India Company officials, Matheran became a getaway for merchants and businessmen.
In the summer of 1854-1855, the hill station took a rather fashionable turn. The Governor of Bombay John Elphinstone visited Matheran with his staff. He was absolutely charmed and even built himself a bungalow there. In the next couple of years, he also got the roads widened and made provisions to store water. It is said that Lord Elphinstone was so fond of Matheran that he would frequently leave it in the morning to attend the Council session in Bombay and ‘run up again for his supper’.
Elphinstone’s fascination with Matheran upped its status and it got a church, St Paul’s Church in 1861, a European gymkhana equipped with tennis courts and racquet courts in 1862, and a racecourse in 1891. It became a playground for Bombay’s swish set and owning a house there became a status symbol.
It became the Britishers’ space away from the tropical climate and its people. However, the very exclusivity which the English sought for themselves was neutralized by their need to provide urban comforts which involved the use of Indian labour. At least ten Indians were necessary to support each European on this hill, and most of the time, the labour was forced. Little attention was paid to their housing needs, it no doubt being assumed that they would fend for themselves, and no sanitary facilities were provided either.
The English further attracted wealthy families of Bombay, especially the Parsi community, who always emulated the British in their lifestyle. In the 1880s, even the Maharaja of Baroda came to Matheran to convalesce during a bout of ill-health.
But these affluent families also nurtured Matheran and donated generously towards its upkeep and civic buildings – Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Hospital, Bai Ratanbai Kapadia Market, Karsandas Moolji Library and so on. Interestingly, the population in Matheran was then large enough to support a local newspaper. Launched by a local citizen named Framji Mehta in 1891, it was called Matheran Jottings and it peddled gossip and wrote about the happenings in the town. And what do you know, the biweekly newspaper ran for 24 years!
But if there’s one Indian to thank for really opening up Matheran it is Adamji Peerbhoy. Let’s not forget that even though Matheran was bustling, the only way to reach the hill station was still via palanquins and horses. There was now a need for a less cumbersome means of transportation. Peerbhoy, a business magnate and a philanthropist, devised a plan for a mountain rail between Neral and Matheran and the government sanctioned it in 1903.
Peerbhoy’s son, Abdul Hussein, supervised the construction of the Neral-Matheran Light Railway, financed by his father. He engaged the special services of a well-known engineer, Raisaheb Hirachand, who planned it on exactly the same lines as the Shimla-Kalka Hill Railway. The work involved cutting more than 2,000 feet of rock and precipices, and the expenses amounted to Rs 16 lakh! The 20-km railway route was thrown open to the public in 1907.
Today, the line is noted for its unbelievable curves, the first sharp one being marked by a large sign that reads, ‘Oops! What a curve: 45 feet radius!’ The track zigzags up the hill, offering superb panoramic views of Matheran hill.
The beautiful hill station has retained its charm in large part also because vehicles are banned entry. Matheran is, in fact, Asia’s only hill station that has barred motor vehicles, except for an ambulance.
Long after the British left India, Matheran continues to be a hugely popular weekend hangout, especially for people from Mumbai and Pune. But the ravages of time and neglect have taken a toll on this once pristine mountain retreat. In the early 2000s, this encouraged the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to take up the cause of conserving Matheran at the urging of the Matheran Bachao Samiti, a local non-profit. This has given this extraordinary hill station a second lease of life.
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