Twin Paradises: Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani.
“Now mind is clear as a cloudless sky, Time then to make a home in wilderness”-Allen Ginsberg. This was feeling I had each day for the twelve years that I spent in the hill stations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar (or Panchi and Mahabi as locals call them).
Every moment was of pure tranquility, of next level Zen, with the faint fragrance of wild flowers and wet earth still lingering in my nostrils. Panchgani is a small town surrounded by five hills (from which it gets its name), and Mahabaleshwar is hill station and historical site known for its pleasant climate and picturesque landmarks.
Urbanization has taken its toll on these paradises, and they are fast losing their alluring natural lavishness; commercialization has led to the destruction of huge tracts of forest and turned the place into an agonizingly gray jungle of concrete. As Lonely Planet puts it, “…what was once a pretty hill station oozing old-world charm is today a jungle of mindless urban construction. Swarms of raucous holiday-makers who throw the place into a complete tizzy only make things worse”. I have witnessed this transformation and for this reason I will mention some obscure and unusual (secret) but equally enchanting locations in and around Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar.
Let’s start with the “mainstream” ones first. Table land is the most famous tourist spot in Panchgani. It is the second highest in plateau in Asia. This is where numerous Bollywood movie sequences as well as the war scenes of “Mahabharata” are shot. This massive landform is made up of volcanic rock and surrounded by lush green trees, waterfalls and uneven settlements. Venna Lake has huge swarms of vacationers all throughout the year. Parsi point has a great view of River Krishna and its elfin ravines whereas Sydney point displays an almost symphonic view of the sun rising behind a canopy of alternating hills and valleys, Echo Point from where you can, well, hear echoes. From the very famed Bombay Point (though rumoured, trust me) you cannot see Mumbai. In Mahabaleshwar, even remotely scenic “points” have particularly appealing names, out of these Rosemont Rock, Lordwick Point, Window Point, Fitzgerald Point, Castle Rock, Baghdad Point and Babington Point are worth a go. Elephant’s Head and Needle’s Hole are gorgeous too. Others are good for trek junkies only.
My favourite is Arthur’s Seat ‘cause I really like the fable that has been going around since I was a child. During the British era, Arthur (some guy) lost his wife and son when their boat capsized in the R. Krishna, so he sat on this rock every evening; gazing at the brook, thinking about them and writing poems in their memory. True or not, I get a kick out of it every time! There are countless other tourist spots around these two towns so it’d be easier if I classified them according to tourist interests:
Foodies– Do try Cream on Strawberries Desert (fresh cream and farm fresh berries), delicious coal-roasted corn, chikki, red potatoes and everything that has strawberries in it. Do visit the Mapro Factory to see how jam and jelly is made; pick up some honey on your way. Oh! and don’t forget “Wai’s Best Vadapav” and as the packet says “Panchgani’s world famous lemon chana” (LOL).
Lovers (jeez!) – Try the boat ride at Venna Lake, Chains of waterfalls across the Ghats specially Lingmala Waterfall (during monsoons…duh!), horse rides on Table Land and get a room at some resort that offers spa (no romancing at points, too many kids around!). Or rent a cottage; the intricate architecture and red painted villas give the town a rich Indo-British look. Gift your loved one handcrafted leather footwear. Lastly, if you want to experience the frosty, dreamy, misty weather pay a visit during the months of July and August.
Trekkers and Adventure maniacs – Paragliding at Harrisons Fally is pretty cool (as long as you survive it!), a trek to the pond on Table Land or St. Joseph Convent’s (my alma mater) Maria Theresa Stadium is enjoyable, and a walk down from the main road to the valleys is fun too. Forget Venna Lake, cough up 10 bucks to visit this government park on the opposite side, (don’t turn back on seeing children playing on slides and people jogging, just trust me) keep walking till you reach some creepy caves and a derelict bridge, once you cross it you’ll know what untainted peace is. Few souls wander off that far and that place defines silence. On the road connecting Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, if you’re lucky you’ll see some old stairs leading to thick woods, that’s another great place for jungle trekking while humming Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. There are the popular treks to Pratapgad, Tapola or Rajapuri caves. But walking up/down a hill with the “all singing, all dancing crap of the world” isn’t very adventurous, is it?
Kids and Believers– Kids can have a lot of fun at the “Go Carting” junction, horse rides, Mapro’s jelly sweets are to die for. We have an amusement park too! Sherbaug is another good spot for kids and adults alike. Parents can get a good look at the schools. Yes, Panchgani is known for its schools, fifty plus schools in that small area, that’s right, FIFTY+! Pilgrims and devotees can head straight to Panch-Ganga temple which is the spot where five rivers converge. Mahabaleshwar is a favourite of Shiva’s worshippers. There are some British era churches in the area too.
Hippies and other weirdoes – Mahabaleshwar is famous for a lot more than its climate and “greenery”, just ask the right people and this will be one hell of a “trip” for you. Tombstone tourists get ready to be smitten by the really antique graves and cemetery gates that would look great in a Tim Burton film. I’m a taphophile who spent many years exploring these cemeteries and it was ever-fascinating. Film enthusiasts can make a list of all the locations where you’re favourite movies were shot and visit them. Photographers may never want to leave! Bird-watchers might catch a glimpse of some rare bipeds if in luck. This place has a long standing history, and whatever your interests might be, I assure you, you can never have enough of it.
Now the not-so-intriguing part: Nearest airport- Pune (120 km), Nearest Railway- Wathar (this is boring)
Accommodation- Lots of it! MTDC Resort, over-priced 4-5 Star Hotels, guesthouses etc. During holiday seasons prior booking is a must.
Best months to visit- Climate is pleasant throughout the year (yes, summers are cool too, jealous?). Temperatures range from 16°C to 20°C in summer and can fall as low as 3°C in winter. Carry woolen clothes.
Elevation – Quite high. Rainfall – Way too much. (Google it!)
Sigh. Since I started with a quote I’d conclude by stealing a line from a song by Ben Howard that always remind me of my childhood in these twin heavens and their sad state today, “Seems everything around here
Stays like stone; Cause everything just goes that way my friend,
And every king knows it to be true,
That every kingdom must one day come to an end.”