Matheran, Maharashtra’s popular weekend getaway, lies on the western ghats at a height of 800m from sea level. Located at a distance of 90km from Mumbai and 120km from Pune, this little quaint town offers a breath of fresh air, a clear blue sky, and lush green vegetation. Being Asia’s only automobile-free hill station, Matheran immediately takes you back to a simpler time of horses and clay carts.
History of Matheran
Matheran means “forest of the forehead”. The earliest mention of this town was in the 15th century CE. The Prabalgad Fort, previously known as Muranjan Fort, was built by the Bahamani Sultanate to keep an eye on the North Konkan provinces. When the Sultanate collapsed, the fort went into the hands of the Mughals. In 1657, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj conquered this fort and the surrounding area. At that time, the hill station was inhabited by the Dhangar tribe.
Later in 1850, it was rediscovered by Hugh Malet, the district collector of Raigad. Lord Elphinstone laid its new foundation. In 1907, Sir Adamjee Peerboy developed the meter-gauge railway line, connecting Matheran to Neral.
Best time to visit Matheran
The best time to visit this hill station is from November to May. During the monsoon, it becomes very difficult to move around due to the presence of leeches. If you are visiting during these months, wear fully covered clothes.
Most people like to visit the hill station during the weekends. Although in my opinion, weekdays are better to explore the town. Due to the heavy tourist influx, the town becomes crowded and you would not be able to see the hill station for its tranquillity. Moreover, the hustle and bustle of the cars lead to a lot of traffic at Dasturi Naka (the parking area) and the Ghats. Sometimes the traffic in the ghats is so bad that it takes hours just to climb it.
How to reach this Matheran
I took a taxi from Mumbai. I would recommend leaving early in the morning around 6 am. Roads of Mumbai get jam-packed very early. Once out of the city, take the road from Karjat to Neral. At Neral you have the option of dropping off your cab and hiring an Omni car or hiring a driver for your car. The reason this is done is that the road uphill is very steep, inclined at about 70 degrees. Only experienced drivers have the knack to drive the car all the way up to Dasturi Naka.
If you are interested in boarding the toy train, you can ask for the schedule from your hotel. The train moves two and fro from Matheran to Neral quite frequently. It is a 30-minute journey and the tickets are not available online. You will have to wait in line, at the ticket counter before the train departs.
At Dasturi Point, you can park your car. You may stretch your legs and refresh yourself before you embark on your journey further to the hill station. This parking lot is infamous for monkeys snatching your bags and belongings. Hence, don’t leave any luggage unsupervised, and carry food and water in a bag. I was successful in shooing away the monkeys when they tried to snatch my bag, but I should have been more careful.
From Dasturi Naka, you will have to walk for 400m to Aman Lodge. You can stop for a cup of tea at MTDC. Aman Lodge is one of the railway stations the toy train embarks from Matheran to Neral. From here you can either hire a horse, or a hand-pulled cart or ride the toy train. The toy train takes about 15 min to reach Matheran Station. Since tickets weren’t available on the day I was traveling, I decided to hire a Horse. There are two different rate cards for the horse and the hand-pulled cart. The vendors will show you the card and charge you accordingly. This price card will be available in most resorts and hotels.
If you are interested in trekking, you can either backpack or hire a porter. The trek takes anywhere from 45min to an hour. The road isn’t very steep. It is rather a gentle uphill climb. The only problem is that the road isn’t concrete. In some places, it is paved and in others, there are only red laterite stones. So make sure to bring good trekking shoes as you will be walking over rocks and at times horse droppings. The thick tree cover and the cool air makes the otherwise tiresome walk rejuvenating.
Places to stay
The hill station has plenty of options for a good stay. Depending on your budget and the duration of your trip, you can choose accordingly. The advantage of visiting Matheran is that almost all resorts and hotels are at an affordable range. Some of the places offer a package inclusive of all meals.
While booking your stay, do check the distance from your hotel to the city center. The resort I stayed in was very far away from the market area. Although the walk towards it was beautiful, it was cumbersome to walk so far every time.
Places to see in Matheran
There are plenty of places to visit in and around the popular hill station. Broadly, there are 3 major paths. The first one starts from Alexander Point in the south, goes through Rambaug Point, one tree hill, Olympia Racecourse, and finally concludes at Belvedere Point. The second path starts from Lord’s Point in the west and culminates at Louisa Point. The last path is the longest one. It starts from Malang Point in the West and goes to Porcupine Point in the north. If you are an intermediate-level trekker, you can embark on the trek to Panorama Point.
There are around 38 viewpoints in this hill station, which include Panorama Point, Louisa Point, One Tree Hill Point, Heart Point, Monkey Point, Porcupine Point, and Rambagh Point. These look-out points are spread throughout the region. Although horses are easily available, I would suggest exploring the land on foot. There are refreshments available at every point. These vendors accept only cash due to poor network issues. Please get a copy of the map to visit the points.
Matheran Railway Station
When it comes to places to visit, this Railway Station is a popular tourist site. Situated in the main market, the station is quaint and has an old-world charm. There are only two train tracks of meter gauge present. If you are interested in trains, you can visit the train’s locomotive as well. During the devastating floods of 2005, the tracks were badly damaged. After constant repair and renovation, the train was reopened in 2007. Unlike the toy trains of Shimla, Darjeeling, and Ooty, the train here wasn’t able to become a UNESCO world heritage site.
Around the station, lies the heart of the town, it’s Market Street. When you walk through this area, you will see plenty of shops, game stalls, restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Most tourists prefer to live in and around Market Street as it gives them access to enjoy the nightlife. Every day, from 6 to 11 pm, the shops in the Market open up and welcome you to the buzzing spirit of this sleepy town.
During the weekdays, not all shops open up. This is due to the fact that most tourists prefer to visit the hill station on the weekends. Even if your visit is during the week, you can still indulge in shopping for unique souvenirs and indulging in local delicacies as I did.
A souvenir that is only available here is a tiny shoe that can be stuck on the wall. Made out of leftover leather, these small finger-length shoes are very colorful and cute. You can also find good-quality leather shoes and braided belts at a very reasonable rate. Since I have a sweet tooth, I decided to buy a box of chocolate fudge and flavored Chikkis (peanut brittle). There are plenty of shops selling chikkis, fudges, jujubes and anjeer (fig) rolls.
I have seen picturesque locations on the back of postcards and have always wondered if such places exist in reality. Charlotte Lake is one such place. None of the photographs does justice to the sheer beauty of the clear water, blue sky, and green canopy surrounding it.
Since this lake is the primary source of fresh drinking water for the local population, swimming in it is forbidden. The origin of Charlotte Lake is a dam, which overflows when it rains. The winding road towards this lake is on a forest path surrounded by dense green vegetation.
Pisharnath Mahadev Mandir
A little further away from the lake is the ancient Pisharnath Mahadev Mandir. It is the presiding deity of Matheran and the lingam in the temple is Swayambhu or self-manifested. Unlike other temples, the Shivalinga is smeared with vermillion.
It is said that this temple has existed since time immemorial. Although in the vicinity of tourist spots, as I entered this temple, I experienced complete stillness. It was as if the world stopped spinning momentarily.
Olympia Race Course
One of the most popular places in the hill station is the Olympia Race Course. It is a heritage structure that conducts horse races even today. When I visited in late February, there were several races taking place there. Since my trip was short, I was unable to visit.
Holy Cross Church
When Matheran was discovered by the British, the Holy Cross Church was built in 1853. It was later renovated in 1906. Till 1947 the church had a resident priest. After that, it became served through the Priests of Our Lady of Glory Church, Byculla, Mumbai.
Treks in the Hill Station
If you are an intermediate to advanced level trekker, you can trek towards Prabalgad and Vikatgad. Both of these forts held a lot of importance during the reign of the Marathas.
While Prabalgad was used for strategic military operations, Vikatgad was used to store grains. The guides here will help you reach the respective forts and bring you back. There are a few Adivasi villages at the base of the hill station. Some people like to visit those villages, learn about the culture of the place, and purchase local handmade artifacts.
People of the Hill Station
In all of my travel journeys, I have never seen such humble and down-to-earth people as I did in this hill station. Everyone, right from the hand cart pullers to the shopkeepers is very accommodating. They are always ready to help tourists. Most of these people, belonging to the Warlis, Thakars, and Katkaris tribes, live in nearby villages at the base of the hill station. They traverse a journey of 2-hours through stairways to reach Matheran and make a livelihood.
The only automobile that exists here is an ambulance. There is a completely functional hospital as well. My eyes were used to the dark grey starless urban sky. It was a pleasant surprise to see every patch of the night sky, covered with diamond-like glowing stars. It is the land that merges old timely charm with modernity. Go to a place that helps you remove the external chaos and go deeper to find your inner self.
This post is authored by Akshaya Vijay as part of the IndiTales Internship Program.