Known to be India’s smallest hill station, Matheran is a traveller’s paradise at an elevation of around 800 m (2,625 feet) above sea level. The quaint retreat located on the Western Ghats mountain range in Karjat (District Raigad), Maharashtra, Matheran literally translates to “Forest on the forehead (of the mountains)”. What makes this hill station unique is the absence of motorable vehicles, as Matheran is Asia’s only non-motorable hill station. It has been declared as an eco-sensitive region by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, owing to the zone’s biodiversity and natural heritage.
To go to Matheran, one has to reach Neral at the base of the hills from where transportation (private cars, taxis, bus service) is available till Dasturi Naka, about nine kilometres from Matheran. Beyond this point no vehicles are permitted to ply. From Dasturi Naka one can walk to Matheran hill top or take a horse ride, the toy train or hand-drawn carts.
The attractions of Matheran
For urban residents near Matheran, especially from Mumbai, the hill station is the perfect weekend getaway as it transports you into a completely different world. The red soil, narrow roads with a boulevard-like thick foliage, horse rides, and the deafening silence from the absence of motor vehicles, brings you even closer to nature. The soil in Matheran gets its distinct colour from the laterite rocks that cover the hills and the hill tops. The proximity to Mumbai makes Matheran a very popular tourist destination.
The biodiversity in the hills is rich. Inside the forests, animals like the leopard, panther, fox, wild boar, mongoose, barking deer, Malabar giant squirrel, and porcupine are commonly found. At the hill-top, monkeys are a common sight as Matheran has a significant population of Hanuman langurs and bonnet macaques. Birds found include the blue breasted barbet, crested lark, Indian small sky lark, common green pigeon, etc.
There is more to the forested hill top than its natural heritage. Matheran has an abundance of beautiful British-style bungalows that were built when the British developed it as a getaway resort during summers. In 1850, Hugh Poyntz Malet, the then District Collector of Thane District discovered Matheran. Lord Elphinstone who was at that time the Governor of Bombay, laid the foundation for the development of Matheran as a hill station.
Initially, only the British were permitted to visit and live in Matheran. They would spend their summers with their families in their bungalows. Indians were taken as labourers to carry luggage, draw the carts and other sundry work. Indians were also employed as ‘maalis’(gardeners) who were stationed at British bungalows as care-takers. It was much later that a handful plots of land were distributed among ‘rich’ Indians, who built their own bungalows, and that is how Indians started residing there.
Matheran is a tourist’s delight. There are more than thirty designated ‘points’ that offer spectacular views of the valley, the hills, Neral town at the bottom of the hill, villages in the valley, mountains, springs and small waterfalls in adjacent hills, apart from a beautiful view of sunset and sunrise. The most popular points are Panorama Point with a 360-degree view, the Monkey Point, Charlotte Lake and Louisa Point. The other major attraction and a major draw for tourists is the toy train of Matheran and the horse rides.
Cynosure of all eyes: The toy train
The Matheran Hill Railway is synonymous to Matheran. Also known as the Matheran Toy Train or Matheran Light Railway, it was built by an Indian businessman and philanthropist Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, and was opened to traffic in 1907. The train is a marvel in itself owing to its run on the steep climb on the hills of Matheran. It covers a distance of 20 km and is at par with the other hill railways in India such as Darjeeling, Kangra Valley, and Nilgiri Mountain Railways. The latter three mountain railways have been designated as the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) world heritage sites, as they are “outstanding examples of bold, ingenious engineering solutions for the problem of establishing an effective rail link through a rugged, mountainous terrain”. All three are considered “outstanding examples of innovative transportation systems built through difficult terrain, which had great influence on the social and economic development of their respective regions”.
Matheran Railway runs over large areas of forest territory, rocky terrain, slopes and climbs. It is a small line of two-feet gauge or the narrow gauge that meanders around 281 turns on its run from Neral to Matheran hill top. These turns are not only thrilling, but also offer a breathtaking view of the area. The train ride adds an unparalled adventure and fun to the trip to Matheran.
Matheran was explored as a summer resort at the same time as India’s first railway company (the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, now the Central Railway) was formed in 1849. After the construction of the Matheran Light Railway (MLR), it became a popular resort of the British Raj in India and still is. It traverses about 20 km from Neral (altitude 39.31 metres) to Matheran (altitude 803.98 metres).
The Panorama Point — An adventure in itself
One of the most visited points, Panorama Point, offers a 360-degree breathtaking view of the adjacent hills of the Western Ghats. The view is particularly beautiful at sunset and sunrise. Panorama Point is also the farthest viewpoint in Matheran. The central area of the hill top is the market where shops, small restaurants and vendors selling souvenirs, clothes, hats, etc. display and sell their goods. Panorama Point is about seven and a half kilometres from the market and thus requires a horse ride to reach most times. The wonderful walk to this point is a thrilling adventure as it ensures walkers ramble through the dense forests of the hill where an eerie silence offers a chance to hear nature in full bloom. You may hear the birds chirping, the trotting of a horse passing by, or just leaves rustling. Professional photographers even enthusiasts make it a point to hike to Panorama Point to get picture-perfect shots of the valley and the hills.
The Louisa Point
This point is popular among the hikers, photographers and active travellers. This point offers even more spectacular views during the monsoon, especially of the Prabal Fort and Vishalgarh. Some of the best features of this point are the high hills and picturesque views.
The Echo Point
One of the most commonly known and oft-visited points is the Echo Point. It lies in the vicinity of Louisa Point and, true to its name, each time you shout out your name, the valley screams it back. It is quite common to find children often with adults in tow, shouting out the oddest of words to hear them back. It is also a very scenic spot and provides a spectacular view of the mountain range. This point is particularly crowded because of its location and easy accesibility. The place becomes even more mystical during rains as clouds fly by making it surreal and magical experience.
Sunrise at its best
Sunrise Point, also known as Khandala Point, is located very close to the Matheran market. This place is very popular among the tourists especially at sunrise. This place offers a magical view of the hills during sunrise accompanied with a serenity difficult to find in noisy cities. Often people are seen doing yoga or relaxing and soaking in the fresh air at this point.
…And a Porcupine Point too
Also famous as the Sunset Point, this point is the perfect blend of beauty, serenity and adventure. The point is surrounded with lush green forests that can be reached by undertaking an adventurous hike. The point also offers a magnificent view of Prabal Fort and is popular among tourists for the spectacular sunset. The other highlights include the Cathedral Rock and an abundance of nature.
A hill with just one tree
Another very popular point among hikers and photographers is the One Tree Hill Point,, which offers a mesmerising view of the Western Ghats. Just five kilometres from Matheran market, it is among the must-go places in Matheran as the hike is beautiful, and the view is spectacular. To trek to One Tree Hill Point, one has to transverse through a thick forest cover and walk on a slightly difficult trail that is steep at places and adventurous.
Other points with scenic views
The Honeymoon Point is another popular spot, especially among newly-married couples for its romantic ambience.. At one time it was a popular honeymoon spot for the erstwhile residents of the hill i.e., the British. A trip to Matheran would be incomplete without a visit to Honeymoon Point.
The Alexander Point is your gateway to enjoy the magnificent views of several spots around Matheran such as the Rambaug Point, Palasdari Lake, Ulhas River in the valley, and others. The view is even more magical during monsoons when the floating clouds transport you to another world..
The Charlotte Lake
The Charlotte Lake, besides being a highly picturesque lake, provides Matheran fresh drinking water. Located in the vicinity of Louisa Point and Echo Point, Charlotte Lake is popular among tourists looking for some solace and quiet, more than adventure. It is also popular among nature enthusiasts owing to the rich biodiversity in the surrounding zones.
The caves of Matheran
A trek to the mystical Chanderi Caves in the Matheran Hills at a height of 800 metres and along the way from Badlapur to Karjat, assures you a novel experience. The four pinnacles the trekker manages to see at the end of the trek, along with a panoramic view of the nearby ranges and the valley below are breathtaking, to say the least. A trek to these caves with friends or family is a must-do on the list of most Mumbaikars.
Morbe Dam — For that perfect break from city-life
Morbe Dam, a reservoir that lies about 190 feet above sea level, is built on the Dharavi River, and covers about 9,780 km. Constructed by Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran in 1999 to manage the supply of water in the area, visitors cannot help but marvel at the sights offered by the dam and the scenery around it. For those harassed by the traffic and chaos associated with urban life, a trip to Morbe Dam is the perfect panacea.
Prabal Fort– A win from the Moghuls
A flat top hill on the Western side of Matheran, the Prabal Fort, is known for being captured by Chhatrapati Shivaji from the Moghuls, and is said to have harboured several treasures at the time of its capture. At the fort, one can view two gateways and eleven towers which have been damaged and partially destroyed over the years. There’s also a large pond at the top of the hill.
The charm of Matheran
As a heritage town, the idyllic Matheran preserves an old-world charm, and is on a must-visit list for travellers looking for a short trip that rejuvenates mind, body and soul. After all, how many tourist spots offer adventure, tranquillity and the proximity to nature, without the humdrum of traffic and associated activity?
Distinctly a contrast from the rushed urban lifestyle of neighbouring Mumbai is that of the local villager in and around Matheran – barely 80 km away from the metropolis. Even today, scores of women like Kamla, a native of Dhodhani village at the base of Matheran, transverses the treacherous pathway uphill, barefoot, every single day, to reach the Matheran market and sell the berries, mangoes or bananas she carries in a dusty potli. The natives of Dhodhani, primarily Kathkari tribals, speak Kathkari, of the Konkan family of languages, and are slim and wiry. Walking those miles to sell their wares, they are content with making even just Rs 50 daily.
Sadly, owing to an erratic train service that has been resumed after a few derailments and a few years of recent stoppage, touts, taxi drivers, auto drivers and horse-ride vendors have a field day at the hill station.
Over the years, a host of illegal construction began in a big way. The authorities conveniently turned a blind eye, saying the hill station needs development. But the law on its status is clear. Nobody in Matheran is permitted to build anything beyond the ground plus one level. And despite the law being flouted flagrantly over the last few years, the state remains silent. Now, following litigations and legal intervention, there was a flurry of activity to demolish the illegal structures, followed by an overwhelming effort by the local polity and authorities to maintain status quo. Matheran’s uniqueness, the absence of city chaos, today lies at risk of being overrun by over-zealous locals, a profit-hungry tourism industry, and political lobbies.