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Up hill, down dale

Matheran spreads across the edge of the escarpment of the Deccan plateau. From here, the mountains fall away steeply to the coastal plains of Maharashtra and trap rain clouds rolling in from the sea. Thus, everything is green and serene, say HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER.

The view from Madhavji point ... steep slopes clothed in green.

THE rain's playing muffled kettledrums on our roof, shimmering like sheets of cellophane outside. We had to park our car at Dasturi Naka, make a dash in the rain up a red and unpaved road into the warmth of our room. And we loved every moment of it: the run, the red road soggy underfoot, our room in the old Raj-era bungalow. If we closed our eyes, we could almost see men with mutton-chop whiskers and stem expressions, and women with cinched waists and skirts with floor-sweeping trains.

We're in Matheran, the greenest, most unspoilt, hill-station India. The more things change outside, the more they remain the same here. An official, who came to meet us, said: "Like, I have heard, your family has done in Mussoorie, so same-to-same a Parsi lady has done here. The Supreme Court has banned all new constructions in our hill station. And the public likewise prohibits all cars beyond this point. So it is still like it was!"

We believe him, of course; but we'd like to see things for ourselves. Matheran is an old friend. In a way, we laid the foundations of our team in Matheran, another incarnation ago. We love it, we remember it well. Tomorrow we'll see if it is still the Matheran we knew and loved when we began our life together.

* * *

It is and it isn't. It's changed slightly, very slightly; but we still love it. And with good reason.

The delightful little Matheran train.

To start with, birdsong woke us this morning. That, and the sun bouncing onto our windowsill like a fluffy, ginger kitten, purring. We're staying in the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation's resort in this 803m high place in the Western Ghats. We have, in the past, walked around the town and also explored it on horseback. This morning, we decided to sit in hand-pulled rickshaws and do a sybaritic tour of "The Wood" ... Mathe ... "At the Top" ... Ran. And it is extraordinarily well wooded. Our rickshaws creaked through tunnels of green on red roads hemmed in by massed undergrowth. There was that rich forest aroma of damp earth and growing things. The untamed, naturalness, of it all must have struck Hugh Mallet, Collector of Thane, in the 1850s. Shortly afterwards, the road from Neral at the bottom of the hill, was constructed. But it was only in 1977, 30 years after Independence, that the road was opened for motor vehicles to drive to the outskirts of Matheran. And, thankfully, they're still allowed "Only thus far, and no further!"

Many years before that happened, however, two determined Parsi gentlemen had done what the British said could not be done. In 1907, the Adamjee Peerbhoys had laid a rail line from Neral to Matheran; the Indian Railways still run that delightful little train. It's pulled by a diesel engine today but there is a strong movement to reintroduce steam traction.

Matheran Station lies at the start of the single, unpaved, main street of the hamlet. There are a number of open-fronted shops, many of them little more than glorified shacks. Rickshaws and horses await customers. Most people, however, stroll unhurriedly, munching on the main confection of this hill-station: chikki. One of the shopkeepers assured us that everything, including chikki, had been brought in from elsewhere, but we won't let such doubts cloud our judgment. Wherever it is made, chikki is a very moreish sweet. Reputedly, there are 65 types of chikki though we spotted only 36 advertised by the shops. We must, however, warn you against being too generous with your chikki. Once we made the mistake of feeding fragments of chikki to one of Matheran's wild monkeys: soon we were encircled by about a dozen of these importuning creatures, pulling at our clothes, trying to grab our cameras, gibbering angrily at us. We were saved by our horses galloping away. This time we, wisely, kept our chikki to ourselves.

We were halfway down Matheran's main road, called M.G. Road, when the sunlight softened and swathes of mist began to drift around like tattered white scarves. Matheran spreads across the edge of the escarpment of the Deccan plateau. From here, the mountains fall away steeply to the coastal plains of Maharashtra and trap rain clouds rolling in from the sea. On clear days, however, we have had some very dramatic views from many of the 36 points listed in most guidebooks.

We've not been able to visit them all in our earlier trips and we thought we'd complete the last of them now. Sadly, the weather decided otherwise so we had to restrict ourselves to the most accessible one: Madhavji Point, a short distance from the Post office, and in Madhavji Gardens. This point gives roughly the same view as Khandala Point: Garbut Point's ahead, the Khandala Hills to the right, and steep, green, slopes falling away below. On earlier visits we had discovered that the points we had found most appealing were the magnificent Panorama Point, excellent for picnics, the evocative Echo Point, the breeze-scoured Louisa Point and Lion's Head, Porcupine Point at sunset and Garbut Point at sunrise though we had to rise before the birds to make the 6 km trek in time.

A rickshaw creaking through tunnels of green on red roads.

Then there's the serene, green, Charlotte Lake where we once spent a long, Alice-in-Wonderland, afternoon. The town draws its drinking water from here so you can't go boating, swimming or fishing on the lake but the setting is so beautiful that any of these activities would shatter its tranquillity as a shriek shatters delicate crystal.

In fact, everything in Matheran seems to blend effortlessly with its old world and eco-friendly atmosphere. Most people walk because this is, essentially a walking town. There are no traffic jams because there is no traffic. And there's no pollution: there's nothing to pollute. Not even the hotels. They tend to have the cottagy-bungalow look, spreading over landscaped, wooded, grounds. The Byke, which calls itself a Hotel Retreat, has been built in the grounds of the first British house in Matheran: Hugh Mallet's bungalow named, reputedly, after his horse. It still stands as a rambling old, tiled roofed, structure on a high plinth. It is most unlikely that Mallet was a vegetarian, but the Byke hotel is. According to its manager, every hotel that turned non-veg in Matheran plunged into the red.

One reason could be the fact the Gujaratis form the majority of Matheran's hotel guests. Then, again, it could be what our travelling companion Kishorbhai Thakkar said. According to him: "You're telling that Matheran is eco-friendly. How it can be so if it is non-veg? Eh?"

Just then there was a deafening clap of thunder. Was the applause from the heavens above serene, green, Matheran?

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