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March 25, 2018

Out On A Hill: Discovering The Charm Of Pachmarhi

Text and Photographs by Mala Vaishnav

In 1857, a hilltop haven in the Satpura range lured British soldiers into its rocky embrace and the army officers and local tribals wove a historical thread that may be frayed a little but remains unforgotten. Mala Vaishnav goes on a long drive in Pachmarhi with seven other trippers in tow

A cool breeze emanating from the not-so-distant hills swirls around our group of eight ensconced in armchairs on the wrap-around veranda of an old-world bungalow. We take in the ‘garden view’ bathed in the soothing hues of dusk, and chat about the freshness of the guavas and chestnuts we ate off the streets, while A jabs buttons on her cell, nibbling from a half-hidden packet of crisps. Suddenly, she is pounced upon by two long hairy limbs which snatch the packet and vanish with supersonic speed. Screaming “monkey attack, monkey attack”, she clutches her sling bag and phone, arms flailing, and makes a dash for the room. N, whom she passes, shoots up from her chair, shrieking. “What?” we ask. “The monkey just slapped me!” she exclaims. “That was A’s arm,” we counter. “Oh,” she replies, sinking back into her seat. “Where is it, where is it?” thunders the watchman, arriving with his danda. “Were you eating anything?” We all turn to glare at A.

We have, a few hours ago, checked into Rock End Manor, a colonial gem, perched on an elevated mound amid the lush environs of Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh’s only hill station. Like many of the British-style houses in the vicinity that play peekaboo through tree-lined avenues and flowering foliage, the six-room hotel currently run by MP Tourism has been restored to its gracious past. Shah Rukh Khan stayed in the master suite while filming Asoka in 2000 and Nana Patekar, during the outdoor schedule of Tarkieb in the same year, would wander into the kitchen to cook bheja fry for the crew, recalls a staff member who will be completing two decades of service. Arundhati Roy still has a summer home close by.

Each morning, after decadent breakfasts of stuffed omelettes, crumb-fried cutlets, aloo parathas, grilled sandwiches and toasts dripping with fresh marmalade, we swing our frames into open-topped Gypsies and take long drives through untamed forests that exude mysterious fragrances of herbs and honey, and make brief forays to ‘places of interest’. At Dhoopgarh, famed for its deep valleys and slow sunsets, we encounter a busload of boys who cleverly address us as didis, not aunties, while we click their group photos. The rock-cut Pandav caves (which were never actually occupied by the Pandavas) are fenced-up bare holes not worth five minutes of the climb and the lakeside, a source of unexpected hilarity. We slip into well-worn life jackets for a romp on the waters and watch fascinated from the boat, Pachmarhi’s rendering of zip lining. The helmeted girl on the wire is propelled forward by a man below who pulls her along the cable with a long stick! Revisiting our childhood fancy fetes we wait in queue with a gaggle of children to throw rings around the gifts carefully arranged on a raised platform covered with satin. The prizes? Packets of Parle-G, Lux soaps and goodness, pyramids of rainbow-coloured Poppins that I thought were long extinct!

Then there is the startling encounter at Jatashankar, the underground cave temple revered by Lord Shiva worshippers, which makes it front-page material for every Pachmarhi brochure. I espy mini mobs of monkeys on the vast grounds leading to the cave and pick up a twisted twig from the ground, brandishing it sideways as I walk. On the return descent, I forget it on a parapet. An XXL-size baboon crosses my path and grips my blue sling bag. It bares its teeth at my horror-stricken face as we silently grapple over a purse. My friend, approaching from behind, whacks it with her stick while I remain speechless for a few seconds, visualising painful rabies shots. Our Gypsy driver is unflappable. “I kept a little one as a pet for a few months,” he says. “The forest officers spotted it leashed in the vehicle one day, threatened to cancel my licence and released it back into the woods. It was sad because we had grown attached to each other!” He ignores my shudder.

The economy of the hill station that was developed as a sanatorium for British troops is today fuelled mainly by tourism. Home to the Gond tribe, many of whom have been displaced from their lands, Pachmarhi’s 400 Gypsies are put into top gear during high season, catering to weekend revellers and honeymooners usually from the state itself. We run into the priests who represent the two 19th-century churches (Roman Catholic and Protestant), one of which we pass by on morning walks and the other which is tucked deep inside the army precincts. At Bison Lodge, the first-ever building to come up in Pachmarhi which now functions as a museum, we notice an error in the identification of the churches. The factual fanatics among us immediately approach the director, who to our surprise is not dismissive as we presumed but greatly disturbed and promises to rectify the mistake.

Some may tut-tut about the underdeveloped state of the little town and term it as governmental neglect, but there is a wild beauty and peaceful rhythm about Pachmarhi, especially if you choose to stay slightly away from the market mayhem. The town speaks of a quietude and grace long gone from places like Ooty and Dharamshala.

Now, if only someone could discipline the monkeys!

Far And Away
Visit Bee Falls for the cascading spray above and a free fish foot spa in the swirling waters below. BUY pure honey and the antioxidant and mineral-enriched shilajit from Jain Ayurvedic Udyog. TASTE the authentic flavours of kadak adrak chai and kadai-tossed kachoris at the local outdoor cafe Satpura Jalpan. STAY at Madhai Bison Resort for a night to commune with nature and play ‘spot the sambar’ on a safari at dawn.

Bhopal – City Style
In Pursuit of the Bhopali batua

When I was a little girl — which seems like a lifetime away — I remember my mother buying a heap of colourful batuas from station vendors when the Punjab Mail would pull into Bhopal en route to Delhi. “For all the aunts and cousins,” she would say. Decades later, on my first visit to the second-cleanest city of the country (after Indore), I am determined to buy my own traditional batua. Which proves to be extremely elusive.

Bhopal, entrenched between 17 lakes, tries to camouflage its architectural heritage and an accidental tragic past with shiny facades of booming malls and blingy cafes. Yet, the romance of the city lies in its past. We feast on steaming brew and pakoras at the legendary Raju Tea Stall, stroll across the 19th-century Taj-ul-Masajid, the largest mosque in India and relive scenes from the Merchant Ivory, award-winning Muhafiz (1993) shot in the 200-year-old Gauhar Mahal. Shashi Kapoor has just passed away and the caretakers recall the funeral sequence in the film based on Anita Desai’s In Custody.

The Platinum Mall, all shadowy and half-shut, throws up a single shop selling embellished clutches and handbags with wooden handles. A couple of faded batuas rest languidly in the gaps on the shelves. “Not many people ask for them anymore,” says the salesgirl. “The craftspersons have moved on to other things.” Armed with boxes of the winter specialities of revdis and gajak post satisfying platters of chaat at the famed Manohar, we absorb the dramatic interiors and exhibits of the Revathi Kamath-designed Tribal Museum that celebrates the state’s seven main tribes and drive past the imaginary line of the Tropic of Cancer to Sanchi, 48 kilometres away. A celebration of Buddhist culture, the complex is dominated by the Emperor Asoka-built stupa, one of the oldest stone structures in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We finally make it to Chowk Bazaar, the Chandni Chowk clone of old Delhi. Weary, time-worn havelis jostle against ancient mosques and tiny boutiques in narrow lanes, sprayed with the aroma of sizzling kebabs. We hurry past the sherwanis and the zardozi, the spangle and the faux, and suddenly stumble upon a little store displaying the batuas! We look around for more. The owner yawns and smiles. “There is just me. No other shop.” You can imagine his mental state after eight demanding women leave with the loot. Which we cheerfully brandish at our end-of-stay dinner in the spectacular colonial setting of the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel.

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