Panchmarhi, The Green Mile (2009)

Panchmarhi, The Green Mile (2009)

Let someone say

And say to your shame

That all was beautiful here

Until you came

So says a placard placed strategically at Sunset Point. It is difficult to imagine tranquil Pachmarhi was better than what it is now. There is an uninterrupted continuum of velvety green tree tops set ablaze by a setting sun without any human construct to mar your view. Barring a few minor exceptions in the market area, Pachmarhi does not sport ugly glass-and-chrome hotels that blight our Himalayan hill stations.

Spaced out and spacious colonial bungalows have been left intact to be equipped into hotels with minimum fuss. Al fresco dining is the norm and you can bite into your tandoori roti under a canopy of laburnums and gulmohars.

The credit for this calm, goes to the judiciary which, at the behest of the army, has banned not only modern construction but also land sale to outsiders who would no doubt have rushed to set up high rises with ‘conference facilities’ and ‘multi-cuisine’ restaurants that dish out indifferent fare at atrocious prices. The local population of Pachmarhi, other than the tribals, is just 13,000 and they have been allowed to stay, managing the few shops in the market.

Pachmarhi is entirely a cantonment town where even the army obtrudes as little as possible. One reason for the relatively fewer tourists is its remote location. It is a four-hour drive from Bhopal and attracts mostly visitors from nearby states. The Special Area Development Authority which governs Pachmarhi has devised a way to contain the vehicle population. It allows only local four-wheel drive taxis to ply within the Satpura Tiger Reserve so that there is not much incentive to drive up in your own car. But if you’re a visitor from afar, you’re entirely at the mercy of the local taxi drivers.

Pachmarhi is not a compact hill station. It sprawls unapologetically and even if you have a sturdy pair of legs, you might still need wheels to ferry you to the numerous waterfalls, caves, temples and viewing posts dispersed all over the hills. And that would mean having to deal with taxi drivers who fleece you with impunity.

We check into Old Hotel, a British period circuit house with tiled and gabled roof and sprawling gardens. Its roof is as high as its rooms are large. Outdoors, stately and ancient trees spread a dense green canopy overhead.
Lounging around under a fecund mango tree, we are frequently pelted by ripe mangoes. A stroll through the garden leaves us snowed under a confetti of amaltas. A gentle breeze caresses and we snooze under the trees serenaded by cuckoos. Otherwise, deafening silence reigns. Pure bliss this.

Submerged under water once upon a time, Pachmarhi derives its name from the five caves believed to have been inhabited by Pandavas when as part of their ‘vanvas’ they had to spend a year underground.
Apart from a few villages which are believed to have existed from yore, Pachmarhi is a vast uninhabited green expanse, an oasis of wilderness. The vegetation is very different from the Himalayan one, sal and tendu trees mostly.

The British, known for their uncanny knack for spotting the most gorgeous locations in the country had already built a lodge as early as 1885 at Pachmarhi’s most scenic spot overlooking a verdant valley. Known as Bison Lodge, it was built with —hold your breath— lime, horsebean pulse, jaggery and gum to hold it together. Its roof was laid with ceramic tiles manufactured at Burn Co Jabalpur and all this construction cost Rs 2,064!

Pachmarhi became the summer capital of the Central Provinces. The renovated version of the building still stands today, looking just the same. Christened ‘Doopgarh’ because this is the spot where the sun lingers the longest in this part of the world, this is a major attraction in Pachmarhi from where, you can view both sunrise and sunset.
A placard proudly proclaims that Dr Rajendra Prasad spent a whole month in Pachmarhi during his presidency.

Next day we make our way to Bee Falls, claimed to be the biggest in Pachmarhi. A hair-raising drive down a kuccha winding road brings you to a spot from where begins a very steep and nerve-wracking descent through some very jagged rough steps hewn out of rocks. But if you do brave the balancing act and survive to tell the tale, paradise awaits you at the bottom in the form of a roaring column of water that massages your neck and back. Refreshed by the ministrations of spring water we trudge our painful way back to the top and resume our sight-seeing.

Where there are caves, ponds and pools, can our gods and for that matter, godmen, be far behind? We hobble down jagged steps to reach Jata Shankar, a stunning rock formation with a hidden pool of icy water. The walls of the gorgeous cave are painted over with lurid images of Shiva and Parvathi and plastered with kumkum. Every few feet, the rocks are pierced and planted with tridents and half a dozen godmen ambush the unwary pilgrims to bless them, for a fee.
During our short sojourn in Pachmarhi we walk tirelessly down broad and leafy avenues unmolested by traffic or vendors. I feel as though I have gone back to Madras of my youth —unpretentious and tranquil. I am grateful such places still exist!

(Published in Indian Express dated Aug 9, 2009)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *