Close your eyes, gently. You are in a forest, alive with the sounds of birds, insects and the rustling leaves of tall, timeless trees. You can smell the fragrance of the earth – an infusion of magic, moistness and mineralised richness. There is no human being around you for miles and miles – at least none that comes burdened with the atheism and spuriousness of the city beyond. The spirits of the forest invite you to explore deeper, to immerse yourself in the primitive pull of the lap of untouched nature, and perhaps, forget altogether about the life you’ve run away from. Welcome to Matheran – India’s smallest and Asia’s only automobile-free hill station. Those who arrive here in the monsoons, leave with the song of the forest ringing through their hearts and minds.
Enter, only if you’re willing to leave a bit of your soul behind.
When we arrived in Matheran, the monsoons had almost surrendered to the onset of autumn, but the toy train service from Neral to Matheran was still closed. We thought, Matheran did not merit more than a couple of days; tiny as it was. We thought, it would be just as banal and overdone as many of our friends in Mumbai complained. Just another weekend getaway with a bit of mountains and greenery. Nothing special. Nothing to write home about. How wrong we were – how utterly wrong. And if dryad, the forest nymph could have listened to our thoughts, we might have shrivelled in shame. Because Matheran housed nature in all her unstripped glory – the way she should have been, the way she would have been, if humans hadn’t forced their will upon her.
There is freedom
To see that which you wouldn’t otherwise see.
– Song of the mist
You know what they say about God being the greatest and the original artist? It rings really true when you look upon so many delicately-hued mountains, stacked one behind the other, teaching lessons in shading to the admiring viewer. A discerning student of paints and colours would have to see no further than Matheran for expert guidance on hilly art. We travelled all of Matheran’s southern forests and peaks on foot and it was a meditation of sorts – taking rhythmic steps along winding, woody lanes with the occasional tourist or guide sauntering past on healthy horses with shiny manes. I liked the slowness of walking, the freedom to pause at strange little buildings or panoramic spots that were denied a marking on the map. I liked the way the winds negotiated with time and convinced it to slow down a little because this was after all, one of dryad’s favourite resting places.
Don’t mock me with your trappings
Your clothes and your shoes and your studied nonchalance
I see you
As you really are
A creature of the wild
Lost in the illusion of civilization.
– Song of the forest
It was surreal that we had to travel just two hours away from Mumbai to reach this haven of peaceful wilderness and solitude. Perhaps it was the fact that we were there in September; but there were very few tourists and we often found ourselves all alone, sometimes nearly lost, but we always found our way back. No one can be lost when the mountains are watching and guiding your every step. And so, we found our way to Charlotte Lake with its gusty rapids and serene lake; two contrasting natural phenomena – calm and ferocity – co-existing within a few metres of each other. We found our way to idyllic little gardens and mountain tops where the wind blew so hard, one wrong step could send you teetering over the precipice. We clapped in childish glee when we heard our cries echoed back by the indulgent mountains and we ran for cover when the skies chose to burst down on our shivering selves.
Somewhere between now and forever
You’ll find the map of my existence
There, you’ll also find
The map of your own.
– Song of the mountains
Tell me, months or years after a memorable trip, what is it you remember most clearly? Is it the most important landmarks you managed to visit? That’s definitely not the answer for me; at least not for this trip. What I took back and what I can easily bring forth from my memory now, is the little cups of sweet, homemade chai that we sipped on at wayside hutments, the joy I felt at discovering a little pebble-strewn rivulet in the midst of the forest, the way the wind whipped at my hair while we dangled our legs and sat facing the majestic mountains, the eerie emotion in a horse’s eyes and the silence of the forest. Most of all, the silence. You know, it makes me think, I don’t think there are any angels with harps in Heaven. I think there’s only silence. Because what music could be sweeter than that? Only the music you hear in your heart – soundless, eternal and sweet as sunshine.
If you want to reach Matheran, take a train or drive to Neral (located on the central railway line) and from there, take a toy train (if it’s summer or winter) or a share taxi to Matheran. You can also walk (a distance of 10-11 km) if you’re among a group of trekkers. Vehicles are prohibited inside the hill-station as it is an eco-sensitive region. Once you’re there, you can choose to stay at budget cottages (as low as 500 rupees per night) or resorts with complete amenities. There are a few restaurants (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) and a couple of bars for your meals. Street vendors also sell chai, vada pav, hot corn and Maggi. You can move around on foot or ride on horses (a little expensive), which is what most tourists prefer to do.