Matheran, literally means “FOREST ON THE FOREHEAD”. It is Asia’s only ‘automobile-free hill station’. It is in the Raigad District of Maharashtra, and is also the ‘smallest hill station’ in India.
Matheran was discovered by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the then District Collector of Thane District in May 1850. Lord Elphinstone, the then Governor of Bombay (Mumbai) laid the foundations of the development as a future hill station. The British developed Matheran as a popular resort to beat the summer heat in the region. The Matheran Hill Railway was built in 1907 by Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy and covers a distance of 20 kilometres, over large swathes of forest territory.
The Matheran Hill Railway, also known as Matheran Light Railway (MLR), was inspected by UNESCO World Heritage Site officials, but failed to make it to the list as a World Heritage Site. India’s other Hill Railways like the Darjeeling Railway, the Kangra Valley Railway, Nilgiri Mountain Railway are already on the list.
Matheran has been declared an ‘eco-sensitive’ region by the Union Environment Ministry and can be called a “Health Sanatorium” in itself. The only form of automobile allowed, in Matheran, is an ambulance operated by the Municipality. No private automobiles are allowed. Within Matheran, transport facilities available are horses and hand-pulled rickshaws. Thus, Matheran is Asia’s only “automobile-free hill station”.
Matheran lies in an elevated region, enjoys a cooler and less humid climate, which makes it popular during the summer months. Temperatures range from 32 degrees to 16 degrees C. Matheran has a huge number of medicinal plants and herbs. The town also has a large monkey population, including Bonnet Macaques and Hanuman Langurs. The nearby Lake Charlotte is the main source of Matheran’s drinking water. The languages spoken include Marathi, Hindi and English. There are a lot of Parsee bungalows. Beautiful, old British-style architecture is preserved in Matheran. The roads are not metalled and are made of “red laterite earth”. There are many ‘POINTS’ (view-points) in Matheran which give a panaromic view of the plains below.
As of 2001 Indian Census, Matheran had a population of 5,319. Males constitute 58% of the population and females 42%. Matheran has an average literacy rate of 71%, higher than the national average of 59% : Male literacy is 75% and female literacy is 66%. In Matheran, 11% of the population is under 6 years of age.
Matheran is well-connected to Mumbai (100 km) and Pune (120 km) by rail and road, while NERAL is the nearest rail station. The nearest airport is (CSIA) Chhatrapathi Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai. Matheran has a narrow gauge railway station in the town centre. The old Matheran Hill Railway offers several daily trains to Neral. Neral Junction is well connected by local trains from CST along the CST-Karjat route. Any Pune-bound train from CST (Mumbai) reaches Neral in approximately 2 hours.
There are, altogether 28 ‘points’, 2 lakes, 2 parks, 4 major places of worship and a racecourse, to visit, inside Matheran. It takes about 2-3 days, on foot, for a complete adventure. The important ‘points’ are Alexander Point, Rambag Point, Little Chowk Point, Big Chowk Point, One-Tree Hill Point, Belvedere Point, Lords Point, Celia Point (a waterfall mouth), Echo Point, Panorama Point (sun rise point), Porcupine Point (sun set point), Khandala Point, and Louisa Point. Then there is the Olympia Race Course, Pishamath Mahadev Mandir, Madhavi Gardens and Point, Mayra Point and Shiv Mandir.
After failing to ensure a place for the Matheran Light Railway (MLR) on the World Heritage Site List in 2009, Railways is making fresh attempts to see that the MLR gets enlisted, by UNESCO, this time. The construction of the Neral-Matheran line in Maharashtra was started in 1904 and the toy train had its first run in 1907.
The Railways first submitted the proposal to include the MLR on UNESCO’s Heritage List in 2006. 3 years, later, UNESCO conveyed its decision to the Railways citing various reasons for not giving its nod, In the meantime, a major chunk of the line got washed away due to heavy rains, but it was restored and made operational in February 2007.
Says Subodh Jain, General Manager of Central Railways : “If it gets WHS (World Heritage Status), the hill station will attract the attention of global tourists, and this will transform the economy of the area. Though it is a loss making route, we want it to be inscribed in the World Heritage List. We are trying to make it financially viable by introducing a ‘shuttle service’ during the monsoons”.