Saturday, 1 April 2006

The Sahib's in Pachmarhi, Gunga Din

If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on a week in the hills, would Pachmarhi reward you, my son? Armed with pre-arranged hospitality from MP Tourism, one sallied forth in search of colonial cottages and Raj nostalgia.

The drive in is a good one. Excellent straight road across the plain from Pipariya, the nearest railhead, and then a well-maintained hill road that winds its way up to Pachmarhi through the Satpura National Park. The temperature dropped perceptibly as we climbed, and was positively bracing by the time we got to the top.

A quick run through the market area, several twists and turns, and we were home, at the Satpura Retreat.

Off on a quiet lane, far from the madding crowds at the market place, its outer walls are painted a light green, and, for some strange reason, the roof tiles are a darker shade of the same colour.

That is your basic introduction to the decoration style that results from governments and public tenders, that one affectionately refers to as Erm, Government department Art Dekho (EGAD, for short). Colonial? Well, one has eaten the MPTDC’s salt, but one has professional obligations to this magazine. So, the kindest thing one can say is that the place has been made efficiently livable. Aside from some of the woodwork – which, in most places has been painted over rather than polished – once you’re inside your room, the only clue that you’re in a restored colonial cottage and not a cookie-cutter resort, is the height of the ceilings and the generous spread of the room itself. No four-poster, no carved wooden legs on the bed, no claw-foot bathtub. There is an ornamental fireplace, but the “ornamental” bit is strictly in the eyes of its designer; it is painted in hideous colours. And while the electrical fittings dangle from authentically long stems, they’re modern in the worst way. Fluorescent bulbs, fans with rakishly angled blades.. argh. The bathroom fittings are, er, ah, um, well – you know, funny pseudo-bronzy faucets and stuff like that? Ah well. I suppose one should be thankful for modern plumbing instead of chamber pots. But the fact is, I’ve seen railway station waiting rooms with more authentic period furniture and fittings (admittedly more a result of bureaucracy than design), so getting the real thing can’t be that difficult.

The food is decent and plentiful, and reasonably priced. But again, don’t expect to be downing mulligatawny soup and kedgeree. One eccentricity of the worthy MPTDC is that they have the same menu across all their properties across the state, heritage or not. That said, there’s reasonable variety, and they’re flexible enough to rustle up an off-menu sandwich if your little heart so desires.

The good side now. The rooms are comfortable, and just six rooms mean that that the place is never crowded, and that a vigilant member of the staff is usually within polite hailing distance. The service is warm and friendly, and the staff seem to know just when you want to shoot the breeze a little and when to leave you alone.
A broad, cool wrap-around verandah looks out on to a lovely little garden (make sure you get one of the three rooms that open out thataway) with a wonderful view of the Satpuras on the horizon. Bees and dragonflies go about their business, and birds dart around, presumably making said B&Bs their business. So, if tranquillity and a generous dollop of nature rocks your boat, this is a lovely place to get yours.

I would have been content to spend my stay ensconced in wicker chair with a good book, but Kedar, my photographer, has been instructed by the photo editor to get Lots Of Activity Shots. So, off we go in a hired Gypsy. But first, noblesse must be obliged, so we visit the two other heritage cottages MP Tourism runs, Rock End Manor and Glen View.

En route, we stop off at the lake. Brightly-coloured pedal-boats filled with noisy holiday makers dot the serene waters, a horse, a camel – and a small quad bike! – await landlubbers’ custom. A boat tilts precariously as some youths stand up in it to pose for pictures, but, alas, does not tip over. Idiot-proof, these fibreglass flat-bottomed vessels, sadly.

Rock End is a sparkling white house perched on a small rise, off by itself, overlooking acres of meadows. Creepers, a nice garden, many flowers, and one beautiful painted glass widow win my instant approval. Glen View is a rambling old place in its own grounds. But those grounds also have a new, large building that houses a conference room and the dining room (which is also the only MP Tourism property here with a bar), and a multitude of smaller buildings that our enquiries reveal are their standard AC rooms. It is, by far, and despite the newer constructions, the best-looking of them all, with the decor and fittings a little closer to matching the exteriors. One can easily imagine a coach and horses rattling up the driveway. Quite charming.

We spend the next day Doing Pachmarhi in no uncertain terms.

The Church of the Annunciation (or was it Assumption? One’s upbringing is suspect.), better known locally as the Catholic Church, dating back to 1892, is in regular use. It’s in army property, so you’ll have to request the guards to let you in, but it’s worth a visit for the beautiful stained glass. The parish priest, if he is in, will personally welcome you at the door, and point out the objects of interest. Among them, beautiful Belgian stained glass windows, and a carved stone pulpit and baptismal font. Overall, though, it has a mildly antiseptic feel to it. Christ Church, the Anglican church, is closer to the town centre. It is slightly older (1875) and in poor repair; sunlight peeps through holes in the roof, the pews are dusty. But it is in regular use too, with a padre coming in once a week. It’s a far more beautiful church, with its half-dome over the altar, wooden beams, and magnificent stained glass too, despite many a missing pane.

These, however, are not Pachmarhi’s main draw. What brings the teeming masses here, even more than the invigorating climate and the wonderful views, is the cave temples, dedicated mainly dedicated to Shiva (Jata Shankar and Mahadeo are the best-known). There are also cave paintings, most around 1500 years old, but some date back as far as 8000 BC. The temples see brisk custom even off-season and the way of the devoted is lined with stalls selling all manner of religious aids.

For the adventure lovers there is rock climbing, and treks and nature walks to be had, but if you want to see animals, the best options involve overnight stays in forest guest houses. Permission must be arranged before hand, and most hotels will help with that. Don’t expect to see any tigers, the “Satpura Tiger Reserve” signs notwithstanding. Though it must be said: Kedar, on a solo jaunt, spotted fresh panther spoor near one of the cave sites.

Oh yes. In the area known as the Helipad or Landing Field, a private operator has a parasailing operation going. Kedar took a ride, and, desiring to fill the unforgiving minute – and not to look too wimpy – I did too. To the detriment of my coccyx, thanks to a clumsy landing. I type this perched on many soft cushions, but it still hurts more than foes or loving friends, I can confidently assure you.

Thanks to said affliction, one spent the last morning of our stay visiting Pachmarhi’s only (apparently) doctor, and being shot full of painkillers, so very nearly missed out on the find of the trip.

Right next to the Satpura Retreat is Evelyn’s Own, the home of Colonel Rao and his wife. We dropped in on the advice of a taxi driver, and were rewarded amply. In the meagre half-hour we spent chatting with the genial couple, we learn how they bought the place as their retirement home, how they began taking in house guests, and gradually converted some of the outer buildings – garages, stables, etcetera – into guest rooms. The rooms are cosy, all ACed, the service, great, and the company, most excellent. “It’s a quiet place, Pachmarhi,” says ‘Bunny’ Rao (only a fauji can carry off a nickname like that), “and it was partly so that we would get some interesting company.”

Which brings us to the nub: if it’s colonial ambience you want (forgive me MP Tourism, but those fireplaces!) I have to say Evelyn’s Own does it better.

The Information

Getting there.

Air: Nearest airport, Bhopal, a little short of 200km.
Rail: Closest station, Pipariya, 50km. However, not all trains stop there. The larger Itarsi junction is 100km away, and many choose to switch to road transport from there.
If you do go via Pipariya, you’ll need to get a taxi to Pachmarhi. It should cost you around Rs 500 off-season. Demand:supply will push the prices up in summer. If you’re staying at an MPTDC property, it makes sense to take a one-minute walk from the station to their Tourist motel, where the staff will help you get a car without getting rooked too badly.

Where to stay

MP Tourism’s colonial cottages ( Each property has 6 AC Deluxe rooms, at Rs 2990. Don’t bother with the 15 standard AC rooms at Glen View if you want the full experience; they’re newer constructions on the grounds, without a shred of history between them.
Satpura Retreat: +91 7578 252097,;
Rock-End Manor: +91 07578 252079,,
Glen View: +91 07578 252533 / 252445,
Evelyn’s Own: 15 rooms, all ACed, from Rs 1500 to Rs 2500., +91 07578 252056, +91 9425310503,

What to do

If you’re at the MP Tourism places, for the prices you’re paying, you shouldn’t stir off the property. But unfortunately, there isn’t much for those who aren’t TV addicts and can only take so much sitting around breathing clean air. If you want to see the sights, they organise tours. A Gypsy with driver will cost you Rs 650 for the full day, up to 60km, or Rs 500 for a half-day up to 30 km. For large groups, Rs 150 per head in a 20-seater bus will ferry you around all the hot spots.
Evelyn’s Own offers you tennis and badminton, some indoor games, a paddling pool, even a tree house. The Raos will also arrange treks and nature walks, and visits to the Satpura National Park. And they’ll even get you a game on the Lord Landsdowne Golf Course for the price of the greens fees. Plus there’s a chance of fascinating conversation with the Colonel and his lady, raconteurs both, and of course they know the area like it was home.

Published in Outlook Traveller, April 2006 edition.



Nandan Jha said...

very interesting story :). different take.

you may want to read this in your spare time.

all the best

Anonymous said...

First of all, Evelyn's Own is very inconveniently located, more than 2 kms away from the city center, which matters a lot when there is no public transportation. You have to pay at Rs 50 - Rs 70 everytime you flag down a Maruti Gypsy - the only mode of (public) transport in the city. Just to contrast, MP Tourism hotels and there a quite a few in the cantonment area are located at much better vantage points from both access and ambiance point of view.

When we checked into the place around noon, we were met by a really old staff who showed us to the room. A lady (I suspect the maid) brought in our luggage damaging it in the bargain. The room was way, way below our expectations. No thought or care had been given to the room. It was a rumbling, broken, damp room with nearly everything cobbled together, as if from the flea market. The curtains had holes in them and the table cloth seemed like it might have been a curtain in a past era. The lamp shades were broken and the CFL was not working. There was no sink in the very narrow bathroom with a poor drainage and we couldn't get the hot water tap to turn. Looked liked the work of an overzealous plumber. The place also had a foul smell, as if someone was burning kerosene. The place did not seem to have been cared for or maintained - not in the homestay kind of way, anyway.

At a price of Rs 2200, it does not come cheap. Also, they seem to have an unadverstised policy of no refunds. There is no provision of even a breakfast. You have to walk well over 500 meters for breakfast, lunch or dinner. At night, or in the hot sun, or in the morning - it can be quite a nuisance.

BSNL is the only mobile operator that has a tower in Pachmarhi - no Airtel, no Vodafone, no Idea or Docomo or Spice or what have you. Evelyn's Own does not have a landline facility for its guests. You have to go out of the premises and walk some distance to make a call - one wonders why the owners will want to call Evelyn's Own a homestay. If anything, it does not look a home. The retiring rooms of the Indian Railways are far better mintained than the room at Evelyn's Own. And the much abused MP Tourism hotels had better rooms from the colonial era as well as much better ambience.

The lady told us that they have a policy of not refunding any money. A very unfair policy, given they neither advertise it (to us at least) nor are there any meaningful descriptions or images of the rooms that they rent out. In fact, on some of the other websites that carry Evelyn's Own as an inventory, I found that they 'may' withhold 1 night's charge for a no-show. And here we were - the owner told us they don't refund any money for a noshow.

For the time we were there, the place was more impersonal than a hotel and more run down than any of MP tourism hotels I saw in Pachmarhi. We had to go through the staff everytime we wanted to talk to the owner - the lady in this case.

If you are tight on budget, this place is too expensive. If you have the money to spend, this is not the place you want to be at. If you are looking for a homestay kind of experience, then Evelyn's Own does not qualify. It does not come close even.