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Picture perfect Panchgani

If you need a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Panchgani is the place for you, says TINA GARG.

tina garg

What you can see ... an overview of the town, with the river Krishna flowing by.

A QUIET little hill station in Maharashtra, Panchgani is the perfect place to lose your self to nature. Easily accessible from Mumbai, Panchgani is often talked of in the same breath as its popular neighbour Mahabaleshwar. However holidaying in the quiet Panchgani is a completely different experience as against the visibly crowded Mahabaleshwar.

The easiest way to reach Panchgani, is to drive down from Pune (192 kilometres from Mumbai), the nearest city that is easily accessible by rail and air. The best time to visit is September to May, when one can literally "chill out" at an altitude of 1,334 metres. In fact, as soon as one begins to climb the hills leading to the town, the temperature difference becomes discernable, with the air being much cooler.

Legend has it that Panchgani is named after the five hills that surround it. These were settlements of the natives and hence the town came to be called Panchgani, panch meaning five and gani meaning settlement. The town was founded by John Chesson in 1854, who developed it with a grant from the Governor of Bombay. Soon it came to be the home of a number of Christians and Parsis, and a getaway from the heat of the plains.

Accommodation is easily available in Panchgani, in the form of a few new hotels and some old Parsi estates that the owners have started to let out to vacationers. In fact these are the best way to enjoy the place and they aren't very expensive either. The rates generally cover all the meals in the "per person per day" scheme.

The landscape in Panchgani is idyllic — hills, valleys and the Krishna flowing through little farms and hamlets. Almost the entire area is covered with lush green trees and one can find many a little path for an evening walk. An ideal day in the town would mean you awakening to a hot cup of tea served in bed, followed by breakfast of your choice. You could spend your morning bird gazing in the garden of your resort or photographing nature's bounty, which is aplenty there. Given such surroundings, snuggling up in your bed with a racy novel or watching a romantic film is not a bad idea either or if you're the type who likes to shop, get a lift into the market around Shivaji circle. Shop for leather goods like shoes, slippers, bags, the famous Channa (roasted gram) — three varieties (plain, lemon and spiced — honey, jams, crushes and preserves, handicrafts made of wood and of course Chikki (caramelised nuts.) One can also pick up baked delicacies from the various bakeries around Shivaji circle. While doing so don't forget to visit Roach and Sons, Panchgani's oldest bakery, founded in 1901. At the market, one can also see the process of making the popular Channa; the expertise of the maker really leaves you spellbound. Evening in Panchgani could be reserved for sightseeing. The most enjoyable place is definitely the Tableland (a vast plateau, 4.5 km long, said to be second largest in Asia). It protects Panchgani from strong winds and heavy rains, making the hill resort more enjoyable. It's virtually a fun fair at Tableland now, with games stalls, buggy rides, Ferris wheels, snack shops and other rides being available. The best way to see the sights this flat land has to offer are to hop into a buggy that costs you Rs. 130 per ride or then go horse back, which would cost anywhere from Rs. 80 upwards.

At the Tableland, one can see the "Pandav's Feet", a rock formation with imprints of the feet of Pandavas, who are believed to have crossed this land. The "One Tree point" with a single tree growing on a rock at the edge of the land, and the "Shooting point" where a number of Hindi films have been shot are also worth seeing while you're there. The plateau provides a scenic view of the river crossing through the various ravines and a breathtaking sight of the five flat hills, after which Panchgani is named. A little below, is a restaurant in a cave, which is easily accessible.

Half way to the Tableland is a road leading to the Rajapuri Caves, where one can find a temple dedicated to "Kartikswami", son of Lord Shiva. Other "points" are "Parsi Point", from where the view is marvellous, and "Sydney point", right opposite "Shooting point". Panchgani's other sights are "Kanga" and "Kachbawdi points", "Devil's kitchen", where the Pandava's are said to have cooked their food (don't ask me how it gets its name!), "Harrison's Folly", and a place called Tapola where one can try one's hand at water sports and hire speedboats, motor boats or water scooters for Rs. 150 to Rs. 200. For the spiritually inclined, there are the Moral Rearmament Centre and the Brahma Kumari's ashram. But perhaps the latest and most popular addition to the Panchgani landscape is the Sherbaug, a well-landscaped expanse of land.

Commuting into the town is possible by hired taxis, horses, where the ground permits, and bicycles that can be hired at the market. But your feet are the most common mode of transport here and also gives you the opportunity to breathe the fresh mountain air while you trek round the place. Any walk around Panchgani is incomplete without you coming across a school at some corner — the town is virtually a seat of learning. While you're trekking you might want to check out the neighbouring Wai (12 km away), which is famous for its stone temples built in the 18th Century, and the Buddhist caves. Another trekking destination is Bhillar (6 km away) known for its beautiful flowers.

After you've had your fill of the pristine hills, crisp air and ample rest, you can visit Mahabaleshwar (18 km away). This town has a lot more one can see; however commercialisation has resulted in the place losing some of that old world charm that Panchgani has retained.

Mahabaleshwar has many temples, some of which are very old. There are also at least 20 different "points" from where you can have breathtaking views of the hills around you. Boating on the Venna lake is popular and paddle boats/oar boats are easily available for Rs. 40 upwards. For those who'd rather skip the sights, shopping can be done in the one-street market that has shops lined on both sides. Also, Mahabaleshwar is synonymous with berries and a trip here is incomplete without tasting some of these. All in all, a trip started at Panchgani and ended here, has all the ingredients you could be looking for.

Factfile:

Getting to Panchgani:

Air: Pune, 100 km away.

Rail: Pune, 100 km away.

Road: Panchgani is easily accessible by road from Pune and

Mumbai 258 km.

Accommodation:

  • Hotel Millennium Park Behind Bharati Vidyapeth, Godavali Village,

    Panchgani — 412 805

  • Cliff Inn Resort, Near Sydney Point, Panchgani — 412 805

  • Comfort Inn Dhanhills 79/3 Kondiba Shinde Road, Panchgani — 412 805

  • Hotel Five Hills (run by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation)

    Panchgani — 412 805 Ph: +91-1268-40301

  • Blue Country Resort Panchgani — 412 805

  • Maidstone (Private Home accommodation owned by Mr. Virjee)

    Ph: +91-1268-40256

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