In the early 19th century, those travelling between Pune and Mumbai had to journey through the plains using palanquins, carts or horses, then traverse the sea in boats and finally undertake a multi-mile trek along the treacherous Bhor Ghat.
On the morning of June 27, 1825, the then Bishop of Calcutta Reginald Heber left Mumbai for Pune. In his memoirs, he describes how this three-day long ‘Journey to Poonah’ was marked with back-breaking hardships and sleepless nights but also with unforgettable encounters with the natural beauty of the Western Ghats.
To reach Pune from his temporary residence in Mumbai, Bishop Heber and an associate had to first travel to Panvel via sea in a small boat, covering a distance of 22 miles in about four hours. From there they set on the main part of their journey in palanquins borne by Indian hammals. On their way to Khopoli, they halted twice for food and for the palanquin bearers to get some rest. From here, the difficult part of the journey began as Heber and his associate had to alight from the palanquins and trek up the Bhor Ghat on foot, amid a heavy downpour.
“…the ascent (of Bhor Ghat is) very steep so much so that, indeed, a loaded carriage, or even a palanquin with anybody in it, could with great difficulty be forced along it. In fact, everyone either walks or rides up the hills, and all merchandise is conveyed on bullocks or horses,” wrote Heber in the posthumously published memoirs ‘Narrative of a Journey through Upper Provinces of India’, edited by his wife Amelia.
After reaching Khandala, the duo rode to Karle on horseback. After a brief visit to the ancient caves, the party reboarded the palanquins and reached Pune Cantonment on June 29 after an overnight ‘sleepless’ journey in which Heber experienced alternate spells of “heat and shiver”.
Although Heber’s safari to Pune was arduous, the difficulties he faced during the journey, especially while crossing the Bhor Ghat, were nothing compared to those faced by travellers a few decades before him.
In 1803, the East India Company (EIC) undertook a project to construct a road through Bhor Ghat after it suffered two humiliating debacles in the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-1785). The battle defeats, as per the British, were largely due to the lack of a reliable transport and communication link to Mumbai through the great impediment of the Ghat.:
“…First impetus to the British road construction was given by Colonel Arthur Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington, when he set his military engineers and pioneers to construct a fair-weather road up the Bhor Ghat to facilitate the reinforcement and supply of his armies in the Deccan during the Second Maratha War. This road helped materially towards the success of Wellesley’s operation, but afterwards fell into disuse and was destroyed by the Peshwa,” Lieutenant Colonel E W C Sandes recounted in the book ‘Military Engineer in India’ (Vol II) published in 1932.
Later Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone reconstructed this road in 1819-1827 to improve the communication between Mumbai and Pune after the latter fell to the EIC’s military in the Third Anglo-Maratha War ending in 1819. Bishop Heber travelled on the road after it was freshly repaired and had great praise for the work done by Elphinstone.
Bungalows, taverns en route
The duration and the nature of the journey necessitated halts for the travellers to rest. For the rich who could afford them, there were bungalows and taverns which provided food, beverages and places to rest. Most of the taverns were owned and operated by Parsi and Portuguese gentlemen. These were situated at Panvel, Khopoli, Karle and other prominent spots along the way. Palanquin, as a mode of transport, was extremely expensive as it required the services of a group of people, and was only used by the elite. Elizabeth Cary aka Lady Falkland, wife of Bombay Governor Lord Falkland (1848-53), has detailed the social and financial condition of the bearers in her memoir, based on an interview with a hammal.
As per Heber’s memoir, a palanquin journey between Pune and Mumbai was costly compared to similar journeys in the north because, unlike in the north, there were no halting points here built by the Postal Department. The Dak establishments were known to have on their roll bearers who could be hired at short notice to travel between any two stages of the journey. At the Mumbai-Pune stretch, however, one group of bearers had to carry the palanquin throughout the entire journey of over 70 miles from Panvel to Pune.
“In consequence, it becomes a necessary part of the economy to engage one set of bearers to go as far as they can, and enable them to do so by halts of this kind, which the institution of bungalows renders much less inconvenient than it would be in the north,” wrote Heber.
The advent of rail travel
Four decades on, in 1863, the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) inaugurated its Bombay-Poona train service that brought down the travel time between the two cities to just a few hours. Work on the project had commenced in 1854, preceded by a great amount of hesitancy given the near-insurmountable challenge posed by the Bhor Ghat.
In ‘Ways and Works in India’, an 1894 book written by G W Macgeorge, the author details the efforts, investment, technological innovations and lives that were spent in making the Mumbai-Pune railway line through the Bhor Ghat, often described as one of the most remarkable achievements of 19th century civil engineering.
“There are probably but few travellers now daily passing up and down the magnificent Thul and Bhore ghat inclines, quietly seated in comfortable railway carriages, who can at all adequately realise the extraordinary nature of the obstacles which have been so successfully overcome, and the great skill and daring of all those engaged especially during the first years in shaping and carving out of the rocky mountain sides those wide luxurious roads on which they now so easily and securely travel,” he writes.
The train service, which became a matter of astonishment for the local residents, became faster in 1928 when the reversing station located near the summit of the hill was removed and a few more tunnels added. Two years later, Deccan Queen, India’s first superfast train, would chug along the route once deemed unsuitable for bullock carts.
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