Among the last tracts of central India mapped by the British, the Mahadeo Hills weren’t explored until 1857, when Captain J. Forsyth and his party of Bengal Lancers stumbled upon an idyllic saucer-shaped plateau at the heart of the range, strewn with huge boulders and crisscrossed by streams. Five years later a road was cut from the railhead at Piparia, and by the end of the century PACHMARHI had become the summer capital of the entire Central Provinces, complete with a military sanatorium, churches, clubhouses, racecourse and polo pitch.

Aside from the faded Raj atmosphere and myriad walks and hikes, the main incentive to travel up here is the chance to scramble around the surrounding forest in search of prehistoric rock art or visit Satpura National Park, home to a handful of (elusive) tigers and leopards. Popular during the summer with Indian tourists, Pachmarhi remains sleepy for the rest of the year. In winter, things liven up during the annual Shivratri Mela (Feb/March), when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pour through en route to the top of nearby Chauragarh Mountain.

The best time to visit Pachmarhi is between October and March, when the cool, clear mountain air makes a refreshing change from the heat and dust at lower elevations. It’s best to avoid long holiday weekends, when the popular spots attract big crowds.

Pachmarhi town, more than 1000m above sea level, is clean, green and relaxed, despite the presence of a large military cantonment in its midst. It has retained a distinctly colonial ambience enhanced by the elegant British bungalows and church spires that nose incongruously above the tropical tree line. In the evenings families stroll and picnic in the parklands, while army bands and scout troops march around the maidans.

The web of forest tracks and pilgrim trails that thread their way around Pachmarhi’s widely dispersed archeological and religious sites make for excellent walking.

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