The Western Ghat mountains shadow India’s southwest coast, extending for a thousand miles from Gujarat down to the southern tip of Kerala. Despite running through one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, the range is amazingly empty and wild for much of its course. There are good reasons for this. In the far north, where the mountains are known as the Sayadhris, the uplands are parched and uncultivable; while in the south, the forests, tea and coffee plantations cloaking the lush, subtropical slopes are strictly off limits to visitors, allowing wildlife free rein.
I’d crossed the Ghats many times on updating trips for the Rough Guide to India but never really explored their remotest corners until 2010–2014, when I made a series of three trips to different regions, beginning with the striking, twin-peaked massif of Mangi Tungi on the Maharastra-Gujarat border.
Despite appearing deserted, the mountains in this rugged and remote district are in fact riddled with ancient temples, pilgrimage paths and astonishing Maratha forts which locals still like to visit on weekends. I also came across numerous villages many hours walk from the nearest roads, where Adivasi (‘tribal’) people survived from monsoon crops and honey gathering.
Further south, the Ghats assume immense proportions as they march along the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, creating a corridor of wild land high above the surrounding tea estates. One of the most beautiful corners is the valley dividing Top Station from Kolukkumalai where peninsula India’s second highest mountain – Meeshapulimalai – rises imperiously above patches of shola forest and grasslands roamed by elephants, tigers and rare Nilgiri langur monkeys.
The following selection also includes some shots of, and from, the wonderful little hill station of Matheran just outside Mumbai, which is one of the unsung gems of India.
Guide surveys the upper slopes of Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest tea plantation
Morning mist cloaks a tea estate at Valparai in Tamil Nadu
The last tea factory created by the British in India, Kolukkumalai
Sadhu dwelling in a rock-cut cave near the Konkan Kada cliff, Maharashtra
Returning from a shopping trip: an Adivasi family on the three-hour uphill trek home
Dawn view of Prabalgad from Matheran: only a stone’s throw from Mumbai, but a different world
Established by the British in the early nineteenth century, the hill station of Matheran remains traffic-free
"Guaranteed No Real Fruit" reads the label on one of these drinks bottles in Matheran
Matheran’s narrow-gauge railway – one of India’s most scenic train journeys
Adivasi woman returning from market in the Ghats east of Mumbai
The Konkan Kada cliff – domain of vultures and wandering sadhus
An eighth-century laterite Shiva temple nestles amid the upper slopes of Harischandragad, Maharashtra
Pilgrim at the Shiva Lingam in a cave temple on Harischandragad Mountain
Jain worshippers salute sacred Mangi Tungi’s twin peaks as sun sets on the Gujarat border
Sunrise on the main pilgrimage path around the summits of Mangi Tungi
Jain pilgrim striding into the first rays of daylight on the summit ridge of Mangi Tungi
Worshippers leave offerings on the banks of the Godavari River, Nasik
Women celebrate Karthik Purnima in Nasik, Maharashtra
Pilgrims (bottom right) perform the ritual circuit of Brahmagiri mountain, source of the Godavari
Sadhu at the start of the Brahmagiri pilgrimage route, Maharashtra.