Foreign Hand

The forgotten Chinese pioneers of Mahabaleshwar

01 January 2015
Strawberries, now Mahabaleshwar’s most recognised export, were introduced to the area in the 1800s by Chinese convicts.

Asif Merchant, a soft-spoken, grey-haired retiree, was for many years a teacher at the highly regarded Kimmins High School in Panchgani, a hill station up in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. Kimmins, a girls’ boarding school, was founded by a British mission in 1898, and is just one of many reminders of the colonial era that dot Panchgani and nearby Mahabaleshwar, a popular tourist destination about 250 kilometres south of Mumbai. Both towns were founded by the British in the nineteenth century, and Mahabaleshwar was the summer capital of Bombay province until Independence. Merchant, now in his mid seventies, blogs regularly about the area’s history, much of which, as a lifelong native, he has witnessed at first hand.

On my sojourn to Mahabaleshwar this summer, Merchant agreed to show me around. I drove up the Panchgani hills from the neighbouring plains of Wai on a May morning, passing colonial buildings along the way, and found the amateur historian waiting for me in Mahabaleshwar near a line of kiosks selling strawberries, for which the town is famed.

Merchant offered me fresh strawberry juice from one of the vendors, and suggested that we start the excursion from Chinaman’s Falls. I was surprised: on previous trips I had visited many of the town’s attractions, several named after British officers—Wilson’s Point, Arthur’s Seat, Elphinstone Point—but I had never heard of this place. When I said as much, Merchant smiled. The waterfall, he told me, is largely overlooked, as is the aspect of the town’s history it is meant to memorialise. Chinaman’s Falls is named after Chinese convicts who, many years ago, worked in the vicinity, and who had a crucial hand in establishing the hill station.

Sameer Khan is a playwright, author and independent writer. He tweets as @samkhan999.

Keywords: history Mahabaleshwar cultivation tea plantations Chinese convicts British rule