Foreign Hand

The forgotten Chinese pioneers of Mahabaleshwar

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

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.

Merchant continued the story as we hiked through the summer heat into a forest south of town. When Mahabaleshwar was established, in 1827, there was a surging global demand for tea, which the British already bought in massive quantities from China. Hoping to profit in India, British officials established plantations at several places, including the Nilgiri Hills on the southern end of the Western Ghats. To exploit Chinese expertise, they brought in Chinese labourers, many of them slaves and convicts.

Soon after Mahabaleshwar was founded, the British set up a tea plantation in the nearby village of Awkali. According to colonial records, in 1830 a British judge ordered 120 Chinese and Malay inmates (to locals they were all “Chinese”) transferred from Thane Jail in Mumbai to a prison in Awkali. Later, another jail was also built for them in Mahabaleshwar.

Since the surrounding jungles and rugged terrain made escape difficult, Merchant told me, the convicts were allowed a limited freedom, and could sometimes roam the town’s bazaar before returning to their “open” jail. But they were also forced to work under extremely inhospitable conditions on the Awkali plantation.

The plantation eventually failed, as the local topography and soil proved unsuitable for tea cultivation. The convicts were put to work elsewhere, building roads, gardens, and much else. But that, perhaps, wasn’t their most lasting contribution. The prisoners excelled at farming, and introduced several non-native vegetables—such as arrowroot, potatoes and red radish—to the area. They were also, Merchant said, the first to grow strawberries here, giving Mahabaleshwar its most recognised export. The area soon became a major producer of vegetables, and started supplying large cities such as Poona.

After about three kilometres, we arrived at the waterfall. A stream plunged into a gorge, whipped by a fast wind. After taking in the view, I asked my guide if we could visit the jail that once hosted the convicts in Mahabaleshwar. Merchant told me it had been demolished years ago, and that a Public Works Department bungalow now stands in its place.

We went to see the site, near the centre of town, anyway. While we looked around, a few local guides waiting for tourists nearby told us the jail had been closed in 1864, and the convicts who had completed their sentences freed. Many stayed in the area, married locals and became assimilated into Mahabaleshwar society. Up until the 1950s, Merchant said, Chinese names still appeared on the municipal voters list. He recalled hearing stories of a Chinese jail in Awkali as a child, but that structure too no longer exists.

Merchant said that little trace of the convicts remains in the records either. Surviving court documents state they were transferred from Thane for purposes of “reformation,” but say nothing of what crimes they were serving time for. Nor do they record their names, or say why or how they ended up in India. That, it seems, will remain one of the unsolved puzzles of Mahabaleshwar’s history.