Travel Feature

Anaar of Calgary visits her former school in Panchgani, India, after 70 years. The gardener (pictured) was the only person from that time at the school.

Calgary resident, “Anaar,” at the age of seven, attended St. Joseph’s Convent School in Panchgani, India. Her brother and several other relatives were also sent to Panchgani’s various boys’ schools.

St. Joseph’s Convent School, established in 1895, is the finest an all-girls boarding school in India.

Panchgani is still a renowned hill station and known for many premier residential educational institutions offering world- class education in boarding schools which have produced notable lawyers. Parents all over India and even as far away as Africa have been sending their children to study there.

“I was a bubbling seven-year-old girl when first came to the school and now I have returned here as a 76-year-old woman sporting a cane,” she told the principal who came out to greet her.

Visibly emotional and chocking at times, Anaar toured her former dormitory and other areas of the school. All her former teachers and other staff have either retired or are no longer alive. As luck would have it, there was one person — a gardener — who worked from that time is alive and still working at the school. The two of them spent some time talking about the various things connected with the school and reminiscing.

They met and talked to various girls who have been studying there. She was surprised to meet Fatima, a Muslim girl from India, who said her parents were not opposed to her studying in a Christian school. She attended religious services with other girls and was not concerned about the religious aspect. 

“I am her to get good multi-dimensional education — intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual and phycological. St. Joseph’s has succeeded in allowing me to achieve excellence and maximum potential in education.”

The school celebrates its 125 anniversary in 2020 and Anaar has been cordially invited as “we would like to celebrate you,” according to the principal. When asked if she would attend, she replied: “Inshallah (God willing).”

Panchgani was developed by the British after 1857 as a health resort and an educational center due to Panchgani’s climate. St Joseph’s Convent School was established in 1895 and it is one of the oldest existing schools in Panchgani, incorporating all the best elements of British education of that era. Among its notable alumni include Indian film stars Nutan, Kajol and Zeenat Aman.

Panchgani, located at an altitude of 1, 334 metres, is known for its scenic views. Five hills form the Sahyadri mountain ranges offer Panchgani its name. The picturesque backdrop of hills on one side and coastal plains on the other makes for an amazing view. The British treated it as a summer resort and hence many colonial period establishments can be seen here.

Panchgani’s twin city is Mahabaleshwar, less than half hour away, which actually is an extension of Panchgani with beautiful sceneries, countless view points and strawberries and raspberries.

Close to Mahabaleshwar, a popular tourist destination, we visited Mapro Gardens, a brand name associated with delicious fruit-based products.

Established in the 1980s as an extension of the Mapro Foods Factory, Mapro Garden enables visitors to see the production of jams and syrups, providing a relaxed atmosphere to shop and taste its food items made from organic ingredients.

During the Easter weekend, the Mapro Strawberry Festival is organised in the month of March/April, when raw strawberries and innovative strawberry-based products are showcased, and one can sample and taste the amazingly fresh produce as one likes.

The event is accompanied with traditional folk dances and music. Mapro's Strawbeery Festival is a unique celebration of nature and its gifts. 

One can visit both Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar from Pune, the second largest city in the state of Maharashtra after Mumbai and the ninth most populous city in the country with an estimated population of 3.13 million. Pune, which forms the urban core of the Pune Metropolitan Region, is estimated to have 7.27 million people.

Known as the “Oxford of the east,” Pune has several well-known educational institutions and is considered to be the cultural capital of Maharshatra. Recently, the city has emerged as a major educational hub with nearly half of the total international students in the country studying in Pune. Several colleges in Pune have student exchange programmes with colleges in Europe.

Pune is also the site of one of the important landmarks in Indian history, the Aga Khan Palace, built by Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, the grandfather of the present Aga Khan, in 1892 as an act of charity by Aga Khan III who wanted to help the poor in the neighbouring areas of Pune, hit drastically by the famine.

Legend has it that the late Aga Khan built the palace to provide employment to the famine-struck villagers of the surrounding region. Over 1,000 people were hired to build the palace which took five years to build at a cost of Rs 12 lakhs.

The total area is 13 acres with built up palace covering seven acres. The rest of the area has a well-maintained garden, open for relaxation or picnics.

Aga Khan Palace, a majestic building popular among tourists as well as local Indians, is closely linked to the Indian freedom movement as the late Aga Khan offered it as a prison for Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and his secretary Mahadev Desai. The palace, where both Kasturba and Desai died while in captivity, has been declared a monument of national importance. 

In 1969, Aga Khan Palace was donated to the Indian people by the present Aga Khan as a mark of respect to Gandhi and his philosophy.

Today the palace houses a memorial on Gandhi where his ashes were kept. 

The palace archives a number of photos and portraits depicting glimpses from the life of mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation and other personalities of the Indian freedom movement.

The Aga Khan Palace in Pune, the place where Mahatma Gandhi was kept as a prisoner after he launched the Quit India movement, exemplifies simple living and high ideals.

Considered to be seven wonders of India, it is visited everyday by thousands of people eager to learn about India’s freedom struggle in a day.

Aga Khan Palace provides instant Indian history lessons and memorabilia of the Indian freedom movement.

Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist, travel writer and author of “Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West and A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.” This column appears on a recurring basis.