This is the second of my two-part series on the Parsis of Panchgani and Mahableshwar
After Panchgani was settled, along with the Britishers, many rich Parsis settled in Panchgani.
The Virjees are among the oldest of these settlers. Mr. Pestonjee Virjee bought his house, Maidstone from John Chesson’s daughter. His sons, Pesi and Feroze joined him after they retired. Maidstone is a huge property with many bungalows. In their section they kept paying guests, and the rest was rented out. There was a big rose garden in front of their house. Feroze passed away many years ago. His wife Dolly still stays at Maidstone. About ten years ago we had the privilege of sampling some of her delicious Dhan Sak. Pesi passed away a few years ago, survived by his wife for many years, Daphne. They were a very pleasant couple, Pesi being ever jovial with his British accent and smart appearance, till the very end. Their grand daughter, Gita Choksy is taking care of her grand mother and grand aunt, as well as the property.
An ex teacher of Billimoria School, Mr. Jahina invested in a large piece of land at the beginning of Chesson Road. There he built a number of bungalows, which he would rent out. It seemed as if he was due for a very pleasant retired life, but it was not to be. Mr. Jahina had a very unfortunate experience. About forty years ago he rented out his entire property, Jahina Estate to some people to start a school. Being a very kind hearted man, the rent was fixed for a small amount since Mr. Jahina thought he was supporting a noble venture. After a few years, the tenants stopped paying rent, and refused to vacate even after the school closed down, taking full advantage of loopholes in the tenancy act. Mr. Jahina has passed away, but the happy news is that his daughter, Dhun, has finally managed to regain possession of this prime property. The tenants have finally been evicted.
Below Jahina Estate is a set of Bungalows which were known as Bhiladwala Estate. It was owned by a Parsi gentleman named Bhiladwala. I don’t know much about him. We stayed there for a few months in 1940 when we first came to Panchgani. I was one year old at that time. The Silk Research Centre was started here in the sixties. The property is now owned by New Era School.
Sohrabji Batliwalla’s Dhun Hall and Shirin Hall, next to Aeolin Terraces became Bristol Hotel. This property was later taken by the Shaikh brothers. There are two schools here now, Dawn Academy, and Scholar Foundation, which was started by one of the brothers who broke away to start his own school.
Opposite Bristol Hotel was the Batliwala Bungalow, owned by Dr. Hormusjee Batliwalla, the manufacturer of Batliwalla’s Ague Mixture, which was very famous in its time. It has since been demolished. Mr. Liaqat Shaikh stays in the bungalow that has come up in its place.
The biggest business in Panchgani was The Panchgani Stores, which was located where you now have Apsara Restaurant. This also included a bar and the Burmah Shell petrol pump. It was owned by Mr. Behram Irani. I have described it in detail in ‘Some Old Shops in Panchgani’. Behram’s brother Rustum had the Imperial Stores and the Burmah Shell petrol pump in Mahabaleshwar. While Behram sold off his business and migrated to Australia to join his sons, Manek and Shapur, Rustum remained in Mahabaleshwar. His wife was Municipal President a number of times. The business is now handled by his son, Zavare. Rustum’s grandson, Dr. Tuheed Irani is an eminent orthopaedic surgeon, who, along with his wife, Dr. Pheroza Irani are at present handling most of the work at the Mission Hospital, Wai. Behram’s sister, Manibai and her husband Eruch Irani owned a big bungalow near the Ghatjai Mandir. When they left Panchgani, it was bought by Mr. Bharucha. Manibai’s son, Dr. Fram Irani is the leading authority on In vitro fertilisation in India.
At the other end of Chesson Road, where it meets the Mahabaleshwar road is a bungalow set deep inside at the end of a long drive. From the outside you can only see the drive, flanked on both sides by casuarina trees. Very beautiful, with open spaces on both sides of the drive. This is Preston Bungalow, built by Dr. Faredoon Dalal. I am not sure who owns it now. Someone told me that it has been sold.
Originally, the Parsis had their Fire Temple near the graveyard, until a gentleman named Choksy contributed a large sum to construct a beautiful Fire Temple between Il Palazzo Hotel and the main road. We stayed opposite this Fire Temple for many years. In my school days, I remember priest, Dasturji Pawri. On Parsi holy days, Mrs. Pawri used to send us the most wonderful Dhan Sak we have ever tasted. This invariably had the delicious round kebabs made in the unique Parsi style. I haven’t had anything like that ever since.
Another prominent Parsi was Mr. Sethna, the grandfather of Monoo Sethna who has Strawberry Inn on the road to Mahabaleshwar.
When Minoo Sethna’s grandfather came to Panchgani with his wife and children, they were staying in Fujitora Bungalow, which is now Bora’s residence and agency. Minoo’s father was in Billimoria School, which was located in Albert House campus at that time. (Albert House is in front of Lawrence Villa, and is presently owned by St. Peter’s School). His three aunts were studying in the Convent.
Later, Minoo’s father donated a plot of land in Dandeghar village area to Billlimoria School for a playground. It is still there, known as ‘Sethna Plot’.
When Dr. Billimoria wanted to start the Dalkeith TB Hospital (Bel Air Sanatorium), there were a lot of objections from the British and Anglo-Indian residents of Panchgani. It was Minoo’s grandfather, along with Mr. Dhunjibhoy and Mr. Mundroina who persuaded the Governor to override the objections and allow the hospital to be started.
There were many more Parsis in Mahabaleshwar, but I can recollect only a few.
For many years the best and most expensive hotel in Mahabaleshwar was the Race View Hotel, run by the brothers Phiroze and Sohrab Dossabhoy. Set in splendid isolation near the top of the Mahabaleshwar hill, with a magnificent view, this hotel attracted the elite among the visitors to Mahabaleshwar. Smartly turbaned bearers serves sumptuous meals in their magnificent dining hall under the watchful eyes of Phiroze and Sohrab’s wives.
Other big hotela run by Parsis were Phiroze Dossabhai’s Dina Hotel, and Ripon Hotel, run by Koyar Mahabaleshwarwala. Mr. Teburas Satarawala had a big liquor shop in the bazaar. One of his sons, Kersi later became Governor of Punjab. Another son was the famous General, Jehangir Satarawala.
Between the bazaar and the Roman Catholic Church in Mahabaleshwar is the restaurant, Nukkad. For years this was the workshop of Mahabaleshwar’s only car mechanic, Piloo Ranji. Practically all the present mechanics have learnt their skills from Piloo Ranji’s assistants. Back in the day, you could see this round-up of people lining up waiting all day for his services, the golden days.
Sir Dinshaw Petit is credited with the creation of the Petit Library and Gymkhana, opposite the Nukkad restaurant. This magnificent structure was home to a huge collection of books in addition to having a card room and a billiard table. I have no idea what is there now.
Parsis have played a very important role in the creation of the two hill stations, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. This needs to be acknowledged, especially since they are not as prominent now as they were earlier. In these two articles I have tried to make amends for this neglect, but there are to be many mistakes. I would welcome corrections and more information, especially since I must have left out so many. Please use the ‘comments’ box to rectify this, or click on ‘contact’ to write to me directly. Thanks.
- Asif Merchant