The Pioneering Parsis of Panchgani

This is the first part of an account of the Parsis of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. The second part deals with prominent Parsi settlers.


When John Chesson came to these hills to decide on the location of the new health resort we now know as Panchgani, he was accompanied by a Parsi gentleman, Mr. Merwanji Edulji Mistry. When their recommendation was accepted and the decision to develop the new health resort here was made, both of them bought property. Chesson, as is well known, built his house where we now have New Era School. Merwanji also bought property and built houses, among which are Panchgani Castle, and Aeolin Terraces. He was a bachelor, and after his demise, his properties went to his nephew, Rustum Dubash, who as a young boy had accompanied him on his expedition with John Chesson.

Rustom Dubash became an accomplished building contractor. Many of his buildings are still standing as beautiful as when they were first made. Most of the buildings of St. Peter’s School, and Kimmins School have been built by him. His family is the oldest of all the settlers in Panchgani.

Two of Rustom’s sons, Sohrab, and Pesi,  settled in Panchgani. Adi went to Ahmedabad. Sohrab continued in the building profession, while Pesi Dubash, an all rounder, was into a number of things. He operated the film projector at Batha School, ran a tuck shop there, did maintainance work there and also in St. Peter’s School, in addition to running his own fruit processing unit. He has since, sold his Panchgani property. His son, Xerxes now has a recreation park, Velocity, just outside Panchgani on the road to Mahabaleshwar. Pesi, now in his nineties, but very much alert sits near the ticketing counter, getting up with a welcoming smile when old acquaintances come to greet him.

Rustom Dubash had two daughters, Meher Contractor, and Gul Mehta. Meher became famous for her work on puppets. She was an all-India authority on this subject and received many awards from the Government for her research.

In an earlier article, I have written about the ‘Three most Beautiful Bungalows in Panchgani’. All three were built by Parsis. Dil Pazir was built by the well known actor-director-producer, Sohrab Modi. The other two, Meherbai House and Lawrence Villa were built by Mr. Pallonjee Plumber. As mentioned earlier, Meherbai House is now owned by the film personality, Aamir Khan. Lawrence Villa is with St. Peter’s School.

Another film personality to settle in Panchgani was the famous producer Mr. D. R. D. Wadia. He built Nakra House just before Taighat on the road to Mahabaleshwar. His son Sher, had a restaurant, ‘Log Cabin’ there after D.R.D. passed away. The house has since been sold and demolished. A new structure has come up in its place. Sher has bought a small fort, Pandavgad on the opposite hills, where he lives as a hermit.

In the early 1900’s a Parsi educationist, Mr. Navrosjee Billimoria started The Parsi Boys’ High School, later renamed Billimoria High School. This was the second Boys’ school in Panchgani, the first being the European Boys High School, later renamed St. Peter’s.  His sons, Burjorjee  and Rustumjee, continued with the school till the early 1990’s, when they sold it.  A few years after the Parsi Boys’ School was started, Mr. Savaksha Manekjee Batha opened his own Parsi Girls’ School, which became The S. M. Batha School. Mr. Batha also built a beautiful sanatorium, the Batha Sanatorium where Parsis could stay comfortably at a reasonable rate. The Batha Sanatorium has a number of small identical cottages on either side of a long central garden. A symmetrical masterpiece.

The earliest hotels were also owned by Parsis. The first was Hormusjee Satarawala’s Prospect Hotel, which his son, Dadi handled later. Then came Khambatta’s Mount View Hotel on Kerawalla’s plot, and Sohrabji Davierwalla’s Il Palazzo Hotel just below Prospect. These two hotels are still running, owned by  the descendants of the original founders.

A solicitor, Pestonji Kanga bought the entire hill between Kach Bawdi and Dulwich House. It became known as Kanga Hill. There is a very popular point below the hill, with a beautiful view of the Krishna valley. This is commonly called ‘Parsi Point’. Originally it was known as ‘Pesi’s Point’. It was a meeting place for Pestonji Kanga and his friends. Somehow, by common usage the name has got changed to Parsi Point.

Panchgani was originally the main centre for the treatment of tuberculosis. A hospital with all the latest facilities for treating TB, the Bel Air Sanatorium was started just a hundred years ago by Dr. Rustumjee Billimoria It was funded mainly by Sir Dorabjee Tata. Dr. Billimoria’s son, Dr. Bomi Billimoria spent the major part of his short life treating the TB patients, and performing all sorts of difficult operations to keep them alive. A completely Parsi venture, but benefitting all. Now, I doubt if there are any Parsis in the hospital, even among the employees, but Bel Air has moved with the times and is the leading place for the treatment of HIV in Maharashtra. Even so, a Parsi Trust in the U.S.A., Parsiana gave a generous donation to Bel Air, to enable it to start a Nursing College.

In Bhilar village, between Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar was a very beautiful garden. The Bhilar Garden, spread over a vast area had over a hundred varieties of roses, in addition to a number of exotic fruit trees. It was a favoured picnic spot. I remember an ornate stone sun-dial. It had instructions to convert the local time, shown by the sun-dial to Indian Standard Time. The Garden was owned and developed by Eruch Hakim, another prominent Parsi.

A Parsi with a vision, who transformed Mahabaleshwar was Mr.Jal Irani. In the early forties, he started boating at the Mahabaleshwar lake, when most people considered it a very eccentric project. I have written about this in ‘Honorary Boatman to the Governor of Maharashtra’. No visit to Mahabaleshwar is considered complete without at least one boating experience.

The electric supply to both Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar was provided by a Parsi entrepreneur, Mr. Adajania. He had to close his business when cheaper power from the Koyna dam became available.

Right from the beginning, the Parsi community has been very prominent in Panchgani, though now they have dwindled to just about five or six families. We used to stay exactly opposite the Parsi Agiari. In my childhood, I used to watch the Parsis in all their finery crowding into the Agiari for their religious ceremonies. Next to the Europeans, the Parsis were the most respected community in Panchgani.

  • Asif Merchant


  • Sad .we are losing our past glory.

  • I have passed out of billimoria high school. Since then I fell in love with panchgani. I am 2nd. Generation to pass out of billimoria.
    For me panchgani is paradise. Mr.

  • In these times of unpredictable climate (mostly hot) the beautiful daytime temperature of 22° with a nightime temperature of 20° was just what my ackeing heart desired. A dream come true. The scenic beauty and the rustic locals just added to the lure of Punchgani. No wonder so many like minded people set down their roots and decided to call it “home”.

    • Navroze Contractor

      Sher Wadia was a relatively new comer to Panchgani. My maternal grandfather, Rustomji Dubash was actually the first settler with Lord Chesson. He was a contractor and helped people settle in Panchgani when it was just a tiny village, a watering stop for the Vice Roy’s entourage going up to Mahabaleshwar. St.Peter’s High School and Kimmins Girls High School were built by my grandfather Rustomji.

      In our estate, known as Aeloia we had three huge bungalows and one of them was rented during summer by Mr. DRD Wadia, father of Sher. DRD was a real Esquire man, loved his cars, hunting, photography and the good life. Dadi Uncle, as we called him taught me how to drive as soon as my legs reached the pedals. How can I forget an uncle like that? Many people do not know but DRD Wadia had done a great deal of photography on Gandhi ji. His archives are now in Germany.

      Rustomji Dubash had five children. Sorab, Gool, Adi, Meher and Pesi. Meher, my mother was artistically the most talented. At the age of 16 she went to England to study at Royal Academy Of The Arts, London. Unbelievable that at such a tender age she was encouraged to go, and she went in 1936. The war started and she returned to India. She married my father Rustomji Contractor from Ahmedabad. After the war in early 50s she returned to London and finished her studies. Darius was her elder son, and me the younger one.
      My mother went on to study puppetry in Hungar and Czechoslovakia. She was the recipient of Hig Government awards here and in other countries. She became the President of UNIMA, the World Puppet Association till she passed away.

      My youngest uncle Pesi lived all his life in Panchgani. He was one of the finest upright human beings I ever knew and most respected in Panchgani. He was a legendary trecker and had visited every peak and valley in the Sahyadri range by foot. Pesi uncle was my first tutor of photography, when I think back now. My eldest uncle Sorab lived in Pune in the last part of his life.

      Pesi uncle’s eldest son Xerxes continues to live in Panchgani and has made a comfortable life for himself and his family. He looked after his father Pesi uncle, for just short of 100 years.

      I could go on about Panchgani…

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  • Hi,
    This is to update you… Sher Wadia passed away in September 2013.
    Here is the post from St. Peters’ old-boys’ group.

    From: Hon. Secretary [mailto:]
    Sent: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 4:27 PM
    Subject: St.P. Your friend Sher Wadia
    I have sad news. Our friend Sher Wadia passed away last night.
    Funeral takes place this evening either at Wai or Panchi – when his son returns from Mumbai.
    I do not have much information at this time – having received the sad news over the phone from School. So will keep you posted asap.
    Praying for his eternal peace.
    With best wishes,

  • Prashant Kulkarni

    I came across this blog searching for some on one Parsee person I had noticed during my trek in 2005, as I wanted to write about him on my blog. It is indeed sad to know that Sher is no more. Thanks for the blog anyways, which talks about little known history of Parsee community in this area. I also write about history and culture on my blog: Thanks again!

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  • Very much regret the passing of Sher Wadia. I was a student in 1959 and I met him on his first day of his arrival to Bilimoria High School. I remember his father a typical Parsi with a small handlebar moustache. Nice person brought up in a very typical Parsi environment. God Bless his soul. Rusi B. Baria.

  • looking for information: our family came from Panchgani, joseph Macdougall and lillian Macdougall, children dr walter Hope MacDougall (1893, who emigrated to Portland or)Dr lucy Winifred MacDougall(1899) and Wilton, an engineer that emigrated to England…all were educated in Panchgani…any info please send to

  • Charudatta Gupte

    Yes. You were in my class of 1970 पास out

  • Hi I am from Baths Girls’ High school from 1950 to 58 n my sis Aban till 59.Our school life was excellent ! Our principals Mummaji n Pappaji (Bathas), were wonderful people! No food restrictions unlike other boarding schools!! We climbed on trees n roofs of school. Every Sunday was a cycling day! We went for walks on Plateau, Sydney Point, Parsi Point, saw Meher Baba’s cave n jumped in it calling ourselves Meher Baba! We went Agiyari and Aramgha and recited Monajats in special prayer hall next to Aramgha where the departed Parsees rested! On one of the tomb stones was written, “Listen to me oh passers by, As you are now, so once was I, As I am now, so you shall be, prepare the way to follow me”!
    Every Saturday n Sunday a movie was shown in our school hall and people of Panchgani came to watch it. So we students watched each films twice and Pesi uncle was our operator! ( Pesi Dubash). He was handsome looking and senior students swoon over him!!
    Another feature if interst was that monkeys visited our dormitories, sat on iron bars that held the wrought iron roofs, and shifted profusely. So we never kept our beds below the bars! When they made lot of nuisance and big monkeys came in, our Pappaji would fire a pistol in the air to scare them away! Sometimes leopards roamed in Bazaar areas in search of cattle, that time Pesi Uncle would send warning to our Principals not send us for walks! Pesi uncle would patrol the bazaar area through out the day. His wife, also a very sweet n pretty lady I forgot her name, I think Piloo? She too accompanied Pesi uncle during filming of pictures! Earlier we used to get16 to 22 cuts when watching, depending number of film roles. Then our school bought another, bigger machine where there was only one interval!
    Some nights tiger visited our school pond in search of fish! We had colourful fish in large numbers!! Next morning we could see the paws of tiger near the compound and we would shout n screem in glee!
    Our school had a huge ground where all kinds of trees were grown. Mango trees, jackfruit trees, coffee trees, peach trees that looked so pretty when full of peaches in pink color that it looked like a Christmas tree lighted with pink lights!!!
    When raw mangoes came on trees, we began plucking them by throwing stones! Mummaji would notice from her room and stop us. So we used other tactic! We brought football a d in the pretext of playing we threw it so that few mangoes would fall.
    During rains first time in my life I witnessed hail storms and our compound was filled with white ice giving the look of snow! We girls began to pick up the ice pieces and suck. Again our teachers came running to stop us! During Muktad holidays few students stayed back and few went home to celebrate Navroz. Those who stayed had real good time! Afternoon before lunch there would be some prayers daily n Mummaji would conduct the prayers with meanings. At the end we went in a queue to do Hamazore with Mummaji n all teachers and then into dining room! Hamazore is an action of respect and fraternity, in which we hold the hand of our elders by our both hands with a little bow! The food would be delicious! On Navroz fish would be ordered from Bombay as fish not available easily.
    The Billimoria school boys would envy us! Sometimes they came to our school to watch film and sometimes we went to their school.
    On few occasions, Raj Kapoor n Nergish when they came for shooting, etc. We went to see their film in a tent! There both would welcome us. Raj Kapoor would start by addressing, “Merey pyaarey bachho” and we would screem with delight…..
    Once, actress Kuldip Kaur came to school when her film was being shown. Our Pappaji during interval brought her on stage to say a few words! She told us that most often she played role of a bad woman, and that was to teach a lesson to public how such women are looked upon by society.
    Well those were the Golden years of a boarding school life! I am sure, no other boarding schools can boast about their school and its lavish food, love n care given by our Parsi teachers! The were also very strict and instilled good values in us! I thank them all and God for such a lovely school life.
    Later I put my children in St. Peter’s and Kimmins school. They did not enjoy like me. My son said he bribed school peons to buy bread, sandwiches etc. They were starving whereas we were over fed!
    Thank you Aspi for sharing such a lovely mail! Ushta Tè!
    Armaity Suresh Patel

  • We are currently the second generation tenants of the beautiful Dil Pazir and have maintained its old facade with a lot of affection and care. Our children passed out of St Peter’s school too and our souls are connected to this marvellous home. God protect this beautiful piece of heaven on earth.

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