I visited Pachmarhi in July 2019. It is a surprisingly beautiful hill station in central India with a very distinct landscape and vegetation. Pachmarhi also has an army cantonment, and is well-preserved and clean. It was on my tour to the caves around Pachmarhi that with the help of tour guides, I learnt about the history of this town hidden in dense forests.
It is popularly believed that Captain James Forsyth of the British Army discovered Pachmarhi on his way to Jhansi from Pipariya in 1857, and helped in developing it into an army cantonment.
The tour guides have this lesson in history on the tip of their tongues. However, there are many facts that these guides miss out on:
1. Pachmarhi literally translated into five caves. A popular mythological tale that shrouds this name is that the Pandavas meditated in these caves during their years of exile in the forest. The archaeologists, however, discount this theory, and claim that the caves were formed by the Buddhist monks during the Gupta period (900-1,000 AD).
2. The plateau area which lies to the south of Pipariya town between the major cities of Bhopal and Nagpur, used to be the territory of the Gonds. This piece of land has a geological history, dating back to the Mesolithic Era (9,000-4,000 BC), and was named as Gondwana by the British when they came to India. The aboriginals inhabiting this densely forested territory, unsurprisingly, were named as Gonds.
3. The Gonds ruled over the region between 12th-18th century. They even built many palaces and forts in the region, and found the city of Nagpur in 1702. But by the mid- 1700s, the Marathas overpowered the Gond, and again in a few decades, the British defeated the Marathas, and began expanding their territory.
4. The Gonds slowly moved to forests and hills. These hills remained unexplored by the British, who were comfortable in the plains with their modern tools and armaments built for more tamed land. The Gonds and Korkus who settled in the hills, practised guerrilla warfare, and had simple kingdoms with sparse population led by a tribal king.
5. It was in 1819 that Pachmarhi caught the attention of the British when the Maratha Chief Appa Sabih Bhonsle was defeated by the British on their territory expansion spree in the Narmada valley. Appa Sahib fled to Mahadeo Hills (a few kilometres away from the present day Pachmarhi) to seek refuge.
6. The British equipped with their modern armaments were able to drive out all small leaders, bandits and minor kings in the region. This also marked the entry of the British into the hill terrains of the otherwise impenetrable central India.
7. 25 years before the advent of Captain James Forsyth, Captain Ouseley, Assistant Agent at Hoshangabad, made the first visit to Pachmarhi in 1832. He collected geological and botanical samples from this region. This was the first visit of a foreigner in Pachmarhi.
8. Later in 1852, a surgeon called Dr. Jerdon visited the plateau to research on the indigenous herbs.
9. But it was only in 1857 that the British officially captured Pachmarhi. Following the rebellion of 1857, Tantiya Tope fled to Pachmarhi to seek help from the Korku Chief Bhabhut Singh. Though the rebellion died quickly, and Tantia Tope was captured and executed in 1959, Babhut Singh's men kept launching rebellions and raids against the British in the plains below. This gave the British the opportunity to invade the forests to drive out the rebels. In a year, the British confiscated the territory of Babhut Singh on account of his rebellion.
10. In a few months, Captain James Forsyth was sent to the small village of Pachmarhi which had 30 odd Korku huts. In 1862, a third of the area near Bori was established as a Biodiversity Sanctuary, and the forest dwellers were removed in the name of scientific conservation. In 1864, the British bought the land of Pachmarhi from the local chieftain Thakur Gharab Singh for Rs 1.70 per acre. A full compensation of Rs 23,916 was made for 14,580 acres of land. The chief ran to the court to be compensated better. But of course, he wasn't.
11. The British now had a large piece of land at a strategic elevation which they used well to build a cantonment. The rest is history, and we know it quite well how James Forsyth discovered and developed Pachmarhi.