The lilting tunes played by the massed bands on Vijay Chowk at New Delhi every year as part of the Beating the Retreat ceremony during the Republic Day Celebrations have deep and, shall we say, enduring connections with Pachmarhi. All the players are from the military band school of the Army Education Corps (AEC) located at Pachmarhi. Not only does the school effortlessly make vibrant as well as sombre music it also impeccably trains its pupils for the demands of various formal and non-formal occasions. Its fame has spread far and wide. It has its alumni spread over several countries of South, South-East Asia and some of even Africa. It has also helped the Indian Army get into the Guinness Book of Records by organizing a performance by a massed band of as many as 4459 musicians forming the largest military band ever under one conductor when they played “Amazing Grace” some years ago.
Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh is known for this school but is better known as the only hill station of the Central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and a touristy place. It is situated on the Satpura mountain range at an elevation of around 3000 ft. The mountain range rises somewhere in Gujarat and stretches across Madhya Pradesh only to dissipate into the plateaus of Chhota Nagpur in the East. It runs parallel to Vindhya Ranges creating a basin in which flows the mighty River Narmada which originates from its forests in the east runs west to empty into Gulf of Khambat.
Most of the Satpuras were at one time heavily forested and were very rich in wildlife, more so toward the east around the origin of Narmada. The range, therefore, hosts a number of wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Pachmarhi is perched on and around the highest point of Satpuras supporting a climate that is by and large equable, though with progressive deforestation and general warming of the globe temperatures in summers sometimes manage to compete with those at lower elevations.
Discovered sometime in the mid-nineteenth century by the British, like numerous other hill towns it started off as a place for physical rehabilitation of the East India Company workers/soldiers. As had happened elsewhere, it too started off as a sanatorium town for the army. Despite efflux of time Pachmarhi has a well-maintained cantonment to which was added the Military Band School in 1950 at the instance of the first Field Marshall of India, Gen. KM Cariappa.
Named after “five caves”, i.e. “Paanch marhi”, the place is associated with several legends, including from the Epic Mahabarata. The forests around the place, however, are highly regarded as they have numerous rare species of plants and plenty of wildlife. UNESCO, therefore, declared it as a Biosphere Reserve covering around 5000 square kilometers. The Biosphere Reserve comprises as many as three conservational nature parks, viz. Bori Sanctuary, the oldest wildlife sanctuary of India, Pachmarhi Sanctuary and Satpura National Park.
The town is small and has remained so over the decades. There are some old churches, a few temples in the neighbourhood and several sites like natural water falls, deep valleys thick with vegetation and rugged rocky outcrops. Many of the sites are difficult to take in for people advanced in age but, I should think, it is a trekkers’ paradise. They can trek and explore the Satpuras around the town and visit the places hallowed by legends.
Others can enjoy a retreat in pleasantly hospitable climate in lodges and hotels that are modestly priced catering especially for middleclass pockets.