Making Of Hill Railway Project
It was a crisp winter night in the year 1878. A glorious fire crackled on one side of the hall. The polished parquet floor of the planters club at Tindharia resonated with choreographed footsteps. The Sahibs (Gentlemen) and Memsahibs (Ladies) were attired in their best tails, frills and feather hats. The gaiety of the dancers was infectious. It was party-time.
But Franklin Prestage was not exactly having a ball. He seemed preoccupied although he let his wife lead him through the motions on the dance floor. His feverish mind was trying to figure out how to conquer that impossible gradient where his pet Darjeeling Tramway Project had got stuck. His wife gently led the distracted Prestage to the edge of the dance floor and when they were right at the brink, she swerved deftly and led him back centre – stage. “If you can’t go forward, why don’t you go back darling,” she is believed to have whispered in his ears.
And that is precisely what Prestage did when he built the delightfully innovative Darjeeling Himalayan railway (DHR). Franklin Prestage was an official of the Darjeeling Tramway Company. His dream was to build a narrow gauge rail track along the hill cart road alignment. But he could not proceed beyond the 14th mile due to the Steepness of the gradient. Until his wife inspired him with an ingenious solution, perhaps inadvertently. Every time, the gradient got too steep, Franklin brought the tracks back a few yards and let it climb again at a slightly different point, sketching a z-shaped zigzag-not once, but six times in the 51-mile stretch from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The inspiration he drew from his wife’s wisdom is now part of the Darjeeling folklore.
A Wonder Of The Rail Tracks
The Darjeeling Himalayan railway is a marvel of sorts in what one would call non-engineering. It uses neither rack mechanism nor cable as other mountain railways do, but moves only on adhesion. It was the genius and vision of Franklin Prestage, which conceived of such a mechanism and executed it to perfection. During its 87.48-kms journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling, the toy train as it is aptly and affectionately referred to, loops gracefully around those recalcitrant humps, much like a spiral and chugs its way up to Ghum, its highest point at 7,407 feet. It seems to be gentle persuasion all the way. The only other mountain railway in the world that reaches a higher altitude is in the Andes where Cusco station is located at 14,000 feet, but the mechanism used there is different.
Innovative engineering is only one facet of the inimitable DHR. Perhaps, no other railway system in the world is as ineluctably interwoven with the lives of the peoples it serves. DHR has been part of the Darjeeling landscape for over a hundred years and is central to the hill economy of the region. The railway was instrumental in attracting people from neighbouring Sikkim, Nepal, West Bengal and even as far away as Tibet, making Kurseong, a wayside town, a true entrepot of eclectic cultures.
Earlier & Present Routes
Before the DHR was built, travellers used ponies, which used to take several days through the meandering hill cart road. Now quaint little stations with even quainter names dot the route- Tindharia, Sukna, Rangtong, Chunbati and Ghum. The journey is as leisurely, but not at all strenuous unlike a pony ride. Each stretch offers a unique panorama.
The Sukna Tindharia stretch of the foothills traverses through the Singalela range where the train takes its first loop. The Terai forest unfolds near Rangtong. Here a visitor can experience his first reversing zigzag. Then it takes its next loop at Chunbati gaining height and voila! One can have a magnificent view of the Mahanandi valley on the right. At Tindharia, the train halts long enough get your legs streached, stroll and tuck into a snack with a steaming cup of tea before resuming the journey towards agony point- the aptly named loop just after Tindharia, which churns the contents of your stomach.
Soon the train heads for another reverse, the last one at 3,400 feet just after Gayabari station where monkeys seem to be absorbed in their conference. All it takes is a cone of peanuts to distract their concentration and abruptly terminate the solemn congregation. As the train winds its way, a massive scar on the hillside comes into view. Tourists will learn that it is Pagla Jhora or mad torrent, which in its fury washes away road and track, houses and shops every few years cutting off Darjeeling for days during the monsoons. The Mahanandi station gives one a glimpse of the source of the river. After Eagles Crag, tourists are treated to a spectacular vista of the West Bengal plains – if one is lucky that is.
The Tea Garden Landscapes
After Kurseong, it’s tea garden all the way. Margaret’s Hope, stretches for miles in front of the onlooker and one can marvel at the deftness with which the hill women pick the tealeaves and drop it into the massive baskets on their backs. Their movements seem choreographed to perfection. But they have time to pause and flash a smile at the visitors passing by.
Ghum – The Land Of Misty Sceneries
After pausing at Tung station for water, the train climbs to Sonada station built in the 1880s. From here, one heads for the clouds – Ghum, enveloped eternally in a mist. As one nears Ghum, its colourful monastery comes into view. After ghum, the train runs up along a small ridge to reach the most spectacular engineering feat on the line-the Batasia Loop – with a breath-taking view of the Kanchenjunga as a backdrop. At Batasia, there is a memorial to the Gorkhas. After its laborious climb, the train takes its last drink of water before teetering precariously on the hillside to reach its final destination, the Darjeeling station.
According to Mark Twain, a trip on the DHR “is the most enjoyable day I have spent on the earth”. Few will disagree with him. Darjeeling becomes the toy train and the toy train, Darjeeling. In fact, the verdant slopes appear more as a backdrop to the ubiquitous toy train. Without it, the Darjeeling landscape would appear bereft. The steamy hiss of the engine, the strident whistle and the clatter of the carriages as the toy train winds its way up the hill blend seamlessly with the cacophony of hill traffic especially because the railway and the hill road chase each other all the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling. At times the narrow gauge railway track and the road seem to move in tandem, a picture of perfect harmony. Many times – in fact 150 times in the entire stretch – they cross each other. Every now and then they play hide and seek like two feuding lovers. But they are never too faraway from each other at any point.
Rail Meeting Reel
Those people who are on the wrong side of 40, might perhaps remember the film Aradhana in which, Rajesh Khanna travelling in a jeep, woos Sharmila Tagore travelling in the Toy Tain to the accompaniment of a haunting melody. Avant Garde as ever, Hindi filmdom recognised the romantic potential of the Darjeeling railway long before even the railways themselves woke up to it.
A World Heritage Site
The wake up call came and recently UNESCO declared DHR as a World Heritage Site. The world heritage site status puts DHR in the same exalted league as the hermitage in St. Petersburg, our very own Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Hampi in South India and other such man-made marvels. A heritage site is one that is worthy of preservation and a legacy that is worth bequeathing to posterity. After simmering in the Austrian Alps, DHR is the second railway system in the world to be accorded the World Heritage status.
Bringing Darjeeling On Tourist Map
Earlier, the very same DHR had put Darjeeling on the world tea map. If the exquisitely flavoured premium Darjeling tea is sipped in the fashionable salons of Paris today, then it is DHR that has played a small role in making this happen. In its earlier avatars of open carriages, it had ferried tea from the misty slopes to the railheads on the plains to be transshipped to faraway destinations. There is an enchanting sepia tinted photograph of the DHR ferrying wooden tea chests down the hill in the Chum museum, which has just opened. It houses other exquisite DHR memorabilia such as the signaling lanterns in use since the 19th century, whistles, plaques and badges and some priceless old photographs.
Journey On The DHR
A ride on the DHR is not for the hurried and hassled traveller who is impatient to reach his destination. It’s for those who believe the journey is the destination. Much like a toy train strung together from match-boxes, the DHR balances on two-feet tracks moving at a maximum speed of 15-km an hour. It takes all of nine hours to reach Darjeeling from Siliguri and at quite a reasonable sum.
Imaginatively named coaches such as Shivalik, Kanchenjunga, etc with wide windows offer picture postcard views of Rhododendron slopes. Kanchenjunga in all her snowy glory, beckons you tantalisingly from every turn the train takes. In fact, there are so many turns and twists in the track that it seems as though the train is turning its head to check up on its rear from time to time. The train passes through bazaars so close that tourists can virtually lean out and help themselves to the merchandise in the shops.
It hugs the hillsides, giving one a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of the hill people. It seems to be a constant wonder for the locals who stop in their tracks to watch it go by just as their parents and grandparents must have done it in their time. Even as traffic on the narrow hill roads get snarled from time to time, the DHR gets right of way as it passes regally through the townships.
The officials hope that the World Heritage status will attract fun seekers and adventure lovers to Darjeeling. DHR might soon replace tea as the mascot of this lovely hill station. In fact, a trip to Darjeeling would be worth the effort just for the train ride. The DHR is a celebration, no less.