The earliest image of the Kalka-Shimla Railway etched in my mind is one of complete darkness. The scene takes place at the Shimla railway station. I am a five year old toddler who is around my mother and a lot of luggage, with my two equally young brothers. We just got off the train, it’s late at night, completely dark and there’s no one else on the platform. Except for the echoing footsteps coming in from the far end and a strip of torchlight in motion. My father went to town to find a coolie and a hand-pulled rickshaw.
It’s December, colder than anything. More importantly, it is December 1971 and the governments of India and Pakistan are in the mood for war. That’s why we’re here, not in my Jammu, where my uncle’s wedding has been postponed because the fighter jets are too close for comfort. We were sent home. We also see the shadow of war looming over Shimla, and a total blackout has been ordered. The footsteps and the torch belong to the station master, and it is the darkness of war that becomes my memory. Later, this and other childhood memories develop into sepia-tinged nostalgia as I dug up in the hot plains. It keeps driving me back to Shimla and its famous toy train.
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Op Kalka Station, every time I walk from the width gauge platform to the narrow gauge, the transition is physically seamless. There is no barrier I cross and the elements – steel, cement, bogies, wheels – are the same. Yet somehow everything changes imperceptibly. Small is beautiful. The tinyness of a train gives a different, endearing aspect to everything it touches. The iron rails are small and disappear behind a bend behind the station. The station itself is impossibly charismatic in the morning light and behind it all there’s a hint of the misty hills lurking.
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Plus, it all seems to be made especially for me. I left the sulking plain and the hills of Shimla constructed this elaborate art installation to please me, the train lover. It’s really cute cute! The train shakes when someone climbs on it. It looks fragile. But it definitely shows a glossy dark red. I just have to look at it and my heart goes chhuk chhuk hota hai. This chhuk chhuk starts in Kalka in a slow meandering gait and never picks up. I don’t want it either. What I want is to go to the door and sit there, because that’s the best seat on this train.
The views are panoramic to me and the wind has a different quality, fresh as a fresh apple and just as edible. Here I inhabit two worlds: one, on the train, is full of eager passengers who exude childlike enthusiasm with this toy and hoot when the darkness of a tunnel envelops us; the other is the outlying area of green hills, oak vents and quaint train stations, buildings that sometimes serve no purpose other than to be pretty as dollhouses. I’m advised it’s best to be careful at the door. To keep a good grip on the handle because the ride can be jerky, and not to lean forward because the tunnel walls and sometimes even the hills get dangerously close.
The train fulfills the promise it shows in Kalka. Along the way are villages clinging to hillsides, and occasional fields of flattened slopes and cleared forest. There are towns that come tumbling down a hill to meet the road below, attended by rubbish dumps. But usually the train whistles along the highest symphony of pine, oak and oak. Often a small path winds its way downhill and a lone figure is snatched away in the undergrowth. Children play under banyan trees and wave to each other, brightening their eyes and puffing up their rosy cheeks. The railway is impatient and immediately begins to rise above the buzz of Kalka Parwanoo.
Dharampur is the first major halt and we are already 4,900 ft above sea level. The train climbs higher, past Dagshai and into tunnel number 33 (each tunnel, bridge and route is numbered). Kalka-Shimla Railway is famous for its tunnels; there are now 102 tunnels in use; originally 107 were built. The long-awaited tunnels are circular entrances in the face of the mountain, made of stone and painted white. Large mirrors were used for lighting during their construction and remained in service for many years for maintenance. Few of these excavated burrows are long, most are small, and many are mere doorways with no chambers behind. Sometimes the track is so complicated that I can spot tunnels on either side and I’m not sure which one is in front of you, and which one is behind.
The tunnel between Dagshai and Barog is the longest and the most famous, over a kilometer long, and it is also the longest straight on this line. The incredibly charming Barog Station, awash with an otherworldly air, awaits with fresh samosas, chops and hot tea. The refreshments are over, as are Solan and its famous brewery. The train gallops on, over bridges that span deep ravines or small paths made by running water.
The most interesting bridges are masonry structures, thick pillars supporting elegant aged arches, with galleries and drawing comparison with ancient Roman architecture – the technique and appearance is the same. Many bridges are layered and ornate buildings that appear to be there for aesthetic reasons only, but only serve the functional purpose. The train navigates over bridge No. 493 which is located at Kandaghat and Kanoh stations. Beyond the bridge, the train curves around, giving me a glimpse of the old-fashioned construction, but only straight, coming into the twilight of a tunnel.
I’m hopeful when the light comes back, the train is indulgent, it’s traversed a grand arch, and I’ve got a front view of the famous three-tier multiple viaduct, surrounded by stately ornate deodars. And then Taradevi, the sparkling gemstone of a hill comes into view and my senses quicken as Shimla with its legendary colonial buildings, its cobbled paths and beautiful trees is not far away. At one point, the train curves around a curve and I see the entire length of it. However, it chooses to surprise me, gaining more agility and running back on itself like a dog trying to play with its tail. It is no longer a toy that the child in me longs to play with; it is a child who has crawled into the hills, in and out of tunnels, blowing his whistle to create a racket, unaware of the height it is gaining, enjoying the wind on its face, breathless over perilous bridges, living life on the delicious edge…
About Kalka-Shimla Railway
The railway to Shimla was first mentioned in the Gazette of Delhi in 1847: “We might then see these cooler regions become the permanent seat of a government supported daily by a temperature adjusted to refresh a European constitution ….” In the event, it was after a wait of more than half a century that the first passenger train started running, on November 9, 1903, providing faster access to Shimla compared to the ‘ekkas’, tongas and ponies that used the Hindustan-Tibet Road or cart used Road. The railway was built by Delhi-Umbala Railway Company, with government funding. The cost of the construction was INR 1.71 crores, almost twice the amount allowed. The line was not a commercial success and the government took over in 1906.
In July 2008, UNESCO recognized the Kalka-Shimla Railway line as a World Heritage Site, describing it as “one of the most authentic mountain railways in the world”. In the Guinness Book of Railway Facts & Feats, this railway line has been described as the ‘Greatest Narrow Gauge Engineering Feat in India’. The line starts at 2100 feet at Kalka and climbs to 6811 feet at Shimla, covering 96.6 km of ravishing scenery through deeper valleys and flanking mountains. Passengers on the train take as much pleasure in breathing in the picturesque surroundings as they do in rolling the numbers associated with the line on their palate: 102 tunnels, 969 bridges and 919 curves. The trains on this route are famous for walking rather than running, maximum speeds are 25-30 km per hour and they take about 5 hours to make the journey.