By Ravi Valluri
“I listened, motionless and still, and as I mounted up the hill, the music in my heart I heard, long after it was heard no more,” captivating lines by the iconic poet William Wordsworth and a fitting description of the wondrous train journey from Kalka to Simla.
Indian Railways proudly proclaim that it transports ‘an Australia’ everyday on its wheels, no mean feat! However these days airlines and roadways have built robust infrastructures and provide product, price, place and promotion (the 4 Ps of marketing), luring travellers away from the sedate pace of rail travel. Nevertheless, the narrative to unearth landscapes as a train motors through the serpentine bends on some steep, fascinating and enthralling routes in our vast country remains the domain and bulwark of the Indian Railways. A backpacker or tripper uncovers diverse landscapes while undertaking a rail journey. Steep mountain slopes, narrow valleys, dense jungles and wide seas are just some of the jewels waiting to be discovered as one chugs along the rail routes.
The Gen X or Y perhaps are perhaps unaware of two momentous events which transpired at Simla. Aeons ago in the summer of 1945, it was at Simla that Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India discussed the Cabinet Mission plan with various stake holders who were at the forefront of India’s struggle against the foreign yoke. Exactly 27 years later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan inked the Simla pact on 2 July 1972, paving the way to end hostilities between the two warring and sparring nations. India had earlier vanquished Pakistan in December 1971 in a war that resulted in the creation of the new nation state of Bangladesh. This Queen of Hills served as the Summer Capital when Indians were the subjects of the British monarchy and was the seat of the estimable Railway Board. Today it houses the academy for the probationers of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service.
A vacationer who cherishes a journey through picturesque valleys, up steep pathways and through foggy meadows, would certainly not be disappointed as he or she travels in the narrow gauge train on the Shivaliks from Kalka to Simla. This stretch from Kalka to Simla along with the little toy train, a legacy bequeathed by the British, has been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.
The train journey from Kalka to India’s erstwhile summer capital Simla at the crack of dawn is quintessential rail-travel on the hills of India. This hill station is popularly known as the Queen of Hills and is the present day capital of Himachal Pradesh. The erstwhile quaint town is today a hustling and bustling tourist spot, located in the north-western ranges of the Himalayas at an altitude of 2213m. The toy train weaves its journey from Kalka, a town in its neighbouring state, Haryana and terminates at the enchanting Simla.
The Kalka – Simla rail line is a narrow gauge railway which traverses a distance of 96km. This 96-km long railway track was constructed over 889 short to long bridges and passes through 102 tunnels in the foothills of the Himalayas; the longest tunnel is located at Barog.
A Twist in the Tale – Barog Tunnel
On this enchanting trip famished tourists break journey to savour delicious parathas and fried eggs, cutlets and piping hot tea or coffee in a restaurant at Barog. There is mystery, mystique and majesty attached to the place. Cool breeze wafts in and one can hear the sounds of chirping birds and a rivulet as the Sun plays hide and seek.
The Barog Tunnel passes through the fissured sandstone and has a tragic tale associated with from during its construction. Colonel Barog, who was supervising the construction of Tunnel No. 33 committed the cardinal mistake of boring the tunnel from both (opposite) ends of the mountain, a strategy adopted to expedite construction.
The crew was divided into two halves, and started the digging and blasting work for the tunnel from the opposite ends. The Colonel instructed the crew members to bore the tunnel and according to his calculations both the ends would intersect at the centre. He thereby envisioned a single tunnel in the amphitheatre of his mind.
The workers kept on boring from either end, but did not meet even after crossing the centre of the mountain. After some time, the workers became restless and questioned the decisions taken by Colonel Barog.
The Colonel too realized that on account of his miscalculations, the alignment of the tunnels had gone awry and the two ends of the tunnel did not meet. His miseries were compounded as the British government decided to levy a hefty fine on the Colonel for profligacy of public property and wealth. It was a double whammy for Colonel Barog as the Government took umbrage and the staff became hostile. In sheer despondency Colonel Barog snuffed his life through the barrel of his gun.
On this picturesque path ply several trains including the Siwalik, Kalka-Simla, Himalayan Queen, Rail Motor and Siwalik Queen. The journey is enduringly enchanting at a slow pace as the train ascends the slope rhythmically through stations such as Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Tara Devi, Barog, Salogra, Totu, and Summerhill to reach the summer capital. The journey, which snakes its way through imposing mountains leaves an indelible impression on the minds of the pilgrim.
Silken and pristine mountains, breathtaking lakes, salubrious climate, and alluring greenery –Simla offers on the platter all that a tourist pines for.
The breathtaking beauty of the city and the places in the vicinity never cease to leave the traveller spellbound. There is this Mandrake like magical quality in air which endears Simla to the visitor compelling them to visit time and again.
There are around eighteen tourist spots which are habitually visited by sightseers. The more celebrated among them are the Summer Hills, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Annandale, Jakhoo Hill and Temple, Tara Devi Temple, Chail (the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala), Gaiety Theatre and the Viceregal Lodge. Summer or winter, a stroll along Mall Road with a stop by for a hot cup of coffee is a must do. Come winter and Kufri tops the list of must-visits.
Though tourists throng the Queen of Hills by road, rail and by air, the journey by rail through the thick forest cover and clouds floating through the coaches has an old world charm which leaves an ineffaceable impression on the febrile mind of the tipper. Thus seize every opportunity to visit Simla by rail for the amazing magical quality attached with the rail journey.
“Trains are wonderful.... To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”- Agatha Christie
Also Read: Maharajas’ Express- The Southern Jewels