By Ravi Valluri
“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that,” are singular emotive words of the talismanic author Norton Juster.
Do we recall the trouper Rajesh Khanna -without doubt the first superstar of Bollywood- crooning ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’ for the blockbuster film Aradhana? How many people are aware that the graphic sequence which left an indelible impression on cinema goers was canned on the renowned Darjeeling Hill Railway? Rajesh Khanna motoring on a jeep and the celebrated actress Sharmila Tagore reading a book on the Toy Train.
Darjeeling is a quintessential hill station, nestled neatly in the eastern state of West Bengal. This quaint town perched at the foothills of Himalayas was once a protuberant summer resort for the British Raj elite. To this day the town remains the terminus of the much vaunted narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway which was commissioned in the year 1881.
Darjeeling is fabled for the distinctive black tea grown on humongous plantations which populate the landscape besides the sylvan surrounding slopes. The cyclorama of the town is the grandiose and gargantuan Mt. Kanchenjunga. ‘Kanchenjunga’ the alcoholic drink triggers the minds of a host of drinkers. But Kanchenjunga, the pristine, lofty and imposing mountain is one of the highest peaks in the world which dwarfs the remaining, standing tall at 8586 metres.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), laid on a serpentine track, negotiating bends and sharp curves has earned the moniker of ‘Toy Train’. It is a 610 mm narrow-gauge railway which links the 88 kms between the bustling towns of Siliguri and Darjeeling. This route is operated by Indian Railways, and the exotic ladder commences the enthralling voyage at 100 m at Siliguri and rises to about 2,200 m at Darjeeling. The highest point of preferment is at Ghoom station located at 2,300 m.
The town of Siliguri, where the peregrination of this beguiling railway route commences got connected with Kolkata (once upon a time Calcutta)) through the railway network way back in 1878, while the additional journey to Darjeeling required the deployment of tongas (horse-driven carts) besides the dust track.
Based on the erudite recommendations of a high –powered committee appointed by Sir Ashley Eden, a British diplomat (after whom the celebrated Eden Gardens derives its name) work on the route was began in the year 1879 and was completed by July 1881.
The railway line became more manoeuvrable with the construction of four loops and zigzags that made the ascent over the steep gradient more gradual. Commercially, the DHR, by 1909–1910, was a prodigious success as it began ferrying 1, 74,000 passengers and 47,000 tons of freight traffic annually.
Humans are a mere cipher in this vast cosmos and cannot combat nature. In 1897 the fury of nature impacted the railway system following a cataclysmic earthquake and left the railway line crippled. But soon DHR bounced back.
The engineers of the railway constructed the Batasia Loop in 1919, which eased the ascent from Darjeeling. The DHR however faced competition from buses operating on the Hill Cart Road which took a shorter time than the railway to reach Darjeeling.
The year was 1934 and the epicentre Pusa in Bihar, a calamitous earthquake struck vast plains of Eastern and North Eastern India. Mahatma Gandhi visited the state of Bihar and was to write that the Bihar earthquake was ‘providential retribution for India's failure to eradicate untouchability’. Several buildings in Darjeeling besides the railway system were destroyed.
It is noteworthy to mention that this robust railway system that survived two major earthquakes played a pivotal role in organising supplies to the camps established around Ghum and Darjeeling during the Second World War
A majority of the trains which scorch the track are still powered by steam engines; though visages of modernisation have wormed their way as an occasional diesel engine is used to chug the Darjeeling Mail train.
The railway is noteworthy for its signage located at key vantage points, such as Agony Point and Sensation Corner (a reminder of the era gone by). Yet another characteristic feature is the spirals on steep hills which provide breathtaking views of the valleys below.
In 1951, the railway was acquired by the Government of India and eventually went on to become part of the North East Frontier Railway zone in 1952. In 1962, the railway was realigned at Siliguri and extended by nearly six kilometres to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to cross the newly carved broad-gauge line. Unfortunately the railway line ceased operations for almost eighteen months during the Gorkhaland hostilities in the years 1988 and 1989.
In 1999, the Darjeeling line was recognized by UNESCO and placed on the World Heritage List with a caveat that steamed-hauled locomotives would continue to be used along the route.
Despite the chequered history the DHR line has withstood vicissitudes in a brawny manner and is a bulbous tourist attraction. People continue to flock to travel by this train.
“Our life is a constant journey, from birth to death. The landscape changes, the people change, our needs change, but the train keeps moving. Life is the train, not the station.” writes the inspirational Paulo Coelho.
Also Read: Maharajas’ Express- The Southern Jewels