ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY track India’s most beautiful train journeys in an ode to the engineering marvel that’s the Indian Railways
On a hot April afternoon in 1853, Sindh, Sultan and Sahib, three steam engines coughed smoke, rumbling in readiness to tug fourteen garlanded coaches into the annals of history. On board were its elite guests, Lady Falkland, wife of the Governor of Bombay, besides 400 dignitaries, royalty, merchants and sahibs as the hoi polloi waited with bated breath along the sidelines. Flagged off with a 21-gun salute and wild applause, the train let out a long whistle and rolled out at exactly 3:35pm from Bombay’s ‘Boree Bunder’ station. The 21-mile journey to ‘Tannah’ (Thana) was covered in an hour and fifteen minutes and marked the first commercial passenger service in India. It was the dawn of the bold new age of the railways…
Nearly 164 years later, whatever direction the tracks have taken, the Indian Railways has trail blazed new frontiers and altered the very economics and social construct of the country. From the tea gardens of Nilgiris and Assam to mountain ranges of the Sahyadris and the Shivaliks, there’s no corner of India that is left untouched by the railways. And in thus connecting the dots across the Indian subcontinent, the railways present some truly incredible train journeys… In the words of musician Paul Simon “There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” Long journeys have often resulted in forging tales of life-long friendship and brotherhood among fellow passengers. Train travel presents myriad perspectives of India from landscapes of poverty, profit and pelf to awe-inspiring views of natural splendor in virtually inaccessible zones.
Who can resist the vision of pristine waterfalls tumbling through dense green forests or roughhewn cliffs? Or the majesty of mighty rivers? Or the thrill of tunnels that draw gasps and hoots of fear and excitement among young and old as they are suddenly swamped in darkness? How many memories run amok about childhood journeys with lovingly packed hampers? These were picnics on the move, sharing food and life stories with complete strangers.
The same Boribunder station of yesteryears (today Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) is the start of the beautiful Konkan Railway from Mumbai to Goa and Karnataka. A trip in the monsoons leaves an indelible imprint on the mind of any traveler. The blinding blaze of green, waterfalls lurking around corners waiting to startle you and little streams emboldened to become boisterous torrents; the transformation in the scenery brought about by the rains is unimaginable. Take the Mandovi Express or Konkan Kanya as you cross little stations like Khed, Chiplun, Kankavali and Kudal, passing through 92 tunnels, crossing 2000 bridges and presenting views of rivers, fields, forests and sea.
In Goa, seasoned train travellers on the Vasco-Madgaon-Londa rail route look forward to their tryst with India’s fifth highest waterfall. As the train climbs from Mollem to Castle Rock, it passes Dudhsagar waterfall, literally ‘Ocean of Milk’ as it tumbles down the sheer rock face in two tiers from a height of 310m. Set in the Western Ghats on the Goa-Karnataka border, the mist-laden, dreamy railway bridge runs in a neat arc midway across the falls. Some passengers throw coconuts or coins as offerings from the train, much to the annoyance of picnickers below!
To experience India’s western coastline, continue on the Konkan Railway via Ratnagiri to Mangalore. Or take the Karwar Yeshwantpur Express from Mangalore to Bangalore to soak in the beauty of the Western Ghats. The train veers through the legendary Green Route, a thickly forested stretch of 52km from Bisle Ghat, Kukke Subramanya and Sakleshpur. This section has 57 tunnels and 109 bridges, some almost a kilometer long and some as high as 200m!
One of the most talked about rail experiences, especially among international travelers is Palace on Wheels, India’s original luxury train, launched in 1982. The concept was inspired by the royal legacy of the railway coaches. Originally personal saloons of the rulers of princely states of Rajputana, Gujarat, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the British Viceroy of India, the 23 coaches are named after former Rajput states. The interiors bear all the grandeur of blue-blooded lifestyle with posh suites, fine dine restaurants and bar on board!
Starting from New Delhi, the 8-day trip covers Jaipur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bharatpur and Agra. Another exclusive experience is the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey, which connects Mumbai and Delhi via Rajasthan with tiger spotting in Ranthambore and visits to Ajanta-Ellora caves and the Taj Mahal.
Inspired by the success of Palace on Wheels, the luxurious Golden Chariot was launched in 2008 and named after the famous Stone Chariot at Vitthala Temple in Hampi. Dressed in regal hues of purple and gold, the eleven carriages are named after leading dynasties that ruled Karnataka down the ages. The ‘Pride of the South’ tour retraces the Wodeyar trail in Mysore, Hoysala temple architecture at Belur-Halebid, the seat of the Vijayanagar Empire at Hampi, the pinnacle of Chalukyan cave architecture at Badami and throws in a wildlife safari at Nagarahole, the erstwhile hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Mysore. The ‘Splendor of the South’ tour covers Pondicherry, the temples of Tamil Nadu at Chennai, Thanjavur and Madurai, besides a bit of Kerala with stopovers at Trivandrum, Alleppey and Kochi, before returning to Bangalore.
If the western coast is picturesque, the eastern coastline is no less dramatic. Whether it is the train from Bhubaneswar to Brahmapur past Asia’s largest lagoon Chilika Lake or from Vizag to Araku Valley, the Eastern Ghats are a delight for any train traveler. Further down the Coromandel Coast, surrounded by turquoise waters, is the scenic Pamban railway bridge connecting Rameswaram on Pamban Island to mainland India.
Opened on 24 February 1914, it was India’s first and longest sea bridge until the Bandra-Worli Sea Link overtook it. The most amazing feature of Pamban Bridge is its Scherzer rolling type lift span that even to this day, is opened manually using levers to let ships pass. Starting off at the confluence of three oceans, the Island Express from Kanyakumari to Trivandrum may be a short journey but is an idyllic slideshow of Kerala’s lush countryside.
However, most train journeys pale in comparison to India’s Mountain Railways. Immortalized in several movies and songs that have delighted us down the decades like “Meri Sapnon ki Rani”, “Chaiyya Chaiyya” and “Kasto Maja Hai”, the Mountain Railways are a living heritage. It is for this reason the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) and Kalka-Shimla Railway have been collectively designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Hailed as “outstanding examples of bold, ingenious engineering solutions for establishing an effective rail link through a rugged, mountainous terrain,” the Mountain Railways offer glimpses of raw, natural beauty. Often dismissed as ‘toy trains’, these narrow meter gauge railways redefine the term ‘slow travel.’
Built in 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway covers the 88km stretch from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, presenting dazzling views of the Eastern Himalayas. Chugging along at 12 km/hr past tea plantations, it’s a charming journey of loops, reverses, spirals and zig-zags. Creak past the spiral at Agony Point to Ghum, India’s highest railway station and Batasia loop, as the railway line crosses main roads and runs alongside fruit stalls in its ascent to Darjeeling. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peak of Kanchenjunga.
The Kalka-Shimla railway, built in 1903, scales the rugged Shivaliks negotiating 102 tunnels, 87 bridges and 900 curves. Tugged by the Himalayan Queen, the 96 km train ride takes 5 hours 10 minutes. On its heels, came Nilgiri Mountain Railway in 1908, the only rack and pinion railway system in India. The 46 km ride from Mettupalayam to Ooty crosses 250 bridges, 208 curves and 16 tunnels, winding past tea estates, blue mountains, churches, lakes and viewpoints.
The Jammu Mail to Udhampur, a 53km stretch that marks the northernmost extent of the Indian Railways. Cleaving through 20 tunnels and 158 bridges, the train wends through the rocky Shivalik range where raging mountain rivers and valleys run deep into the Himalayan foothills. The railways are indeed a celebration of man’s triumph against geography and the forces of nature.
Also nominated for a UNESCO World Heritage tag is the Matheran Hill Railway. It was the brainchild of philanthropist and Bombay’s first sheriff Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy who donated 16 lakh rupees towards the project in 1901. His son Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy completed his dream in seven years. In honour of this engineering feat, the British Government knighted Adamjee Peerbhoy.
Juddering up from Neral, sometimes at walking pace, the Matheran Hill Railway covers 21km in little over two hours, tackling steep gradients and the cheeky ‘One Kiss Tunnel’, named by a British officer who found it short enough to sneak a quick peck! The train stops at Jummapatti station for a crossing and Waterpipe station to cool down the engine. Even today, the train halts at Aman Lodge railway station and toots thrice as a mark of respect to Peerbhoy. His bungalow ‘The Chalet’ located above Aman Lodge is named after his late wife Amina.
On the descent, it is intriguing to watch train assistants crouch between boxcars to manually apply the brakes and prevent the train from over speeding. The Matheran Hill Railway was an extraordinary feat of engineering genius and these lines in the 1924 ‘Handbook to Matheran’ are a befitting tribute:
“Hugh Malet who discovered this hill
Whom we all remember still
Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy for all his skill
In bringing the railway on the hill
Good paymaster with his intellect wise
Turning the lovely hill into paradise.”
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 6 August 2017 as the Cover Story in Sunday Herald, the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.