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the-south-asian.com                        November  2000

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Page  2  of  2


Darjeeling's Little Train - steaming since 1881

by Mukesh Khosla
(
cntd.)

Ferocious Bengal tigers roamed the length of the tracks and in the early twenties, the Calcutta authorities recieved a frantic message from Tindharia, which when decoded read : " Tiger eating station master on platform. Rush instructions by telegraph!" A large part of the wildlife has since vanished! 

darjeeling_train_engine.jpg (32348 bytes)
The engine came from the Atlas Works in Manchester.

 

The authenticity and integrity of this line as originally commissioned in July 1881 has been preserved intact. There have been only minor additions like introduction of additional reversal between Tindharia and Rongtong. All station buildings have been conserved as they were originally constructed. Though there is great neglect of heritage sites in India, miraculously most of this railway system, including the line, rolling stock and all associated buildings have retained their old world charm. This is thanks mainly to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Heritage Foundation and other bodies that are engaged in ensuring that the original theme and structure remains unaltered. Says R. Agarwal, the director of the Railway Museum, " The train has a fan following all over the world and tourists are amazed at how it has been preserved." According to UNESCO's Parera, the authorities were toying with the idea of winding up the service but the Foundation took the initiative and began campaigning for the preservation of this heritage. " It showcases the myopia of the authorites," says Anil Raj, an authority on railways. " All over the world when governments are going to great lengths to conserve their heritage trains and turn them into tourist atractions, all that our bureaucrats can think of is to shunt them in the junkyard." 

After the proposal was sent to Paris, ICMS representative Robert Lee visited India and travelled in the 118 year old train before submitting his final report.  During his visit, Lee studied three aspects of the toy train - the engineering side, the social and economic aspects and its relevance to history. Barring the economic aspect which is grim due to a number of factors Lee found very little that could derail the train's inclusion in the list. The toy train also drew the attention of international media. Film director Yaavar Abbas came down from USA with his team to capture the journey. Abbas's effort is now a part of the Extreme Machines series on the Discovery Channel.


darjeeling_train_street_scene.jpg (27548 bytes)
The train seems a part of everyday village street life.

 Ever since its installation, the Darjeeling railway system has exhibited an important interchange of human values. Over the years it has brought about a change in the lifestyle of people living in the region. For one, it altered the concept of time. Earlier it took almost six days to reach Darjeeling from Calcutta. With the introduction of the train it was compressed to less than 24 hours. The train also bears a unique testimony to the cultural tradition of tea plantation, which still remains the main source of livelihood of the populace of the region be it the landowners, the labourers or the traders. The line passes through 13 little fairytale stations on its journey.

Since the line goes over a mountain region, 73 per cent of the alignment consists of curves. The sharpest curve is located between Sukna and Rongtong. There are six reverses and three loops on this line, the most famous being the Batasia Loop between Ghoom and Darjeeling. The History of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway dates back to the early nineteenth century and is linked to the very birth of the Darjeeling region as the queen of hill stations and also as one of the premier tea growing areas of India.

In 1878 Calcutta was linked by rail to Siliguri, but from there on to Darjeeling it was a ride on a horse drawn tonga that was by no means the most comfortable way to travel. That's when the idea of a train route germinated in the minds of the British authorities and the construction of the line began immediately and progressed rapidly. March 1880 saw the opening of the line upto Tindharia and by the year end the line was extended up to Kurseong. In July 1881, the line to Darjeeling was fully commissioned. The journey was not without perils. Ferocious Bengal tigers roamed the length of the tracks and in the early twenties, the Calcutta authorities recieved a frantic message from Tindharia ,which when decoded read : " Tiger eating station master on platform. Rush instructions by telegraph!" A large part of the wildlife has since vanished.  But 119 years on, the toy train still lumbers its way up and round the bends unfolding breath taking views of the vertical water falls, gentle mist rising up the verdant valleys and the ethereal splendour of the snows of the Kanchenjunga range. It is nostalgia at its best that is all set to chug into the new millenium.
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