The earliest image of the Kalka- Shimla Railway etched in my mind is one of complete darkness. The scene is set at the Shimla Railway Station. I am a five-year-old toddler huddled around my mother and a lot of luggage, with my two equally young brothers. We’ve just alighted from the train, it is late in the night, completely dark, and there is nobody else on the platform. Except for the echoing footsteps coming in from the far end and a sliver of torchlight moving in tandem. My father has gone up to the town to look for a coolie and a hand-pulled rickshaw.
It is December, colder than anything. More importantly, it is December 1971, and the governments of India and Pakistan are in a mood for war. Which is why we are here, and not in my Jammu, where my uncle’s wedding has got postponed because the warplanes are too close for comfort. We have been despatched back home. We find the shadow of war looms in Shimla too, and a total blackout has been ordered. The footsteps and the torch belong to the stationmaster and it is the darkness of war that becomes my memory. Later, this and other childhood memories develop into sepia-tinged nostalgia as I grow up in the hot plains. It drives me back again and again to Shimla and its famous toy train.
At Kalka Station, every time I walk over from the broad gauge platform to the narrow gauge, physically the transition is seamless. There is no barrier that I cross and the elements — steel, cement, bogies, wheels — are the same. Yet somehow, imperceptibly, everything changes. Small is beautiful. The tiny tot of a train lends a different, endearing aspect to all that it touches. The iron rails are petite as they disappear behind a curve beyond the station. The station itself is impossibly charismatic in the dawn light, and behind it all there is a hint of the misty hills that lie in wait.
Moreover, it all seems specially laid out just for me. I have left the sulking plains behind and the Shimla hills have laid out this elaborate art installation to please me, the train lover. It’s really cuddly cute! The train trembles whenever somebody climbs it. It looks vulnerable. But it determinedly shines a glossy dark red. I only have to look at it and my heart goes chhuk chhuk hota hai. This chhuk chhuk begins in Kalka at a slow meandering gait, and never ever picks up. Nor do I want it to. What I want is to get to the door and sit there, for that is the best seat on this train.
The views are laid out panoramically for me and the wind has a different quality, crisp as a fresh apple and equally edible. Here, I inhabit two worlds: one, inside the train, is full of eager passengers who exude child-like enthusiasm riding this toy and hoot whenever the darkness of a tunnel envelops us; the other is the outside realm of green hills, oak-glades and quaint railway stations, structures that sometimes have no other purpose but to be pretty as doll houses. I am advised that it is best to be cautious at the door. To keep a good grip on the handle as the ride can be jerky, and not to lean out because the tunnel walls and sometimes even the hillsides come dangerously close.
The train fulfils the promise it shows at Kalka. En route are villages that cling to hillsides, and occasional fields that have flattened slopes and cleared woods. There are towns that come tumbling down a hillside to meet the road below, attended by garbage dumps. But mostly, the train whistles its way past the supreme symphony of pine, deodar and oak. Often a tiny path winds its way down and a lone figure is seen cantering away into the undergrowth. Children play under banyan trees and wave goodbyes, smiles lighting up their eyes and puffing up their rosy cheeks. The railway is impatient, and right away begins to rise above the hubbub of Kalka and Parwanoo.
Dharampur is the first big halt and we are already 4,900 ft above sea level. The train climbs higher, past Dagshai and into Tunnel No. 33 (every tunnel, every bridge en route is numbered). Kalka- Shimla Railway is famous for its tunnels; there are 102 tunnels in use now; originally 107 were built. The much-anticipated tunnels are round entrances in the face of the mountain, made of stone and painted a gleaming white. Large mirrors were used during their construction for lighting and remained in use for maintenance for years later. Only a few of these excavated burrows are long, most are small, and many are mere doorways with no rooms behind. Sometimes the track is so convoluted that I can spot tunnels on either side and I am not sure which one lies ahead, and which behind.
The tunnel between Dagshai and Barog is the longest and the most famous, more than a kilometre long, and it is also the longest straight stretch on this line. The incredibly charming Barog Station, awash with an out-ofthis- world air, is waiting with crisp samosas, cutlets and hot tea. The refreshments are over, so are Solan and its famous brewery. The train canters on, over bridges spanning deep ravines or small pathways made by rushing water.
The most interesting bridges are masonry structures, fat pillars supporting elegant elderly arches, with galleries and drawing comparison to ancient Roman architecture — the technique and the appearance is the same. Many bridges are multi-tiered and graceful edifices seemingly there only for aesthetic reasons, serving the functional purpose only by the way. The train chugs over Bridge No. 493 situated over Kandaghat and Kanoh stations. Past the bridge, the train curls and gives me a glimpse of the old-world construction, but only just and enters the dimness of a tunnel.
I am hopeful as the light comes back, the train is indulgent, it has traversed a great arc and I have a frontal view of the famous three-storeyed, multiplearched viaduct, surrounded by stately graceful deodars. And then Taradevi, the sparkling gem of a hill comes into view, and my senses quicken because it means that Shimla, with its legendary colonial buildings, its cobbled paths and wonderful trees is not far. At one point the train bends along a curve, and I can see its entire length. It however chooses to surprise me, acquires more agility and loops 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 that has gone toddling off in the hills, into and out of tunnels, blowing its whistle to create a racket, unmindful of the height it is gaining, enjoying the wind on its face, running breathlessly over dangerous bridges, living life on the delicious edge…
About the Kalka-Shimla Railway
The railway to Shimla was first mooted in the Delhi Gazette in 1847: “We might then see these cooler regions become the permanent seat of a Government daily invigorated by a temperature adapted to refresh an European constitution….” In the event, it was after a wait of more than half a century that the first passenger train began to run, on 9th November, 1903, and provided a speedier access to Shimla compared to the ‘ekkas’, tongas and ponies that used the Hindustan-Tibet Road or the Cart Road. The railway line was built by Delhi-Umbala Railway Company, with financial help from the government. The cost of construction was INR 1.71 crores, almost twice the sanctioned amount. The line was not a commercial success, and the government took it over in 1906.
In July 2008, UNESCO recognised the Kalka-Shimla railway line as a World Heritage Site and described 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 begins at 2,100 ft at Kalka and climbs to 6,811 ft at Shimla, traversing 96.6 km of delicious scenery through deepening valleys and along flanking mountains. Passengers on the train derive as much squealy delight from breathing in the picturesque environment as from rolling the numbers connected with the line on their palates: 102 tunnels, 969 bridges and 919 curves. The trains on this route famously stroll rather than run, maximum speeds attained are 25-30 km per hour and they take more or less 5 hrs to do the journey.
By Amit Mahajan
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator, and has done a few other odd jobs. He hopes to add to the list, if he needs to keep earning.