Are you a traveller or a tourist? A tourist feels the constant need to be entertained. A traveller savours the experience as it unfolds. It’s perhaps the eternal battle between expectation and acceptance that defines one’s journey on the KVR — the narrow gauge Kangra Valley Railway. Not your cute hill-station toy train, transporting squealing holidaymakers or romantic honeymooners in first class carriages, but an inherent part of the lovely Kangra landscape. For the royal sum of INR 27 for 164 km from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar, heart-stopping views are guaranteed.
Finding a seat, however, is not. “No reservations,” we’re informed at the counter. So we wind our way through the train’s six coaches, murmuring “Excuse Mes”, “Thank Yous” and all such irrelevant urbanisms till we figure that a stronger Hand of Fate needs to be evoked if we are to successfully park our pampered city bottoms on this carrier of the people. The Hand that rescues us is a helpful guard, the authorised waver of the flag that gives the green signal to the driver at stations. He leads us to the hallowed portals of his own coupé — a couple of seats, a couple of windows, and we’re all set for happy times ahead in our privileged quarters.
We have a guest — Atma Ram is the name, a railway security guard who has a fair idea about the workings of the antique red and black vacuum-pressure contraption, hosted in our enclosure. Adopting him as our possible guide to the KVR, we pretend to lend him a seat but he demurely takes the footboard. Then, of course, Atma Ram has a guest, his nephew, also a railway employee. Then walks in the nephew’s friend. Then, a couple more railway staff and their relatives with poky bags. Our protests are numbed by their cheery chatter as they invite more distant cousins into our not-so-long-ago haven of peace. Our urban need to assert, “we’re special” quickly dissolves as the train hoots and leaves Pathankot. “Should we take a cab?” wonders my bewildered partner, a trifle too late….
Falling into rhythm No one’s in a hurry on the blue-andoff- white KVR with its mini diesel engine. Plodding along at an average of 25-30 km/hr, with certain stretches where the limit is only 20, it’s like rocking through paradise in slow motion. It takes us a while to cross the busy plains through wee stations like Ilhauji Road, past a broken bridge at Chakki Ghat, beyond the Himachal border at Kandwal before the 30-min stop at Nurpur Road Junction. Here we wait for the down train to cross, as all KVR trains run on a single line. Rattle and clang, clang and rattle through little hamlets and fields of maize and millet, and rows of mango, litchi and orange trees.
Meanwhile, the conversation in our coach hovers around the year’s crop, untimely rainfall and other such rural concerns that seem far more real than my wide-eyed anticipation of the famous Kangra scenery. Sticking my head out of the window to catch the sinuous curve of the train, I spot people on the roof, perhaps more safely perched than those spilling out of windows and exits. Yet more insignificant stations, Balle Da Pir, Bharmar and Jawanwala Shar, till we finally feel the elevation at Harsar Dehri as the distance between the tracks and the valley begins to grow. The train bellows and belches like an old crone. Built in the 1920s to ferry heavy equipment for the construction of the Hydro Electric Power House at Joginder Nagar, it is now a living museum of early 20th century technology — safe, reliable and most importantly, the cheapest mode of transportation for the locals.
In spite of never being ridden by royals or VIPs, or being declared a national heritage like its famous Kalka-Shimla cousin, the humble KVR is efficiently run and maintained by dedicated railway staff. Interestingly though, while being built it had ended up costing INR 296 lakh — more than double its initial budget. Unlike other hill trains the views from the KVR are uninterrupted — with only two tunnels on the route and thanks to excellent engineering, the swerves are gentle. Streams, tunnels and a donkey The gorgeousness starts to spill over as we meander through a maze of hills, valleys, gorges and innumerable bridges built across dams and streams that echo the passage of the tracks in serpentine regularity.
These are the monsoons. Sudden streaks of sunlight pierce through ominous clouds, the valley’s slate rooftops catch the glint and sparkle, as do the constantly flowing rock-laden rivulets. Ladies in pink work their way through fluorescent paddy fields. Gushing streams add lilting notes to the train’s rock-and-roll percussion. Down below, in the myriad water bodies, buffaloes and swimmers escape the heat, while the odd fisherman waits for a catch. We make brief halts at tiny stations, with a solitary bench and a banyan tree: Meghrajpura, Nagrota Surian, Guler, Lunsu and Jwalamukhi Road. This is where one would disembark for the famous Jwalamukhi Temple to see the revered flame arising magically from the earth.
It is also the station of poignant quotes: “Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak Bharat ek hai.” Why not? Here we are, a micro version of India’s teeming millions squeezed into tiny spaces, happy and accommodating. Swerving northwards, we cross the Bathu Khad, which is spanned by a long viaduct constructed on a graceful curve with the rails about 100 ft above the bed of the nallah before clanging through the 250-footlong Dhaundni Tunnel, the first of the two on this route. By now we seem to have lost most of our fellow countrymen to various stations. There is a certain lulling of both train and senses as the day turns to pink dusk, but suddenly we loudly screech to an abrupt halt! Atma Ram solves the mystery — a donkey zipping across the tracks had a narrow miss!
A welcome shower A lazy drizzle greets us at the Kopar Lahar Junction, while we wait again for the down train. The crew takes a tea break, urging us to do the same. Back aboard, and our eighth Mars bar later, we’re into the 1,070-foot-long Daulatpuri Surang emerging into yet another layer of sound — big dollops of irresistible rain! It keeps raining at the Kangra and Kangra Mandir stations, pouring its heart out into the gushing river below. Through the rains emerges the deodar-clad hillside, and the silhouetted Dhauladhar ranges that will gleam white in the winters.
Somewhere, hiding in the rain and twilight is the ancient Kangra Fort that was destroyed in the earthquake of 1905. Blue skies still peep out from the left window, while dark clouds crash down on the right. With the rain comes the sound of the crickets, chirping louder than the jhik-jhik-jhik-jhik across acres of green paddy, pecked upon by white saras. The Nagrota Station appears an orange silhouette, as darkness descends into the valley. Creatures of the night The journey is further uphill from here, which perhaps explains the squeals and shudders of our engine, before it screeches to a complete stop. Sensing danger, Atma Ram alights into the rain to find out. He returns with news of disaster… averted — the downpour has caused a landslide. Just in the nick of time the crew spotted a huge rock blocking the tracks.
We’re stuck in pitch darkness in a stretch of walled tracks, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A thoroughly drenched driver drops in, warning us to sit tight inside, doors and windows locked. We’ve been accepted as city guests by now, to be sheltered and kept out of trouble. The night must work its own tricks — the shy and quiet Atma Ram suddenly finds his other side. Twisting his handlebar, he chatters on excitedly about the many “rubbers” (local slang for firearms) he owns and how he never spares a soul at night. Someone knocks, all of us freeze! Fortunately, it’s only villagers who’ve come to help. We’re amazed at the speed and efficiency with which the crisis gets resolved.
Through mysterious messages the Superintendent from the next station is summoned and in torrential rain, with limited light and resources, the truant rock is hacked and the train moves again. Not all KVR trains go all the way to Joginder Nagar. We’ve planned our halt at Palampur — at 4,002 ft, the most scenic and comfortable base to explore the Kangra Valley.
Morning reveals the hill town. We wake up sip by sip, watching the mist spread its lacy fingers down from the dramatic snow-edged Dhauladhars towards the Neugal Khad chasm and into the meandering Bundla stream, before floating above the sweeping greens of the Bundla Tea Estate, nestled between lush meadows and pine forests. Pouring another cup of the local brew, we plan a lazy day in Palampur — the land of tea gardens and constantly gushing streams from where it derives its name, ‘Pulum’ — the local word for water. The English found the gentle slopes of Palampur ideal for planting their favourite brew and today, Kangra Valley Tea is enjoyed across the globe.
Pretty in tea-green, Palampur is perhaps your most convenient base to explore the Kangra Valley — you could hop on and off the choo choo trains if you don’t want a longer ride (just confirm current timings from the station), explore a Tibetan village and monastery, check out the art scene, walk around the tea gardens, stop by at a tea factory, visit the popular temples, picnic at a random stream, feed some fish, just tramp around, plan a trek or paraglide and if you’d rather really just lounge around, choose an erstwhile palace. Andretta (20 km S of Palampur) The monsoons have painted the valley a fresh coat of green making the drive down the Palampur- Baijnath Road to Andretta even more enchanting.
Over the years, wellknown artists, dramatists and writers have adopted this charming Kangra village. Soaking in the endearing landscape, I can see why. We stop at the Art Gallery in Andretta’s main square, unsure of what to expect, till we realise we’re in the home of the revered artist and philosopher Sardar Sobha Singh (1901-86). His meditative vision of Sikh saints have soldarm bed and hot food come true. Palampur Morning reveals the hill town. We wake up sip by sip, watching the mist spread its lacy fingers down from the dramatic snow-edged Dhauladhars towards the Neugal Khad chasm and into the meandering Bundla stream, before floating above the sweeping greens of the Bundla Tea Estate, nestled between lush meadows and pine forests.
Pouring another cup of the local brew, we plan a lazy day in Palampur — the land of tea gardens and constantly gushing streams from where it derives its name, ‘Pulum’ — the local word for water. The English found the gentle slopes of Palampur ideal for planting their favourite brew and today, Kangra Valley Tea is enjoyed across the globe. Pretty in tea-green, Palampur is perhaps your most convenient base to explore the Kangra Valley — you could hop on and off the choo choo trains if you don’t want a longer ride (just confirm current timings from the station), explore a Tibetan village and monastery, check out the art scene, walk around the tea gardens, stop by at a tea factory, visit the popular temples, picnic at a random stream, feed some fish, just tramp around, plan a trek or paraglide and if you’d rather really just lounge around, choose an erstwhile palace. Andretta (20 km S of Palampur) The monsoons have painted the valley a fresh coat of green making the drive down the Palampur- Baijnath Road to Andretta even more enchanting. Over the years, wellknown artists, dramatists and writers have adopted this charming Kangra village. Soaking in the endearing landscape, I can see why.
We stop at the Art Gallery in Andretta’s main square, unsure of what to expect, till we realise we’re in the home of the revered artist and philosopher Sardar Sobha Singh (1901-86). His meditative vision of Sikh saints have sold over a million copies in laminated prints, but coming eye to eye with the soulful lifelike oils of Guru Nanak, Bhagat Singh and Sohni-Mahiwal (check out sobhasinghartist.com) is an elevating experience. At Andretta, you can also visit the late Sardar Gurcharan Singh’s pottery workshop and the dwellings of the painter BC Sanyal and dramatist Norah Richards. When in tea country, the Palampur Co-operative Tea Factory, downhill from Palampur, is certainly worth a visit. Especially since they oblige you with a quick free tour, before guiding you to the shop where you can choose from three grades of freshly packed Kangra tea.
The tour in the grungy factory begins on the first floor where freshly picked green leaves are dried in huge tanks for 24 hrs, before being moved to the noisy crushers below. Now a brownish-green colour, they are transferred to an adjoining room to ferment for half an hour in a draft of cold air, before being steamed and moved to a grading area where the leaves are sorted by being blown against wire meshes of various sizes. We inhale deeply, surrounded by giant heaps of the aromatic stuff that draws its origin from the tea gardens on the pretty hill behind the factory. With a couple of hours to spare the next day, we follow the path by a tiny bridge to climb this hill for a walk in the tea gardens.
The primly arranged dark tea bushes contrast sharply with the wildly growing lighter greens of the valley and the bright blue skies. Down below, the path keeps pace with the windy glistening stream and all is well with the world. Back in the KVR We wait at the pretty, rain-washed Palampur Station for our old friend, the KVR, along with locals off to visit ‘rellies’ in their Sunday best. The familiar hoot, a flurry for seats and the veterans that we are now, we head straight to the guard’s cabin. A bit of pleading with Mr Singh and he’s moved his paperwork to make space for us. By the time we reach Baijnath, he’s our best friend. He waves his flag, the train moves… but wait, we seem to have left behind a couple. Mr Singh pulls the black pressure lever, the train stops to let them in.
The hospitable mood prevails as we share Kurkures. Someone needs to collect wages from another station, so the train waits a little longer. Outside is a fairytale world of glistening paddy fields and undulating tea gardens, bridges over deep gorges, the rush of rivers below, forests of pine, deodar and bamboo and short pauses for tiny stations. What the monsoons hide from us are the gleaming whites of the Dhauladhars, better visible on a winter journey. An hour and a half later, we’ve reached Baijnath Paprola where most of us get off. Even the train will lose a few bogies here, to cope with the steeper gradient on its onward journey to Joginder Nagar. Next day we drive along the KVR tracks — a well-embedded feature of any scenic drive in the valley. The villages get even quainter, the colourful prayer flags of Bir (a popular hangliding destination), catch the breeze.
Now used to the slow rhythmic revealing of the valley, a faster vehicle feels too rushed to absorb its beauty. We make a symbolic stop at Ahju, the highest station at 4,229 ft. Here, heaving a deep sigh, we bid our gallant ride adieu! Baijnath (16 km SE of Palampur) There couldn’t have been a more theatrical backdrop to the 9th century Shiva Temple than the dusk laden clouds that pose overhead for our visit. Sculpted entirely from stone, it remains a splendid example of the Nagara-style of temple architecture, incredibly graceful in its form. The temple consists of an adytum surrounded by a conical spire with a mandap covered with a low pyramidshaped roof.
A life-size statue of Nandi graces the entrance and a pillared courtyard surrounds the adytum that enshrines one of the 12 Jyotirlingas. The linga is said to have been gifted as a boon to King Ravana. It was too heavy for him to lift so he couldn’t carry it all the way to Lanka. The stone catches the orange light, highlighting the niches on the walls that host intricate sculptures of the goddess Chamunda, Surya and Kartikeya. Spared from any glitzy ornamentation, the temple evokes harmony and peace in spite of the busy market location. Dzongsar (35 km E of Palampur) If you want to see one monastery around Palampur, make it this one. Located in Chauntra, a few kilometres ahead of the more visited Sherabling, Nyingmapa and Chokling monasteries of Bir, the Dzongsar Monastery floors us by the sheer magnitude of its beauty. From the giant strokes of silver clouds that kiss its sweeping golden roof to the majestic mountains that surround it, to the huge gated compound that accommodates and educates 500 monks.
The courtyard is neatly squared by hostel rooms and other facilities with a garden in the centre. An expansive flight of stairs leads into the incredibly high-ceilinged temple that hosts an enormous golden Buddha. We take off our shoes amidst the 500- odd pairs of brightly coloured sandals, left outside by rows of chanting monks filling up the echoing gilded interiors. We sit by the pillars outside, soaking in the atmosphere. My painter’s eyes stare ,amazed at the bright pink, blue, green and yellow murals that intricately adorn the red and gold of the walls, impossibly loud shades exploding into an aesthetic whole, while preserving the aura of calm that is Buddha. An old Tibetan lady comes up to pray, following an elaborate ritual of kneeling and bending several times over. It’s drizzling when the chants are over. The monks pour out and head for their curiously fashionable footwear, their maroon robes lighting up the tiles of the courtyard.
Their jokes and gestures almost seem out of place in this larger-than-life canvas. We walk up the long aisle that leads up to the Buddha, with floor-seating on both sides for students and class-rooms on the first floor. Softening the ambience, beautiful columns of ornate silk tapestry hang down from the ceiling. Offerings sculpted from rice-dough sit at the Buddha’s feet along with glimmering candles and photos of the institute’s founder, Khyentse Chokyi Lodrö and his successors. Tashijong (14 km SE of Palampur) Perhaps one of the best walks around the area, this one falls on NH20 towards Taragarh Palace. It should have taken us only 45 mins to reach Tashijong village from our abode at Taragarh, but we linger to feed the leaping fish under the bridge at Machiyal. Then amble along tea gardens, dip our toes in a flowing stream, make friends with red-cheeked children and compulsively take too many pictures of three monks in maroon walking through fluorescent fields — perfect in composition, potent in symbolism. Finally, when we do ascend the hill to Tashijong, we realise that this cute little village owes its existence entirely to the monastery, which is officially called the Dzongsar Institute of Higher Learning. We walk past the Tibetan craft shops and my rumbling tummy guides me straight to the café opposite the monastery where we surrender to momos.
By Lipika Sen
Writer, author and wanderer, Lipika Sen is an Indian-born Kiwi.