Darjeeling Himalayan Railways – Celebrating 140 years of the toy-train

There are many few innovations that affected the world history deeply. “One of these innovations is the railway which has changed the political, economical and social organization of the world since the beginning of the nineteenth century(Kosgeroglu, 2005). The first quarter of nineteenth century is termed as period of railway revolution, ‘The Revolution on wheels’. The emergence of the steam railway was a phenomenon of extraordinary importance, not only in the development of industrialization worldwide but as one of the key new technologies without which much of nineteenth-century civilization as we came to know it could not have come about. “While steam engines were being used to pump water from mines and for other practical, industrial purposes, perhaps one of the most important applications was the building of the world’s first railroad” (McNeese, 2000). It was the power of steam engines which made it possible to carry raw materials, good, manpower to production canters with high speed which made it easy for industrial products to reach the market. However, Emrah Korgeroglu mentions the, “Problems concerning the developing industry were solved with railway not only by providing a faster way to reach the source, but also by creating a feasible network” (Kosgeroglu, 2005)

Just like what happened on the afternoon of July 3rd 1881 where a small Sharp Stewart engine garlanded with flowers was pulled into the recent-built Darjeeling station of North Bengal to cheers and a live band – The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The following day it commenced service between Siliguri, at the deg of the plains, and Darjeeling, in the foothills. Though its narrow tracks covered just less than 50 miles, the DHR rose about 8000 feet from departure to destination, from the muggy Bengal plains up to the crisp air and alpine vistas of Darjeeling. 

Travelling by the so called Toy-Train over the DHR is no pedestrian railway journey, but an experience of a life time, designed to thrill the child in an individual and unfurl Peter Pan imagination with smoke coming out. 

So was its charm that Darjeeling Himalayan Railway even attracted the famous Mark Twain to pen down and hang his tall tales in his visit to Darjeeling. He wrote of seeing a hill woman carry a piano all the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling. His description of the loopy nature of the track too is somewhat loopy. “Far down the mountain, we got out to look at a remarkable piece of loop engineering – a spiral where the road curves on itself with such abruptness that when the regular train came down and entered the loop, we stood over it and saw the locomotive disappears under our bridge, then in a few moments appear again chasing its own tail. It was like a snake swallowing itself”.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway revolutionized the way of transport and communication and thereby directly affecting the plantation industries and tourism. Its open, ‘Lilliputian’ carriages climbed narrow, hill-side rails hoisting passengers from lowland heat into bracing mountain air. While the train is typically considered a mode of transport, it also constituted a technology of perception and social space, one which travellers and locals inhabited and which integrated with their perceiving bodies

An American passenger reported, that this “baby carriage on wheels…crawls up the foothills permitting plenty of time to look about”, and added that ‘if a passenger gets impatient or in a hurry he can jump out of the car and walk ahead’. At stations or while drivers funneled water into the thirsty machine, passengers ambled into the forest picked flowers listened to the birds and took photographs. This more ‘human speed’ and the numerous halts allowed for immersive, idle contemplation”.

The genesis of DHR was significant both economically and in terms of engineering as it holds unique features. It climbs the mountain and links two geographical worlds- the plains and the hills, and it does this in a seminal fashion. The DHR is neither the first narrow gauge railway in the world, nor the first railway with a zig-zag, however, as Lee noted: “it was the first to combine these elements, and it achieved a feat of rapid climbing which was and remains unequalled by any adhesion railway”. He further stated that: “DHR has been a very influential railway. It was the prototype for the later hill railways elsewhere in India and beyond. Lines such as those to Ootcamund…Simla and Mathera in India, Darlat in Vietnam, Maymyo in Burma, Buki Tinggi in Sumatra and Bandung in Java, all owe much to the Darjeeling precedent. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railways showed what could be done with a narrow gauge in very challenging terrain”. 

The other highlight of this little toy-train is its steam engines and the sound of its ‘whistle’. “In order to prepare steam engine, the ‘chuk-chuk’, the preparation used to start at 3:30 am in the morning. The preparation took a lot of time. But when the whistle from the steam came out, it was the beauty that I still remember in my memories”, expressed J.K. Sir. It was mist of early morning train, with no sun in winter and clouds around that made the smoke more vibrant.

It was nothing unsual to the people living along the DHR track. “DHR is a roadside tramway and thus is interlaced with the people on a much larger scale than any other railway”, quoted from one of the interviews. DHR threads its way through centre of population, passing close to the places where people live, work and shop, is the way it has always been. Its track cut across the town with settlements on both the sides. The DHR is more than just dance, drama or music. It’s the life along the DHR, which is why when school children were asked to find a slogan for DHR, a student came up with ‘I live along the DHR. 

 

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railways has not just been an association of one generation but served as well as employed generations and generations.

 

It acts as a Living Heritage by contributing to the ambiguous and multifaceted shift from travel to tourism acting as a tramway which interlaced with people on a much larger scale than any other railway. It completed the process of urbanization of Darjeeling Hill Station.

 

Did you know, that Darjeeling owing to its proximity with Siliguri and Bagdogra, makes for an excellent stopover, before or after your 7 Day Trip to Bhutan – The Last Shangri La ! Also, if you are looking for some offbeat places to stay, we recommend you check out these Experiential Home-stays in the mountains of West Bengal and Sikkim and these Road Trips in West Bengal to some quaint offbeat Himalayan Getaways.

 

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