As the sun peeks from behind the hills and the distant snow clad peaks glint in its soft orange glow, a little town comes into view. Surrounded by lush pines and shrouded in the early morning mist, it looks like etched against the hills. And the sweet nightingale like whistle of “The Himalayan Bird” soothes the ears form somewhere within the misty haze of the pine forests. And out of the misty morning haze a little Toy Train emerges,huffing and puffing, whistling merrily as it climbs along to the distant town. There is a certain elegance and grace about the little train known as The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway — DHR, the very first hill railway in India and this is its story.
Once an old Gurkha hamlet, Darjeeling was bought by the British East India Company from the Kingdom of Sikkim and was transformed into a hill station. It was a home away from home for the English, with quaint cottages and a host of English institutions, where they could file away the duties of colonial rule for the summer. Surrounded with lush tea estates and stunning views of the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas; she has been lovingly dubbed — The Queen of Hills.
But the journey from Calcutta (Kolkata) to Darjeeling was long and arduous. So, the English decided to build a railway to cut short the journey time. Finally in 1881, the first train rolled out of Siliguri to climb seven and a half thousand feet to Darjeeling and ever since these hills have been echoing with the whistle of the little trains.
Over the century the hill station has been transformed from a quiet summer retreat to a tourist destination filled with honeymooning couples and the quaint cottages have given way to concrete hotels. Still, the DHR has remarkably managed to retain its old world charm.
It is a remarkable feat of engineering to say the least. The obstacles which the British Engineers overcame were impressive. With little room maneuver, they literally had to coax the train to climb up to Ghum, the highest railway station in India. The ingenious idea of loops and switchbacks are not only engineering marvels but a visual treat as well, with the most famous of them all, The Batasia Loop, offering grand views of Mt. Kanchenjungha.
No less remarkable are the beautiful little steam engines which have hauled the trains on these improbably narrow, two feet wide tracks ever since its inception. Surely, not even the makers of these B Class steam engines could have imagined that they will survive the test of time for well over a century. And with the youngest engine aged well over ninety, these surely are still going strong. Looked after by the crew like loving, doting fathers these century old beauties are extremely temperamental to operate and occasionally choose to ‘misbehave’. But the romance they evoke of the bygone era is second to none, and it is the spirit of steam that gives the DHR its unique identity.
The trains once carried the famous Darjeeling tea down from the surrounding plantations, but goods services have long been terminated. And there was a time not long ago when there were talks to close the line all together. But, thanks to efforts of train enthusiasts and travel buffs, the line was preserved and finally in 1999, the DHR was conferred the status of World Heritage by UNESCO.
It now ferries only passengers to the Himalayas and to Darjeeling. The train is filled with tourists round the year, and its not just the ordinary tourists who come to get mesmerized by the charm of the Himalayan foothills. Once the famous American author, Mark Twain, who visited Darjeeling wrote in his journals — “The railway journey up the mountain is forty miles, and it takes eight hours to make it. It is so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week.” And that’s exactly how the journey feels like, with the train chugging through lush forests and tea plantations as it leaves the plains for the hills.
Time is perhaps the greatest gift DHR has to offer to its passengers. It merrily climbs along at its own carefree pace bereft of any worldly hurry. Each turn of the track makes the little train play hide and seek with the sun and the cloud. One moment you see cars breezing past you along the Hill Cart Road, and the next moment the coaches brush the pines and ceders. And if one is lucky, and it is one of those infamous cloudy dreary days of Darjeeling, these forests would be filled with clouds and mist. On days like these, the journey almost transports its passengers into a world that can hardly be called earthly. One could eternally soak in these beautiful vistas, breathe in the brisk mountain and bask in the nostalgia of this century old ride yet still not get bored. Rather, the journey rejuvenates the soul and makes one feel young and romantic to the core. Such is the charm of the DHR!
Yet for the trackside residents the “Toy Train” is not just any rusty antique, rather a noisy family member to whom they occasionally turn for favors. Be it for a quick ride to a friends’ house or for hot water, they turn towards the DHR. For the kids going to school its an adventure playground, where they hop on and off. And for the adventurous adults, it give them another chance to momentarily become kids again. Surprisingly, tickets are still not that important! For the people of these hills and the DHR, life has hardly changed from the days of the Raj.
The railway line runs like an artery running though the main streets of towns and villages. So, it is perhaps the only train in the world which gets stuck in a traffic jam. Some of these towns and hamlets were mere watering points for the steam engines when the line was built. Yet for the trackside residents the “Toy Train” is not just any exotic antique, rather a noisy family member to whom they occasionally turn for favors. Be it for a quick ride to a friends’ house or for hot water, they turn towards the DHR. For the kids going to school its an adventure playground, where they hop on and off. And for the adventurous adults, it gives them another chance to momentarily become kids again. Surprisingly, tickets are still not that important! Often running along the courtyards of monasteries and schools, hugging the walls of churches, almost kissing the balconies of homes the DHR has become an integral part of the life in the hills.
Darjeeling has come a long way from being the hill station shrouded in solitude to a bustling tourist destination. The DHR has been witness to that, yet itself has managed to remain unscathed from the ravages of modernization. There is perhaps no one who has seen or travelled on the DHR and has not been charmed by it. The DHR has become indelible part of the identity of these hills and it touches the lives of every people it meets on its narrow twisting climb…