Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), tucked away amid the breathtaking Himalayan scenery, is a monument to human ingenuity and the mountains’ timeless appeal. The DHR gives visitors a unique window into the heart of the Himalayas, with a rich history spanning back to the British colonial era. Many of us might not have gotten the chance to experience the journey through the historical milestones of India. In this article, let’s have a virtual experience of traveling through the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

The Origin and Development of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The history of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Darjeeling was earlier not a part of British India but an independent nation called Sikkim. In 1853, the King of Sikkim gifted Darjeeling to the Governor-General of British India, Lord William Bentick. Nestled in the Himalayan mountains at 2,042 meters (6,700 feet) above sea level, Darjeeling was suitable for development as a hill station.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

Darjeeling: A Cool Retreat for the White Latsahebs

To escape the scorching heat of the plains of India in summer, the white Latsahebs used to camp in high altitude villages and towns like Simla, Dalhousie, Pachmarhi, Mahabaleshwar, etc. Darjeeling was one such ‘air-conditioned’ place. Hence, the movement of Englishmen started to increase there. There was no vehicle from Siliguri to Darjeeling. There was no road at all. As a result, the backbreaking journey had to be made by riding a mule or sitting in a bullock cart.

The Inception and Construction of the Siliguri-Darjeeling RailwayDarjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

To solve this problem permanently, it was decided to lay a railway line between Siliguri and Darjeeling. The British engineer, Franklin Prestige, was given the job. It took several years to survey how the spiral railroad should be carved out of the mountains. Finally, in 1878, Franklin Prestige presented the plan for the Siliguri-Darjeeling Railway to Bengal Governor, Ashley Eden.

A year or so later, the laying of 0.6 m/2 ft gauge tracks began, and on July 4, 1881, a toy train of Britain’s Sharp, Stewart & Co. with mini coaches fitted with an imported steam engine of large size and costing ₹20,000 ran between Siliguri and Darjeeling. A toy train with a mini coach fitted with a steam engine made its first run between Siliguri-Darjeeling.

The Transition and Revival of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The British-owned Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) remained in their possession until 1951, when the Indian government bought the company. The management of the train came into the hands of Indian Railways. The operation of the toy train was successful for a few years, but as time went on, the revenue from tickets began to fall as many passengers started traveling by highway to save time from Siliguri to Darjeeling.Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

Indian Railways was not interested in running the train, which was constantly losing revenue, and around 1990 it was decided to bid farewell to the historic DHR forever. A railway enthusiast named Sherab Tundup-la of Darjeeling heard this news, which made him anxious. He wrote to the Indian Railways, requesting to keep alive the toy train, which has a history of about a century, at any cost. He also suggested the idea of developing the mini train as a tourist attraction and knocking on the doors of the World Bank for financial assistance.

It is good for the railway department that instead of trashing Sherab Tundup-la’s letter, they took concrete action on the point he suggested. Darjeeling brought the Himalayan Railway into tip-top condition, and in 1998 it was declared a ‘World Heritage’ by UNESCO. A positive reply was found from UNESCO next year itself, and the toy train was inscribed on the World Heritage List. This toy train remains world famous for its amazing ride. During the 88-kilometer journey from New Jalpaiguri railway station in West Bengal to Darjeeling, it offers picturesque views of the Himalayas. Those sights are never erased from the memory of those who have experienced the journey firsthand.

Experience the Charming Journey of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The constant music of Kachood…kachood… in the passenger coach is a test of the patience of the passengers, who take seven and a half hours to make the long journey. For those who haven’t experienced the thrill of a toy train journey, here’s a running commentary-like itinerary—

The Beginning of the Journey with Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Place: Railway Station of New Jalpaiguri Town, West Bengal; Platform No. 9.

Time: 9:30 a.m. on a rosy winter morning.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway stands waiting for its passengers, looking like a train like the Shatabdi Express has suddenly shrunk by blowing a magic spell. A toy car comes to mind as soon as one sees three to four matchbox-like coaches and a small diesel engine mounted on the front. A thought may also come to mind: will this dwarf carriage really be able to reach Darjeeling, which is situated at a height of seven thousand feet?

Tranquil Departure: Exploring the Darjeeling Railway Experience
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

There is no special passenger traffic on the platform, so there is no noise or commotion. The only sound comes from the purr of the diesel engine. There are two types of passenger coaches: first class and second class. Whatever the coach, the feeling of getting into a bus instead of a train comes back as soon as you enter it. It is very tight inside. Seats are also narrow. There is no spare space for luggage, so it is arranged in the last coach. If there is anything ‘big’ in the dwarf compartment, the glass windows, which are going to act like a screen showing beautiful views of the Himalayas after the journey starts,.

As soon as the clock strikes exactly 10:00, i.e., the time of departure of the train, the engine driver sounds the horn to indicate this. Is the old looking diesel engine that old? Small mouth, big sound!

Journeying Through the Hills: Aboard the Darjeeling Toy Train
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

The next second, the toy train picks up with a gentle jolt and gradually picks up speed. The toy train will take about seven and a half hours to cover the 88 km long journey with the music of Khadoo… Khad… Kachud… Kachud… playing continuously in the passenger coach, during which the patience of the passengers will be tested. The height of New Jalpaiguri is only 96 meters (314 feet) above sea level. From here, the ascent has already started, but the rate of height gain is negligible, so it is not felt in the coach. The train reaches the Siliguri Junction at a level of 122 meters (399 feet) after gradually gaining height for eight kilometers. Siliguri is the only railway station in India where broad (5.6 feet), meter (3.3 feet), narrow (2.6 feet, and/or 2.0 feet) tracks are laid. Today, while there is widespread ‘circulation’ of broad gauge across the country, trains run on two more gauges in addition to broad gauge in Siliguri.

Embarking on a Slow Journey to the HimalayasDarjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

After a break of five minutes, the toy car starts its journey again. Everyone is waiting for the train that runs at a slow speed of 12 kilometers per hour and blares the sounds of khadu…khed…kachud…kachud…to leave the urban congestion and noise of traffic and reach the Himalayas. But the journey has just begun. The Himalayas are far away.

After covering another nine kilometers, the train reached Sukna station around eleven o’clock in the morning. Built in August, 1880, Sukna is a historic railway station, whose construction is still intact. The museum of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is situated on the same floor as the station itself. Pictures, maps, beautiful drawings, etc. of the construction period of the Hill Railway are displayed there. It is not possible to see everything during a short break of only two minutes, so a special program for visiting the museum has to be made. At present, the engine of the train has stopped, so the passengers who got off to relax got back on the train.

Ascending through Nature: Exploring the Darjeeling Toy Train Route

The journey started again from Sukna village, situated at 156 meters (511 feet) above ground level, Now it starts to become interesting because the train is passing through green forests of pine and bamboo. The gradient of the ascent has gradually increased, which has some effect on the behavior of the passengers sitting in the coach. Meanwhile, a man sitting on the front bumper outside the coach is seen throwing sand on the track with his fist. Sand is used to prevent the train wheels from slipping on the smooth surface of the track and to give the wheels some grip.

Exploring Rangtung: A Brief Stop on the Darjeeling Himalayan RailwayDarjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

Rangtung is the next stop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), which has covered a distance of seven kilometers and gained an altitude of 271 meters (890 feet) within half an hour of leaving Sukna. This mini-sized station was also built in August, 1880. The number of passengers alighting or boarding here is negligible, so the train takes barely a minute or so. If someone wants to go for a’mini recess’ during this short period, they can go by notifying the guard. As all passenger coaches do not have toilets, the feeling of ‘what a relief!’ comes from going to the washroom at the station on the way. Don’t worry if you are a few seconds late in returning after completing the scheduled work. It is not a big deal to catch the train running at a speed of 12 kilometers per hour.

Now it’s noontime. Two and a half hours have passed since the start of the train journey to New Jalpaiguri, during which the distance covered is not much more than 25 kilometers, and yet it seems like a very long journey. The slow passage of time may be responsible for that. There is still another five and a half hours to float in this stream. But what is the rush to reach the destination where the pleasure is to be taken?

Twist and Turns complement Staircase

The tracks of the Darjeeling train run very close to the highway at some places, so the diesel engine makes a loud hum every few times to give a warning message to the vehicles entering the train lane. In this way, the train passing by the side of the road, sometimes by the residential houses, sometimes in the crowded market, is moving along the edge of the hill, taking a detour.Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

British engineer Franklin Prestige laid the tracks of the Darjeeling Railway around the mountain to avoid tunneling through the mountains. As a result, the train acquires an English C-shaped loop at many places. Four times, it takes a very sharp turn, goes back, changes direction, and moves forward. The English Z-shaped structure is called Zig Zag. In the world, very few hill railways are built on zigzag patterns, and it is also the number one Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in terms of engineering.

Proceeding from Rangtung and crossing three Zig Zags and one C-loop en route, the Darjeeling Toy Train has arrived at Tindharia station at a level of 860 meters (2,822 feet)). Tindharia is a small village at the confluence of three (Tin) gorges (Dhariya), but a major and important station on the Darjeeling railway route.

A workshop for repairing toy train engines and passenger coaches was established as early as 1910. It is still functioning today. Mainly steam locomotives of barely 14 tonnes, imported from Britain in the early twentieth century, are taken care of in Tindharia’s workshop.Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

After a short break of two minutes, the diesel engine started again, and the steepest climb of the trip began. In the next kilometer, the train has to climb 211 meters (694 feet). Not much height can be gained in a straight line, so the train uses a large curve known as Agony Point as a ladder. A rough idea of how testing this climb is for the engine is given by the word agony chosen for the curve. This word is indicative of pain, torture, agony, intense struggle, etc. As if the toy train of Darjeeling is really experiencing all these emotions, the engine rumbles and the thump… a little The volume of sounds also increases. The curve is so sharp that the friction of the wheels as they grip the track does not remain unperceived as a jolt inside the coach. Ascending train’s slow speed of several kilometers per hour has become slower. Some passengers took advantage of this opportunity to alight from the train to a feeling of ‘what a relief!’24 scaled

Crossing the most challenging curve at Agony Point, the train reaches Gayabadi at a height of 1,072 meters (3,516 feet). Now, it is 13:15 PM, and half the journey is remaining, and there are a number of zigzags and loops/turns yet to cross. As the train gains altitude from Gayabadi, the atmosphere is getting cooler and the greenery around it is increasing. The snowy peaks of the Himalayas can be seen in the distance, while the nearby mountain slopes offer views of tea gardens. Looking at the mind-blowing scenery, we reach Kurseong. Kurseong town, situated at 1,482 meters (4,864 feet) above sea level, is another ‘hub’ of the New Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling railway route. Like Sukna railway station, there is also a museum of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), which remains closed due to a lack of visitors. The gates are opened on request, and you can buy an entry ticket of Rs 10 from the booking office. The toy train takes a special ten-minute break at Kursiang, during which a quick visit to the museum can be made.

The final stage of the climb begins!

From Kursiang via Tung to Sonada, the toy train faces another challenge of steep ascent, after which the train has to reach a height of seven and a half thousand feet. Of course, now it has reached 1,828 meters (6,000 feet). At this height, there is a slight chill in the thin air, while now the pink chill of winter is mixed in the atmosphere. Greenery, tea plantations, colorful flowers, and the Himalayan mountains are visible until you look around in such a pleasant environment. If so, what else is needed? After crossing the crowded market of Sonada village, the views are more picturesque as the train moves through a protected forest sanctuary known as Senchal. Rhododendron type flowers as well as oak, willow, and almond trees are seen everywhere.Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

The toy train returned to the cement-concrete jungle after some journeys through the green forest. The repeatedly honking train passes through residential buildings and shops on both sides of the track. The vehicles stuck in front of the train made room. By following the narrow path, the train now arrives at Ghoom, which is located at 2,257 meters (7,407 feet) from the surface, making it the highest railway station in all of Asia. Here too, there is a museum of memorabilia about Darjeeling Himalayan Railway history.

A steam engine called Baby Sivok, imported from England in 1881, is visible on the museum premises. Steam engines of this model still serve Darjeeling Railways today. However, they are no longer used for the long journey between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Because a steam engine has to consume coal as much as 12 kilograms, and water as much as 100 liters per kilometer,. Hence, the railways have installed diesel engines in their place. Joy Ride trains ply between Darjeeling-Ghoom-Darjeeling with old steam locomotives.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

It is already half past four in the afternoon. The Darjeeling Himalayan train, which left New Jalpaiguri at ten in the morning, is in the final leg of its journey. So far, it has climbed steadily. Now it is the first time to descend, for which it takes a curving route called the Batasia Loop, a slightly sloping English C-shape, within which is a delightful garden of fifty thousand square feet. From one tan window overlooking the Batasiya loop, the towering Kanchenjunga peak of the Himalayas can be seen in the distance, and a garden of colorful flowers on the other!Darjeeling Himalayan Railway History: Discovering the Soul of the Himalayas!

All travelers have become impatient to capture these views with their eyes and cameras. Is there any limit to the excitement when the sight instantly removes the fatigue of a six and a half hour journey? A 9-foot-tall statue of a Gorkha soldier has been erected in the middle of Batasia Garden. It is a magnificent symbol of valor commemorating the Gorkha soldiers who fought and martyred in various wars on behalf of the Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army. All the passengers are also taking pictures of the impressive statue of a Gorkha soldier.

After detouring the Batasia Loop, the toy car has finally reached its destination, Darjeeling—a full seven and a half hours into the journey! The same journey can be made in less than half the time by motorway, so many tourists prefer the motorbike option over the train. But the fun of a delayed, rhythmic train ride is something else. It feels like time travel instead of traveling through a century and a half of history.

Good to know

  • When to go to Darjeeling:

Darjeeling is a hill station, so any time of the year is ideal for a visit.
The July-August rainy season is not suitable for a toy train trip due to weather conditions.

  • How to go:

From Gujarat-Maharashtra to Kolkata:
Travel options include train or air.

  • From Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri:

Options include Darjeeling Mail, Padatik Express, Kanchankanya Express, or Shatabdi Express.

Toy train from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling departs at 10:00 AM.
Booking for the toy train can be done from www.irctc.co.in

Alternatively, the Darjeeling-Ghoom-Darjeeling Joy Ride is available.
Information can be found at www.dhr.in.net/joy-ride.php

  • Accommodation:

Private hotels in Darjeeling are abundant.
Information about them is available online.
The West Bengal Tourism Department also offers lodging options.
For more details, visit https://www.wbtourism.gov.in/destination/district/darjeeling

Conclusion

In summary, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway represents the spirit of discovery and adventure that characterizes the Himalayan region and goes beyond simply being a means of transportation. On a trip on the “toy train,” visitors explore the rich history and culture that characterize this fascinating region of the world in addition to passing through breathtaking scenery. Thus, board the vehicle and set out on an incredible journey through the heart of the Himalayas, where each turn and turn unveils a new chapter in the enduring story of Darjeeling’s attraction.


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