Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Tale of two Hill Stations

The Tale of two Hill Stations


I took the afternoon train from Delhi, it was crowded and even in the dying hours of the day the temperature for a ‘Brit` was unbearably hot and humid. Despite arriving in Kalka and it being located at the base of the Himalaya, it seemed little or no cooler. I could only imagine what it must have been like back in the 1800s for all those British East India Company officials, soldiers and workers struggling to exist in the steamy humidity on the Indian plains with little chance of escape from the hot summer conditions. Kalka is the end of the main railway line going north and at one time this was also perceived as being the end of the apparent civilisation of the British realm, beyond which progress was difficult, arduous and often dangerous. At Kalka, along with my travelling companion, Panigrahi, I transferred to a taxi and it seemed an eternity before we began to gain altitude on the road to Shimla, the old British Hill Station, located in what is now known as Himachal Pradesh. Back in 1817 Shimla was described as "a middling-sized village where a fakir is situated to give water to the travellers". By the time we arrived it was considerably cooler than it had been on the plains and it was obvious why the accounts of the ‘Britain-like` climate soon spread to the steamy lowlands attracting several British officers and senior civil servants into the vicinity. From 1817 and over the course of the next few years, the town received regular visits from the Governor Generals and Commanders-in-Chief of British India all taking advantage of the more temperate climate. A number of young British officers started visiting the area to socialise with the upper classes and they were followed by ladies often looking for marriage alliances. Shimla gained the reputation as a hill station famous for balls, parties and other festivities and subsequently residential schools for pupils from upper-class families were established nearby.



By the late 1830s, the town also became a centre for theatre and art exhibitions. As the population increased, a number of bungalows were built and a big bazaar was established with Indian businessmen arriving in the area, mainly from the indigenous communities, to cater to the needs of the growing European population. The foundations of Christ Church were laid at the centre of the European community and several roads were widened along with the construction of other facilities being completed. By 1881 the sparse settlement had grown to a community of 1,141 houses.

By the late 1830s, the town also became a centre for theatre and art exhibitions. As the population increased, a number of bungalows were built and a big bazaar was established with Indian businessmen arriving in the area, mainly from the indigenous communities, to cater to the needs of the growing European population. The foundations of Christ Church were laid at the centre of the European community and several roads were widened along with the construction of other facilities being completed. By 1881 the sparse settlement had grown to a community of 1,141 houses.



In 1828 and to the north east of British India, in the region that was under the control of the Chogyal of Sikkim, two British officers from the East India Company stayed in Darjeeling for six days while on their way to the Nepal-Sikkim border to try to resolve an ongoing border conflict with Nepal. It was at that time that it was suggested that the region was suitable as a site for a sanatorium for British soldiers. The officers noted that "the old Goorka station called Dorjeling was populated by a 100 souls of Lepchas”, a local indigenous ethnic group. The East India Company followed up the suggestion and subsequently, in 1835, a lease was negotiated for the land with the Chogyal of Sikkim. As with Shimla the temperate climate led to Darjeeling’s development as a hill station for British residents seeking to escape the summer heat of the plains. The development of Darjeeling as a sanatorium and health resort proceeded briskly and the efforts to develop the station attracted many Nepalese immigrants to cultivate the slopes and stimulate trade. As a result there was a rapid hundredfold increase in the population of Darjeeling between 1835 and 1849. The first road connecting the town with the plains was constructed and in 1848 and a military depot was set up for British soldiers. The commercial cultivation of tea in the district began in 1856 and induced a number of British planters to settle there. Schools and welfare centres for the British residents were then constructed, laying the foundation for Darjeeling's notability as a centre of education. Many Nepalese workers were recruited into senior positions on the plantations and they intern ‘invited’ others from Nepal to work on the plantations.



Notoriously in 1849, the British East India Company director and the famous explorer and botanist, Joseph Dalton Hooker was imprisoned in the region by the Sikkim governor. A force was dispatched from the East India Company to free them, however friction continued between the Company and the Sikkim authorities that resulted in the annexation of the territory by the British in 1850 but by then Darjeeling had taken the shape and quaintness that it has retained until this day.

Meanwhile in Shimla a fire cleared much of the area known as the ‘Upper Bazaar’, an area where the native Indian population lived, nowadays this is known as the Ridge. This clearance allowed the planning of the eastern end of the Ridge to become the centre of the European community based around the church but this forced the local people to move down the hillside and to establish the Middle and Lower Bazaars on the terraces descending the steep slopes from the Ridge. The Upper Bazaar was levelled and the town hall was built along with many other facilities such as the library and theatre, as well as offices for the police, military volunteers and for the municipal administration.



During the "Hot Weather", Shimla became the District Headquarters, the summer capital of the regional Government. The arrival of many local government officers and members of the British community also brought with them many British wives and daughters of the men who remained on the plains, together these people formed the ‘Shimla Upper Class’ society. The fact that it had an ideal climate and was thus a desirable location in which to live together with it having limited accommodation made it a very expensive town to reside in. Each year, during the summer months, more British soldiers, merchants and civil servants moved there to escape from the heat in the Indo - Gangetic Plain. The presence of many bachelors and unattached men, as well as the many women passing the days of hot sultry weather gave Shimla a reputation for adultery, or at least gossip about adultery; as Rudyard Kipling describes; a place of "frivolity, gossip and intrigue".



The opening of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1881 preceded the Shimla railway by 22 years. An old cart road wound its way up the hills to Darjeeling from Siriguri and the main guage rail terminal down on the plains.

Under the British rule both Shimla and Darjeeling were to receive a further boost to their economic development in the form of the construction of two narrow gauge railways. This obviously made both towns more accessible and popular as ‘hot weather’ retreats not only for the British but also for the wealthy local people from the plains. Both communities still affectionately refer to their rail system as the ‘The Toy Train’.




Initially the alignment of the rail track followed `Hill Cart Road’ however in certain sections it became apparent that the steepness of the road was more than the locomotives could easily manage so four zigzags were constructed to ease the gradient in the overall eighty-eight kilometre length of the track. The most famous of these is the Batasia Loop where the train now stops for ten minutes. The track makes a loop, depending in which direction you are travelling it either passes under, or over its self forming a circle which now contains a wonderfully manicured garden within which stands a war memorial to the fallen Gorkha war heroes, the ten minute stop allows passengers to visit the garden and war memorial. Today the railway still very much follows the line of the old road, now a much improved and surfaced facility but it still comes as a surprise to the ill informed traveller to be moving in very close proximity to the little engine and carriages.






You can almost see what the passengers in the other mode of transport are reading you are so close. The view across Darjeeling to the snow peaks of Kangchenjunga is breath taking with Kangchenjunga, once thought to be the highest mountain in the world, shimmering on the distant horizon with, at sunrise, the summit ridge glowing golden yellow and seeming detached from earth like a spider’s web floating in the heavens. This mountain more than any other has attracted just about every well known practitioner from the artistic genres, from the Victorian artists, poets, writers and scholars right through to the present day. With the addition of the Darjeeling Toy Train the town possibly gave rise to the first Himalayan mountain mass tourism resort with many people arriving from many other areas and indeed parts of the world to gaze upon Kangchenjunga’s majestic lofty heights. Kangchenjunga was first climbed by two British mountaineers in 1955, the late George Band and Joe Brown and is the only 8,000m mountain to have had a truly British first ascent for although the successful Everest expedition was British the summit climbers were from Nepal and New Zealand.

During World War II, the Darjeeling railway played a vital role transporting military personnel and supplies to the numerous camps around the Ghum region. The railway was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.




The Kalka-Shimla narrow gauged railway, opened in 1903 and with more than 806 bridges, 103 tunnels and over ninety-six kilometres in length and came to be known as the "British Jewel of the Orient". Today nearly all the tunnels, viaducts and embankments are in as good a condition as they were the day they were built.

The single track weaves its way between the pine trees through which you often get glimpses of the forested ridges stretching down into the valleys. As the warm air rises patches of mist suddenly form and for a few seconds the temperature drops and the views are gone. The carriages have their doors locked back in the open position allowing the smells of the countryside and small communities to drift in, so hanging out and taking pictures is all part of the fun. The trains occasionally stop at various stations allowing passengers to hop on and off to pick up snacks and chai, it is all very casual until the train driver gives two sharp blasts on the whistle at which point



passengers scurry to the nearest door hoping it is the correct one to their carriage. Throughout the journey the train, moving at a slow speed, makes that now nostalgic ‘clickity-clack’ sound as it runs across the joints in the rails, there was never a dull moment with monkeys, live stock and people just wandering along the track. The seats are very upright and hard but with a bit of creative thinking you can arrange a bit of padding using a rucksack. Six hours after setting off from the quaint sleepy hill station the toy train pulled into bustling, hot and steamy Kalka to grind to a halt next to its big brother that, in my case, was going to take me the rest of the way to Delhi.

In 2008, the Shimla Toy train became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mountain Railways of India.

Today an evening stroll down The Mall in Darjeeling or along The Ridge in Shimla with the sun setting behind the distant hills is a stroll back in time, from Darjeeling on a clear day Kangchenjunga dominates the distant skyline while in Shimla it’s the mountains of Kullu. Both areas are pedestrian walk ways and with frequent signs referring to Kendal, Chislehurst, Windermere, Viceregal Lodge, Auckland House, together with the old red post boxes, the steep pitched roofs and the churches, Town Hall and Gaiety Theatre it’s hard to ignore the British ancestry and heritage of the two Hill Stations. Both town centres represent the ‘upper crust’ of their population while the local traders remain with their businesses located down side streets and the lower bazaars where bargains can still be found and bartered for, it all adds to the ambience and romance of the location.



Although the Darjeeling railway has fierce competition from a bus service the Shimla train provides a good alternative to a tiresome road journey. Stopping frequently at several stations along the route there is chance to jump off to stretch the legs and wander about, the infrastructure is still authentic Victorian Railway style and as functional as it was on the day it was installed nearly 114 years ago. However, once those two shrill whistle blasts are heard, hop aboard, although the train moves slowly running along the track trying to jump aboard is not to be recommended!

With their old engines, carriages, technical rail apparatus and with modern day passengers still being served by the Victorian trolley transport it all adds to the experience. A visit to either Shimla or Darjeeling will provide a fascinating insight not only into the history of the British in these parts of India but also to the ardent railway enthusiasts as well.

It is always beneficial to have a Mr Fixit with you, plus if you get the right person you will learn so much more about the railways than you will from reading guide books of searching the internet. Mr Mr Fixit was Pani-Grahi an gentleman with a wealth of knowledge.














































































































































































































































































































































































































































































               

The Tale of two Hill Stations

The Tale of two Hill Stations I took the afternoon train from Delhi, it was crowded and even in the dying hours of the day the temper...