Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Bucket lists are now pins on a map, and Darjeeling railway station definitely had a pin on it. We planned our first walk through Darjeeling to take it in. The narrow gauge, 610 mm, “Toy Train” between Siliguri and Darjeeling was inaugurated in 1881, and was an immediate hit. It became possible to go from Kolkata to Darjeeling by train in a day. A hundred and forty years later, it has become a romantic thing, helped by the succession of Bollywood hits set around it. When I looked I found a fairly long list, from Jab pyaar kisi se hota hai (1961, Dev Anand and Asha Parekh), Aaradhna (1969, Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore), to more recent movies like Parineeta (2005, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan) and Barfi (2012, Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra). Not only is the station charming, it also has one of the best views of Kanchenjunga floating over the town. A tiny locomotive was working up a head of steam, and everyone on the platform queued up for selfies against it. A train came in while we were in the station, and we exited with the crowd. We worked up quite an appetite during the uphill walk back to Mall Road.

By all accounts the construction of the railway line from Siliguri to Darjeeling (80 Kms and a rise of 2048 meters) cost at least as many lives per kilometer as the infamous Burma Railway. When it was started, after the completion of a railway line joining Kolkata to Siliguri in 1878, deaths were so frequent that labourers left their jobs. The Bengal Government conscripted famine relief recipients to work on it, according to Mary H. Avery in her book on Darjeeling. Later, its upkeep required the use of a captive work force of sappers from the army. Unlike the 20th century Japanese wartime railway, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remains in use and has been inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list. It would be good if the various commemorative plaques mention its cost in human lives.

I tried to get photos of the train chugging along the road at various times. It moves only a little faster than walking pace, but often much faster than the traffic on Hill Cart Road. I finally succeeded in taking an uninterrupted video clip only as we drove out of Darjeeling: literally the last minute. We’d stopped for a last tea, a last look at the hills, and there it was, the train whistling its way past us.