The UNESCO Mountain Railways of India

National Geographic recently did a really cool piece on the historic Indian mountain railways built by the British so their colonial leaders could escape the oppressive Indian heat. You can find the link here but I found the article a little to brief for my liking. It talks about a lot about the specifics of building the railroads and how ahead of its time construction was. 

But why are some scenic railways that catered to British viceroys a UNESCO Heritage Site? Why were these Hill Station towns so important that the British would spend so much time, effort and money to build railroads to them? To answer these questions we need to dive into the importance and creation of the Hill Stations and then the history of the railroads themselves. 

Nat. Geo. mentions that the Hill Stations were meant to allow British overseers to escape the heat but they failed to emphasize the political importance of these summer capitals for the vast bureaucratic infrastructure of the British Raj. Post-independence these stations have lost their political power to New Delhi but many have become scenic resort towns. There were actually 80 Hill Stations throughout the empire, most founded by the British, but several independently created by loyal Indian princes. They were scattered across India but the vast majority were located in the Uttarkhand, Kerala, and Himachal Pradesh. Many of these stations were small towns that functioned as little more than resorts then and now for British officials to retreat to from the large coastal and river cities. Some became impressive political centers and large cities in their own right. The grandest Hill Station, Shimla, continues to function as the state capital of Himachal Pradesh.


View of modern day Shimla. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

The British took the area from the Nepalese in the 1810’s and in subsequent decades more and more British officers built homes and spent vacation time there. In 1863 the Viceroy of India John Lawrence moved the summer capital from Murree (in modern day Pakistan) to Shimla and the town quickly developed a reputation as a political center, resort town, as well as a sort of 29th Century Indian Las Vegas. The annual convergence of young single men on vacation brought all the vices one would naturally expect. Rudyard Kipling would state in a letter that Shimla was known for “frivolity, gossip and intrigue”.


The Viceregal Lodge or Rashtrapati Niwas. Photo by Sameer Ahmed

The importance and populaity of Shimla brought about the construction of the Kalka-Shimla Railway in 1906.

The Kalka-Shimla Railway was not the first mountain railway constructed by the British though. That honor goes the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway (DHR) which also was the first of these railroads to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The Darjeeling is famous for its narrow gauge railroad which has been dubbed the “toy train” as well as the Wes Anderson film “The Darjeeling Limited” which borrows the name of the railway for the film’s own Indian express train. The DHR snakes its way up Himalayan foothills from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling over 48 miles. The Earl of Ronaldshay wrote about his journey on the DHR in 1920:

“One steps into a railway carriage which might easily be mistaken for a toy, and the whimsical idea seizes hold of one that one has accidentally stumbled into Lilliput. With a noisy fuss out of all proportion to its size the engine gives a jerk— and starts… No special mechanical device such as a rack is employed— unless, indeed, one can so describe the squat and stolid hill-man who sits perched over the forward buffers of the engine and scatters sand on the rails when the wheels of the engine lose their grip of the metals and race, with the noise of a giant spring running down when the control has been removed. Sometimes we cross our own track after completing the circuit of a cone, at others we zigzag backwards and forwards; but always we climb at a steady gradient— so steady that if one embarks in a trolley at Ghum, the highest point on the line, the initial push supplies all the energy necessary to carry one to the bottom.”

This railway takes one up to the town of Darjeeling which lies near the modern border with Nepal. Darjeeling is one of the first major towns one encounters when traveling from India eastward into Northeast India. A narrow strip of land called the Siliguri Cooridor (13 miles wide at its narrowest) wedged between Bhutan and Bangladesh connects these regions with West Bengal and the majority of India. Darjeeling is world renowned for its tea plantations. In 1864 Darjeeling became the summer capital for the Bengal Presidency, a subsection of the larger British Raj centered on Calcutta (Kolkata today). Since independence, Darjeeling and the northeastern frontier of India have been at the forefront of considerable ethnic and political struggle. Despite decades of political activism and occasional unrest, Darjeeling continues to be a top tourist destination in India for the same reasons the British established it as a Hill Station. It’s amicable climate, scenic views, and proximity to the Himalayas have all combined to keep tourism thriving and the town even finds itself a frequent setting for filming of Bollywood movies. Equally important, Darjeeling tea accounts for seven percent of the total Indian tea production.


A tight loop helps a DHR engine climb the terrain while needing to abruptly turn. 

Unlike the Darjeeling and the Shimla railroads which climb the Himalayan foothills in northern India, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway climbs the foothills of the Western Ghats in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is the only rail line in India to use the Abt Rack and Pinion system which helps the engines rapidly ascend at steep grades. The Hill Station destination of Udhagamandalam (known to the British as Ootacamund) lies in the center of the southern tip of the Indian Peninsula. This Station offered respite for British officials based in the south of India who might not have the ability to travel across the subcontinent to reach the distant Himalayas. In 1818 John Sullivan would visit the town and described it saying “it resembles Switzerland, more than any country of Europe… the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley.” Like Shimla and Darjeeling which started as small hamlet towns inhabited by native Indians, the British took a liking to the climate and officials quickly began to establish residences nearby. The town grew quickly as a popular retreat for the British and it was soon declared the summer capital of the southern Madras Presidency within the Raj.


The Nilgiri Hills rise from the plains. Photo by Ambigapathy

While these three railways and their three corresponding destination towns all have their historical importance cemented in Indian history (thus contributing to the railways being labeled UNESCO sites), they were not the only Hill Stations and narrow gauge railways in India. The Matheran Hill Railway is another narrow gauge railroad that utilizes “toy train” locomotives to transport passengers up steep grades to a former Hill Station. The town of Matheran lies in the Western Ghats less than 100 miles from Mumbai and Pune. If Calcutta (Kolkata) dominated British interests in eastern India then Bombay (Mumbai) was the focal point of British interests in western India. Matheran was constructed in the 1850’s specifically as a nearby summer retreat for British officials in Bombay and the Matheran Hill Railway was completed in 1907 to facilitate movement across the 12 mile climb to the resort town. Matheran Hills was considered along with the above three railways for UNESCO status but failed to make the cut. While the railway failed to make the cut its proximity to Mumbai continues to make it a popular tourist destination along with Matheran.


Motor vehicles are not allowed in the eco-sensitive town of Matheran which makes horses as important today as they were a century ago. Photo by Arne Hückelheim

These are just a few of the many Hill Stations and railway systems that crisscross India and have a long history. While these four received UNESCO consideration and three were awarded UNESCO status, it is disingenuous to think these were the most important. Railroads have always been used in India to link a vast subcontinent of varied peoples together. Even today mountain railroads are being renewed and reutilized to bring contested frontiers closer to New Delhi. The Kashmir Railway was originally built by the British in 1897 to connect the distant mountain frontiers to the lower subcontinent. Not only would this extend British influence into Jammu and Kashmir and up into Afghanistan but it would counter Russian ambitions in Central Asia and help defend the Raj in the event of an Anglo-Russian War over Central Asia. Today these old lines are being rebuilt and expanded as a way for India to reinforce its claims on Kashmir against rivals Pakistan and China. The Bilaspur–Mandi–Leh railway is a proposed high elevation route into the Indian Himalayan that would become the highest railway in the world. Even a century removed from the British railroad boom in India, history is repeating itself. While one would hope these railroads never have to serve their strategic purpose in a conflict, one should hope that these routes add to the rich legacy of scenic mountain railroads and enormous engineering feats in the wild highlands of Central Asia.

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