While India rushes headlong into the future, the Kangra Valley Railway remains suspended in the past, a branch line back to a quieter, gentler India.
The little train sways through the fertile valley beside fields of wheat turning from green to gold. Leaning out the window I can almost touch the ears of grain with outstretched fingers. My fellow passengers are silent, watching the early morning mist as it slowly lifts from the blue hills.
I sit back in my seat, turning the ticket over in my hands. It is a small piece of stiff cardboard, only an inch-and-a-half long. It cost 19 rupees, the equivalent of about 20 cents. Back in modern India, paper tickets are discharged from computers and a second class seat will cost hundreds of rupees.
The guard leans out the doorway to watch the narrow-gauge engine curve around the track in front. He tells me they tried to introduce a fancy tourist train – the Kangra Queen – on this line in 2002. It was withdrawn after a few months because of lack of patronage. In this valley people take their time. It takes all of a long day for the train to travel the 164 kilometres from Jogindernagar to Pathankot.
After only an hour we stop at Baijnath Paprola and all the other passengers pile off the train and disappear. Noticing my confusion, a briefcase-carrying gentleman with a long woollen waistcoat explains the train will stop for one-and-a-half hours for everyone to get breakfast. On the village street a gracious Sikh gentleman cooks up delicious paranthas, floury and oniony. He spreads old newspaper pages in place of plates. With a drink the whole meal comes to 25 cents.
Back on the move, the fertile valley is farmed using methods unchanged over centuries. A woman in an apricot-coloured sari cuts grain with long sweeps of her scythe. The train rattles over a bridge and beside the river women have hung drying clothes and bedding on every available rock and bush. Passing through a village of slate-roofed cottages, women are spreading watered-down cow dung in their backyards. This will dry to a smooth hard surface on which they thresh the harvested grain.
For the first time I can see the snowy foothills of the Himalayas, the Dhauladhar mountain range, hazy in the distance. There is a 19th century tea plantation at Palumpur and a ruined thousand-year-old Rajput fort at Kangra. But really, I’d rather just sit on the train and watch the landscape unfold in front of me.
My new friend with the briefcase is going to visit his daughter in Palumpur. With easy resignation he explains the timetable is only loosely followed. The pace of the journey has a kind of style about it. The Kangra Valley is a province that refuses to admit the future that the rest of India is fervently embracing. When this line was built in 1929, the British ruled India and Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement was slowly building momentum.
The train makes 32 official stops, in other words at every village along the way. This is a train for local people and there is no such thing as express. The tiny wooden stations are decorated with wooden gingerbread and shaded by Jacaranda trees. The timetable is permanently painted on the wall; with only one train per day in each direction there is no need for a new-fangled departures board. A white cow lies placidly on the track in front of the train. We will wait for it to move on.
Many of the stops are not stations but simply ‘halts’; the one at Majhran Himachal is just an unmanned hut in the middle of a mango orchard. A few picnickers are waiting for the train, grasping baskets and fishing rods. The line rises on a gentle gradient through thick pine forest, then meadows and terraced fields. Near Samloti there is a gypsy camp and naked children run and jump, waving at the train.
The antique signalling system is unchanged since the line was built. When the train is due, the stationmaster marches out to the platform, very serious in his olive-coloured uniform. He leans forward ever so slightly as the train pulls in, taking the key from the guard hanging out the window. Then he marches to his signal box to unlock the points which will allow us to continue.
At Nagrota a crowd of dignified saddhus get on the train and the carriage begins to look like a dusty flower garden with their orange robes. They are following a pilgrimage route to the temples at Kangra and Chamundi Devi. On this line there are no chai-wallahs, no food-sellers, and no beggars. The only interruption to our peaceful progress is a group of squabbling monkeys waiting impatiently on the platform at Sulah.
I am the novelty passenger on the train today. Men, women and children stare at my pale freckly skin. The young men sitting next to me are interested in my notes. They don’t speak English but eagerly help me with the spellings of the village names. By mid-afternoon we are all dosing comfortably in the heat. An old man in a green and orange Kullu cap lies asleep on a bench, holding his chin in his hand as though deep in thought.
The train sweeps across high viaducts across a river valley, crossing long iron bridges over deep gorges and switch-backing up steep ridges. Through a tall avenue of deodar trees we come to Dalhousie Rd. A scarlet-robed saddhu works a pump-handle drinking fountain on the platform for all who are thirsty. We pick up pace as we descend to the plains. It is dark now; I lean out the window on a curve and the lights of the rear carriages are dimly visible.
Pulling into Pathankot, our train is suddenly dwarfed by modern locomotives and full sized platforms. Luckily there is a baby siding in which our toy train can come to rest. Stepping onto the crowded concourse, I am quickly spewed out into the street and thrust into the hurly-burly that is modern India. Instantly, I am surrounded by a swarm of auto-rickshaw drivers and hotel touts. I am not just a passenger anymore, I am an opportunity and the Kangra Valley seems like a paradisiacal dream.
By Natasha von Geldern
Planning a trip on the Kangra Valley Railway
The Kangra Valley Railway runs two services per 24 hours from each end of the line (Pathankot and Jogindernagar). One departs at 7:30am and the other runs overnight.
The best time to go is October to June.
How to get there
By air: The nearest airport is at Gaggal, 15 km from Dharamsala. Indian Airlines operates flights from New Delhi on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
By rail: The nearest major station is at Pathankot and you can get fast trains here from New Delhi every day.
By road: There are direct buses and taxis from New Delhi. You can also get a bus from Simla to Jogindernagar.