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Darjeeling's tryst with heritage rail history

india Updated: Oct 15, 2011 16:40 IST
Amitava Banerjee
Amitava Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The queen of the hills had a tryst with history through a Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) exhibition.


The exhibition depicted the immense contribution of the DHR in the growth of the Darjeeling district.

American author and humorist Mark Twain during his visit to Darjeeling in February 1896 had taken the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways' Express Trolly service. The 61-year-old Twain had described the journey as the best day of his life.

The Trolly service flagged off on April 1, 1927, using gravity as the power glided down from 7407 to 533 feet. It was projected as a novel experience for holidayers. "No motor risks; no smoke; no dust. Once enjoyed, never forgotten," stated the Billboards.

Organised by the friends' of the DHR along with the Inner Wheel Club of Darjeeling, the exhibition portrayed many such long forgotten facts. In 1866 Darjeeling had 39 established tea gardens. With the arrival of East Bengal railways at Siliguri in 1878 followed by the DHR in 1881, the tea industry had a tremendous boost with easy railway access to the auction houses in Kolkata.

In 1906 came the first bogie coaches. Earlier there were carriages with four wheels. For many years the DHR used to transport both Mountaineers and equipment for the Everest expeditions which started from Darjeeling.

Mails were dispatched in specially constructed coaches. Carriages with red band of colour with letterboxes on the sides for posting letters were a common site. In early 1980s mail was shifted to road transport.

However all this is set to be lost in time. "The condition of the DHR is very disheartening. A lot of damage has been caused by natural disasters including frequent landslips and even the recent earthquake. However the DHR service is deteriorating by the day. The Railways is running it like a railway and not looking after the heritage part " alleged Marilyn Metz of the Friends' of the DHR.

The DHR was inscribed as a World heritage site by the UNESCO in 1999 in recognition of the significant role played by the DHR in the development of the Darjeeling district.

"All world heritage sites have a conservation management plan. The Railways have failed to come up with any such plan. Thus there is no guideline for repairs, renovation and constructions. In order to save money the stone bricks and timber is being replaced by concrete resulting in the loss of the heritage aspect" added Peter Tiller also from the Friends' of the DHR. Recently two heritage water towers were pulled down at Tung station replaced by regular water pipes. "The DHR is 130 years old. Darjeeling and the hill communities grew with the DHR. The DHR belongs to the people. We hope that this exhibition by telling a little of the story of the Railways, will inspire the public to nurture and support the DHR over the coming years" stated Tiller.

The exhibition which was flagged off on Friday at the Rink Mall in Darjeeling will continue till the October 21. Rare photographs, reprints of sketches, placards are on display.

"It is truly an eye opener. DHR enthusiasts all the way from London have taken so much of pain to portray the story of this World Heritage, and its transformation through the ages. We the residents of Darjeeling have failed to nurture our won treasure" stated Mahesh Chettri, a resident.

In the year 1879 work first started on the DHR, then called the Darjeeling Steam Tramways. The stretch from Siliguri to Kurseong was opened on August 23 1880. The Siliguri to Darjeeling track was inaugurated on July 4 1881.

The name of the rail company was then changed to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Company. At present it does a 88 km stretch from Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri. It starts at 398 feet at NJP in the plains and climbs up to 7407 feet at the highest point at Ghoom.