Note: This account was a result of a piece meant for the Mint Newspaper. A slightly edited version of it appeared on Saturday 4th April 2015. Click here to read the piece online. The narrative covers two journeys, the first from 2009 and a second one made in Jan 2015.
“That looks like a flying carpet!” my cousin Rishi had exclaimed. He had pointed at the framed photograph on my living room wall. Memories of that 11 hour journey from 2009 came flooding back.
It was still dark on an early March morning when the 6:30 AM Gwalior – Sheopur Kalan passenger trundled out of the narrow gauge platform of Gwalior station. The tiny train trundled alongside the early morning traffic of milk vans, tongas and long nosed three wheeled Tempos of Gwalior’s old quarter. The train encircled the massive Gopachal hill, atop which sits the massive Gwalior Fort. I could actually lean out and pluck flowers from someone’s backyard from the train.
Built between 1895 and 1909 by the Scindia rulers, the Gwalior Light Railway was a network of railways that covered the farthest reaches of their domains. Three lines radiated from their seat of power at Gwalior and headed towards Shivpuri (90km to the South West), Sheopur (200km to the West) and Bhind (130km to the North East). Many passenger trains, mixed trains and freight trains ran along these lines each day. In addition, the Maharaja’s personal train started right from the front porch of his palace. He even had special trains run daily to bring in fresh grass for his stables from the forests along the Chambal’s banks.
Of this network, only the Sheopur branch remains today – the other two having fallen prey to the Indian Railways’ drive to cover the country with Broad Gauge trains. At 200 km, this is the longest operating section of railway on the 2’ wide narrow gauge anywhere in the world. The Indian Railways preserved this line and submitted it for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list, a status enjoyed only by the mountain railways in Simla, Darjeeling and Ooty.
Trains had fascinated me from childhood. My earliest memories were of cross country train trips each summer to visit my grandparents. I would stay glued to train windows – learning station names and locomotive types. I would memorize time tables. Over the years, I ended up travelling on all sorts of trains to the furthest corners of the country – often preferring slow trains to faster ones, for that was the best way of learning more about the region and its people. As a lover of all things railway-related, I wanted to leave no train experience untried. So I made it a point to travel on as many meter and narrow gauge train routes before they were lost forever.
I visited the toy trains of the hill stations, where I savoured their famous saloon cars, first class cabins and stories handed down from the days of the British who had built these lines to escape the harsh Indian summer. My interest in the Gwalior Railways was piqued whilst reading the accounts of this line by Dr. Ian Manning, an Australian who taught in India in the 1960s and travelled extensively by the Railways. The Gwalior Railways were much more basic in comparison with the mountain trains, as these were meant for the common folk. I wanted to see how these slow trains had survived and continued in dizzying speed of 21st century living. This was what had brought me to Gwalior.
As my train left Gwalior town behind, it ran parallel to the National Highway 3 running from Bombay to Agra. Trucks, tempos, and buses scampered past us. At one point, I could see the broad gauge main line, where trains between Agra and Jhansi clock more than 120 kmph. My train trundled on, capped by a maximum speed of 35 kmph.
35 kmph seemed to be a safe speed for passengers who hung on to each door. At Ghosipura, the second station on the way, the train had become so crowded that it was impossible to stay within the coaches and breathe.
I decided then that the way to escape from the stuffiness was to do as the locals did – to climb to the train’s roof. I always wanted to travel on the roof of a train. The unrestricted view from the top and the boyish thrill of bending rules made the decision to climb fairly easy. But as they say, making it to the top was never going to be easy – I had to use the various coupling appendages between coaches as ladders and scramble to the roof. Once I made it, I realized that the roof wasn’t any less crowded. Every square inch was occupied by people, luggage, and even goats and pet dogs. From my vantage point on the roof, the train ahead of and behind me looked like a floating strip of humanity. It was a photograph of this image that I’d placed on my house’s wall that had inspired the comparison with a flying carpet.
Past the smoke belching factories of Bamour, 20 kms from Gwalior the seven coach train turned west and into the Chambal heartland. From here on, I saw miles on miles of fields or scrub forest – with no industry or major city nearby to speak of.
I met Ashok Sikarwar, a school teacher in Gwalior on his way home to Birpur, who gave me a quick lesson in local economy. “From Bamour onwards for 200 km till the Rajasthan border, there is no industry whatsoever. There used to be a sugar factory in Kailaras but that too shut down a few years ago. Our ancestors farmed the land or went to Morena or Lashkar (former citadel of Gwalior) for work. Many hundred years later – we continue to do the same. This seems to be the land India forgot.”
For the next 30 odd kilometers we lurched through rough, stony country with only bramble and thorn for vegetation. It was only at Sumaoli did I see fields and houses. The station’s crowded refreshment stall’s patrons promptly approached the train, climbed atop the roof, and managed to find space where I thought there was none.
The government had built an extensive network of canals to channel the Chambal’s plentiful water to the fields of Morena plains, said Giriraj, who owns a jaggery plant in Sabalgarh. “The Chambal canals are the lifeblood of the region. We grow 2-3 crops a year comprising wheat, sugarcane and mustard among others. In the rocky terrain you otherwise need to bore to depths exceeding 300ft for ground water, but now its water all year round.” Unending fields of golden wheat and sunflower shimmered around me in the morning sun. We continued westward from Sumaoli past Joura towards Sabalgarh. A state highway ran parallel to us for most of the way – but road traffic was thin.
Sabalgarh was also the biggest town en route. The train halted here for lunch – and had a crossing with its opposite number from Sheopur. The twenty minute halt allowed me to walk outside the station in search of nourishment. In a lane in front of the station was Agarwal Nashta Corner. The crowd waiting to get its hands on the piping hot samosas coming straight from the frying pan convinced me to try them out. One bite and the crowds explained themselves – these were quite simply the best samosas I had eaten anywhere – they were soft but crisp, spicy but flavourful. When I accosted ‘Agarwal sahib’ for the secret of his recipe – he said ‘lagan aur anubhav’ – dedication and experience.
On a subsequent trip on this train route, I would learn that Agarwal ji sadly had passed away, and his son had taken over from him. While the samosas at Sabalgarh were still as good – the issues faced by the locals were the same as well. The tiny trains simply did not have the speed or capacity to meet their needs. The patrons outside the shop were pretty vocal in voicing their desires for the faster broad gauge connectivity. “Only with the Broad Gauge will our region prosper. Right now we waste a day just to travel a hundred kilometers. What hope we do have of reaching the outside world like this?” echoed Ramesh Bhadauriya, a local stringer for a national Hindi daily, while wiping his hands with makeshift napkins fashioned from old newspapers.
I learnt that local politicians like Narendra Singh Tomar and Prabhat Jha had made a great show of promises of getting the line converted to Broad Gauge. They had even travelled on the roof among the common people in full view of the Press. Since travelling on the roof is illegal under Railway law – it earned them a court case from the Railways. The case had been running for a few years now. In the interim Tomar became a Minister in the Prime Minister’s cabinet and Jha a member of Rajya Sabha. Their promise still unfulfilled and perhaps forgotten.
The road and the rail parted ways after Sabalgarh. The road took a south westerly route around the Palpur-Kuno forest to reach Sheopur. For the villages on the northern edge of the forest, the train was the only connection with the rest of the world. At places like Shampur, Raghunathpur or Khojipura, the train brought in people, supplies and letters from the rest of the world. Each train had half a coach dedicated to the Railway Mail Service – and I saw sacks of letters and parcels loaded and unloaded at each important village.
This was also rough country – once the dreaded lair of many an outlaw. While Phoolan Devi and Pan Singh Tomar are household names today, stories of many others are still handed down as folk tales. The dacoits sometimes referred to as ‘Baaghis’ – rebels fighting for a cause.
The ravines stretched as far as the eye could see. Thick clumps of babool and kikar hemmed in the track, pricking anyone who was careless enough to let his feet dangle off the train roof a tad too much. The post noon sun beat down mercilessly, roasting those on the roof and baking those inside. We tried to sit still as much as we could – any shift in position meant painful contact with the searing hot surface. The welded joints of the steel roof weren’t exactly specimens of master craftsmanship either. Jagged edges protruded, and before I knew it, I had a couple of cuts and bruises. The locals knew how to avoid them, but being a novice at the art of riding on train roofs, I could not escape these injuries.
At Birpur, half the passengers on the roof got off and advised me to do so as well. Ahead lay a low bridge across the Kuno River – anyone atop of train’s roof ran the risk of hitting his head against the bridge’s overhead beams. As the rooftop dwellers descended, the crowded coaches became packed even more than they had been. The fact that many people stayed put on the roof, unfazed by the others’ warnings, convinced me to try my luck – and stay on the roof. A couple of men reassured me that it’d all be fine if I lay flat on the roof. As the train approached the trussed bridge, I wasn’t so sure – my ample girth rose far above the lean frames of my co-passengers. I was fearful of being a winner of the year’s Darwin awards. But the locals were right – only a few inches separated my head from the steel girder above, but these few inches were enough clearance. Yet, I couldn’t help hold my breath and shift my gaze between the steel beams above and water below until we’d crossed the 250m long bridge.
At Durgapuri, the entire train emptied out. Some 400 people including the roof riders, the drivers and the guard got off. Just off the platform was a Durga temple and the train did not proceed till the time everyone had paid obeisance to the deity. While the scheduled halt was only two minutes, it was nearly 20 minutes before we proceeded.
It was well past 5 in the evening when we approached Sheopur, I was tired, scalded and bruised – yet this journey was one of the most enjoyable things I had ever done. I wondered if my fellow passengers thought of it the same way. For a coach that was meant to seat 37 usually carried three times number – with no fans, lights or toilets. Hardly anyone shared my enthusiasm for the Narrow Gauge train. Most locals were incredulous that I had come all the way from Delhi just to ride this train.
Ombir Meena, a farmer wondered if he would ever see his town get a proper ‘badi line’ (Broad Gauge) train? “I wonder why the railways are not providing us with the proper trains we deserve. This old line has outlived its purpose and should be replaced with the badi line soon.”
Sheopur was neither on any tourist’s guidebook nor a hot investment destination – it existed in a time warp in a little known, little heard part of India. It had the inexplicable charm of an end of the line station. A sort of a frontier town of yore. I counted more camel carts than cars outside the station.
I decided to explore the town a little more. Amin, a local lad who I had met on the train pointed me to the fort, a little over a mile from the station. I had chai and pakodi (lentil fritters) at a shop near the station and took an auto and escaped the chaos of its main bazaar for the solitude of the fort.
Local boys played cricket in the main square. The Archaeological Survey of India clerk manning the office was clearly displeased by the fact that I was asking far too many questions about the town’s history. Not much is known about the origin of the fort any way, except that it dates back at least to the 10th century AD and was held by famous kings such as Hammir of Ranthambhore (just 70km from Sheopur), Alla-uddin Khilji before the Scindias came to rule these parts.
I sauntered through the badly plastered halls open for display and the expected showcase of some forgotten Maharaja’s arms and armour. I climbed up a staircase – and walked into a deserted turret.
I stood in silence and watched the Sip River flowing quietly by. Ahead of me, a flutter of bats took flight and coasted away into the evening sky.