The joy of travelling, they say, is not where you go, but how you get there. There are some journeys of which this is truer than others. The Kangra Railway is one of them.
It starts in Pathankot, a less than inspiring cantonment town in Punjab, and ends in Jogindernagar, 164 kilometres away in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley. Ever wanted to visit Jogindernagar? No? That’s not particularly surprising. The main object of interest in Jogindernagar is its twin hydroelectric power stations, guarded by Lee Enfield toting Punjab State Electricity Board policemen. Jogindernagar doesn’t come at the top of too many tourists’ to do lists.
Higher on that list might come Jawalamukhi Temple, with its permanent flame issuing mysteriously from the earth. Or Kangra’s Brijreshwari Devi Mandir, one of the Shaktipeeth temples. Or the twelfth century Shiva temple at Baijnath, with its exquisite stone carvings. But you probably wouldn’t bother with the railway if you just wanted to see the temples. Jawalamukhi is a 30-kilometre ride from Jawalamukhi Road station, and Kangra Mandir is about five kilometres from the station which bears its name. You can get to Chamunda temple from Chamunda Marg station, but it’s another long trek.
There’s the Dalai Lama’s temple and the Tibetan community at McLeod Ganj, 27 kilometres from Kangra, and a clutch of Tibetan monasteries hidden in the forest as you travel further east. But from the railway they’re generally no more than flashes of gold in the distance.
There’s something almost accidental about the Kangra Railway. It was one of the last narrow gauge lines to be built in India, and it’s one of the least known. It doesn’t service any particular hill station, and its biggest station, Palampur Himachal, is ten kilometres from Palampur town. Its main customers are local villagers, and it doesn’t boast many spectacular tunnels or bridges. It’s just kind of there. Part of the landscape, you could say. But what a landscape.
Built in the 1920s to ferry heavy equipment to the dam site, the line might not exist if the engineers had been a bit more conscientious about their cost projections. In the end, it cost Rs 296 lakhs, more than double the original budget of 134 lakhs. It’s survived other threats since then. In the 1940s, half of the line was torn up, its iron shipped off to help with the war effort. It was rebuilt after the war and reopened in 1954 by then Railways Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Then, in the 1970s, a 25 kilometre section of the line was realigned when the massive Pong Reservoir was created. Nowadays the reservoir is one of the most important winter nesting sites for birds in northern India. When the water is high, it’s a blinding sea of light to the south as the train begins its climb out of the plains. When the water is low, the alignment of the old railway reveals itself amid the mudflats, echoing the ghostly ruin of a temple which has also been partly engulfed.
There’s also something humble about this railway. Unlike its celebrated cousin to the east, the Kalka-Shimla Railway, the Kangra Railway wasn’t built to shuttle an imperial elite to a summer capital. It lacks the lacy frills and petticoat preciousness of its famous relative, the stone tunnels and arched bridges and twee little stations that delight tourists on the Kalka-Shimla line to this day. There’s only one first class carriage on the Kangra Railway, and you can never be quite sure which train it’s going to be attached to. Yet it’s a living museum of early twentieth century technology, lovingly maintained by a dedicated staff.
There’s something accidental about the railway, but something organic as well. Most of its passengers are villagers using the service because it’s cheaper than the bus. The chances are that there won’t be a first class car anyway, so you probably won’t even have the option of paying more.
The name sums up the attitude. The thing about the Kangra railway is that it doesn’t seek to impose itself on the landscape. The line seems to be part of the Kangra landscape. It doesn’t cut through it, it complements it. And the Kangra landscape is one of the finest in India.
Think deep gorges, feathery pine forests and fields of mustard basking yellow in the sun. Think terraced fields shelving gently across valleys, rippling with wheat. Think undulating tea gardens shaded by spreading trees. Think jade green rivers and silver streams. Think mud walled farmhouses distempered in ochre and green. Think ears of corn drying on slate roofs. Think rock-strewn riverbeds echoing the crash and rattle of the bogies. Think cherry trees blossoming in swatches of pink. Picture the red flash of headscarves in a sea of green as women tend glistening fields of paddy. Then imagine, every once in a while, the dark green flanks of oak and deodar clad hillsides separating to reveal the serrated line of the Dhauladhar flashing snowy white teeth in the distance.
The railway slips past all this with a kind of nonchalance, a confidence that takes all this beauty for granted. There’s no need to add to it; it’s enough just to be part of it.
At Haripur Guler you pass the ruins of a fort which was once capital of an important principality, a major sponsor of the Kangra school of miniature painting. Struggle up the hill and slash your way through the creepers and you will find crumbling royal galleries and chambers, and from the top you look across the river to an abandoned royal gateway, with massive deities carved into its sides. But look across at the fort from the train, and you almost miss it. Just a brooding shape on top of a hill, suggesting a long gone potency.
It’s the same when you pass Kangra. The ancient fort, one of the oldest in India, was known for its almost unassailable position atop massive cliffs where a river bends in a great horseshoe. The fort is broken now, shattered by an earthquake which rocked the valley in 1905. Pass it at night and you see its walls floodlit and ghostly amid the looming hills. Climb it at sunset and be delighted by the patchwork fields across the gorge, by the green parrots flitting in threes and fours as they feast on insects above the treetops, and by the pink of the dying sun setting the Dhauladhar ablaze.
The train rattles on towards stations like Palampur Himachal, all salmon blush walls and blazing poinsettia and immaculate platforms amid a trim world of tea bushes. Other stations are little more than a shed by the tracks. At Baijnath Paprola, clumps of sadhus smoke chillums and wave their sticks at photographers, and the train begins its final uphill labour towards Jogindernager, past curling fronds of bamboo and hazy forested hills.
And did someone say there’s nothing to see in Jogindernagar, except a power plant? Well, that’s not strictly true. If you run the gauntlet of the Punjabi policemen, and promise you won’t take any photos, and go and see the chief engineer and ask him nicely, he may let you take a ride on the cableway that still ferries maintenance crews and villagers and the occasional piece of equipment up the mountain. You sit facing backwards, hanging on for dear life as the ancient timber and iron hulk of the carriage is hauled up an increasingly steep mountainside, the Kangra valley dropping further beneath your feet with every creaking strain of the cable.
At the top, nearly two hours later, the cable car connects to another railway, an abandoned one this time. You trudge along it for five slightly breathless kilometres through chill air and pine forest, not quite able to conjure the image of a train at this altitude. Finally you cross a pass where, all of a sudden, the snow capped mountains are right in front of you. The abandoned railway ends where another cable car connects to the dam, far below at Barot. You spend the night in a hospitable village tucked away in the forest, where the women dress in Kullu shawls and the people worship devtas.
You wake to a crisp, sundrenched morning and hike down to the dam which, somehow satisfyingly, is a drab, utilitarian structure. And finally, a bus takes you back to Jogindernagar, riding 60 kilometres on the roof with the rugged valley all around you and the brisk air in your lungs. Suddenly the world opens up and you’re in Kangra again, ready for the ride back.
Pathankot lies on the main line between Delhi and Jammu.
What to see & do
Pong Wetland: The huge area flooded by Pong Dam is extraordinarily rich birdwatching territory, with over 400 species and a bird population of 70,000-150,000 during the winter nesting season. Pong Wetland can be reached by taxi from Nagrota Surian or Guler stations.
Haripur Guler: Ancient fort, temple, tank and baoli. Two kilometres from Guler station.
Jawalamukhi: The famous temple at Jawalamukhi is built over a permanent flame which issues from the earth. Devotees believe the flame is a manifestation of the goddess Jawalamukhi while more sceptical types put it down to subterranean gases. Jawalamukhi is a 30km taxi ride from Jawalamukhi Road station.
Kangra: Kangra town is home to the Brajeshwari Devi temple, while nearby old Kangra is dominated by Kangra Fort, an ASI site. Nominally the home of the Kangra rajas, the fort was taken at different times in history by Mahmood of Ghazni, Jehangir, and Ranjit Singh. Kangra is a 5km taxi ride from Kangra station.
Dharamsala: The home of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the exiled Tibetan community is at McLeod Ganj, or upper Dharamsala. Sights in the area include the Dalai Lama’s temple, the Norbulingka Institute, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute and the Tibet Museum.
Andretta: A former artists’ community, Andretta is now most famous for its pottery. Access from Panchrukhi station.
Tashi Jong: A Tibetan monastery relocated to India, famous for its arts, crafts and spectacular lama dances in April; 4km from Baijnath Paprola.
Baijnath: 12th-century Shiva temple with stunning sculpture.
Bir: Tibetan community famous for being the location for the film The Cup. Four large monasteries and a recently built Buddhist college can be found here.
Jogindernagar: Take the cable car to the top of the mountain for a spectacular view and first-hand experience of an engineering oddity.
When to go
The Kangra Railway is best avoided in monsoon, when rains cause delays and interrupt views. March-May and October-December are the best months.