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KANGRA HILL TRAIN: CHUGGING THROUGH THE HILLS

A trip aboard Kangra Hill Train, covering 142-km and stopping at 28 stations, is an offbeat rail experience with a number of interesting places on way

My maiden trip on the Kalka-Simla Toy Train as a 15-year-old was an experience of a lifetime so much so that I have narrated many-a-stories to my two little angels at bedtime. I remember how the “Lilliputan” train cuts around hills, bypasses red-roofed houses, circumnavigates green valleys, burrows into tunnels and comes out all sunny again.

 

Waiting for the Kangra Hill Train…

 

And the first chance I got to take them on a trip, though not on Kalka-Simla train but another similar one, I jumped at it. It was for a family business that I was visiting Pathankot and I could not but resist the idea of giving them an experience aboard the quaint Kangra toy train. The most unique feature of this train that sets it apart from the rest in the country is that the track has been laid out to avoid bends and turns which dizzy passengers. For a trip, we drove up to the last stop of the hill railway, Jogindernagar.

Falling under the Firozpur division of Northern Railway, the Kangra Valley Railway covers 164 km from Pathankot in Punjab to Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh. Along with Kalka-Simla Railway, it has been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The line was planned in May 1926 and commissioned in 1929 with the highest point at Ahju station (4230 ft). Interestingly, the train which starts its journey from Jogindernagar at 0720 hours, only manages to reach Pathankot at 1710 hours, taking around 10 hours to cover all of 164 km, stopping at five stations – Baijnath Paprsola, Palampur, Nagrota, Kangra and Jawalamukhi Road.

When we reached the station, we found it abuzz with locals and tourists. In the absence of reservation facilities on the train, we witnessed most seats in the four coaches occupied. Soon, the train leaves the station, with the sun playing with the colour of the Himalayan slopes, the conifers thickening the stretch between Mangwal and Kangra, fruit-laden orchards perfuming the air, the sudden sinking feel of the sun-burnt Ban Ganga gorge and the deep Kangra chasm revealing the layers of time.

After its first stop at Majheran, the Kangra Hill Train gathered pace. We met Sulah-resident KS Singh who prefers the train over any other means of transport due to the convenience factor. “Ever since I was six, I have been riding this train. It has been the only constant in my life. What’s more, it has been running at the same speed and takes the same number of hours over all these years,” he told us. Most locals get off at the Palampur station. As the track turns single from hereon, one needs to wait anywhere between 15 to 45 minutes. This is time enough for one to visit the Chamunda Devi temple, just 10 km from Palampur Station, on the banks of Baner River. The ancient temple dating back to the 16th century and is dedicated to Chamunda Devi, an aggressive manifestation of Durga. Legend has it that two demons, Chanda and Munda, tried to harass Goddess Ambika. Once, when the goddess was sitting atop a hill, these demons tried troubling her again. She got furious and from her knitted brows came the deadly Goddess Kali, wearing a tiger-skinned sari and a garland of skulls. She then killed both the demons. Upon this, Ambika declared that Kali would be worshipped here as Chamunda Devi. The town now has a tourist-friendly complex around the temple.

The rich and vibrant culture of Kangra can be best witnessed through the grandeur of its temples and art centres. In the 18th century, Raja Sansar Chand Katoch II recaptured the city from the Mughals and extended its boundary to the Kullu Valley. Under his rule, the region prospered and so did art, science and culture including the world-famous Kangra paintings which evolved during this period. The only remnant of the Katoch dynasty’s celebrated past is the Kangra Fort.

The Kangra station is the best way to reach Brajeshwari Devi Temple, just 2 km away. In fact, one should prefer walking over hiring a rickshaw as the road conventionally is inundated with devotees. Locals tells you that the temple was once filled with legendary wealth of diamonds and pearls. It was rebuilt by a Katoch king back in the 11th century and has had quite a multi-faith footprint. Akbar is said to have visited this shrine with Todar Mal while Maharaja Ranjit Singh gilded its dome. An earthquake destroyed the temple in 1905 and was rebuilt in 1920.

Other not-to-be-missed shrines in the region are Jawalamukhi Temple and Chintpurni Devi Temple. However, one should not miss out on visiting the Kangra Fort which beckons you from the railway station itself. One of India’s and probably the world’s oldest forts, Kangra Fort finds itself being first mentioned in Alexander the Great’s war records in 4th century BC. The rulers in Kangra had a few firsts to their credit. One figures out that the rulers could have patented rhinoplasty in their time. The classical cheek flap rhinoplasty was credited to Sushruta and Vaghbat but was later modified by using a rotation flap from the adjacent forehead. This technique was kept a secret for centuries and practised by the royal house of Kangra and the Marathas of Poona.

Apparently, Dinanath Kanghaira, the last hakim of Kangra, had been practising the art of rhinoplasty since the war of Kurukshetra and at Kangra since 1440. In the absence of anaesthesia back then, a patient was given wine to drink. A pattern of the defect was made on a paper after which a handkerchief was tied around his/ her neck to make the veins of the forehead prominent. The flap was marked including the vein on the forehead. The forehead flap was folded in itself to form the inner lining.

The entrance to the fort is through a small courtyard between two gates which were built during the Sikh period as appears from an inscription over the entrance. A long and narrow passage leads up to the top of the fort from here, through the Ahani and Amin darwazas (gates). Both these are attributed to the first Mughal governor of Kangra, Nawab Saif Ali Khan. The other two, Darsani and Jehangir are flanked by the statues of Ganga and Yamuna rivers, along with shrines devoted to Ambika Devi and Lakshmi Narayana Sitala. Once at the top, you get the perfect frame, with the Ban Ganga River meandering through the hills, the Dhauladhar ranges lovingly girding creation and the road winding up the hills at a leisurely pace. On our way back, both my kids shouted at the top of their voices when the train passed through the Daulatpur Tunnel, just like I did when I was a teenager and the Kalka-Simla train had wormed through one of the hundreds en route decades ago. However, the journey aboard Kangra Hill Train was worth every second spent…

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