British Jewel of the Orient

The railways in India are truly a legacy of the British Raj. In a previous chapter, we spoke of how Industrialization was a big phase in Europe in the early 19th century. As a result, there were engineering enthusiasts who dreamt of covering the earth with cast iron rails. At the same time, the rising number of factories in England needed uninterrupted supply of raw materials as well as a goods market to sell their end-product. Bharat, which was a colony of the British, served both these purposes and looked like it was in desperate need of a railway plan. So, while the earliest proposal for laying a railway line in India came as early as 1830, it was the time when the British had just begun to find their feet in Simla.


By the time, the proposal to turn Simla into the official Summer Capital of the British Raj came up (1864), the hinterland in the rest of the country had already been connected to the ports via railways. Coming to Simla every year from Calcutta, was a long journey for the English (1000 miles) and then the not-so-bright infrastructure ensured that they remained cut-off from the rest of the country due to the rains in the hill station.

The need to connect Simla to Kalka by rail was strong and the first sketch route regarding the same, along with estimates of traffic and returns, was placed in a Delhi Gazette in 1847. However, the English were aware that cutting through the mountains wouldn’t be an easy task. They were looking at laying a track from 2512 feet to around 7000 feet. It was tough. And so, the Simla-Kalka railway happened to be the most surveyed line ever, with the first survey in 1884 followed by another one in 1885. A project report was then submitted in the year 1887 after which lengthy debates took place. These debates were mostly to decide the use of rack system or adhesion line. Finally, the judgement was passed in favour of a 68-mile-long adhesion line.

But it wasn’t before 1898 that a contract was signed between the Secretary of State and the Delhi-Ambala-Kalka Railway company. It was decided that the company would take no financial aid from the government for the construction of the track. In turn, the land would be provided to the company free of cost. The estimated cost of the project was rupees 86,78,500. And so, the construction began in the year 1898, headed by the Chief Engineer, Mr H S Harington.

There were many interesting events that happened during the construction of the railway line. It was decided that a number of tunnels would have to be constructed, cutting through the mountains (107 in all!) along with bridges (864 in number). The construction started on 2 feet narrow gauge tracks for a distance of 96.6 kilometre.

Tunnel number 33 was going to be the longest tunnel in the track (1143 m) and it was being looked into by Col Barog, who decided to start digging from both ends of the mountain in order to save time. He made some calculations that would ensure a meeting point in the mountain while digging from both sides. Sadly, his calculations went haywire and no central point could be reached. This caused loss of finances as well as time and effort. The government decided to fine the officer, asking him to make a penalty payment of rupee one. This humiliation was unbearable for Col Barog, who resorted to committing suicide. The tunnel as well as the station is named after him. It is believed that his ghost visits the tunnel frequently and it is one of the most haunted sites in India!


(picture credit: Simla Past and Present by Edward J Buck)

Well, after the sad demise of Col Barog, the charge was taken over by Chief Engineer Harington, who was now supposed to resolve the issue and find the right alignment but that seemed not so easy. That is when Baba Bhalku came into picture. Bhalku Ram was an uneducated, poor man from a remote part of upper Simla. His only instrument was a long and solid wooden staff with which he would hit a part of the mountain wall and listen to the sound that came from the tunnel. He would hit different parts until he would come to a point that he thought was good enough for digging. His instructions were simply followed and that is how the breakthrough in the Barog tunnel was achieved. His services were later employed for the other tunnels as well. It is said that the British government later awarded him a medal and a turban for his services.

When the turn came to dig a tunnel in a mountain that had the shrine of Goddess Tara Devi on the top, the Indian population raised an alarm. They believed that it was inauspicious to dig through that mountain and sooner or later it would invite the wrath of the goddess. It is said that when the tunnel was half done, it was rumoured that a long snake had made its way into it. This was seen as a curse of the goddess. However, it was later found out that the long snake was only a pipe that had been laid for the circulation of fresh air in the tunnel. Tunnel number 103 is also said to be frequented by the ghost of a British sahib who talks back to people who meet him in the tunnel.

With believable and some unbelievable tales of the Simla-Kalka Railway, it turned out to be a mountain marvel and rightly came up to be called the “British Jewel of the Orient”- an absolute engineering marvel.

The railway line was inaugurated in the year 1903 by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. But in 1906, the army decided that the track should be increased from 2 feet to 2 feet 6 inches and so the standards were duly met. By the time the project had been completed, it almost reached double the estimated price. The company feared losses and it was decided that the fare would be higher than other railways to meet the cost of maintenance. This was not acceptable to the government, who then decided to buy the railway for a sum of 1,71,07,748 rupees. This was still in 1906!

rail bridge multi arc

(The Multi-arc Bridge. Picture source here)

With 864 bridges (all multi-arch gallery bridges but one girder bridge) and 919 turns, the railway line was now carrying passengers from Kalka to Simla. The little train crept slowly upwards going round and round the mountain for 55 miles. It was a seven-hour journey covered with beautiful pines. It started with simple four-wheeled carriages and moved to steel under-frames and bogies to petrol driven rail motor cars in 1911. There were four travel classes and luxurious saloon cars could be hired. The vintage rail motor car that came up in 1927 was used by viceroys and even Mahatma Gandhi travelled by it for the famous Shimla Conference in 1945. The credit for building the locomotives went to Hunslet Engine Company, Sharp Stewart & Company and the North British Locomotive Company.

Once passengers reached the Simla Railway Station, they could hear rickshaw owners shouting in praise of their rickshaws or jhampanis to carry the passengers to their final destination. And once the rickshaw was boarded, you could hear screams and shouts as it turned vigorously round the corners on a hilly terrain. The rickshaw pullers were pretty fast for their bare feet! The Viceroy, of course, had a special carriage to take him home. Some people just walked back or took rickshaws while the coolies carried the luggage of the visitors on their backs. All someone needed to do was hand over a slip with their address to the coolie and the luggage would mostly reach the destination before them. The railway station collapsed in 1945 after a heavy snowfall (12 feet snow) and had to be re-built.

And thus, came around the story of a wonderful engineering marvel that overturned the importance of Simla completely and prepared it for some great political events that were to follow in years to come.

  • Sonia Dogra

The Kalka Shimla Railway was declared a Heritage Railway by UNESCO and listed under the Mountain Railways of India in 2008. It is a single-track working rail link with the world’s highest multi-arc gallery bridge among 864 bridges and 102 functional tunnels. It is also recorded in The Guinness Book of Rail Facts & Feats as the greatest narrow-gauge engineering in India.

I am taking my blog to the next level with #Blogchatter’s #MyFriendAlexa Campaign.

This is the fifth post in the series.

Read chapter 6 here.

Read chapter 1 here

Read chapter 2 here

Read chapter 3 here

Read chapter 4 here


86 thoughts on “British Jewel of the Orient”

  1. Pingback: Road to the Summer Capital – A Hundred Quills

  2. Pingback: The End is Just Another Beginning – A Hundred Quills

  3. I wish if our history books would had been that interesting, it would have helped so many students. Reading about the history of Shimla somehow glues me to your blog 🙂

  4. Quite an in-depth post about Shimla Kalka railway. I admire how still it works so well for the local commuting as well as the touristy crowd.

  5. The building of railroads in the 19th century never ceases to amaze me, particularly over (and through!) difficult terrain, such as high mountains. I will say that attempting to tunnel from both ends at the same time is a recipe for disaster. Poor Col Barog indeed!

  6. Any Piece of history mesmerised me so does your post, i have experienced this train journey, but the story behind is completely new and interesting to me.apart from the hard work of making tunnel fighting with the human beliefs if digging temple and making them convince itself was a big battle.

  7. Took this train about a decade back but didn’t know it was heritage railway declared by UNESCO. Indeed it had to be, for the beautiful route it takes. Lovely Post!!

  8. I have travelled in the Kalka Shimla railways. It was a beautiful journey. Though sometimes I miss having a train to Nainital. Well researched post. Thanks for sharing! #MyFriendAlexa #ShubhraReads

  9. I belong from Uttarakhand and many people here claim that if Britishers would have stayed for another decade, the railway line till Mussorie and Nanital would have easily built by them

    1. Oh I’ve lived in Coonoor for a year.
      Yes of course there must be because all these hill stations were developed by the english because they needed respite from the heat of the plains. So basic idea should be same.

  10. I always loved to read and hear about the history, and this series is a great stop for a person like me. Britishers have given a lot to India, we often forget about the assets in flames of slavery and their rule.

    1. Cloud and Sunshine

      Such a well researched, beautifully written post. Thanks for sharing this. #MyFriendAlexa #CloudandSunshineReads

  11. Beautifully penned Sonia I still remember while growing up crossing the tunnel 101 just for the thrill of it 😊 never ever read the history of Shimla but u r taking us back in time n telling us so much more about our own little town. Miss Shimla 😊😊

  12. Dr. Surbhi Prapanna

    I never know the detail of rail history, you had shared great information in this post, hats off to you for your hard work. #Surbhireads #Myfriendalexa

  13. I love the details as well as the little anecdotes you’ve thrown in between… makes it a very fun read. I need to catch up on the earlier posts in this series.

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