Do you know which is the rail route mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the one with the steepest rise and also is a UNESCO heritage site? Well, this is the famed Kalka Shimla Heritage Toy train that passes through maple wood, deodar, pine, oak and fichus woods through 800 plus bridges, 900 plus curves and over 100 tunnels.
While this rail line dates back to 1903 during the British times, there is an important Indian connection that is relatively less known. And it is this connection that the Bhalku Rail Museum celebrates. It is said that while the Shimla-Kalka Railway Track was being laid, the longest tunnel was being supervised by Colonel Barog, a British engineer when the digging was initially started. In spite of digging from both ends and days of hard work, the tunnel could not be aligned and Barog was fined a princely sum of one rupee, by the British Government for wasting Government resources. Depressed, Barog committed suicide and was buried near the incomplete tunnel. The next person who took charge of the tunnel construction was H.S Harrington who had the same problem. This was when a local man Bhalku Ram approached Harrington and said he could help make the tunnel, if the British took the line all the way up to Shimla. When the British agreed, Bhalku started working through the mountain wall using his solid wooden staff and based on the sound he heard, instructed the engineers to dig from the point he had found. Following his instructions, the British could finally dig the tunnel that is today called the Barog tunnel. The British Government is said to have honoured Bhalku Ram with a medal and a turban. What Bhalku achieved where the British failed gave him a saint like status with local people actually looking up to and worshipping him.
Opened in July 2011, the Bhalku Rail Museum gives you an interesting insight into the history of the Kalka Shimla Railway Line through its collection of rare artifacts that have been collected through several decades. The Photo Galleria pays a tribute to how the line looked in the days gone by with images of the Steam loco hauled train as well as a train making its way through the snow covered tracks. You can literally relive history here and there are very interesting parts from the pages of history seen in a 1930 lost property register that has the details of the lost bags, umbrellas, caps and coats found in waiting rooms of the station and on the train. The furniture and crockery gallery displays items that were used in the past including fine glassware, wine glasses and vases. I was quite smitten by the teak wood easy chairs that were used in the station rest rooms as well as the large wooden wall clocks that were made in England. Also on display are several parts used in the trains that date back to the early 20th century as well as seals and labels worn by porters and other staff. Steam locomotive headlights, ticket punching machines, brass lamps, lanterns and a rail liner used on the track in 1899 is the oldest item on display in the museum. It is fascinating to see a miniature model of the tunnel and its repair system and the ingenuity of Bhalku Ram is indeed fascinating. A real life sized train is also on display on the outside of the museum and you can even look through the carriages here. A perfect ode to the past, this museum is a testament to India’s rich heritage that cannot not be recreated or replicated and yet can be enjoyed by today’s generation. A must see when you are in Shimla.
This story first appeared in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 23rd August 2018 here.