Journey Guide: India’s Independence Railroads

Journey Guide: India’s Independence Railroads

India is famous for its extensive British built railway system. Queuing will leave you without a seat, or possibly even a ticket; giving up your seat for the elderly would be great if you even had somewhere to sit and safety becomes a major concern when the only part of you inside the moving train is your hand…

Travelling through India by train can be a challenge – even on the country’s most luxurious trains. India’s 40,000 miles of railway track cut through some of the most densely populated cities, flanked by shanty towns, in the nation of 1.2 billion people. Trains are overcrowded, even by India’s standards and in monsoon season, temperatures can reach around 50 degrees Celsius. Despite the challenges, there are friends to be made, vivid scenery fluttering by and the snacks for sale along the routes are a treat!

These are India’s ‘Tough Trains’…


Spice market in Bihar

Spice market in Bihar

Muzaffarpur in Bihar, which is in the eastern region of India. Bihar is the twelfth largest state in India and the third largest in population. Muzaffarpur railway station is amongst the top hundred booking stations of Indian railways. At this extremely busy station Zay learns how to navigate India’s complex rail networks where he struggles to purchase a ticket and find the right platform to catch a local branch train to Motihari.

Motihari station is just 52 kms (30 miles approx) from the town of Raxaul, which is the Gateway to Nepal. And so it is almost certain that Nepali Immigrants from several non-train villages will make the journey by road to Motihari and take trains to other parts of India from there.

Mothari was the first place where Gandhi began his anti colonial struggle in India – Gandhi used the railways as a tool (and a metaphor) for how he was able to knit India together in his anti colonial campaign. We can get the Delhi (or local) historian to tell us this. It is also relevant to bring Gandhi in because we are going to end in Delhi and Amritsar, with the Raj, Independence and the violence of partition. It is also particularly evocative because it was on a Train in Apartheid South Africa, which the white conductor threw him off a whites only carriage, that was Gandhi’s first anti-imperial awakening.

Gandhi always travelled by 3rd class rail across the country, although there is no longer any 3rd class, only 1st class and 2nd class and local class. The lowest, toughest, meanest, least comfortable compartments on the Indian Railway network are still referred to by old timers as “Gandhi Class”.

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 Breaking the fast for Ramadhan in Lucknow

Breaking the fast for Ramadhan in Lucknow

Zay Harding, the host on this adventure has to learn how to navigate India’s complex rail networks.  This is the summer holidays, when India’s population of 1.2 billion travel across the country.  Train travel is the cheapest option and we join them on our way to the capital city, Delhi.

Lucknow is one of the main sites of the first war of independence aka the Sepoy’s mutiny against the British in 1857. Lucknow is a great city to talk of a fabulous past, and a thriving syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture much of which has been destroyed by partition and the mutual distrust, fuelled by partisan right wing groups, that has continued to simmer afterwards. It has the craziest bazaars, and the yummiest street food and is known for its cuisine.

Ramadaan begins on June 28th (in 202014) and the month of fasting and prayer will be at its prime when we are filming. The bazaars at sundown and dusk will be brilliant in their colour and celebration – what better place than Lucknow to introduce the great shared heritage of Indian Islam – the syncretism of the hindu-muslim common inheritance to tie up to the tragedy of the great collapse at the end of the Raj and the unspeakable horrors and tragedies of partition at Amritsar.

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Delhi Railway Station

Delhi Railway Station

Arriving to the city via the New Delhi railway station is the third busiest and one of the largest in India.  It handles over 300 trains and 500,000 passengers daily with 16 platforms.  As India’s capital city, Delhi’s immense population of over 12 million is comprised of a diverse yet predominantly Hindu demographic.


Delhi is one of the longest serving Capitals and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  It is considered to be a city built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, as outsiders who successfully invaded the Indian Subcontinent would ransack the existing capital city in Delhi, and those who came to conquer and stay would be so impressed by the city’s strategic location as to make it their capital and rebuild it in their own way.

It is important to remember that the British introduced the railway to India just one year after the great Mutiny of 1857. The Indian Railways were not built by the British to help the Indian people get around. They were built to facilitate the quick movement of British troops and for the efficient movement of raw materials to expand the economy of the Empire – it is to Gandhi’s credit that he subverted this very system into getting India into a unified nation.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that if the railway made it possible for the British to take fuller control of India it was the very same railway that allowed a Republican India to be imagined by making it also possible for Indians to move and migrate across the country.

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The Golden Temple in Amritsar

The Golden Temple in Amritsar

Heading north, you’re closing in on a few more of India’s neighbours, but this time the borders aren’t exactly an amicable affair. Pakistan and India have long been at war with each other over territory.  1947 signaled the end of British rule when British India was divided into two states, India and Pakistan. The Punjab and Bengal were split between the two countries. This meant that millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who had shared neighbourhoods for generations, suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the newly created borders.

As many celebrated independence, over 14 million people attempted to cross hastily drawn borders in what became the largest migration in history. Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. The Grand Trunk Road (from Calcutta to Kabul) and the railway built alongside it became the major routes along which millions of refugees travelled.

They were also the scenes of some of the worst violence – in the Punjab alone hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. Vast refugee camps sprung up along the road as people gathered together for protection, or found themselves homeless in a new country.

The trains to and from Delhi can be extremely crowded, especially at the weekend and on special holiday.


Delhi Junction, also known as Old Delhi Railway Station, is the oldest railway station of Delhi city and a Junction station.  Its present building was constructed by the British Indian government in the style of nearby red-coloured fort and opened in 1903. It has been an important railway station of the country and preceded the New Delhi Railway Station by about 60 years.

The station started with a broad gauge train from Calcutta in 1864. Metre gauge track from Delhi to Rewari and further to Ajmer was laid in 1873 by Rajputana Railways and metre gauge trains from this station started in 1876.  It started with just 2 platforms and 1000 passengers, Delhi Railway Station now handles more than 180,000 passengers and 200 trains daily.

The train to Amritsar does not leave from the Old Delhi Railway Station, it leaves from another terminus called Hazrat Nizamuddin. We join hundreds of people travelling on the Frontier Mail train to visit the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Darbar Saheb or Golden Temple for a Sikh festival.  This historically important train has been running for almost 90 years.  In the years beginning it would travel all the way to the terminus in Peshawar from India’s commercial capital, Bombay, on the Arabian Sea.


Amritsar is the spiritual and cultural centre of India’s Sikh community and is so popular that there are even Superfast Express trains between Amritsar and Delhi in order to satisfy the demand faced by thousands of people visiting the pilgrimage sites of the Golden Temple and the Durgiana Mandir.

Amritsar practically sits on the border between India and Pakistan and is close to the still disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.  But instead of hostility the people here are unusually diplomatic.

There is a Delhi-Lahore Train; it was Amritsar-Lahore only for a few years when it started, which is called the Samjhauta Express or Train of Understanding.

Multiple wars and an on going dispute over land in the Kashmir region have created hostility between India and Pakistan—a hostility that finds its outlet in a daily ceremonial closing of the India-Pakistan border.  It is held after the actual closing of the immigration checkpoints and is a display of aggressive dance moves from the border soldiers and patriotic cheering of the daily crowds. The atmosphere is akin to a sporting match.

Prior to the sunset ceremony, performers and visitors dance to traditional music pumped through loudspeakers on each side. As the anticipation builds, warm-up men with microphones rile up the flag-waving spectators in the bleachers. Both

sides shake hand briefly before the two flags are slowly lowered at exactly the same pace (to avoid implication of superiority of one country over the other).  Palin described it as a ‘carefully choreographed dance of contempt’.  Every evening, thousands of fans stream onto the stands erected on both sides of the border to watch the orchestrated, synchronized military flag ceremony. And professional whips on both sides make sure that the fans outbid each other in their nationalistic cheering orgies.

“Long live India” – there are some 20,000 fans on the Indian side.
“Long live Pakistan” – perhaps 5,000 on the Pakistani side.

The ceremony, performed since 1959, begins with a parade of soldiers on both sides of the border. Members of India’s Border Security Force wear khaki uniforms with red fanned coxcombs on their turbans, while the Pakistan Rangers wear black uniforms with black coxcombs. In a region where the average male height is five-foot-five, every soldier is over six feet tall. They march in pairs with synchronized strides, their moustached faces dour through all the stomping and high-kicking.

At the border gates, the long-awaited confrontation occurs. The guards open each barrier simultaneously while keeping a stern eye on one another. National flags are lowered — at exactly the same time, so that neither country can be accused of trying to “win”—after which an Indian and Pakistani guard shake hands rigidly before retreating from the border with more stomps and high kicks. For the hundreds of Indian and Pakistani spectators, the ceremony is a source of national pride and a cathartic expression of built-up tension between the often clashing countries.

India side: The loudspeakers come on saying “Hindustan” (Land of the Hindus) and the crowd cheer “Long Live”.  The soldiers wear khaki with a hat topped with a fan (Chinese-style, not electric).
Pakistan side: Similar chant of Long Live Pakistan. The soldiers wear a black (or very dark green) uniform topped with a fan similar to the Indians’.
Both sides: volunteers (including grannies) carry their flags running up and down the road leading to no-man’s-land.

NB. Filming this officially is almost impossible because it involves intelligence clearance from both sides.  However, any tourist can queue up and film the event.  With our camera it should be possible to do this with presenter on radio mic & a top mic on the camera.  No tripod.  ‘This is military territory & normal schmoozing doesn’t work’.

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Kanga Valley Rail

Kanga Valley Rail

The 120-km long rail line was laid by the British government and plays a big role in the economy of this region.  The industrial and economic prosperity of Kangra valley as well as strategic depth against China depends vitally on its expansion and conversion.

The British had laid down this railway line in 1932, linking all important and religious towns of Kangra and parts of Mandi district and today it connects to the Tibetan town of Dharamsala – home to the Dalai Lama and 80,000 other Tibetan refugees.

The Kangra Valley Railway crosses extremely difficult mountain terrain, involving the bridging of ravines, crosses over 993 bridges, runs through two tunnels and winds through 484 curves.  The Kangra valley railway narrow gauge line, which plays a significant role in the economy of this region, is in a bad shape thanks to the apathy of the Indian Railways, which made no efforts in the past 70 years to convert this 120-km long rail track into a broad gauge line.

Old engines and carriages still run along this route and the whole railway is in need of some urgent upgrades.  It takes 7 hours longer than the bus.



10 hours overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot.6 hours Kangra Valley Railway Pathankot to Dharamsala

3 hours Pathankot to Amritsar



Indian Railways Fan Club:


Sikh Festival @ Golden Temple, Amritsar
Guru Hargobind Singh Jayanti
5th July

Tibetan Festival
Hemis Festival
6 & 7 July


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