Chapter VI

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Indian Midlands

3. Dholpur

The Rajput state of Dholpur did not have a fort like Gwalior, as it never had the military strength; neither did it have the industries of Gwalior, so it was less prosperous. One would therefore expect it railway to be less also, and so it was in mileage (55 against 252) and perhaps in that it was operated mostly by tank engines, but, thanks to the stone quarries of its hinterland, the line is busier; thanks to its 2’ 6” gauge it has larger rolling stock, and thanks perhaps to Dholpur’s lack of roads it is entirely on private right of way. The 55 miles start from Dholpur on the Indian Midland line half way between Gwalior and Agra and run 25 miles west before bifurcating, the shorter branch running northwest to Tantpur and the longer southwest to Sirmuttra.

By the time it reached Dholpur the IMR was feeling tired, so it built an unimpressive station – a single platform and a whitewashed building with a low-roofed, stone-flagged waiting hall whose tea stall was out of stock of everything except sugarless, milkless, tealess tea. But at least the place had a forecourt, a dusty acre crossed by two rail sidings, the nearer of the broad gauge and the further the dead end of the Dholpur railway protruding from its terminal station. Unfortunately the old tree-shaded platform and building (square, with white plaster onion-dome) were no longer used by narrow gauge trains. Under the pretence of providing connections to and from Gwalior and Agra, the Central Railway compelled them to use a shelterless bay platform at the main line station.

The train that waited for me here was unmistakeably Dholpur railway. Its carriages were longer than Indian (narrow gauge) standard, having been built in Dholpur by the railway and still bearing proudly polished Dholpur-Bari, or Dholpur State or even Central Railway builder’s plates. Behind windows that were half sunshade and half glass, the slat seats and solid luggage racks of these cars were arranged in open compartments. Such carriages provided half the distinctive Dholpur look of the train; the other half was in the goods stock, for the waggons in front of the carriages were not the usual pressed steel vans but were bogie flat trucks and large, new gondolas equipped with tested vacuum brakes that the Dholpur engines did not have the means of working. And when the green engine came and coupled up it was distinctive too, an inside-framed 4-8-0 with tiny wheels deep-set under their running board and a cab that was wider than any other part of the train. This loco was something of an oddity, for most of the engines running on the line were 2-6-4 tanks, forming a series running from the ZA/1 built 40 or 50 years ago by Sharp Stewart to the ZA/5 of 1959 at Hunslet’s. These latter added the mysterious numbers 12” x 18” to their builder’s plates.

No. 673 mixed, the afternoon Tantpur service, left at 1525. Soon our 4-8-0 had our train rolling westwards, the rapid beat of its small-wheel exhaust punctuated by high-pitched whistling. Despite all this effort, and for all that the track was good, being ballasted with soft red chips of the local sandstone, we did not go very fast. This plodding train was purposeful and scrupulous about timekeeping, something not altogether difficult when the overall speed expected was only 9 mph. We crossed an undulating rock surface whose occasional dips were tinged with green; we stopped at stations each with a stone building and a loop with Gwalior-type self-reversing point levers but with Saxby and Farmer’s throwover levers for the home signals, and we took water from an overhead tank supplied by a well-oiled, double cylinder, double-flywheel hand pump.

Though its name was long ago dropped from the official title of the Dholpur Railway, Bari remained the chief town on the line, and the place where all the trains waited for some time, and crossed morning and evening. Here one could take tea, watch the small, creaking wooden ferries wheel in the park alongside and remember perhaps the Bari in Italy that lost its steam tramway years ago. But on to Mohari where the railway maintained equity between its two branches with a set of equilateral points, though the Tantpur line was favoured by their usual setting. It diverged north, crossing a rocky creek almost immediately. The more pious among the passengers mumbled something religious, for there was temple just upstream.

Tantpur lay just outside Dholpur state, in a tongue of British India. The station had no village, just a few stalls grouped along a bitumen road whose end was marked by a small white stone at the railway gate. For some acres the ground round the siding was littered with blocks of fine red sandstone; that same red stone of which the Mughals had built their forts and cities was still being worked by the humble descendants of the men who had cut it in those times. They brought it down to the siding by bullock cart after splitting it from its native low hills with wedges and mallets, and in the station yard split it further, to a minimum of one inch thick. In the evening the men rested at the stalls of Tantpur, greeting one another with a “Ram, Ram sa”, drinking tea and eating sweetmeats along with the train crew, the lorrymen and the driver and the conductor of the bus from Agra. And later they walked off to their villages, leaving Tantpur to the stall-keepers and the railwaymen, who dragged their bunks out into the station platform and slept while on the other side of the sidings a treefull of peacocks squawked restlessly.

To get the train away by 0740 the engine crew had to be up before dawn. There being no water at Tantpur the loco had hauled a square gin full of it. Since this was not connected to the tender two coolies had to be sent up on top of it to work a pump up and down till the tender was filled, after which the gin was stowed neatly at the head of the train. Meanwhile the sun appeared, a yellow disc in the grey haze to the east, and within five minutes it was too bright to look at.

The morning Tantpur - Dholpur train crossed the Sirmuttra mixed at Bari. Since the stone traffic out there was heavier and the passenger traffic lighter, the Sirmuttra train was even more typically Dholpur than the Tantpur – a 2-8-4T, a string of gondolas and just a few of the long carriages behind. In the morning as it left Dholpur and in the evening as it returned there would be many passengers sitting on the flat trucks as in the carriages themselves, adding the colour of their bright villager’s garments to the green of the engine, the goods red of the waggons and the stone red of the freight. But in the middle of the day, when the train was snaking through the flaking, heat-radiating hills out near Sirmuttra, the passengers kept to the carriages. A woman bundled onto the seat by her husband, bawling into the end of her sari, gradually subsiding into sobbing singing; a compartment of women who burst into piercing song so nasal that they hurt themselves and had to give it up. No wonder we couldn’t hear the beat of our own naturally quiet engine, even when on the return trip with 200 tons behind she was reduced to walking pace by some 1/100. But when the home signal of Kankret station was set against us we heard our loco whistle for admission, and looking ahead saw the transparent, white fan of whistle steam silhouetted against the black blower smoke tumbling out of her chimney.

One was more struck by the texture of Sirmutta than by its redness; the acres of the famous stone round the station were a jumble of straight and right-angled shadows which nevertheless, seen from a sufficient distance, merged into a matt surface. That sufficient distance was a low hill against which the station nestled. A black road climbed up to the bus stand (with one decrepit Mercedes) and stalls on top, so as one sat on a slab of the stone trying to shield one’s chapattis from the blowing dust one could look down on the Dholpur railway, its terminus and its route back to the east. And in the station, under a vertical sun that bleached the colour out of even that rock, a tank engine was shunting, juggling with linear shapes whose railway red was a shade darker than the stone, and whose shadows were longer. A smudge of black smoke drifted by; the engine was raising steam for its run back to Dholpur, and inviting people to walk down the hill and join it.