Exploring Dara Pass

by Shikhar Parjan


What could be common between a rugged rocky pass in southern Rajasthan and a stack of landscaping patio stones sold in a large American home-improvement chain store …? A lot in this globalised world apparently … so read on:

As part of my 7-week sabbatical spent crisscrossing India, visiting Dara Pass, located in the ancient, weather-beaten Aravali hills in Rajasthan state’s Kota district was high on my list. This is not a formidable mountain pass, nestled in the middle of any snow-capped mountain, but it has its place in history. Back in the late 19th century, as the British ‘raj’ was rapidly establishing its roots across India, building railway lines and networks to ensure no place in the sub-continent was more than a few days away â€" ready to be reached by troops at a short notice. They needed to connect the 4 large cities, and Bombay (now Mumbai)-Delhi was a key link to be set up, so as to rush troops, supplies up to Delhi and the volatile North West India (now Pakistan) â€" a region that remains volatile, to say the least.

(Side Note : The word Dara is pronounced ‘Durr-aa’ and means a Pass, in Hindi and Urdu so ‘Dara Pass’ is a redundant nomenclature. Similar names include ‘Darra Adam Khel’ (Adam Khel’s Pass) a tribal area in Pakistan)

The first (of 2) routes between Delhi and Bombay was up along the coastal plains of the then Bombay Presidency, then cut across the hill tracts and rock features of the Aravali ranges and the flatlands of Rajasthan and finally reach Delhi by premier trains like Frontier Mail. The second route would follow a more inward tract through Central India via Bhopal and Jhansi.

The first route would evolve â€" which is the route on which the Pass lies - into the Western Railway route, running across Mumbai-Vadodara, Ratlam -Kota-Mathura and Delhi. En route, south of Kota, is a long crease of a hill range, not more than 500-feet high. This is one of the many spurs of the ancient, weather beaten Aravali ranges, and referred to as the Mukandara ranges in the area south of Kota, a bustling town known for its silk saris and recently, its famed tuition centers that prepare for competitive entrance exams to the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology). I had no such academic pursuits in mind, having long sown and reaped my academic oats.

It was around this location that the rail builders ran into a North East-to-South West running range, and an adjoining gorge â€" the location of Dara Pass. This was part of the princely state of Rajputana (present Rajasthan), and given their constant stage of conflict, also served as an excellent vantage and ambush point, as the view offered from here, looking down on the plains , extends for dozens of miles in the still, baking heat of the desert. Here, the British constructed a tall, 16-span viaduct built of black volcanic basalt stone, and set it amidst the ruins of an old fortification, which ran along 2 tiny ‘chatri’s’ or vantage points.

I had seen an image from the Steam era of the Bombay-Peshawar Frontier Mail, taken around 1929, chugging majestically through the Pass, and instantly, my mind was set upon visiting this location. The image, located here , even in Black and White, reveals the majestic contours of the pass and the viaduct. (Credit: Mr. Mukul Jain, CPRO (WR) and Mr. Prakash Tendulkar)

My original plan was to visit Dara Pass after coming from Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Marwar, but the 2010/

11 winter was proving to be a long unpredictable one, and the fog-induced delays that paralyze North India often caused my earlier iternary had to be modified to the point that I had to plan a new trip around it. I was planning to visit the annual convention of IRFCA (India Railways Fan Club) [Yes, such a group of 6,000 odd rail enthusiasts does exist in India and abroad), and planned to make a stop en route before I reached Bhusawal, a large railway town in Central India.

However, that meant the travel was pretty much on a short notice, and most of the long distance Delhi- Mumbai trains (the route on which Kota lies), were booked weeks in advance, Luck intervened in the form of the appearance of 29020 Dehradun-Mumbai Express, on the online booking portal, which I booked without any delay, and for a sum of Rs 192/- found myself in a Side Lower seat in coach S11. This was supposed to be an overnight run, departing Faridabad, a Delhi suburb at 2222 h with a morning arrival at Dara at 0831 h, for a 484 km journey which would give me plenty of time to explore Dara Pass.

Well, that was on paper… On the night of the journey (1st of Feb), from 10 PM onwards, I waited for over an hour as train after train passed by my boarding point, and there was no sign of the Dehradun Express. I consoled myself, thinking that since the train comes from the foothills of Himalayas and probably has to contend with thick bands of fog, it could be a bit late. There was no announcement of any sort from the PA system, so there was not much to do but wait.

Soon though, an hour later, around 2330 h, the train presented itself, behind a wheezy older WAM4 electric locomotive from the Vadodara (BRC) shed. Upon entering the coach, it became apparent why this train had vacancy while others did not. This service had been suspended for 30 days, and as such was only re-entering service only tonight. Since most long distance plans for rail travel in India are booked weeks, if not months in advance, this train had not got the patronage that would have rapidly filled it otherwise. The coach interior had a thin coat of dust inside, and other indicators indicating a service that had been hibernating for a few days.

I unrolled my sleeping bag and went to sleep. I felt the train come to a halt a couple of times, but attributed it to halts en route. Only in the morning did it become apparent that after traversing a short distance to the adjoining district of Mathura, the venerable WAM4 loco wheezed his last at Chata, a small cow-town station. There the train was held up for 4 hours, as a relief loco was brought in from New Delhi, and we continued our lamented run.

Of course, that 4 hour delay, with our already 1 hour late departure meant trouble for my plans to spend the day at the pass. The pass is another 15 km from the nearest station, and so time management would have to be of essence here, especially since my next train was from a different station altogether, so I had to maintain a time schedule.

Morning saw our train merrily pulled by two electric locomotives, both running with front pantos up and live. We crossed mustard laden fields in rural Rajasthan en route to Kota and the morning fog began to burn off as we ventured deeper into drier Rajasthan.

A quick halt at Gurla Junction , where the branch line from Guna takes off to the East, indicated that Kota was not far away, and soon, we were over the mossy, deep blue waters of the Chambal river,

We crossed into Kota, where we crossed a Sky Blue 28057 WAG7 from East India’s Gomoh shed hauling

a freighter.

48 km from Kota, and a couple of halts later, I got off at Dara station. While the plains around Delhi are at approx 200m elevation, were at 354 m at Dara. Between Kota and Dara, the landscape turned to flat dry rocks, resembling ancient lava flows. Scrub land took over as cultivated fields dropped away. By now, the time was around 1 PM, and it seemed I would have not more than a couple of hours before I would have to get going.

Dara station has 2 platforms on loop lines, and an additional 2 main lines for the majority of non-stop traffic passing through. From this point, there were hardly any hills to see, but that was clear to me by looking at the map which showed the ridge line in a seam not more than 5-8 km across. The Dehradun Express had scampered away, heading off on a curve to the South West. After taking a couple of pics, I picked my rucksack and headed out of the station, and soon was on National Highway # 12, which is between Jaipur and Bhopal cities, and thereon to Jabalpur. Like any small station, the arterial road, in this case the NH-12 was a stone’s throw away and there is a small, though bustling village atmosphere, along with the cacophony of buses and other denizens of the road.

The actual location of the pass is another 12-odd km out of this hamlet, and upon inquiries, I found it is better known for a Shiva/Durga temple (forget which) in the vicinity. Locals gathered around me, and the most wizened one them thoughtfully stroked his beard and flagged down a passing bus and asked me to get on it, and disembark at the temple. The bus wasn’t packed but there was no sitting room, and I did not want to get too comfortable for what could be a short 15 min drive, from which I might have only seconds to hop off. The conductor could not hold his curiosity at the sight of a city dweller walking about with a rucksack in the middle of nowhere, and articulating the unasked question of the rest of the passengers, asked: ‘Kahaan jaa rahein hain ?’ (Where are you headed?)

Instead of giving him the spiel on the location and history of Dara Pass, I said, masquerading as a Bollywood location scout : ‘Shooting honi hai idhar. Location dekhne aaya hoon.’ (There is to be a movie shot here and I am here to scout the location.)

Instantly, there was head-nodding and satisfied mumbling. Thank God for Bollywood, as any number of inconceivable plots and reasons can be laid at its doorstep. I was urged to sit down; space being made for my backpack on the bus radiator by a few well-mouthed abuses towards a slumbering village boy sprawled there.

As soon as the bus entered a ravine area, I knew we were there. The highway actually runs below the viaduct, and I could see some tight, high arches under a curve in a rock cutting. Waving goodbye, I disembarked, as almost everyone on the bus craned his neck to see which way I was headed.

The rail embankment runs about 50 m up a steep embankment with struggling teak trees and rocky debris. With my rucksack, I began the short climb, but the loose rocks often gave way. I thanked my hiking boots as more than once, my ankle almost twisted, but after about 5-8 min, I was atop the embankment…and the first thing I see is a narrow, white washed stairway that crept up, unseen from the road below.

To be finally at Dara Pass…!! Ah well, another thing checked off my ‘Bucket list’.

The pass is blasted through a 100 foot high ridgeline, and is surprisingly narrow, not more than 2 catenary spans (or about 70-odd meters to the rest of the world). The ridgeline of the pass is the very first one among a series of small rocky scrub-covered ranges, with sandstone layered like thick flakes. At the base, there is a small Hanuman temple, a bus stop and a few trees, while the ridges are bare or scrub-laden. The first ‘chatri’ or vantage point is smack above the train tracks, and the second one on the other side of the cutting, about 150 m away.

While it was still late winter in N India, there was already a warm micro-weather in this spot. Different layers and bands of sandstone could be seen in profile, silent witnesses to the past. I had climbed up on the southern end of the pass, from where the Up and Down tracks deviate to negotiate the sharp drop across a viaduct. The British built viaduct is the older one, curving gracefully atop 16 high-columned, black granite built viaduct spans, which curve towards the Northwest, and is the course followed by the ‘Up’ tracks from Bombay to Delhi. Intricate wrought iron refuge areas line the viaduct, with ornate designs.

The more recently built (probably in the 1960s or before) down track is a more simple bridge. The girders, on closer inspection, had Indian Railways’ ‘Sabarmati Workshop’ embossed on them.

Given the delay encountered reaching here, climbing to the top of the chatri was not really worth the time and effort needed, as there were plenty of good vantage points, though I highly recommend anyone with a day to do that. While on a train, the pass literally creeps up unannounced, and is gone in a blur, so I could appreciate this chance to watch it more closely.

A 15-odd foot high fortification wall, probably from the medieval ages, ran across the cutting. It is more pronounced in the Frontier Mail pic, and is visible under the viaduct in that image. Sadly, I could see that the NH-12 had gobbled up a good chunk of that, and what was visible was the lesser accessible parts along the eastern and western walls. The stone arches are not built from local stone, and seems like the Granite/ Basalt more common in the Deccan plateau, and akin to the black stone used in most colonial era buildings such as Bombay’s Victoria Terminus.

The actual pass is at Milepost 867 (with 0 being towards Mumbai, and ~1530 somewhere close to New Delhi). The basalt columns of the viaduct are topped by the arches, on which lie the rail bed, and a couple of refuge areas on each side of the track. I put my rucksack down under a weather-beaten refuge built of old railroad sleepers for a pointman, right under the Eastern chatri, figuring anyone who could try to walk away with a 40-lbs load probably needed it more than me.

Looking up, I marveled at the delicate shades of sandstone, some creamish, some off-white and some dark, brooding grayish black. There is no netting here, so apparently the rocks are stable enough if left alone. There are 3 triangular speed boards on the southern approach: 80 km/h for high-speed expresses, 75 for Passenger trains and a separate 55km/hr indicator for freight trains.

About halfway down the viaduct, the two tracks, which are on separate spans, separate out. The newer , eastern Down line is built on lighter color, rounded arches, and continues in a straight line across the pass, before curving on hitting the small hills on the far end. The new tracks rest on a ballast-less, all steel bed, whereas the older one has ballast on it all the way.

This route is an important container traffic artery between Mumbai’s JNPT port and New Delhi, and a silent WAG7 3 27064 from Jhansi shed brought up a colorful container consist.

Looking at the older remnants of the fortifications, I could only imagine what it would be like, guarding this desolate place. Was it other rival kings of the area, or the Mughals, or the British that the local rulers wanted to guard against? There is no fort in the immediate vicinity, so anyone breaking through here would probably reach Kota without much ado. I ran into a woodcutter and his wife walking in from the south end, where there is a small station about a km or so away and where a passenger train was to halt in an hour, and they smilingly posed for a photo.

Clearly, had I made it on time here, it would have been very convenient to hop on the passenger and go to the next major Station, Ramganj Mandi, but I had hardly seen any trains right now, except for one freighter which coasted through while I was exerting up on the embankment.

At the base of the chatri, is a MACL signal (Multi- Color Aspect Lighting), which turned double amber, meaning something was coming this way on the Down track.

From Dara end, came a Red-White-blue liveried WAG7 freight loco in a WAP4 (Passenger) body, #24510 from Jhansi Shed, hauling the 9-coach Ratlam-Mathura Passenger service â€" the very one I would have taken had I arrived here on time.

Now that the Passenger had left, the die was cast for me to make it on my own for the evening train out from Ramganj Mandi. Leaving my pack, I started walking on the older Permanent Way across the viaduct.

Mid-way on the viaduct, I stepped into the ornately-crafted refuge area, a tiny 2 foot x 3 foot balcony dangling about 75 feet in the sky, which gave a nice, detached view of the bridge, and also the narrow stairway that had eluded me. There was no sign of the remnants of the fortifications under the bridge in the kikar scrub below, confirming its disappearance from the original picture of the Frontier Mail.

The other chatri is equally majestic, and both sport a mini turret halfway up their spiny slope. The western turret has a cleverly placed electric pole, probably put in place by some engineer not too keen to dig up in the rocky slope.

Nestling on the refuge area, a heard a buzz… and it was not a train…Looking below, on the inner wall of the span, I saw no less than 4 massive beehives â€" the non-human sentinels of the bridge â€" and there were multiples of them under many spans. As I ventured across, and directly above the hives, I could see a few of them start buzzing around me. .they could immediately sense my presence, and the prospect of being bitten by hundreds of them, on a busy railroad bridge, miles from any medical aid was scary indeed.

[Note : Do not step on the refuge area if you are even mildly scared of heights, and also the trains come screaming in here, almost within touching distance, at MPS (Max. permissible speed), so it is not a place to get cold feet. Come with a partner (which I didn’t, but that’s another matter].

I stepped back towards a refuge area, where the bees did not follow me. From the southern end, came a Red and yellow WAP4E #22383 from the Vadodara shed, with an express in tow.

Being on the refuge area gave me a nice, clear and up close view as the train entered the viaduct and went around the curve.

The refuge areas contrasted between being dainty from the colonial times, to, shall we say, a minimalist look on the newer, longer bridge, which has at least 4 such locales compared to the 2 on the older span. Both tracks are gauntleted (i.e. another track accompanies inside each rail).

At the far end of the viaduct is a whitewashed sturdy-built and all weather lookout hut, and this is where I headed, to steer clear of the bees. There is a Whistle indicator board just as the drivers cross the viaduct, as the track enters a narrow rock cutting, and a sign bearing ‘Dara Viaduct’ at the base of the hut. There are 16 spans, each 30.9m, as per the board â€" the location of which I felt should have come on the approach of the viaduct.

Climbing the small cutting atop which the lookout hut is placed was like nirvana. Just like the ancient chatris in close proximity, this location offers a great, yet relatively accessible view of the pass and the topography around it for kilometers around. Looking south, in the direction I just came from, the 2 chatris are prominently silhouetted against a hazy sky.

The separation point of the Up and Down lines, and their respective steel and stone bridges are seen in all splendor from here, and the curve of the older arch bridge reveals a complete sequence for any train stepping on the bridge.

The Up line, after crossing the hut within touching distance, and with the rooftop at eye level with any approaching train, the track initially curves left for about 500 m, then , rapidly makes a sharp ‘right- facing fish-hook curve’ as it is forced to make a 90 degree turn by the next range.

One gets a chance to see a train roar by, first on the viaduct, then almost by your feet, and then make a sweeping 90-degree turn towards

Dara station and Kota.

The bridge on the down line, while without the history and viaducts, is no less spectacular. Its approach is masked by what can be called ‘dead ground’ â€" area not easily seen due to low hills and foliage, but it too makes an extended turn as a train comes into the steel bridge, which it crosses in a ramrod-straight line.

What’s more, this bridge, being of steel construction, has a marvelous metallic roar as the train steps from girder to girder, something which the older bridge does not have â€" so sights all around for any bridge and train lovers.

The slight downside is that the highway is relatively busy â€" not noisy, but you can hear trucks’ grinding their gears as they do the mini-zigzag at the base of the viaduct and begin the climb on the other side. Maybe because of the time I got there (1 PM) that it was discernible, but I think in the morning it would be totally a scene out of the 18th-19th century.

I could see a few mongooses, almost the size of kittens, and so no surprise that this area would have snakes too. Usually the rule in that case is that the drier a location, the more venomous the snake species (and also any other creepy crawlies â€" as is the case in deserts).

Time to get back on the railway action side of things…. A peek through the stone window offers a nice view of the pass location, framed by rocky, rough-hewn stone.

On the Down line, there are a lot more spans, albeit of low height, spread over a longer distance on the new bridge â€" and the gap between the 2 has a seasonal rivulet, and boulders in-between. From the South side, I heard a horn of an electric freighter, and saw sky blue-cream WAG7 # 27275 from Ludhiana shed, hauling a long row of containers.

The train began arcing from the base of the pass, revealing first the sunnier side on the concave side, and then the shady convex side, with the loco and the panto passing at my feet level, with the contact wire almost at eye level.

The rumble of the train built up in the narrow cutting, as it reached a crescendo, amplified by the hard rock face around, and echoed by the bowl-shaped pass itself.

Marvelous indeed â€" well worth the effort to get here.

Within a minute, the multi-colored containers made a clear contrast to the brownish hue of the background hills, as the freighter entered the top of the ‘fish-hook’. Stretched across the drab background, like a multi-colored bracelet was the entire freighter, the LV (last Van) of which had crossed me a moment back.

Almost as soon as the freighter headed out of view, I saw a blur from the top of the fish-hook, on the Down line… the thumping noise of a hard-charging Alco diesel confirmed an oncoming diesel even

before it was clearly seen.

At times, the noise from the unseen train would echo and amplify, and then would disappear…

Lining up my cameras, I did a quick check to ensure I don’t goof up the shot, or leave it ‘OFF’ or something â€" has happened before, much to my regret, and diesels are outnumbered by 1 to 10 on this section, so I wanted a good shot. The Alco was now on the final approach to the pass on a gentler curve on the way to the steel bridge â€" and the curve’s tilt was pretty visible as the red-cream-grey Alco # 16543 came in with an express.

As soon as it left the stone embankment and got on the steel bridge, the roar pretty much filled the whole valley. The view from about 50 m away was a lot more interesting than a head-on shot, as the approach of the Down line is not very visible.

From the South end came another container rake â€" this time hauled by the newer WAG9 # 31142 in a Green-yellow livery, probably from the Tughlakabad (TKD) shed, as shown by the torn ‘Uttar Madhya Rail’ (North Central Division) caption on it â€" where TKD (Delhi) is located with its electric shed. Before entering the cutting, the driver turned on the headlamps for a few seconds.

I had to make a move in a matter of minutes now. I descended from the lookout, hoping to catch something on the newer bridge, but in the 10 min it took me to cross back to the south end â€" where my rucksack was - there was no movement. Such is the nature of the activity of rail fanning â€" long periods of idleness followed by intense blasts of excitement.

The aspect of the MACL signal was double yellow, and I decided this would be the last train of the day. Soon, a WAP4 #22325 came tearing round the curve, in a perfect straight line, and it completely dwarfed the sound effects of the earlier more sedate diesel, as it rapidly in seconds crossed the entire field of view. Pounding hard on the girders, the express made a fitting finale to my trip.

I picked my rucksack, bid goodbye to the stillness, and walked a bit further down, wanting to see the entire range as it meets the tracks. From about 500 m, the gap in the pass is already a blur by the interlocking background of spurs and hillocks.

I came across an approaching Express with WAP4E # 22293 from Vadodara shed (again), as I took the shot from the adjoining teak plantation.

Now it was time to get down and hit the road. I descended to the road, clutching a few roots, and soon was on the highway. A snoozing trucker showed no interest in taking me towards Ramganj Mandi, which was while about 20-odd km as a crow flies, but on ground is actually reachable by a dog-leg route. A

private bus came to my rescue, and I got on board. I decided to not go back towards Dara, but keep heading towards my destination â€" by whichever means, to save time.

Turns out, to get to Ramganj Mandi, which a train does in a jiffy by passing through Morak, the road heads to a town called Suket, which is really nothing worth writing about. And there too, one gets dropped there, and has to change into another transport â€" a shared tempo â€" which will further need to be augmented by a three-wheeler ride, as â€" you guesses it â€" the Suket- Ramganj Mandi tempos don’t go to the railway station.

As the bus and tempo rides went on, a sad reality unfolded around me â€" in this region (Jhalawar), there are hillsides riddles with giant stone quarries and mines for the multi-hued sandstone, slate and ‘Kota Stone’ which one sees as ‘Yuppie Gothic’ in many noveau-riche mansions in most Indian metros. Out here, the impact is stark â€" the mines are like ugly gashes, the air has fine stone dust â€" and ironically, even the slums are built of flat stone pieces, lending them a deceptively solid look.

So, as I stopped in my tracks, months later in the US, looking at a pallet of ‘Kota stone’ which looked hauntingly beautiful in its powder grey look, I was caught in emotion â€" knowing the source and impact of such mining - which was for sure unauthorized/ cartelized, and even visible as scars from a Google satellite view â€" this is not the kind of ‘exports’ India needs. I will stop at that.

Sitting in a tempo at Suket, I kept thinking about when the Mukandara hills around Dara Pass might too fall prey to such ravages. Finally, after a third leg, I made it to Ramganj Mandi (RMA), with about 30 minutes to spare, just as the sun was setting.

I climbed atop the foot over bridge (FOB), and took a few snaps of the sunset, and a freighter that came down from the Pass.

Finally, as the last remnants of daylight disappeared, my 12956 Jaipur-Mumbai Central Superfast, hauled by a WAP4E 22351 came in.

I hopped on board, displacing some squatters from my Side Lower birth, and soon settled for a quick nap for my 3 hour trip to Ratlam.

The next day, would be spent on the Meter gauge service that runs through the forests of Central India on the Ratlam-Akola line… but that’s the story for another day. For today, I was simply happy to actually set foot on a historic pass that millions have crossed, in the middle of the night as their Expresses take them to and from Delhi and Mumbai… but few have savored it on ground.

← Back to trip report index