Vikas Singh, 33, brand manager with Reckitt Benckiser (India) Ltd, fell in love with the past and present of narrow gauge railways six years ago. He travelled on the Kangra Valley Railway to Pragpur, India’s first and only heritage village, in March.
Himachal Pradesh is dotted with beautiful holiday destinations. Why go to Pragpur?
It’s India’s first and only heritage village. But more than that, I was drawn to the trip because with Pragpur, I completed my circuit of all the narrow gauge railway lines in India—that’s 2,700km—and I trekked on the most beautiful part of the tracks.
So, would you call yourself a narrow gauge railway buff?
That’s right. A few years ago, I read an article by Bill Aitken on the Garhi Harsaru-Farukhnagar metre gauge railway line, the oldest such line in the world. I became interested and joined the Indian Railways Fan Club Association. For the past five or six years, I have been doing a narrow gauge journey every three months.
My wife and six-year-old son are usually with me—I’ve initiated them into my passion —though my son is frightened of steam engines. On this trip, however, I was on my own.
Narrow gauge is endangered: some bits are being promoted to broad gauge, others closed down. But apart from mountain railways such as Kalka-Shimla, Darjeeling or Neral-Matheran, people are hardly aware of narrow gauge lines.
Apart from travelling on the lines, I also document surviving narrow gauge steam locomotives in India.
Was the journey to Pragpur more meaningful than the destination?
A regular traveller could drive down to Pragpur from Delhi. I travelled to Pathankot by the overnight Shalimar Express, and then caught the 4.30am narrow gauge train to Joginder Nagar for an eight-hour journey. The Kangra Valley Railway (KVR), as this section is called, opened in 1928-29, and has the steepest gradient (between Baijnath Mandir and Ahju) for an adhesion line in Indian Railways, the longest bridge (over Gaj khud) for a narrow gauge line and the only steel arch railway bridge in the country near Kangra. Because of my reading, I knew exactly what to expect. On the train, I am always near the door with a camera in hand. Sometimes, I travel in the engine car.
You also trekked eight km from Tripal to Guler. Why?
Between Tripal and Guler is a station called Lunsu Halt. It’s the sole lifeline for the villages around there. Since there are no roads, villagers use the track as a path. Indian Railways operates the KVR for purely altruistic reasons. The rail fares are much lower than the bus fares, but even then the locals don’t bother to buy tickets. I did a lovely two-hour trek through the wilderness, without a soul in sight. From Guler, I took a cab to Pragpur, a 45-minute ride.
Tell us about the village.
Pragpur dates back to the 16th-17th century. Legend has it that Prag Dei, a Jaswan princess, helped resist bands of dacoits and the village came up at the centre of three shaktipeeths—Brajeshwari, Chintpurni and Jwalamukhi—to commemorate her. The enterprising Sood community made it its home. The Soods went on to make a lot of money in Shimla and other places and invested in grand havelis, schools, dharmashalas and water systems in Pragpur. Some are in good shape, some, bad. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which is carrying out restoration work in Pragpur and neighbouring Garli, has documented 77 heritage structures in the area. I stayed in one of them—a 250-year-old mansion called Judge’s Court, now run as a hotel by ITC WelcomHeritage.
Is it just a tourist village?
Not at all. It’s a living village, with 3,000 residents. Though there are plenty of ugly modern structures, the locals are by and large aware of their heritage and work on conservation. Several leading families are also involved in the effort.
I loved the taal, or tank, which goes back 150 years. Simbal-wood pipes—later replaced by steel pipes imported from London—brought water from natural springs in nearby Buliana village. The tank is surrounded by heritage structures constructed mostly by the Nehar committee, a village brotherhood. There’s also the Butail Niwas—a mansion of six identical apartments for the six sons of Lala Buta Mal. The flats are built around a sunken courtyard which, in summer, is flooded with water to cool the house.
Garli, a four km walk away, has beautiful brick chimneys, stained glass and woodwork, all stark reminders of its colonial past.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org