The railway museum tucked away in Mysore is a surprising showcase of a rich legacy. We take you on a historical ride of the Indian Railways
Walking on the pavement, looking for a board that announces the Railway Museum, you tend to almost miss it. But the lush greenery on the other side of the road catches your eye and holds you in a grip.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
The museum stands quietly at the corner of two roads, with a no-fuss gate. A steady stream of vehicles passes by at a pace that is perfectly in tune with Mysore’s laid back life. The ticket counter here is the most amusing space. Instead of a tiny window in which you thrust some bills and extricate the ticket, this one’s a repurposed guard van of an old goods train. This simplicity comes across as a breath of fresh air in comparison to other museums.
REMARKABLE AND WELL-PRESERVED
Once inside, the first thing that you spot is vintage locomotives and passenger coaches standing on bits of railway track, with narrow paved paths leading up to them. Start the tour with a narrow gauge E Class steam loco bearing the badge number 119 E. It is remarkably well-preserved. With its small size and gleaming paint, it looks like a newly-painted toy. The builder’s plate reveals that this loco is a 116 years old and was manufactured by W.G. Bagnall Ltd. in Strafford, England. The same company supplied several steam locos to the many private railway companies in India until the early 20th century, including a few to the Kolar Gold Fields.
Walk over to a narrow gauge coach that initially belonged to the Mysore State Railway, but was subsequently taken over by Southern Railway after the railways were nationalised. Built in 1927, this coach has a body made of thick plyboard. The coach has dim interiors and hard wooden benches arranged parallel to the tracks, different from the seating arrangement of today. Climbing down from the coach, move to a meter gauge steam loco marked ‘37338 TS’, another product of W.G. Bagnall. Built in 1932, it pulled coaches for the Mysore State Railways for many years before being discontinued. The most striking feature of this loco is not any of its manufactured parts, but the three lines of sacred ash on its forehead. Steam loco drivers and yard keepers of the railways were known to be intensely fond of their ‘wards’. They would give them pet names, wash them thoroughly every day, perform puja for their wellbeing and even mark their foreheads with the sacred ash.
A SHOWCASE OF HISTORY
Next up is the Chamundi Gallery, which showcases the history and evolution of locomotives. The mesmeric black and white photos of vintage locomotives streaking through different landscapes, the steam billowing proudly from their chimneys is a capturing sight. There are photos of certain key moments in railway history too. This gallery is sure to warm the cockles of avid photographers.
ALL CUED UP
Moving on, spend some time at the section dedicated to signals. Did you know that the earliest signaling mechanism for trains involved a man on horseback riding ahead of the train, carrying a flag? Then came the ball signal, the fingerpost signal and a long line of other mechanisms before the current sensorbased electronic system was adopted.
Walk around the gallery, taking in old newspaper clippings on the railways, official memos issued by railway companies and postage stamps.
Exit the gallery and walk a few paces to the Sriranga Pavilion. This is a huge hall with a high ceiling. Its centerpiece is undoubtedly the saloon of the Maharani (queen) of Mysore. You will find its ‘consort’, the saloon of the Maharaja of Mysore, in the National Rail Museum, New Delhi. The Maharani’s saloon is a metre gauge, B Type coach that was custom-built to her preferences in 1899. Back then, the saloon cost the kingly sum of `29,000; so, imagine how much it would have cost now! The emblem of the Mysore state is affixed onto one side of the saloon. Three steps lead to a small landing and a glass partition from which you see a bed, a writing desk by the window, a dressing table and an en suite bathroom. Though the upholstery has faded and a few fittings are missing, the vision of a luxurious life is trapped inside the saloon even after all these years. Attached to the saloon stands a private kitchen cum dining coach, complete with a larder, gas line and berths for the staff to sleep on.
Elsewhere in this huge hall is a long line of memorabilia from railway stations of the past. There is antique wooden furniture from the Srirangapatna railway station in Karnataka, grandfather clock, a magneto telephone and a telegraph machine. And, most interestingly, there is a Neals Ball Token instrument too. In the good old days, different ‘key’ systems were used by the railways. The key was meant to ensure the smooth passage of trains and prevent accidents. The Neals Ball token was one such system.
Walk over railway tracks to the rear part of the open museum. On the way, you will pass an old signal, a set of levers that serve to switch trains from one track to another and a quaint steamdriven rail carriage. There is a toy train too, and it start its rounds daily at 2:30 pm.
Clamber aboard a railbus, one of the few that were deployed in all of India, and spend a few minutes inside it. This one used to run between Shimoga and Talaguppa in Karnataka. The information board reveals the quirky history behind this railbus. It was one of the few trains in India that used to have conductors on board; you could, therefore, clamber aboard even at the last minute, knowing you would get tickets on the train itself. And secondly, a mobile gateman used to travel along. His job was to get down before every level crossing, close the gates, open them after the railbus had passed and then hop onto the railbus again.
Another steam loco greets you through the trees. This one is standing at the farthest end of the museum and looks like a WP. The maker’s plate reveals that it’s a majestic YP. For several decades, WPs and YPs were the chief work horses of our railways, hauling thousands of passengers across the length and breadth of the network. Whereas the WP was a broad gauge loco, the YP was its meter gauge counterpart. After the tour, as you glance back one last time, you get the strong impression that you are about to step out of a time bubble.
Text: Ganesh Vancheeswaran