Board the narrow guage Kangra Valley Train and embark on a scenic route across the valley. Selected excerpts from the book…
The Kangra Valley lies between the Shiwalik Hills that rise from the Punjab plains and the Outer Himalayas, dominated by the Dhauladhar ranges. Known as Dev Bhumi or the Land of the Gods, one can see vistas of verdant lands, green with rice fields and tea gardens.
This railway line was first proposed in 1902, and in 1912 the Railway Board sanctioned a 26-km route from Pathankot to Nurpur and two years later, the extension to Baijnath was passed. However, World War I broke out and the whole plan was shelved until 1925. The line opened to general traffic in 1929. The Kangra Valley Railways (KVR) is an excellent example of how railway engineers worked in harmony with nature; their work, which was sensitively conceived and carried out, is a tribute to the beauty of this sub-Himalayan region.
The route runs from Pathankot in the Punjab plains to Joginder Nagar in the Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh and covers a distance of 164 km.
This halt is 62 km from Pathankot and an ideal stop to visit the Masrur temple There is a remarkable group of rock-cut temples perched on a hill at an elevation of 2,500 ft. Michael Meister, the renowned art historian believed that the Masrur temples were the inspiration for the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Nearby are the Pong Wetlands, one of the largest wetlands in North India. The reservoir stretches for 41 km and is 19 km wide. The area is a submerged valley of the Shivalik Hills and part of the Beas river. It supports almost 220 species of birds and 27 species of fish. In 1983, Pong became a wildlife sanctuary.
Past a few more stations is Guler. The village lies a little away from the station and is a charming, prosperous area with fertile lands supporting fruits and vegetables. This was once a thriving place known for its musicians, dancers and painters.
Moving east from Guler is the Banganga Gorge. Here, one crosses over on one of the highlights of the railway- the famous Banganga Bridge, a great achievement in railway engineering. From here, the train climbs upwards to Jwalamukhi. A sacred triangle exists in this part, bounded by three goddess shrines – Jawalamukhi, Mata Cintapurni (in Una district) and Vajeshwari Devi in Kangra. At the heart of this triangle is Garli-Pragpur, 30 km from the Guler railhead. In 1997, these two villages were declared a heritage zone by the state government. Pragpur is a medieval world of narrow winding lanes and closely built houses.
The town of Chamunda is known for its temple that was built in the 16th century. Set against the panoramic view of the Dhauladhar, this reconstructed temple on the banks of the Baner River, attracts thousands of devotees.
The journey from Jwalamukhi to Kangra has its dramatic moments as the train traverses two tunnels – the 25-ft Dhundni and the 1,075-ft Daulatpur – that cut through the heart of the mountain. The Kangra Fort is visible from the train, built by the Katoch clan, the rulers of Kangra. En route to Dharamsala is Reond Nullah, over which is the spectacular Steel Arch Bridge, built over a chasm whose sides rise 200 ft above the river. From Kangra to Nagrota, the track runs below the Dhauladhar. From here or from Kangra one can visit Dharamsala, Sidhbari and Gopalpur. The British annexed Kangra Valley in 1849 and soon a cantonment town sprang up along the slopes of the Dhauladhar.
‘Pulum’ or the abundance of water, gives Palampur its name, Well-known for its landscapes and tea gardens set against the snow-capped backdrop of the Dhauladhar, Palampur was part of the Sikh kingdom until its takeover by the British. Tea led to the development of a colonial town with the army hospital, churches, schools and hotels.
The train moves away from the main highway and dips through the valley, and the journey is an intimate one through villages and fields. The steepest section is from Baijnath-Paprola to Ahju and, since 1976, the powerful ZDM3 locomotive built by Chittaranjan Locomotives has been used. These locomotives are specially used for hilly regions and the train bogeys have been reduced to only four carriages.
The train travels across the Bhir gorge to Ahju (4,025 ft), the highest point in the journey. Dominated by a medieval fort belonging to the Banghalia Pals, it is one of the most charming stations on the KVR. From here one can travel from Road to Bir and Billing.
Bir, set among tea gardens, is lush and beautiful and the road lined with rhododendron forests, takes one up to Billing, the take-off point for the popular sport of paragliding. The Bir-Billing area is rich in butterflies and a recent survey recorded 50 species. Bir has a large Tibetan colony and there is a growing cottage industry for carpet-weaving.
A town that has beautiful weather, Chauntra is home to Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Institute. There are over-500 students drawn from different areas and monasteries of the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The temple is placed at an impressive height overlooking the shedra (a centre for teaching). Decorated with magnificent paintings and metalwork, this imposing edifice can seat up to 4,000 persons. A 28-ft gold statue of Sakyamuni Buddha dominates the interior.
The last lap of the journey to Joginder Nagar is perhaps the most beautiful, as the train glides through verdant landscapes with terraced rice fields and slate-roofed, half-timbered, and double-storeyed villages. Joginder Nagar came into prominence in the 1930s, when the first hydroelectric power station was built. Joginder Nagar is famous for its rhododendron forests.