Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vidarbha Sojourn

Shakuntala Railway is set of two narrow gauge lines radiating south and north from Murtizapur in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. The southern line is 113 km long going up to Yavatmal. The northern line is 89 km long going up to Achalpur which is close to Paratwada town. Murtizapur is located on Mumbai-Kolkata mainline. The lines were laid by British to transport cotton from hinterland to the mainline. The lines were steam hauled till 1994 when it was converted to diesel. Now days there is one train only per line. Both the trains leave Murtizapur a little after 7 AM and come back to Murtizapur by late night. Recently the speed was clamped to 20 km/h because of which the Yavatmal train comes back only by midnight. Another interesting fact about these lines is that they are privately held by a British company called Killicks-Nixon and leased to Indian Railways which operate them. These lines have lost their economic importance and are run simply for local political compulsions. The train fares are very cheap and anyways there would be lot of ticketless travel. The roads are much faster and takes one in one-third the time. Still these lines run and remain the symbol of bygone era.

I harbored a longtime wish to travel on these lines to witness how is the life and operations in this part of the world. To finish been there done that. I got that chance this year in March when I was visiting Nagpur. I made a circular route plan which included traveling on these lines, visiting Chikhaldara, then traveling back to Nagpur via Morshi, Warud, Katol which is the region in the foothills of Satpura range. I termed this entire trip as Vidarbha sojourn.

Chikhaldara is a small town close to Achalpur/Paratwada, near Amaravati. It is the only hill station in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Vidarbha is one of the hottest region of India and Chikhaldara being a hill station, I was always to curious to see how it is. Though it was not the best time to visit it but went with thinking that if it turned out well, it would much better at other times. I am even contemplating living there later in life so just wanted to see it myself. It is situated at 1115 mts above sea level, supposed to be cooler than plains, amidst forests etc.

I started from Nagpur one morning for Yavatmal. I took an state transport bus to Yavatmal at 9AM to catch return train from Yavatmal to Murtizapur at 1PM. However, when I reached Yavatmal, I came to know that the train arrives only by 3PM and returns back by 4PM. I tried to strike a conversation with personnel in Station Master's office who became conscious on my queries. The person asked me whether I was a journalist or some official who is asking such questions. I allayed their fears by telling them that I was just a simple railfan who is interested in rail heritage. Since there was quite some time I thought of going back to town and have meal and come back. After a decent lunch I even spent an hour in a cyber cafe just passing time. I came back to station by 2:30 PM. Now I got to speak to the real Station Master who showed some interest. Before I could ask for his permission to take photographs, he himself asked me whether I was carrying a camera in the pouch dangling from my shoulder. I said in affirmative to which he requested whether I could take some pictures for him? I was delighted. He said that I could go ahead and click in the station premises.
The station was unlike the stations we know. Though the railway land where it is located is quite big and barren, the station is diminutive. How could it be big which receives only one train in the entire day that too a slow, decrepit narrow gauge train. The passengers over period have shunned it and have taken to buses. The only saving grace for this station is passenger reservation system (PRS) which receives some footfalls during the day and something for the station staff to manage. After the permission I took a stroll around. I was more interested in capturing some historical facts, emblems etc. from British period and steam era. There was a huge old style metal water tower with canopy like roof resting on structure made of old rails.

There was water in that tower still probably to provide to station. I circled it and after careful examination spotted a rail with marking of year "1864". Wow that was a discovery. Earlier the foundries which manufactured metal equipments used to etch the year of manufacture on the rails and other structures.

Apart from that a separate line coming near the water tower was present with a pit. On this line, the steam engines used to come to fill water and even to drop ashes. The blackish soil around the pit was evidence of that. Further towards the end of line there were masts with hollow lamp like structures. These must have been oil lamps used to signal during night operations. I sat there thinking and imagining how the scene would have been? Steam wafting from engines over these lamps in a wintery night with full moon creating a surreal moment. There were hardly any people in the station waiting for the train. At around 3PM the train finally arrived snaking among the line side bushes. I was clicking it till it came to a halt.

I briefly met the driver which was a character unto itself. More about him later. I clicked the stationary train from all angles and came back to the station master. He wanted to send these photographs to Central Railways headquarter for their magazine. Though this place has no importance in terms of traffic but makes a good topic of heritage and trivia. Now the problem arose of how to transfer these photographs. I said I could email it to them in few days when I return or transfer to any PC but neither was feasible as there was no PC around nor he could wait for long. He came up with idea that we could go to town and copy it in a cyber cafe. When I asked wouldn't the train leave by then to which he jokingly said that I was with Station Master and train would not leave without his order. He assured me that they are not holding the train back and it anyways stops for an hour for drivers to relax and nobody's in a hurry. So I jumped pillion to the Station Master on his bike and rode up to a cyber cafe and quickly transfer photos. While coming back he offered to have some drink. We had a glass of lassi each for which he insisted on paying. So I had a glass of lassi on Railway's expense. We came back then station master made a paper authority which is a procedure to give permission for train to leave. He introduced me to driver, guard who were friendly.

I kept my bag with the guard and boarded in one of the coaches. The train trotted out of station by 4PM and passed through some filthy suburbs before coming in the open.

I was surprised to see the residents of these suburbs standing alongside and enthusiastically watching the train and children waving and running along it. The train though has no significance outside is still a welcome visitor in their lives.

Now about the driver. How it happens that one encounters most interesting people at unexpected juncture. When train stopped at the first station, I walked towards the engine where the driver invited me to join him which is what I was looking for. I climbed atop and driver gave his seat to me and himself sat on the space in front of instruments. When I first saw him at Yavatmal, he turned out to be an untidy though dutiful person, a muslim as due to his skull cap. He wore his uniform over an inner clothing with his ID card neatly hanging from the pocket and mobile phone hanging form the neck. He had worn skull cap, a deliberately kept beard which was black, brown and white making his persona of that of a Muslim. First he enquired about myself like where I was from, what do I do, married or not etc. After satisfying himself he started his story. He told me that he has four wives at different locations which kind of confirmed that he was a Muslim. He explained about his wives how he happened to marry them. It was only happenstance that he took over hapless women as their wives. During childhood he was a rowdy and everybody disliked him. His parents and relatives would taunt him, how would somebody give his daughter to him to marry to which he would reply that he would show them by keeping four wives. So even though his marriages were not pre-planned but destiny turned out to be that way. Two of his wives are sisters, one an abandoned woman and another through some circumstance. His children from his first wife are of my age and do their own business. He stays with his first wife at Murtizapur. After only some time I come to know that he is a devout Hindu. He turned out be a benevolent candyman who distributed candies to children around this line. He was not just a candyman to children but to adults too.

He would give sugar candies to children and tobacco candies aka various pan masala/guthkha pouches to adults. He said that he spend Rs. 50/- everyday towards this and showed me his stock for today. I picked a couple which were locally made candies. This largesse and benevolence came from his contentment. He looked really content with his life in his conversation. He was earlier a driver of broad gauge trains at Bhusawal. Then he took a salary cut in terms of perks he would receive on mainline and came back on this line to live a peaceful life. He himself is a vegetarian, tee-totaler, non-smoker and even does not chew tobacco which he merrily distributes to people. He eats only home-cooked food that too with a little salt and spice. At one station children gathered around the engine and he gave them candies.

One of his so called wives, a widow with a child from earlier husband lives in a village on the route. She came up to the engine and handed him over his tiffin for that night. Every other day he would take the train out from Murtizapur either going south or north and returned the same day. He was a quack of acupuncture as well where he would put pressure on pressure points in hands and shoulders. He gave me a demo of it by working on my hands. I was so intrigued hearing his story that it gave me goosebumps. His life could be made into a movie.

While he narrated his story we passed few stations. All the stations seemed like they are in middle of nowhere. The stations themselves were nothing, just a board and an abandoned stone house. None of these stations had any staff since very long. The guard doubled up as ticket clerk and sold tickets to passengers from his coach window. The sun set while we were on the move. We stopped at a station called Darwah Motibagh which had some staff. It was a tea break station.

From here a new driver joined who would take the train all the way to Murtizapur. This arrangement of another driver was put as it would be really tiring for one person to bring the train all the way from Murtizapur and take it back. Now my driver friend went back to guard coach to rest. The new driver was equally friendly and showered warmth. We now strutted along the countryside in complete darkness. There were hardly any settlement or any road or any other activity. The engines headlight beam was piercing the dark as knife. The stars were out and expectedly denser than what we see in cities. At around 9PM I got off the train at a station called Karanja which is a town. I decided not to travel up to Mutizapur which would be quite late and I may not find a lodging and then I wanted to catch next day's train. I wanted a night's rest before that and I also wanted to eat. I bade goodbye to both the drivers. They informed me that they would be on the north train day after and invited me to join them. According to my plan, I was supposed to return back day after from Chikhaldara so hoped that I would meet them and come back with them from Achalpur. After getting down, I walked through the town which was closing down looking for a lodging. I walked for 20 mins all the way to bus-stop but there was nothing. Then I asked a cycle rickshaw to take me to a decent hotel. He took me to the most decent hotel where I was reminded of CWG saga of our standard of hygiene could be different than theirs. The rooms were filthy though cheap. After looking at few rooms, I settled for least filthy. For dinner I had veg biryani at their restaurant which was spicy. I went to sleep to wake up early for next day's travel. I woke up in time thankfully getting some sleep. After taking a bath quickly left the lodge and went to the bus stand. I was promised that there would be buses going to Murtizapur but there was none and earliest was expected at 6:30 AM which could have been late considering that north train leaves Murtizapur by 7:15 AM and it takes at least 30 minutes to cover the distance. There was a private vehicle which languishingly started a little before 6:30 after loading passengers. I was glad when I reached Murtizapur that train is yet to leave. Infact, both south and north trains were there and drivers and guards were doing final preparation. This was late spring so at this time, there was a nip in the air and sunlight filtered through the haze. The light was great for photography and I took several pictures.

The drivers of north train were not that welcoming even after narrating my stint yesterday with their colleagues. Finding that I wouldn't be lucky this time, I reluctantly settled in one of the coaches at the door. The train lazily started and continued at same slow pace. I was feeling nice, sitting at the door, nice weather and fields passing before my eyes.

We stopped at a station where I hoped that we would find something to eat, at least a cup of tea but found only a small vendor. I had biscuits to satiate my stomach. After some time we reached Banosa aka Daryapur which is a significant town. I was told that train would stop for some time for breakfast etc. The station is adjacent to bus stand which has lot of activity and hence some eateries. I quickly ruches to an eatery and had decent breakfast. There were lot of passengers who got down and embarked on the train. My foot board was taken and had to share with a old, drunken farmer.

Folks in the train were amused at me taking photographs. At one station I saw some folk sitting at the rooftop. I decided to go upstairs myself to enjoy unhindered view and space. Since the train would go maximum to 20 km/h there not much danger of falling off. Though I was very cautious my companions at the rooftop were sleeping! The line went dead straight for most time surrounded by fields at both side which were empty at this time of the year. Here one sows only when there is rain as ground water is limited and irrigation too is not there. After some time we reached Anjangaon which is again a significant town. I decided to detrain here and take bus for onward journey to Paratwada which is the gateway to Chikhaldara.

At Anjangaon I took a auto-rick to bus stand. While I was waiting there I was just taking a stock of where I am? I was hopping from town to town all alone in this part of Vidarbha which is my home. I was not worried here and I thought I would make it through without any trouble. A little a bus came destined to Paratwada coming from Akot. Akot reminded me of my sojourn to Indore in Meter gauge train from Akola. Akot was first major station there. I was in the same territory. The road to Paratwada was a state highway depicting Baitul as one of the destinations 100 km away. Baitul is a station in the heart of Satpura on Delhi-Chennai route very well know to train travelers. I have a wish to visit that town as well but that was for some other time. At Paratwada bus stand there was a bus ready to go to Chikhaldara. I quickly boarded it but it left only 40 minutes later. I was happy to find a window seat as it gets very crowded. After some time we started climbing the hills.There were a couple of wind turbine which are visible from very far away.

It wasn't really cool in the afternoon but town was quaint. When I got down I was thinking where should I stay. I could see there were some lodges around. One guy approached me regarding a hotel and cab to go around. I accompanied him and got a room for Rs. 400/- per night which was decent. The person told me that this being off season, the rooms are available otherwise in season like monsoon and winters, there is lot of rush. After lunch I took a stroll around in the market and found that it is quite laid back.

The place reminded me of Matheran. In the evening I visited a couple of points like Bhimtal and couple of other points. There is a huge garden in the town which had coffee plants. I have been to coffee growing regions like Chikmagloor in Karnataka and found that the atmosphere here is equally salubrious. Next morning I thought of waking up early and visiting the sunrise points which was couple of kms away. While I was still walking up to the point, the sun rose from within the tree leaves.

It wasn't cold just perfect atmosphere. There was no hustle-bustle, in fact not many people could be seen around. I just took a long walk along a circuitous route and came back.

Then I went for breakfast in the eateries near main station. After freshening up I decided to leave the place and head back. Whatever exploration I wanted I had done that and it was enough for me. I got a picture of the place. I decided to come back in season with family to properly explore the place. There is no major towns beyond here as it is mostly forest and very sparsely populated. Most of the people are tribals because of which any commercial activity is anyway discouraged. There is a Project Tiger site close by - Melghat which has significant tiger population. To visit that one has to go to a point called Semadoh from where one could enter it. The entire area must be turning into a heaven in Monsoon but one should have their own sturdy vehicle to visit around.

The return bus was the same I traveled in while coming. The bus got crowded just like while coming up. The settlements on the way have only these buses to their rescue. There did not seem any auto/tempo services probably due to poverty and not much economic activities around. When I reached Paratwada, I was thinking of options. Should I take the train with friendly drivers or should I simply catch a bus to Nagpur but that too via which route? After waiting some time I realized it is time for the train to arrive at Achalpur station. As I had not seen the end of line at Achalpur so I decided to receive the train at Achalpur station and then think of returning. The Achalpur station was surprisingly within 15 minutes walking distance from Paratwada bus stand. I went to another dream again. What if we could extend the narrow gauge line from Achalpur to Chikhaldara? It would be another mountain rail in India. However, my dream was shattered looking at state of Achalpur station. Such dreams require visionaries which sorely are lacking in this part of the world, that is why the region is anyway backward. Probably they are happy in the bare essential existence. The station again like Yavatmal had a passenger reservation system which brought in some footfalls. There was some business activity like ice-cream seller and a nicknack seller. I went around the station and it was similar to Yavatmal, a water tank, a separate line close to water tank with a pit with blackish soil. All signs of steam operation which stopped long back. I went up to the end of line which was just before the road with bushes covering the ground. The train arrived soon and the friendly drivers were happy to see me. The benevolent driver immediately gave me an acu-pressure therapy to my hands and shoulders. I clicked pictures of the train and other artifacts around like levers.

Just like Yavatmal I found a sign of British era with a point lever where "Worcester, England" was etched.

The folks suggested that there is an old bridge just 10 minutes from the station which could be a good subject but I did not have energy to walk that much in heat. The friendly drivers went for their refreshment and I bade them goodbye. My objective of traveling on this line was fulfilled and handsomely covering the two terminals.

I soon came back to Paratwada station where luckily a bus was ready to depart to Nagpur via the route I wanted. The bus started soon and went via Morshi, Warud, Katol. There is a new railway line being laid from Amravati to Narkher which would be a direct short route. We crossed the line at many places but regular operations are yet to start on it. This region is a little blessed in terms of productive soil, water. This region is the Orange county whose produce is traded at Nagpur which gives it the name of Orange city. I saw several orange fields on the route. There is a huge Nal-Damayanti sagar in this region and we skirted around it. The Satpura hills were visible at a distance. How I wish I would be able to visit this region in my own vehicle someday without any plan and savoring this entire region. At Katol, we crossed the main Delhi-Chennai line while sun was setting. After that it was run to Nagpur. The road was dotted with lot of farmhouses. Lucky folks.

That brought down an end to my Vidarbha sojourn.