A surviving symbol of heritage

The Train through Tunnel 16  

Duration — 5 hours. Distance — 46 km. Price of ticket — Negligible. What to do — Travel up and down a scenic route. What you get — A package of guaranteed romance, adventure, relaxation, nature and definite adrenalin-surge.

Come aboard the Nilgiri Mountain Railways’ (NMR) nostalgia-dipped toy train where the youngest X class locomotive is more than 50 years and the oldest more than 80. You can’t disembark without a clutch of memories, none of them unpleasant, even if there’s a break-down. If that happens it’s unpaid-for — extra time to enjoy the forests and mountains, misty valleys and the cool, cool weather. As it inches up its route between 1,069 and 7,228 ft., you might get off to pick flowers for your love, look up to find an elephant staring at you from two ledges above, point your camera to catch a pretty hoopoe posing on a tree, wonder about disappearing-deep gorges, or just scream your head off every time you pass through a tunnel. Its charm is fabled — the train has been whistling and chugging since 1899 — first from Mettupalayam to Coonoor, and since 1908, to Fernhill and Ooty — it’s a journey through 16 tunnels and across 250 bridges.

According to archaeologist Suresh, who is also the convener of the INTACH Tamil Nadu Chapter and Ramana Kumar, VP, Photographic Society of India, NMR has a unique history. Adds Suresh, “In the 1980s, I did extensive listing of historical monuments in Thanjavur, Sriperumbudur, Pudukkottai, Kumbakonam. I was asked to cover Ooty in 92-93. I focussed on the Coonoor-Ooty belt. Now I’m digitising the 70 per cent I had covered in that stint and will retain it. Sadly, most of them have been re-constructed. The new listing is on the 30 per cent that was left out.” They were happy to find that the Breeks Memorial School had preserved its heritage features.

Although the NMR has survived, many stops on the way are now ghost stations. Some structures are overgrown with flora and are crumbling fast. You can’t reach them for fear of wild animals. The train, thankfully, has stayed the way Swiss inventor Riggenbach had fashioned it. It is still painted in the original blue and yellow and still sports bench-seats without cushioning. And mercifully, the coaches remain open — no glass windows or curtains.

“Till 1820 no one knew of Ooty, it had fluctuating boundaries of forest land,” says Suresh. That year (so people say), cops chasing a couple of thieves followed them into the woods on the other side of Kallar. They returned with the bandits and information that the place where they had caught the thieves was cool and breathtakingly beautiful. The brigands might have lost a career, but gave the world a hill station and an ageless beauty. The district collector John Sullivan at once decided to migrate to the ‘paradise’ and in the 1820s, was the first European to do so. He founded Ooty, built two stone-houses — one, called Kal Bangla which became the official residence of the Principal of the Government Arts College, and is being renovated.

Of course, reaching Sullivan’s new home wasn’t easy. Travellers needed to ride on horseback or to be carried on ‘dolies’ up a forest path to Othaikkal Mandu or one-stone-temple (it is still around). The name was then anglicised to become Ootacamund and Tamilised to Udhagamandalam and shortened to Ooty. A railway line was the answer. It was first discussed in 1854, but took 40 years to get started. In 1873, the train to Coimbatore was extended to Mettupalayam and one took the ghat road before the tracks were laid. Today, NMR is the lifeline of the Nilgiris economy. The hill towns live on tourism and the train is a major draw. In 2005, the NMR system of rakes-tracks-stations-signals-tunnels became world heritage. Suresh goes on rail-trails that include trekking along the tracks, tunnel-exploring and checking out railway structures like signal-systems and milestones.

The train passes through plains for the first five miles. In the next 12, it climbs dramatically up to 4,363 ft. through nine tunnels, treating you to magnificent views of the eastern slopes of Nilgiris. Then you move to the left for non-stop photo-ops. It’s a picture of tranquility as the train passes through Coonoor, Wellington, Lovedale and halts near the Ooty Lake.

Get off the beaten track and walk around. Close to the Mettupalayam station you’ll see the longest rail bridge here, across the Bhavani River. Watch out for the Coonoor station — it is stone-built and was the terminal for nine years. The Fernhill station has been closed and is now a ‘rest’ guesthouse. You have to be a senior railway official or someone with special permission to spend a night there, but with all that you’ll still be sleeping on a railway platform! With the tracks so close, the guesthouse windows have to remain shut. Or else, the train will have to stop for them to close before proceeding.

The tunnels are unique — rock-cut or masonry — and offer spectacular views. The toy train was featured as Marabar Express in David Lean’s movie version of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. At least three chief ministers of South India have been picturised dancing around the train in movies. If you can pull it off, get in touch with the wonderful Ooty station master Pramod. He might even demonstrate the intricacies of the old signalling system. As there is no catering on the train, carry boxed lunches for train food. And don’t miss the tree planted by Sullivan in the Government Arts College compound.

“I offered to join Suresh on this documentation project even before he asked me,” says Ramana. “I walked around with three cameras, with cops trailing me. They wanted to know why I was shooting odd spots. A curious Father asked me if I was cataloguing churches. At the Fernhill Guesthouse, we were repeatedly warned: “Not safe, not safe!” The 4-km track/tunnel-walk through tunnel no. 16 was fabulous from a photographer's point of view, he says. Waiting for the train to emerge from the tunnel and catching the live-action was definitely the defining moment.

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Printable version | Apr 28, 2021 10:41:07 PM |

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