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Riding the meter-gauge rails

Broad-gauge (left) and meter-gauge (right) trains at Jaipur Junction.

Broad-gauge (left) and meter-gauge (right) trains at Jaipur Junction.

When private British capital first started building railroads in India in the mid-nineteenth century, the lines were built in broad gauge. With a spacing between the rails of 5 ft 6 in, this was, and still is, the widest rail gauge in common use anywhere in the world. The colonial Government of India started to build their own rail lines in the 1870s. These public-sector railways were more cheaply built than their private counterparts, and they were made in meter gauge (3 ft 3 3/8 in).

Even after independence and the nationalization of the private railways, broad-gauge and meter-gauge lines continued to be developed in parallel with each other. Only in the 1990s did the Indian Railways start to convert meter-gauge lines to broad gauge, under Project Unigauge. Since then, large stretches of meter-gauge lines have been replaced by broad gauge.

Meter-gauge lines survive here and there. One such line runs between Jaipur Junction and Sikar, 107 km (66 mi) to the northwest. Meter gauge used to run all of the way to Churu, another fifty miles to the north, but that stretch has recently been closed for conversion to broad gauge. (The time table posted in Jaipur Junction station still says Churu on it, although the name has been whited out and replaced with Sikar.) Someday the Jaipur–Sikar line will also become broad gauge. But in the meantime, seven meter-gauge trains will continue to run back and forth between Jaipur and Sikar every day.

Since meter gauge won’t be around forever, I felt obliged to ride the Jaipur–Sikar train when I had the chance. A month ago, I rode one of these trains from Jaipur as far as Chomun, one-third of the way to Sikar. The meter-gauge tracks at Jaipur Junction station are on the north side of the broad-gauge lines, so the tracks don’t have to cross each other. I found a place where both gauges run side-by-side, showing the difference in size.

Comparison of meter gauge (left) and broad gauge (right).

Comparison of meter gauge (left) and broad gauge (right).

The meter-gauge train was smaller and, I dare say, cuter than the broad-gauge trains I am used to seeing. Inside, the coach was just wide enough for a bench seating four or five adults.

Meter-gauge locomotive of 52083 Jaipur-Sikar MG Pass train.

Meter-gauge locomotive of 52083 Jaipur-Sikar MG Pass train.

Meter-gauge luggage car.

Meter-gauge luggage car.

Panorama of a compartment in a meter-gauge train.

Panorama of a compartment in a meter-gauge train.

I sat in the coach just behind the diesel-electric locomotive, because that one was farthest along the platform and nobody else was in it at first. When the train left Jaipur station, only two other men were in my compartment. At the first stop, Dher ka Balaji, the compartment filled up. The train passed by Jaipur’s sprawl for a while, then it reached the open countryside. After several station stops that I didn’t see the name of, the train pulled into Chomun station, a nice little colonial Public Works Department structure.

The single platform of Chomun Samod station.

The single platform of Chomun Samod station.

Glimpse of the facade of Chomun Samod station.

Glimpse of the facade of Chomun Samod station.

At Chomun, my meter-gauge technological tourism came to an end. I returned to Jaipur by city bus.

Having ridden on a meter-gauge train, I can now appreciate how much the Indian Railways have changed since the days when the narrower gauge was more prevalent. The train I rode to Chomun just didn’t have the capacity of the much larger broad-gauge trains I have ridden in India.

jaisamand-lake-pan

Jaisamand, Mewar’s superlative lake

View of the ornamented backside of Jaisamand Dam.

View of the ornamented backside of Jaisamand Dam.

In southern Rajasthan, thirty miles south of the city of Udaipur, twenty square miles of the Aravalli Mountains have been flooded by the remarkable Jaisamand Lake, formed by the 1500-ft Jaisamand Dam. Tourist guidebooks frequently erroneously refer to Jaisamand as the second-largest artificial lake in Asia. This is far from the truth; in India alone, a half-dozen artificial lakes are much larger than Jaisamand. What is remarkable about Jaisamand is the combination of its size and its age. The lake was built in 1685 on behalf of Maharana Jai Singh of Mewar. Jaisamand holds the undisputed distinction of being the largest extant pre-modern artificial lake in India.

Of the numerous Rajput kingdoms in medieval western India, Mewar was the last to submit to the Mughal Empire. In 1568, Mewar lost its capital Chittaurgarh to the army of Akbar after a long and bloody siege, but a royal remnant escaped to found a new capital at Udaipur. The Mughals tried to defeat Mewar again at the epic Battle of Haldighati in 1576, but Maharana Pratap Singh escaped with his life and his kingdom. (Alas, Pratap’s horse Chetak succumbed to his injuries during the battle, but he has since become a local hero in his own right.) Finally, in 1615, after a series of battles, Maharana Amar Singh was forced to accede to the Mughal Empire. This was more than fifty years after Amber became the first Rajput state to join the empire.

After getting dragged into the Mughal Empire, Mewar could redirect some of its resources from militarization to infrastructural development. Jaisamand Lake was one of the public works projects undertaken in the post-accession period. The lake stored water from the Gomti River, for use in irrigation. It also provided a setting for palaces and royal hunting reserves.

Jaisamand Lake has changed a little since the late seventeenth century. The original dam was refurbished around 1960. During the refurbishment, the historic front face of the dam was covered by a characterless concrete facade. The crest and backside of the dam, though, retain their historical appearance. A series of white marble steps lead down to the water. There are six stone chhatris (domed pavilions), six carved marble elephants, and a temple, Shri Narbdeshwar Mahadev Jaisamand. Despite some graffiti on the elephants, and the usual litter, Jaisamand Dam remains a place of historical importance and real beauty.

The steps on the backside of Jaisamand Dam.

The steps on the backside of Jaisamand Dam.

One of the chhatris on Jaisamand Dam. The white mark underneath the chhatri indicates the level reached by a flood in 1973.

One of the chhatris on Jaisamand Dam. The white mark underneath the chhatri indicates the level reached by a flood in 1973.

Pigeons fly over Shri Narbdeshwar Mahadev Jaisamand Temple, located front and center on Jaisamand Dam.

Pigeons fly over Shri Narbdeshwar Mahadev Jaisamand Temple, located front and center on Jaisamand Dam.

The characterless concrete face of the refurbished Jaisamand Dam.

The characterless concrete face of the refurbished Jaisamand Dam.

Jaisamand is accessible from Udaipur by Banswara-bound bus from the main government bus terminal near Udaipol. The dam and the lake are just up the hill from Jaisamand town, where the bus stops. Boat rides are available from the dam, at Rs 600 per boat for a half-hour or Rs 1200 for the full hour. On a hill just above the dam, a ruined palace stands on forest department land. Visitors can get permission to climb up to the palace from the forest department office, with payment of a fee. I thought the rate for foreigners of Rs 300 was ridiculously steep – even without the additional Rs 900 camera fee – so I opted out of that experience.

For further coverage of India’s pre-modern artificial lakes, please see my posts “Pietro della Valle’s long pilgrimage,” “Goodly Lakes,” and “Another Goodly Lake.

maota-lake-pan

Another Goodly Lake

View of Amber Fort. The first stage of the water-lifting machinery is in the lower right of this picture.

View of Amber Fort. The first stage of the water-lifting machinery is in the lower right of this picture.

In a blog post last summer, I discussed pre-modern artificial lakes in western India, including Jal Mahal Sagar in Jaipur and the Alwar Sagar. In arid western India during the Mughal period, artificial lakes provided water supplies for the cities that were growing in size during that time. These lakes still serve this purpose, although they have been supplemented by more modern lakes impounded by concrete or earthen dams.

Before the founding of Jaipur in 1727, the capital of the Kachhawaha Rajputs was at Amber (sometimes alternately spelled Amer). Amber Fort, built around 1600 during the reign of Man Singh I, was the royal palace; it is perched on a hill above the town. The water supply for Amber Fort was Maota Lake, impounded by a masonry dam in a valley below the palace. The rectangular top of the dam is landscaped as a geometric Mughal garden.

Overhead view of Maota Lake Dam, showing the Mughal garden on top.

Overhead view of Maota Lake Dam, showing the Mughal garden on top.

Maota Dam garden, Dilaram Bagh.

Maota Dam garden, Dilaram Bagh.

Since it supplied the all-important water needed for the inhabitants of Amber, Maota Lake was enclosed by the outer defensive walls of the city. Moving the water from the lake up to the palace posed a difficult engineering challenge. The topography of the site, and the requirement that the palace be located on a hilltop above the lake, made it impossible for the builders of Amber to use a gravity-fed aqueduct. Rather, they constructed an animal-powered multi-stage pumping station. A series of five ox-driven bucket lifts raised water from the lake level up to the palace.

Wooden gears that transferred the power of oxen walking in a circle to the bucket lift.

Wooden gears that transferred the power of oxen walking in a circle to the bucket lift.

View down the shaft of the top-most stage of Amber Fort's water lifting machinery.

View down the shaft of the top-most stage of Amber Fort’s water lifting machinery.

The pre-modern water-raising machinery at Amber Fort is similar to technology used throughout southwestern Asia, from India to the Levant. In 2013, UNESCO declared Amber Fort and five other Indian castles a World Heritage Site, collectively designated “Hill Forts of Rajasthan.” Among other features of the forts deserving of world heritage status, the inscription mentioned “extensive water harvesting structures, largely still in use today.”

Amber Fort celebrates its designation as a World Heritage Site, July 2013.

Amber Fort celebrates its designation as a World Heritage Site, July 2013.

(For more on the architectural aspects of Amber Fort, and other Rajput structures, please see my post “Batman Goes to India.”)

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