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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 Since then, large stretches of meter-gauge lines have been replaced by broad gauge.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.

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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 “Goodly Lakes” and “Another Goodly Lake.

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Riding the Delhi Metro

On my first visit to New Delhi, in 2009, my parents and I stayed in a hotel within walking distance of the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg station on the blue line of the Delhi Metro. At this station, the blue line still runs above ground, but this is the last elevated station before the line plunges underground. One of the first times my parents and I rode the Metro was on a Saturday morning. We climbed the stairs from street level to the station, bought RF-ID metrocards with value stored on them, went through a quick security check that made sure we weren’t carrying any guns or bombs, and then climbed the rest of the way to the platform level. When we got to the platform, there were only a few people milling around, waiting for the next train. As minutes passed, the platform slowly but steadily filled up with people, until there was a crowd of hundreds standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the platform.

The train had better be empty, I thought, because there is a trainfull of people standing here on the platform.

At last, the train arrived, and as it pulled up to the platform I saw that it was already packed full of people. The train slowed to a halt, the doors opened with a ding, and all at once the crowd on the station platform surged into the train. My parents and I had no choice but to go along. As we crossed the threshold and stepped into the coach, other people pressing in on us from all directions, I had a brief moment of panic. This is where I die, I thought, trampled to death in the Delhi Metro.

I am happy to report that I did not die while boarding the blue line. I did not even suffer any physical harm. Somehow, the bodies already in the coach managed to compress and make room for all the bodies that had been standing on the station platform. Once everybody was inside, the doors shut and we were off. As we pulled away from the station, a young man next to me started chatting with me and asked if he could take a photo with me (and the forty other people standing in close proximity with us) with his mobile phone. He told me that there was a fair today, and that explained why there were so many people riding the Metro on a Saturday.

When the Delhi Metro opened in 2002, it became the newest and sleekest addition to Delhi’s public transportation infrastructure, joining buses, local trains, Ambassador and Maruti taxis, autorickshaws, and cycle rickshaws. Each electric-traction Metro train consists of four, six, or eight coaches built by Bombardier, which have benches along the sides of the interior and plenty of standing room in the middle. The Indian broad-gauge lines of the Metro radiate out from the city center, covering the National Capital Territory and stretching out into the two adjoining states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The biggest station is Rajiv Chowk, where the blue and yellow lines meet. The station is built under the center of the circular shopping district Connaught Place in the British-planned part of the city. Whenever I have been to Rajiv Chowk, it has always been busy, with long queues waiting on the platforms for the two lines.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has had to socialize the population of Delhi to use the Metro, because subways are a technology that originated in the West during the Industrial Revolution and can only be adapted so much to Indian culture and conditions. Announcements piped over the station intercoms in Hindi and English (the Delhi Metro is totally bilingual) remind passengers boarding the train to allow other passengers to disembark first. Posters in the stations masquerade as fun trivia but really take part in the socialization as well: “Did you know? 95% of all passengers cooperate with CISF [Central Industrial Security Force] personnel during security checks.” I have a strong suspicion that this is part of the proverbial 40% of statistics that are made up.

The socialization has worked to some extent, but still not everybody follows the instructions for the security checks and it is common for passengers to shove into a coach while others are trying to disembark. Getting onto a train can be challenging, and getting off equally so, as you have to shove past passengers who are not getting off at the same station as you. For the most part, though, other passengers are courteous, asking you to make side if they are getting of before you, or helping to eject you from the train when you have reached your stop.

Fares on the Delhi Metro generally range from Rs. 9 to Rs. 21, which in US currency is 15¢ to 35¢. Most of the passengers I have seen on the trains appear to be businesspeople, students, or government servants, although tickets are cheap enough that working-class people can afford to ride too. In recent years, there has been plenty of infrastructural development in the Delhi area that has been for the privileged classes only, such as shopping malls where the guards at the doors are instructed to turn away anybody who appears working-class. The Delhi Metro, on the other hand, is for the aam aadmi (common people).

A later addition to the Delhi Metro system is the Airport Express Line; it opened in 2013. It runs from the suburb of Dwarka to New Delhi Railway Station in just 25 minutes. Unlike the main lines, the airport line is almost never crowded, and I have gotten a seat every time I have ridden on it. (On the main line, I almost never get a seat.) This speed and convenience comes at a higher ticket price: Rs. 90 or $1.50 for a one-way trip. This hasn’t stopped commuters who live in the suburbs from using the express line, in addition to the jet-setters for whom the line was ostensibly built.

I can’t help but be enamored by the Delhi Metro. It makes getting around the city so much easier. New Delhi was inaugurated 69 years before the Delhi Metro opened, and the history of civilization in the area goes back at least three thousand years before that. But for me, Delhi wouldn’t be Delhi without the Metro.

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