Darjeeling Himalayan Railways in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

By Somali K Chakrabarti

“Mere Sapno Ki Rani kab aayegi tu….”

This romantic Hindi song from the movie Aradhana, had enchanted hundreds of thousands of people from all over India in the 70s. Sitting atop an open jeep, Rajesh Khanna, crooned the lively song to woo Sharmila Tagore, who sat reading a book in the Toy Train, as the miniature steam engine chugged uphill in the scenic settings of Darjeeling.

The “Toy Train” on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) line has been a unique feature of Darjeeling since the 19th century. Ferrying between Darjeeling and Ghoom (India’s highest railway station), the Toy Train moves through the hilly terrain absorbing the magnificent beauty of Darjeeling hills.

Inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, DHR became the first Hill Railway in India, and the second in the world to be accorded this status.

Here are some vintage pictures of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway from the 19th century.

Darjeeling Station, ca 1891

Darjeeling Station 1891
Photograph of Darjeeling Station, ca 1891

Darjeeling was the chief summer resort for the British government in Bengal.

Tea plantations began spreading rapidly from 1857, and Darjeeling, surrounded by terraces of tea gardens, became the center of a tea-growing district.

The growth of the tea industry in Darjeeling rendered the old road down from the hills inadequate to deal with the increased traffic. Work began on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) in 1879, and was completed in 1881.


Darjeeling Hill Railway under construction, ca 1879 

On Darjeeling Railway
Darjeeling Hill Railway under construction. Photograph by Bourne and Shepherd,  c.1879.

Franklin Prestage, an Agent of the Eastern Railway had conceptualized the construction of the 2 ft gauge railway line from Siliguri to Darjeeling.  The 83 km long, narrow guage railway track, climbs up the mountain from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, winding its way around the mountains and stopping at 14 stations.

It follows a number of sharp curves, reverses and loops to negotiate the mountainous terrain. This view shows construction work on one of the loops of the railway.


The Loop, Agony Point, Darjeeling Hill Railway, ca 1880

Toy Train, Agony Point, Darjeeling
The loop at ‘Agony Point’ at Tindharia on the Darjeeling Hill Railway

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This view shows a train half-way round ‘Agony Point’, one of the most precarious loops in the line, located north of Tindharia.


On Darjeeling Hill Railway, ca 1880

On Darjeeling Railway
Photograph of the Darjeeling Hill Railway taken by Bourne and Shepherd in c.1880.

The scenically dramatic route was popular with tourists, though passengers were advised to use veils to protect themselves from the ‘dust and blacks’ discharged by the engine.


Hill village on Darjeeling Railway, ca 1880

Hill village on Darjeeling Railway.
Photograph from the Album of views of India and Ceylon, ca 1880

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This view shows a locomotive on the line of the Darjeeling Hill Railway which passes along the main street of the village.


Nepalese porter girls, Darjeeling, ca 1903

Stereoscopic Nepalese porter girls, Darjeeling
Stereoscopic photograph of Nepalese porter girls at Darjeeling, ca 1903

Nepalese porter girls stood at the stations, on arrival of every train, to carry luggage to the homes of the passengers, in wicker baskets.

This photograph was taken with a stereoscopic camera, with two lenses and the ability to take two photographs at the same time.


Through the Tarai by D.H.R, ca 1880

Through the Ilrai [sic for Terai] by D.H.R
Through the Terai] by D.H.R, ca 1880

Darjeeling District contains two distinct tracts: ridges and deep valleys of the Lower Himalayas, and the Tarai or level country at their base. This is a view of the line’s more tranquil passage through forest in the Tarai. The elevation of tarai is only 300 feet above sea-level. The mountains spur abruptly from the plains, towering up to 6,000 and further up to 10,000 feet.

Besides its universal appeal, DHR is also an example of engineering excellence. Till date, the DHR continues to be a tourist attraction offering joy rides, with the original steam engines still pulling mini coaches up the mountains between Darjeeling and Ghoom.

 Pictures  Source : The British Library

References :

Online British Library

DHR, Indian Railways portal

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14 thoughts on “Darjeeling Himalayan Railways in the 19th century – Vintage Pictures

  1. Excellent post about the toy train with beautiful 19th Century vintage pics .I reproduce the free English rendering of a Bengali poem by Annada Shankar Roy attempted by me .
    Chhata Kuri/ Train just left Siliguri .
    Ding Dong/ Train now crossed Kurseong.
    Jhoom Jhoom/Are we now in Ghoom.
    Ting Ting/Train on way to Darjeeling .
    Ya Ya/Is it the same Batasia .
    Chup Chup /Ahead is Batasia Loop .
    Can the train stop/We are on world’s top.
    Round and round / The train is circle bound .
    Meander and meander /The train is moving yonder .
    O Mom/Is the train back to Ghoom.
    What fun /Where is the train gone .
    Why frown /So the train is going down .
    What I see /The train opposite through the tree .
    Dhing Dhing /At last we are in Darjeeling .

    Liked by 1 person

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