18 October 2009

Railways and Tiruvannamalai

Today visited Tiruvannamalai Railway Station to check on progress of the current railworks converting tracks from narrow gauge to broad gauge and on expanding track services to include three passenger lines and one goods line. I was surprised at the lack of progress at the railworks including the development of facilities and was also unable to learn an authoritative date for the estimated completion of the railworks and commencement of services at Tiruvannamalai Railway Station.

Even though there are no rail facilities at Tiruvannamalai, the reservation office is open at the Station and one can purchase tickets for Indian Railways.

For those interested in finding out more about rail travel in India, I include an excellent link from The Guardian (U.K.) newspaper, which even though is an overseas paper, contains a comprehensive article of readers tips with numerous links. If you plan on travelling by rail in India, I strongly recommend you check it out.

On the theme of railways, below is a fascinating narrative taken from historical train archives about how Afghani fruit used to arrive in the Indian metros via the railways. Its interesting to learn that during a period that did not have many modern conveniences, trade of even perishable goods seemed to be even more efficient than nowadays. Certainly the narrative seems to portray a gentler and more peaceful time.

Fresh Fruits from Afghanistan to India!

"I fondly remember as a youngster - in late 1940's and as late as early 50's - the repeated shouts of burly, awesome Pathan vendors in our 'mohalla' in Lucknow: "Fresh luscious grapes from Chaman; red juicy pomegranates from Kandahar; "Buy them now, eat them now, lest you repent!"

These Afghani fruit vendors would come to each 'mohalla' daily almost punctually at a time “allotted” by them. And lo the kids and the grown-ups would scamper out of their homes, the first out of curiosity and the latter to strike a hard bargain with the vendors who were notorious about their prices. But whatever the virtues of the vendors, their assertion about the quality of their products was never in doubt. So with this childhood experience when I read the following lines in P.S.A Berridge's old classic, "Couplings to the Khyber: The Story of The North Western Railway" I became really nostalgic about the fruits which are certainly no more:

"Built primarily as a strategic line the Chaman Extension Railway served for many years hundreds of tons of luscious fruits --- grapes, peaches, and nectarines in particular from Afghanistan found their way to the markets of far-away cities in India. Before 1947, in the summer months, there used to run every day a train with its ice-packaged refrigerator vans destined for places as far away as Calcutta and Madras."

But the famed fruits continued to filter into India even after 1947 by road from Pakistan but unfortunately as the situation worsened and even the dribble dried up and we lost the burly Pathans and their products by early 50's.

Reverting to my nostalgia; Berridge's brief remarks led me to 'research' about the fruit traffic from Afghanistan and their train journeys to various stations in the Indian hinterland in days of yore that is before the Partition. That I took to be an unusual, novel subject for the rail fans and more so when it related to a country rated by Robert Young Pelton, the adventure travel writer, as one of the "World's Most Dangerous Places" in his eponymous book.

Let me now construct this interesting rail transportation story which has a human angle too.

Actually the grapes and all the tempting fruits came not from Chaman (4304‘) but from Kandahar (5500‘) and areas nearby some 67 miles away in Afghanistan. Chaman was in India then as the remotest corner station in the North Western Province bordering Afghanistan .It was the terminal of the strategic line viz. Chaman Extension Railway.

It sounds incredible today that adopting a crude cooling technique the perishable fresh fruits always reached the customers in perfect condition at destinations so far away covering a very long distance by road and rail that too through intense summer heat and humidity of various regions of India. The destinations were in Sind, the Punjab, United Provinces (U.P.), Delhi, Bengal, and Madras to name only a few important ones.

The distance covered by rail was itself mind boggling being around 1000 miles (1500 kms) from Chaman to Delhi excluding 67 miles by road from Kandahar in Afghanistan! It was only in 1929 that for the first time motor transport consisting of Chevrolet lorries was used supplementing the conveyance of fresh fruits from growers in Kandahar to the originating station Chaman for onward dispatch by rail to consuming stations. Each lorry carried 40 "kawaras" covering the distance in just 4 hours as against 3 days by animal transportation.

A "Kawara" was a conical shaped basket about 10" wide at the base, opening out to a 18" mouth at the top and was about 16" deep. These were indigenously made by the Afghani women at home as a cottage industry from "pilchi" wood taken from branches of cotton bushes. The "kawaras" were filled with fruits which were packed in layers between wild grass and lavender .Each such basket weighed 33 seers (60 pounds) with 22 seers of fruit. To keep the heat away ice was used in generous quantities to keep the "kawaras” ice cold till they arrived Chaman whether carried by animals or by motor lorries .

This earthy method kept the contents too fresh and unspoilt despite the intense heat in the loading season.

The export of fruits used to begin from Afghanistan to India in May every year. Apricots in "kawaras" used to be cleared from Chaman by the daily mixed train to Quetta, 176 miles away, and onward from there by corresponding connecting trains to stations in the Punjab, U.P. and Sind.

With the advancing fruit season when grapes, peaches, apples and pomegranates were in full bloom a daily fruit train was run comprising Refrigerator Vans and Luggage Vans from Chaman to clear the fresh fruit traffic. The traffic reached its peak of 3000 "kawaras" daily in August. It continued till October after which the dried fruit traffic commenced.

Let us recall how a typical loading day started in Chaman. Till 9 a.m. Chaman would be a calm and peaceful station except few coolies were seen busy filling the bunkers of the Refrigerator Vans with ice to cool them sufficiently well in advance for the evening's loading. As the day progressed caravans of hundreds of heavily laden donkeys and mules travelling from Kandahar via the neighbourly north–western town of Spin Baldek (7 miles) in Afghanistan, each carrying 2 to 4 "kawaras" would arrive on the horizon travelling in batches of 10 to 30. The intermittent clouds of dust raised by them would sometimes give only their hazy silhouettes .

The arriving animals had decorative multicoloured trappings and innumerable bells of varied shapes and sizes around their necks literally giving them a colourful appearance, and the jingle lending a somewhat romantic touch to the otherwise monotonous environment. Reaching the destined allotted shelter (locally called "Gunj") for them near Chaman railway station these beasts of burden would instinctively go to their nominated places for unloading.

Once unburdened again instinctively the animals would leave making a bee-line across the station yard to Caravan Serai in the city. Their rightful temptation was prompted by anticipation of a well-deserved rest and big mouthfuls of welcome fodder. Along with this animal transportation several motor lorries would also arrive bringing fruit consignments in "kawaras'. So Chaman which was quite till a few hours ago would suddenly become a scene of great hustle and bustle with fruit merchants, shouting muleteers, neighing mules, braying donkeys and the noise of aimless bazaar spectators and others. By 1 p.m. the din would die down with the departure of last of the donkeys, mules, their masters and the local shoppers. But the peace was to be short lived as from 3 p.m. the pandemonium would re- surface with the start of auctions of consignments. Customarily before auction at least a couple of "kawaras" of each "kafla' or caravan were opened to test-check the quality of contents.

There were hardly ever any rejections! Then with "ek", "do", "teen" or "one", "two" or "three" the auctioneers would hammer the deals successively duly selling all the consignments. To keep themselves out of boredom and heat the auctioneers and bidders would also chitchat in between and enjoy literally the multi-coloured aerated cold drinks locally sold. By 6 p.m. more ice would be brought in by the loaders from the two local ice factories in Chaman city to replenish the morning ice-fillings in the Refrigerator Vans as most of that would melt by that time. Now labelling and dispatching of the Vans remained to be done. The labelling time was between 6.30 and 7 p.m. After that the "kawaras" would be brought from the nominated shelter, "Gunj" to the loading platform at the station where they were weighed and sorted out for various destinations and loaded in the Vans.The loading would continue till midnight!

The Vans would then be closed, shunted and marshalled destination-station wise to form the special Fruit Train It would contain consignments for many distant markets in India namely Lahore, Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Cawnpore (Kanpur), Calcutta, Bombay, Madras etc.

The Train – the flagship of North Western Railway - would punctually leave Chaman daily at 12.50 a.m. for Rohri or farthest to Samarsata depending on the quantum of traffic! These were two important junctions .From either terminal station further clearance of Vans was done by connecting mixed or passenger trains. Delhi, where bulk of this traffic went via Bhatinda as piecemeal parcel traffic in individual Vans was still a long way being 400.44miles (600kms) away from Samarsata –the usual last terminal for this special Fruit Train.

The route of the Train from Chaman was via Gulistan and Bostan through the famous Bolan Pass to Quetta and from there via Sibi, Jacobabad, Sukkur to Rohri and finally ending most of the times at Samarsata. The entire route was steam -hauled and was on B.G. single line except with a few patches of double line as between Gulistan and Shelabagh at the mouth of marvellous Kojak Tunnel short of Chaman and the main line from Rohri to Samarsata. The entire railway system was the part of the main historical North Western Railway, which in 1947 after the Partition, was bifurcated into Pakistan Western Railway (now Pakistan Railway) and Northern Railway of India.

The Partition ended the very nostalgic story of a glorious parcel train (starting through the railways now in Pakistan) of exceptional quality fresh-fruits from Afghanistan.''


Anonymous said...

IMO no progress is good news. Can you imagine now trains dumping more people on Arunachala, espy people who don't follow any kind of silence or cleanliness or godliness. I hope Arunachala will not allow train tracks rumbling through the area, displacing more trees, animals and birds. I hope he will attract only the mature spiritual seeker, like us who are willing to live by his rules.

ArunachalaHeart said...

Uncle moon is everyone's uncle. Let Arunachala decide on the maturity please.:)

Rajeev said...

Interesting writeup.Where is this article from?Could you share the link. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I agree with poster 1 that noise, air and water pollution need to be factored into any expansion plans for the Tiruvannamalai area.

Arunachala Heart: the mountain like Mr. Moon, is for all of us, too :-)

Me thinks westerners should help the Indian authorities in preventing T'malai from becoming as dirty and noisy as Haridwar and Benaras. Count me in for any such initiatives.

Barb :-)

Meenakshi Ammal said...

The narrative also appears on the IRCFA website:


--- i.e. the Indian Railways Fan Club