With over 1,51,000 kilometres of track and 7,000 stations, Indian Railways is the largest rail network in Asia. Its journey began in April 1853, when India’s first passenger train was flagged off from Bori Bunder to Thane, in Maharashtra. More than 160 years on, the Indian rail network runs upwards of 13,000 passenger trains and caters to approximately a billion-plus people. It is this vast, rich tapestry of history and its present that Google Arts & Culture is attempting to document in the online exhibition, “The Railways — Lifeline of a Nation”.
Conceived in 2015 in collaboration with the Ministry of Railways, this project was developed over a period of three years. “ The railways is essentially a multifaceted organisation, and its essence can’t quite come through in a physical exhibition,” says Amit Sood, director of Google Cultural Institute, India, introducing the online showcase that is an assemblage of numerous exhibitions, each of which presents independent stories of people and places, journeys and junctions.
There is the Fairy Queen — amongst the oldest functioning steam engines in the world — chugging along in one video clipping, and, in another, we are introduced to the more opulent Palace on Wheels, arguably India’s first luxury train in the post-Raj era. The “unforgettable” journeys are documented well, from the Nilgiri Mountain Railway to the railway route featuring the quaint town of Adarki in Maharashtra, where the train passes through deep rock cuttings.
Beyond nostalgia, the project offers an insightful journey across the vast expanse of India, with technology enabling 360-degree views of 55 different stations — from the bustling Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in Mumbai to the remote Kanoh station on the Kalka-Shimla rail route, or, even the experience of travelling on the picturesque Konkan Railways during the monsoon, through a photo feature compiled by the Delhi-based Rail Enthusiasts’ Society.
Overall, the initiative helps to bring into focus how the railways have impacted our culture, film and sporting tradition. Primarily designed by British architects, the stations reflected the prevailing architectural style of Europe back then. If a sketch of the old Kanpur station reflects the simple and geometric neoclassical form, the Madras Central station that opened in 1873 was more Romanesque. “Its defining elements are its round arches, attractive arcade on the ground and first floor, and its prominent central and corner towers,” reads a note on the Madras station.
The exhibition also documents the people closely associated with the rail network. “The railways is a living organism, and it isn’t just a mode of transportation anymore,” says Sood. At the National Railway Museum in Delhi to launch the online project last month, Sood introduced us to Valli, a ticket checker with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway line and a trained singer. Those who have travelled from Mettupalayam to Ooty, in Tamil Nadu, would recognise her mellow voice, as she often sings for the passengers after completing her duties. “The special joy about this train is that we forget all our miseries and worries,” she says.