A Winter in India (1882)

"A Winter in India" by W. E. Baxter, Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., London, 1882.

Made available by the Internet Archive.
Link: http://www.archive.org/details/winterinindia00baxtiala
Source: Libraries of the University of California system

Selected and edited with comments by R Sivaramakrishnan. November 23, 2008.

William Edward Baxter (1825 - 1890) was a Liberal Member of the British Parliament and had served as the Secretary to the Admiralty and later as a Secretary to the Treasury. He arrived in Bombay by ship with a large contingent and spent the winter of 1881-82 travelling over India, mostly by trains. His route, as shown by the map placed at the end of the text, was Bombay - Jeypore - Delhi - Lahore - Meerut - Agra - Cawnpore - Allahabad - Benares - Calcutta - Darjeeling - Calcutta - (by ship) - Madras - Matipolliam - (by tonga) - Coonoor - (by road) - Ootakamund - Coonoor - Matipolliam - Poothanur - Arconum - Conjevaram - Arconum - Poona - Bombay.

It is a remarkable travel document which also included his opinions, comments and speculations on a wide range of subjects concerning India. Extracts follow.

p. 18:

THE RAJPOOTANA RAILWAY

The traveller in India has to provide himself with quilts and pillows, for use both in the railway carriages and in the dak bungalows ... With this addition to our baggage we mingled with a motley crew in Grant Road Station, waiting for the mail train which had started from the harbour half an hour before ... . at 5.30 p.m. It soon became dark, but in the bright moonlight we could see pretty well around. The line crosses from the Island of Bombay to the mainland by a very long viaduct, and there are a great many other bridges over various arms of the sea. Before turning in for the night, we came in view of a fine range of peaked mountains ... .

At Ahmedabad we had a good breakfast, and changed into the carriages of the narrow-gauge Rajpootana State Railway. This interposition of a line of different width between the other great railroads in India appears to me to be a blunder, and one which must eventually be remedied, no matter what may be the cost.

During the forenoon we passed through fields of maize, rice, cotton, and castor-oil, separated by cactus hedges, and saw many large herds of cattle and buffaloes. The peasants were very busy ploughing and irrigating; most of them were nearly or quite naked, and inhabited miserable-looking huts ...

The station houses and the dwellings of the better class have all white domes like mosques ... Towards evening we passed between two very striking ranges, that of Mount Aboo on the left being 5,000 feet high; and we had a glorious sunset illuminating their jagged peaks ...

A night on the Rajpootana State Railway! What a reminiscence! To roughly-made carriages was added a bad locomotive-driver, and the jerking, pitching, and rolling overtask my feeble powers of description. The water-cistern in our saloon carriage was broken, my clothes were hurled on the sloppy floor, holding on for dear life was impossible, because there was nothing to hold by. I got up to put the quilt over me, and was banged head foremost against my vis-a-vis. Natives yelled at our ears the names of every station, and it was not till day dawned beyond Ajmere that we got a little broken rest. This was our first experience of luxurious railway travelling in India ...

At Phalera junction in the early morning I got out for a cup of tea, ... Truly thankful we were after forty-two hours' shaking on that dreadful line to take refuge in the Dak bungalow at Jeypoor ...

Shortly after 8 o'clock on Thursday morning we were off again on the State railway; and although the travelling was certainly much smoother than between Ahmedabad and Ajmere, it was by no means what it ought to be, and I cannot find anyone hereabouts who has now a good word to say for the metre gauge. It is what the Americans call an air line, or nearly straight, as far as Bandikui, passing partly over great grassy wastes, inhabited by deer and parroquets and peacocks, and partly through fields of grain and cotton, the former of which the peasants were busy irrigating from numerous wells. The only town of any importance on this route is Alwur, with 50,000 inhabitants, the capital of another Rajpoot state ...

We left Delhi at mid-day on ... 12th December, and were detained half an hour at Ghazeeabad Junction waiting for the Calcutta train. There is much sandy and sterile land in this neighbourhood, and we saw some large herds of deer, but as you approach Meerut city and cantonment the country improves. The stations are prettily adorned with convolvulus and other flowers, and all the short time we have been in India we have been struck everywhere with the good roads. Our friends at home have little idea how far behind they are in this respect, some of our leading lines of communication being simply disgraceful.

After a good dinner in the refreshment-room at Suharunpore, we made all snug for the night, and did not get up until within sight of the minarets of the famous mosque at Amritsir ... ..

WE left by the evening train on I5th December, and soon after I awoke next morning I descried a range of dark mountains on the left. Presently, as the sun got a little above the horizon, it shone upon what I first thought was a cloud ; for a moment it did not occur to me that the sky was cloudless. I took up Stanford's admirable travelling map of India, and saw at once that the object was the summit of Kedarnath, or an adjoining peak, 22,900 feet high, and about 130 miles off[1]. My first sight of the Himalayas was not disappointing; and for two or three hours afterwards, every time I looked out of the window, there was that great white solemn mountain piercing the sky ...

We spent twenty-four hours in the Empress Hotel, Meerut, a building in which twenty-one people, being all its occupants, were murdered in 1857. Here the Mutiny commenced ... it is one of the most important cantonments and military stations in India ...

Returning to Ghazabad, we proceeded on the East Indian Railway over a poorly-cultivated plain, where many herds of cattle, buffaloes, sheep, and goats, and occasionally deer, derived a very precarious subsistence from the burnt-up pasture; mango-orchards and cotton-fields occasionally relieved the landscape. It was nearly 9 o'clock when, tired, dusty, and thirsty, we found ourselves ... in Laurie and Staten's hotel ... outside Agra Fort ...

At 6.22 p.m., on 24th December, we left Agra; and, amidst the most frightful noise shunting in various directions, and bumping of ... severe ... description to ... at Cawnpore Junction, about 3 o'clock in the morning ...

At daylight on Wednesday morning, 28th December, we were galloping in gharries full speed to the railway station ... The Oude and Rohilcund Railway Company provided us with the most spacious and well-constructed carriage that I have seen in India, in which we travelled over a fertile and well-wooded plain back to Cawnpore. These Indian plains are endless, unbroken; there is no undulation, or hillock, or mound of any kind to relieve their vast monotony.

The train slackens its speed a great viaduct is before us, and we get our first sight of the sacred Ganges. At this season it is not a very imposing river, but the wide expanse of sand shows what a mighty stream it must be after the rains ...

We left at mid-day for Allahabad, passing through the most fertile and best cultivated district we have seen in India luxuriant crops, or their remains, of Indian corn, wheat, millet, pulse, and castor-oil, alternating with mango orchards and clumps of stately forest trees; lovely birds ... appearing in almost every field and grove ...

At 5 o'clock wide roads, barracks, and other marks of a capital showed us that we were approaching Allahabad, "the City of God," which the railways have made a place of great importance. It is situated at the junction of the Ganges and the Jumna, and has a native population of upwards of a hundred thousand in addition to the Europeans, who muster strongly there ...

Shortly after 8 o'clock on the following morning we were again in our railway-carriage, and crossing the great bridge over the Jumna passed for a long distance through a rich and well-wooded country, where there were many fields of flax in addition to the usual crops. One is struck by the immense distances over which these railways are carried in absolutely straight lines, a curve being quite a novelty. To-day we have made the fastest run which we have yet had in this country viz., from Sirsia to Mirzapore: 32 miles in an hour ...

There are a good many miles of a poor, sandy country ; and, what is a novelty in these unbroken plains, a few hills before arriving at Mogul-Serai, which is the junction for Benares, situated six miles off the main line ...

Since Allahabad has become a great junction, Mirzapore, its once flourishing rival, has dwindled away; but the sacred Benares will always hold its own as long as the Hindoo religion lasts ... Nothing can be more disappointing than the land side of this holy city. ... Benares from the river in early morning is another thing altogether a scene, a sight, a kind of dream never to be forgotten ... ...

On the 6th of January, at mid-day, we joined the mail-train at Mogul Serai Junction, and travelled over a vast, apparently interminable plain, well wooded and cultivated, fertile and irrigated; crossed the Sone at 4 o'clock on a great viaduct; halted fifteen minutes at the important military cantonment of Dinapoor; passed the city of Patna; at Mokameh had the best railway dinner we had tasted in India; at dusk found ourselves between strangely-shaped and isolated hills, and had hardly time to rub our eyes and tie up our wraps in the morning when, punctual to the moment, at 5:40 the train drew up in Howrah Station, on the other side of the Hooghly from Calcutta ...

The streets of Calcutta are wider than those of most Indian cities, tramways are used extensively ...

CHAPTER VIII.

DARJEELING - THE TOY RAILWAY

We left for an excursion in the Himalayas on Saturday, 7th January, and were driven to the Sealdah Railway Station in the Viceregal chariot ... The scenery for many miles was more Oriental, as far as foliage was concerned, than any we had yet seen in India: dense jungle of bamboo alternating with gardens of palms, bananas, and mangoes, with occasional patches of wheat and tobacco ; then came wide plains, with immense numbers of cattle and buffaloes feeding on almost invisible stubble; rows of fine tamarind-trees ; picturesque houses of bamboo and mats ... At dark we reached the Ganges crossing it in a steamer and dining on board.

I made myself comfortable for the night soon after entering the narrow-gauge railway on the other side, fell asleep shortly after 9 o'clock, and was astonished when a man shouted in my ear at 6 a. m., "next station Siliguri." Here we breakfasted, and took our seats in perhaps the most extraordinary and toy-like tram railroad which exists on the face of the earth. An American said of it the other day to a friend of mine: "I guess I have seen a good many queer things in the shape of railroads in my country, but this is the cheekiest little concern that ever I came across." The rails are two feet apart; the carriages are like low tram-cars; and so steep is the gradient often 1 in 17 that little boys, seated on the engine, jump off at places where the sun has not melted the dew, to put sand on the rails, the tiny engine meantime puffing and blowing until the wheels can get a grip. At one place there is an actual loop, the train passing over a bridge which it had passed under a few minutes before ... In many of the most dangerous places there is a substantial parapet, and trees and shrubs cover the sides of the steep hills, so that you are not sensible of the sheer precipice. The views from time to time over mountains, hills, and valleys strike one with wonder; and we had not left Siliguri Station more than ten minutes when the white peak of Kinchinjunga appeared over the lofty neighbouring mountains like an aerial sentinel. Passing between tea- gardens, with their white, myrtle-like flowers, and by many cotton-trees, the striking red blossom of which yields a coarse material which the natives use, we soon reached real jungle, and now remarked the wonderful change which has come over the features of the people we seemed all at once to have got among Kalmucks. It would amuse a London-and-North-Western man to see the miserable hut which serves as the first station-house on the Darjeeling-Himalaya line. At this point it begins rapidly to ascend through a forest of exceeding beauty, many of the trees being very lofty, some of them having a canopy of flowers, and others" covered with creepers of strange and weird-like shapes. There is a cart-track alongside the train-line, and every now and then you come upon stations to permit of conveyances passing each other ... There are a good many villages and shanties for the workmen who are employed in great numbers in repairing and altering the line. Occasionally you steam through a crowded bazaar, and the curves well merit the American's description.

Khersiong, surrounded on all hands by tea-gardens, is a bustling place; and we found the bazaars crowded by men, women and children of all the multifarious races which inhabit this part of Central Asia. The main street is only a few feet wide; but the steam-car puffs along the centre of it ; and it would be difficult for a person who has never been out of Europe to imagine the scene at the market-place when we started after breakfast.

Nepaul, Thibet, Sikkim and Bhotan were all within sight from points on these lofty elevations; and hundreds of the races which dwell there are to be found employed on the railway, or on those great plantations of tea which are accomplishing almost a revolution in this remote portion of British territory.

Our engine had to stop several times, in consequence of bad coal, and it was nearly 6 o'clock in the evening when we arrived at Meadow Bank, one of Mr. Doyle's hotel-bungalows, which he had opened expressly for our large party ...

A great treat was awaiting us this morning. Mr. Prestage, the managing-director of the tram-line, had arranged that we should be "trollied" down the mountains instead of going in the train; so at Ghoom station, which is higher than Darjeeling, and from which to the plain there is a continuous descent, we found two little tram-cars fastened together, and Mr. Walker, one of the officials a Scotchman, of course who managed the brakes, and took us down in the most skilful manner, at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, stopping an hour for breakfast at the charming little Clarendon Hotel at Khersiong, from which we had our last look of the gigantic Kinchinjunga. The motion of the trollies was the most delightful I ever experienced in travelling, and without the locomotive you see the scenery far better. Its grandeur and variety struck us more than when going up.

At Siliguri station I saw a considerable quantity of very superior jute, which had been brought on ox-carts for forty miles. We found here waiting us an excellent dinner, and three large sleeping-carriages for our night journey on the Northern Bengal Railway. The East Indian Company refused to give us any facilities whatever[2], but the managers of all the other railroads were exceedingly polite, and their liberality will certainly be an encouragement to travellers ... ...

Just after day-dawn we reached the Ganges, two-and-a-half miles broad, very shallow at the present season, and crossed it in the tidy, American-looking steamer ... Between 12 and I we were in the Sealdah station, and this time went to the Great Eastern Hotel ...

I was ... on board the P. and O. steamer Brindisi at Garden Reach, which at daybreak dropped down the river, bound for Madras ...

Madras is not a town, but a population of 400,000, scattered over twenty-seven miles ...

We left at 6 p.m. in the mail-train for the hills. The station at Madras is a very imposing one of red brick, with a lofty tower, perhaps the most conspicuous object in the place ... . We all slept well, as there was less motion than on any line by which we have travelled in the country. They have adopted an excellent plan of selling dinner and breakfast tickets when you pay your fare; they thus know and can wire how many are to be provided for, and have likewise a protection against dishonest " butlers' as they call them at the refreshment rooms.

We dined at Arconum, and when I awoke we were passing through a very rich country with luxuriant crops, although the cultivation seemed of an exceedingly primitive description. Many women were working in the fields. By-and-bye ranges of peaked hills came in sight, and we stopped for breakfast at Poothanoor, where a branch to the hills joins the Beypoor main line. The viands were poor, and the waiting was simply scandalous. Most of us had to help ourselves.

[After] Coimbatoor station ... the line descends through a waste-land region into a kind of basin, and terminates at Matipolliam, where we were transferred into three "tongas" a kind of rough, low, two-wheeled dog-cart, drawn by two ponies, which are attached, not by traces, but by a short high pole with a bar across their backs. In these we reached Coonoor, upwards of twenty miles in 3! hours; the ponies were changed four times and trotted all the way, although the rise is more than 6,000 feet ... eucalyptus appears on every slope. They have been planted principally for fuel, but also for shade ...

On Wednesday morning we left for Ootakamund ... after leaving the plantations of Coonoor emerging into a bleak, red, treeless country ... The road is well made. We changed horses often, trotted all the way up, and came down at a rattling pace, drawn sometimes by mere ponies. I never was charged so high a bill in any part of the world as that of the Madras Carrying Company ... .

We dined at Salem, and had a miserable hour at Arconum, between 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning, stowing away our effects in the left luggage-room as the station-master refused to allow them to remain in our reserved carriage[3] and in endeavouring to get washed.

At 5.15 a.m. we left, in the Southern India narrow-gauge railway, for Conjeveram, seventeen miles off, and, when we arrived there ... we set out to visit the temples ...

Conjeveram is a clean, well-kept place, with wide streets and a thriving population ... ...

We first drove to Vishnu's temple, in Little Kanchi, and were received by a crowd of priests and spectators, fireworks and music, and en tertained with a nautch-girl dance, after which we inspected the wealth of jewels, and had all the hideous idols brought out to view ... The other famous temple that dedicated to Seva the Destroyer - has a gopura, or great tower, 181 feet high the highest in Southern India[4] ...

Returning to Arconum, we dined, and joined the evening mail-train from Madras to Bombay.

When I awoke, we were at the old ruined fort of Gooty. In every field there was a man in a structure elevated on poles, watching the crops and protecting them against the depredations of wild beasts. We passed much waste-land the country was quite flat, with low and generally isolated hills at a distance, and, nearer to the line, singular rocky mounds, rising to a considerable height at the town of Adoni then we crossed the now nearly dry channel of the river Toongabudra, which joins the Beema some distance below, and the two together form the Kistna. The cactus makes an excellent railway-fence in Southern India.

At Raichoor the Madras Railway ends and the Great Indian Peninsular begins. We arrived there at 11.30; and, having had nothing since the previous evening but a cup of weak tea, were naturally hungry. What was our astonishment when told there was no breakfast ready at a place where we were to stop forty minutes, except a piece of cold beef covered with wire and flies! Some one used an unparliamentary expression, and, hey, presto! appeared one of the best breakfasts we had had set before us in India choice tea, excellent curry, tender mutton chops and fresh eggs. Where it came from must remain a mystery for ever.

p. 139:

We are now in the Nizam's territory, and a branch line goes off at Wadi to his capital of Hyderabad. Rising to a higher level, the line passes over a poorly-cultivated and sparsely-peopled district, with extensive tracts of waste-land. It was very hot all day: even the Venetians failed to keep out the sun's rays; and we felt the lightest of clothing too heavy, and motion impossible. Dining at Sholapore, we reached Poona at 4.40 a.m. ...

p. 159:

THE BHORE GHAUT.

At 12.30 on 16th February we left by train for Bombay. At this time of year the country on the route is more dreary and burnt-up than any we had seen in India. The bare conical hills have a Scotch-like appearance.

In a little over two hours we arrived at the beginning of the descent of the famous Bhore Ghaut, one of the most remarkable engineering feats in the world, and were detained a long time by a landslip, which had blocked the line shortly before, near Kundala. In a very few miles the railway descends more than 1,800 feet. At one point there is a reversing station, the engine changing its position. There are many tunnels; and the views of the plain far down below of overhanging peaks, deep gorges and precipices are very fine. The fact of there being more deciduous trees than usual on these slopes detracts from the beauty of the scenery in the winter. At Callianee Junction, where the Calcutta line branches off, there are some very fantastically-shaped hills; and here are the prettiest station garden and flowers which we had seen in India ...

Bombay strikes one, on returning to it, as, after all, much the handsomest town in the country ...

How charming was our last night in India! The moon shone through the palm-trees upon the spacious balcony of Bella Vista; and we felt a sort of melancholy steal over us as we thought of the kind friends from whom we were to part ... whom we might not see again for years, and a country to which we were about to say good-bye for ever ... "

NOTES by R. Sivaramakrishnan:

[1] On his way from Lahore to Meerut by train, he would have been the nearest to Kedarnath in the vicinity of Saharanpur; the distance, as he wrote, was 130 miles, i.e., over 200 km! If he could see the peak from that distance, it speaks volumes for the clarity and purity of air those days. Subsequently, in Chapter VIII, Baxter wrote that "we had not left Siliguri Station more than ten minutes when the white peak of Kinchinjunga appeared over the lofty neighbouring mountains like an aerial sentinel" - the peak is 70 km away from Siliguri, but Mohan Bhuyan, got it confirmed from Arnob Acharya, also of IRFCA, that [even now] it is possible to see Kanchenjunga from Siliguri Town on exceptionally clear days.

[2] What temerity on the part of a railway company to deny facilities to a British M. P. and a former Secretary!

[3] Another instance of an effrontery meted out, this time by a mere station master to the Rt. Hon'ble visitor from the U. K., who apparently took it lying down.

[4] Baxter was wrongly informed here. The main tower (east raja-gopuram) of the temple at Tiruvannamalai, rose 216 feet initially (an an extra foot was added later). The vimanam, which rises above the sanctum sanctorum of Brihadeeswara temple at Tanjore, built by Rajaraja Chola in 1010 A. D., too rises 216 feet. The tower of the temple of Sri Andal at Srivilliputtur is 192 feet tall.

The original source material used on this page is believed to be out of copyright, and/or these extracts are believed to be fall within the scope of fair use under copyright law. Material selection and editing by R Sivaramakrishnan, 2008.
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