Vernacular Languages in Indian Railways

by Rajendra Aklekar, February 2002

Rajendra Aklekar, an IRFCA member, is a Mumbai-based independent railway historian and archivist. This article originally appeared in Language in India (Vol. 1, No. 10, February 2002) and is reproduced here by permission of the author.


Indian Railways! It truly reflects India! It is complex, sometimes unwieldy and unmanageable, and yet full of life. It prospers against all odds! It is not just a transport organization. It is a great social institution. So many things may go wrong in the country, but the Indian Railways somehow manages to keep its head up above the waters, and it always runs the trains, serving millions of people everyday! Indian Railways is patient with and sad about those who try to bring damage to its network of passenger and goods trains, hoping that these people one day will repent for their sins and recognize the merit of the institution that has served the nation with great distinction.


This institution of merit has evolved very interesting language policies since its inception. Since the railways are a public transport, serving people from different regional, ethnic, and linguistic groups, the policy of the organization has been geared towards communicating with its passengers using their language and script. Advertisements, announcements, information signs, cautioning remarks within the compartments, and helpful suggestions about the use of the toilet facilities, and so many other areas of contact within and outside the train and in the railway station have been presented in the dominant language and script of the region. The ultimate goal is to help its passengers to have a pleasant journey! In a country where literacy has been low for generations, the Indian Railways chose to give the essential information using visuals as well.


The answer to the question "When was Devanagari script used first on the Indian Railways?" is difficult but not impossible to find. A quick study done on the subject by me has revealed some interesting facts. This study is a part of the comprehensive research I have undertaken on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The facts mentioned here are some quick references on the use of the Devanagari script in the Indian Railways, culled together for the Indian Railways 150th Anniversary Year celebrations.


The first train started running on the Indian soil on 16 April, 1853. It had 14 carriages and three engines - Sindh, Sahib, and Sultan. The opening of the railway in the East was a major occasion and the day was declared as a public holiday in the city of Bombay. 1853, just four years ahead of the First War of Independence, otherwise called the Sepoy Mutiny!

Preparations for this great event might have been done on a grand scale, and special attention might have been devoted to the decoration and embellishment of the locomotives and its carriages. And if we go by the conventions and the traditional practices of the day, I have no doubt that some pujas to the engines, to the railroad, and other equipments might have been performed by the Indian people associated with the project.


It can be safely stated that the public notices and general instructions put up in the carriages had to be in the language the people understood.

Hence, the strongest possibility is that the carriages of the first train in India must have had the scripts of Marathi and Urdu, besides English, for the signboards. There is a reason for that.

Marathi, being the local language of Bombay, was given preference. Since Hindi, as it is today, was not yet evolved then (1853), the spoken language used then was Hindoostani. The scripts of Persian and Urdu had been widely written in upper India. But the British government in India had already laid down a policy to give preference to the local vernacular language.

"Yes," says M. S. Thirumalai, the editor of the online monthly journal Language in India. "I can only guess that the system of writing in the Indian vernacular must have been introduced right from the beginning when the first train started moving from Bombay to Thane."

Thirumalai says, in his personal communication, that the then British India language policy was to use the Indian vernacular, (they used Persian only for a brief period). The replacement of the Perso-Arabic script for writing Hindi was done even before the first Indian War of Independence in 1857. "The first train in India, I assume, must have had the Indian vernacular script." Marathi was written in Modi script at the time, Devanagari being adopted for Marathi several decades later. This means that even assuming that the first train's coaches had words or sentences written in Marathi, the script was not Devanagari as we call it today, another expert Ravindra Rao, adds.

With the introduction of the competitive examinations for the civil services in 1853, and even earlier, the British Raj had introduced an incentive scheme for the officers of the civil services to learn and use Indian languages in the British Raj administration. The use of the Indian vernaculars in government documents and properties had been encouraged by the British rulers.


What Mr. Thirumalai says seems correct. Further research on the subject by me has more or less proven the fact that the local language was, indeed, used in one of the references to the earliest inscriptions found in the railway infrastructure in Bombay.

According to the Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, published in 1909 by the executive editor and secretary of the gazetteer department of the state government of Maharashtra, the Frere bridge - named after the Governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere, and built by the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway (BB&CI) in 1866 at Grant Road, has an inscription on the bridge in English, Marathi, and Gujarati.

Similar is the case with the Kennedy Bridge (English, Marathi, and Gujarati), the Wodehouse bridge (English and Marathi), and the French bridge (English, Marathi, and Gujarati). Gujarati was prominently used on the BB&CI Railway as the third language because the line had come down from Surat to Bombay. The common sense approach of the Indian Railways to the linguistic complexity of the country is evidenced in this early record.

The Great Indian Peninsula (GIP) Railway, however, used Urdu as the third language on its system as its script was readily available.


The practice of using English, Marathi, and Urdu did continue for some period. About seventy years later, the official picture released by the Central Railway's Chief Public Relations Officer showing the crowd awaiting at Kurla station for the country's first electric train has the name of the station painted in three languages - English, Marathi, and Urdu.

So, we can safely conclude that the GIP Railway used English, Marathi, and Urdu as its first, second, and third language respectively. After the Constitution of India was formed in 1950, the railways decided to use English, Hindi, and the local language. Since the same train may pass through several states, the carriages always had more than the minimum two languages. The notices always carried the main languages of the states through which the trains ran.


I give below a list of some Hindi terms that are commonly used on the Indian Railways, from the Indian Railways FAQ. Although these are classified here as Hindi terms, some (not all) of these are widely used or understood in many areas of India.

'Dibba,' a passenger car (coach).
'Maal Gaadi,' a freight (goods) train
'Patri,' the tracks
'Karshan,' electric traction
'Kaka,' (Bombay division) a driver
'Aagwalah,' (also anglicized as "Augwala"), literally fireman, but generally used for the assistant driver even today.
'Chhavni,' Cantonment
'Chhoti rel,' (colloquial) MG or NG (literally, "small rail")
'Baramasi,' permanent-way worker or gangman. (Literally this means '12-month-er', referring to the nature of gangman's job, which requires going out at all times, and in all kinds of conditions.)
'Bada-fast,' is a mixed-language term; 'bada' = "big" in Hindi.

The following are some of the official terms used in Hindi translations by the Indian Railways.

'Shayan yaan,' sleeper coach
'Paryatan yaan,' tourist coach
'Vatanukool,' air-conditioned
'Vatanukool kursi yaan,' AC Chair Car
'Vatanukool shayan yaan,' AC Sleeper Car
'Rasoi yaan,' pantry car
'Upari upaskar,' pantograph
'Chalak,' driver
'Sahachalak,' assistant driver
'Parichalak,' guard (?)
'Aaybhaar,' tare weight
'Mandal,' division
'Samay saarani' timetable


'Khekda' = crab, affectionate name for the WCG-1 locos; see the entry above on 'crocodiles'. There are quite a few terms from other Indian languages also used in the terminology used by the Indian Railways.


Since 16 April, 1853, the Indian Railways have come a long way. The Indian Railways today rank as the largest rail network in Asia and the world's second largest under one management. The Hindi language and the Devanagari script is now firmly established itself on the railways front --- so firm that there's also a Rajbhasa department in the Indian Railways.

Unfortunately, the Indian linguists have not done any serious research on the use of Indian languages in the Indian Railways. More than any other wing of the government, the Indian Railways have been receptive to the communication needs of its patrons. It is important to study the language policies adopted by the Indian Railways because these policies could provide some useful models for language use in India. The syntax used in the linguistic styles used by the Indian Railways needs to be studied in depth. Likewise the study of the technical terms used in the loco sheds would throw light on the dynamic nature of the coinage of technical terms by the railway personnel.