White Gold. More precious than its yellow equivalent at the time, cotton or ‘white gold’ was coveted by the British perhaps more than any other single commodity in the mid-19th century. But there was just one thing that stood between the British East India Company and the mother lode – a short but treacherous stretch of the Sahyadri hills between Bombay and Poona called the Bhor Ghat. It was too steep for the railway to attempt.
If they could conquer their Everest – a section of the hills between Khopoli and Khandala – the British would gain unfettered access to the cotton-rich Deccan region in Maharashtra, places such as Solapur and Nagpur. Back then, the roads were dodgy, often washed away by the monsoon. A railway line would not only be more secure, it would also make it possible to transport bulk shipments across the ghats (‘mountain range’ in local parlance).
Taming the Bhor Ghat would also mean that the British could connect Bombay via Poona to Calcutta, Madras and Delhi by rail. The prospect of linking these vital metros, three of them port cities, via a rail network would open up limitless possibilities for trade and commerce. Now if only the hills would cooperate!
The Bhor Ghat was eventually tamed, a feat hailed as one of the greatest triumphs of 19th-century civil engineering in the world, preceding similar efforts to lay railway lines across the Alps, the Rocky Mountains and the Andes.
But it came at a grave human cost. Here’s the story...
In 1852, the country’s oldest railway service, the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, took up the challenge. James John Berkley, the Chief Resident Engineer and the man behind India’s first stretch of railway from Bombay to Thane, which had opened in 1853, put together a team for the Bhor Ghat project.
After four years of arduous surveys of various routes, 3,000 maps, drawings and cross-sections, Berkley chose the Bhor Ghat to lay the line. But the ascent here was so abrupt that it was impossible to construct a direct line. The railway incline would have to ascend 2,017 feet in less than 25 km, which would mean exceeding the prescribed gradient. Clearly, this was going to be a bigger challenge than they had imagined.
So instead of constructing a continuous steep line, they came up with a brilliant solution – to carve out a ‘reversing section’ at a bend near the summit, where an additional line was to be provided so that the train left in the direction opposite to which it had entered. In other words, the train would have to travel several yards backward and then take a run up along a different, higher track to gain elevation.
The line would be laid such that the train would climb gradually at the steepest part of the ghats, and would leave the reversing station through a U-curve, followed by a long tunnel, all this while chugging along the edge of the very narrow and precipitous Khandala gorge.
The project also involved the building of 25 tunnels, 8 arched masonry viaducts, and the cutting of 54 million cubic feet of hard rock. Nowhere in the world had engineers ever attempted a project as tough and dangerous as this, and they had no precedent to guide them.
Besides, British engineers had to adapt to a vastly different physical and cultural setting than they were used to. As one consulting engineer to the Government of the Bombay Presidency wrote in 1855, “There is nothing as far as I am aware of in any English Railway which can be looked upon as a parallel undertaking.”
With the plans ready on paper, it was time for execution – and the first chisel was hammered in January 1856.
But as soon as work began, so did the problems.
First, Berkley’s health began to fail, possibly as a result of the tropical climate and his exertions on the ghats. He had to return to England and the contract was given to William Faviell, a railway contractor who had worked on lines east of England before being employed to build the Bombay to Thane railway too. But he had a reputation of treating his men brutally. As a result, when the Revolt of 1857 broke out the labourers here protested.
Men, women and children were forced to use their bare hands and simplest of tools to dig and transport earth and rock. And, at any given point, the massive project had about 25,000 labourers working on it, with hardly any water to drink. Epidemics like malaria and cholera were rampant on site.
The work also came with extreme occupational hazards. Steep cliff faces had no footholds. Workers were suspended by ropes in order to drill through the mountains. Not infrequently, they fell to their death into the deep gorge below. Meanwhile, the blasting of rocks to make way for the railway line also led to frequent accidents. Further, falling debris, cave-ins and slippery slopes added to their problems.
It has been estimated that, in the 8 years it took to complete the project, more than 24,000 workers lost their lives.
Then, in January 1859, the project’s investors demanded more. Angry at the slow speed of work and worried about not having enough money to complete the section, they insisted on paying only half the specified rate. This was when wages were already months in arrears.
The workforce was infuriated and a riot broke out, with the mob gathering around the British tents, on site, with sticks and stones to attack the sub-contractors. They relented only when they were promised more money.
But these actions had agitated the engineers, who retaliated by laying siege to the coolie huts to arrest the ‘ringleaders’. After a series of skirmishes, both parties retreated, only to find that one Mr Curran was missing, later found to be shot through the head.
The incident forced an inquiry into the project and Faviell quit. His successor, Solomon Tredwell, a railway contractor, died within days of being on site, possibly of cholera. It was his wife, Alice, who then took up the project.
In 1861-62, as many as 42,000 labourers were employed on the Bhor Ghat incline, which was completed by April 1863.
For its grand opening on 21st April 1863, a gala event was organised at Khandala, located at the crest of the incline. It was attended by a large number of visitors and the Governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere, announced that India had entered the ‘railway age.’
However, the words that followed were those of an imperialist talking about how positively British rule had impacted India, transforming it from a society of bullock carts to steam locomotives, conveniently skirting the massive loss of lives, working conditions and difficulties faced by the workforce that had toiled on the Bhor Ghat project. He lauded the work of the ‘English engineers,’ while almost forgetting that the railway line had been built, quite literally, with blood and sweat of Indian labourers.
Later, an article in Engineering Magazine in 1899, noted that building a railway line across the Bhor Ghat was “a more certain and enduring form of attack than military power, and that the railway, the canal and harbour are the real weapons in the conquest of a colony.”
There is no doubt that the building of the Bhor Ghat incline ranks among the most demanding railway projects of the 19th century. But, as Ian Kerr, an authority on the Indian Railways, puts it -
“The compelling story of death, struggle, suffering, perseverance, heroism, brutality, venality and eventual triumph played out on a larger-than-life scale for almost two decades.”
The Bhor Ghat reversing station was abandoned in 1929, when the Bombay-Poona railway line was electrified and a straight line was laid up to Khandala. A year later, the Deccan Queen, India’ first high-speed train, started services between Bombay and Poona. It slashed travel time and introduced passengers to the trappings of comfort on this journey.
Then, in 2002, the high-speed Mumbai-Pune Expressway was opened, making road travel between the two cities a breeze. Despite the evolution of technology and regardless of whether you travel by train or SUV, you have to still traverse the ghats between Mumbai and Pune as a gateway to the Deccan. The next time you make the trip, spare a thought for the thousands who died while executing a feat many had written off as impossible.