Life in Gurgaon

Heritage train service may revive interest in Gururgram’s forgotten towns

Source: Hindustan Times

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“BG Steam Locomotive WP 7200 chugged into Farrukhnagar near Delhi. A special weekend steam service will soon commence between Garhi Harsru and Farrukhnagar”.

Gurugram residents will be happy to know that this is not a British Period rail service announcement from the past, but last week’s statement by Mr Subrato Nath, the executive director (heritage), Railway Ministry.

For those of us who are yet unaware of Gurgaon’s significant industrial heritage, Garhi Harsaru is a historic, neighbouring town and railway station along the road from Gurugram to Patuadi, falling very much within the important heritage zone of Pataudi, Sultanpur sanctuary and Farrukhanagar.

Garhi emerging from the term ‘Garh’ in Hindi represents a small fortress. Garhi Harsaru is named after the Chauhan Rajput ruler Harsh Dev Singh who was one of the sons of Raja Sangat Singh Chauhan. Raja Sangat was the great grandson of Chahir Deo, brother of famous Rajput King Prithviraj Chauhan. Harsh Dev Singh Chauhan moved into the area of Gurgram in the late 18th century as a zamindar descendent from the Chauhan family and took over the area of Garhi Harsaru. But, it was during the British period that Garhi Harsaru came into prominence with the salt trade.

In February 1873, the railway line from Garhi Harsaru to Farrukhnagar was specially developed to transport salt from Farukhnagar and Sultanpur to Delhi. Passenger trains started on this track much later, after 1947. The meter-gauge railway track and the two stations at Garhi Harsaru and Farrukhnagar were built by the British in February 1873, specifically for salt trading. This was also part of the longer salt trade rail track, linking its Sambhar salt pans in Rajasthan to Rewari and Delhi.

Lord Mayo had visited the rest house at Garhi Harsaru and such colonial structures along with the station buildings make an interesting heritage ensemble of the British Period.

In 1981, Garhi-Harsaru station saw international recognition, when a scene from the film Gandhi—of a rail station in Africa was shot here, and Richard Attenborough and Ben Kinsley arrived to shoot it. The famous incident of Mahtama Gandhi’s life, when he was unceremoniously deboarded from a first-class coach in South Africa, was shot at our own Garhi Harsaru station. A temporary shed in front of the station building was made to transform the Garhi-Harsaru station into the station at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, from 1893.

This rail track was also part of the important Rajputana Malwa railway line. For many years, the meter-gauge railway line was used to transport salt by steam engines. The converted broad-gauge track became operational in 2011. So, Garhi Harsaru is now a large inland container depot and serves as a hub for transshipment of containers from and to Mumbai Port and seaports on the west coast of the country. Private ports of Gujarat and large transporters have also constructed container depots here.

Interestingly, the 18th century town of Farrukhnagar, linked to Garhi Harsaru, also flourished due to this salt trade. As recorded in the Imperial Gazetteer, “Sultanpur was the centre of salt production for use in Delhi and the United Provinces till the late 19th century, annually exporting 6,80,000 maunds or 18,350 tonnes (1 maund = 37kg approx.) over the Rajputana-Malwa Railway.

Salt was produced by extracting brine from about 40 wells, using bullocks, and drying it in open plots. Since salt was one of the major sources of government’s revenue, the office of the Salt Superintendent at Sultanpur supervised the levy of Rs 2 per maund.

With the “levy of the heavy salt tax and acquisition of the Sambhar Salt works in Rajasthan by the British, the Sultanpur salt became uneconomical. By 1903-04 the salt industry was struggling for survival with salt export having fallen down. Finally in 1923, the British shut down the office of the salt superintendent at Sultanpur, had all the mounds of salt thrown back into the wells and shut down the salt industry leading to considerable economic misery to the people.”

The decision of the Railways Ministry to develop Garhi Harsaru-Farrukhnagar section is a great opportunity to augment the ongoing heritage awareness and activities around Gurugram, Farrukhanagar and Sultanpur sanctuary.

The railway authorities aim to restore the heritage importance of both stations and develop the 11-kilometre stretch to improve tourism in this unexplored section.

We can possibly imagine this heritage route in future when families with children can make weekend trips, learn about the history of the Railways and salt trade in India, walk through the streets of historic Farrukhnagar and its monuments and experience the Sultanpur bird sanctuary—all in a single trip.

Collective efforts of various government departments and NGOs– railways, local bodies and INTACH, with its heritage walks, can definitely make this possible. In the long term, this route can even be linked to the already active Rewari Rail Museum with its stimulators and the Sambhar Salt Heritage Trail.