In the new national highway numbering, Kalka-Shimla road is part of NH-5. “The highway connecting Firozepur, Moga, Jagraon, Ludhiana, Kharar in the State of Punjab, Chandigarh, Kalka in Haryana, Solan, Shimla, Theog, Narkanda, Rampur, Chini and proceeding to the Border between India and Tibet near Shipkila in the State of Himachal Pradesh.” This is the definition of NH-5. If you have travelled to Shimla and are not attached to the toy train (and now airlines), you will have done this 90 km stretch by road. After the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16 and the Sugauli Treaty, Shimla passed to the East India Company. Shimla became the summer capital in 1864 (decision was taken in 1863). Therefore, twice a year, the government machinery shuttled back and forth, between Calcutta and Shimla. The Kalka-Shimla Railway was triggered by the need to have better connectivity between Shimla and the rest of the country, via Kalka. The oldest major train that still runs in India is Kalka Mail. At one point, this had pride of place. The old numbering system of trains reflected this. Kalka Mail used to be 1 UP and 2 Down. In 1866, it started as “East Indian Railway Mail” between Calcutta and Delhi and was then extended to Kalka in 1891.
But Kalka-Shimla road predated the summer capital decision. In 1888-89, there was a District Gazetteer for Simla (as it was then spelt). This said, “The Grand Trunk Road from Kalka to Simla is practicable for carts and traffic of every description. The gradients are easy, and the dak bungalows are completely furnished and provided with servants. The old road is practicable only for jhampans, ponies and coolies, and the road is very steep in many places. The Hindustan and Thibet road commences from Simla and extends as far as Karin Khad, six miles beyond Chini in Bashahr territory -- distance 166 miles altogether.” To make it explicit, there was the old road and there was Grand Trunk Road. “The roads from Kalka to Simla are two in number: (1) The old road, via Kasauli and Sabathu; passable by foot passengers, horses, mules, ponies, or cattle, but not intended for wheeled conveyances... (2) The new cart road which takes a more circuitous route, via Dagslaai and Solan.” The distance via (1) is given as 41 miles, that via (2) as 57 and a half miles. Along (2), “In the season of 1874, two-wheeled carriages, called tongas, similar to those in use in the Central Provinces, were started upon this line for the conveyance of passengers. By these carts the journey is performed in about eight hours.” Today, on the Kalka-Shimla drive along NH-5 (aka Grant Trunk Road or new cart road), you are likely to take just over 3 hours. With the ongoing widening of the highway, it is hard to imagine tongas.
Road to Simla from Kalka | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
There is an interesting 1857 House of Commons document, titled, “Minutes and correspondence in reference to the project of the Hindostan and Thibet road, with reports of Major Kennedy and Lieutenant Briggs relating thereto”. There were multiple reasons for building this road – possible trade ties with Tibet, strategic cum defence reasons, connectivity to hill stations. (It now seems odd that a lot of the interest in trade was because of pashmina.) A letter written to the Governor General (Dalhousie) in 1853 said, “The plan for the construction of this road was regarded by us with great interest when it first came under our notice. Not only did we warmly approve of the Governor-general’s object of putting an end to the “Begaree system”, by the formation of that portion of the line lying between Kalka and Simla, and look with interest to the political and commercial advantages likely to result from the opening of a line with communication with Thibet by way of Chini, but we regard as highly important the question raised by Major Kennedy, when he laid out the line, namely, the possibility of constructing, through such a region as the Himalayas, a road which, while formed on correct and scientific principles, might yet be executed at moderate cost.”
This quote is odd. Begar was a system of indentured labour. Irrespective of what this quote says, in and around hill stations, the British used a fair amount of such labour, including in building initial stretches of Hindustan-Tibet road, such as the Kalka-Shimla stretch. If costs were moderate, it was also because of this. That same letter states, “By the aid of the tribute labour due by the hill chiefs, the road of 12 feet in width has cost only 1,237 rupees a mile, and the road of six feet 690 rupees.'' There is a book (1870) by Edward Buck, titled Simla, Past and Present. For a tunnel (on the road) construction, this mentions use of 10,000 prisoners and 8,000 “free” labourers.
The author is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.
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