UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 4 Iconic Indian Railway Stations You Should Add to Your Bucket List
Last year, the world’s largest rail network completed 150 years. On April 16 1853, the first train left Bombay (now Mumbai) for Thana (now Thane). The 34km train journey marked the beginning of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway system and the glorious legacy of the British Raj.
Today, the Indian State Railways covers more than 62,486km across the entire India with 7,105 stations, making it the world’s largest rail network. 11 million passengers travel every day in more than 12,000 trains.
For most inter-state or inter-city trains, the journey begins at the station platform with passengers finding their name and seat number posted on an A4 size of paper outside the compartment.
The history of Indian railways is so iconic that UNESCO has conferred the heritage status to four railway stations. These include the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (1999), Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai (2004), Nilgiri Mountain Railway (2005) and Kalka Shimla Railway (2008).
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
Darjeeling’s settlement traces back to 1828. The British wanted to set up a Sanatorium for the East India Company’s servants so Darjeeling was separated from Sikkim in 1835. Initially, it region had a monastery on Observatory Hill and about 20 huts with a population of around 100 people.
In 1878, Franklin Prestage, the Agent of the Eastern Bengal Railway, proposed a rail link between Darjeeling and the plains to cut down costs for essential commodities and the need to export tea. His detailed scheme, approved by Lt. Governor Sir Ashley Eden, emphasized the substantial reduction in transport costs and the feasibility of constructing a 2-foot gauge rail line.
Darjeeling Steam Tramway Co. was formed which was later renamed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co. (DHR). DHR attained UNESCO World Heritage status on December 5, 1999, citing its exceptional influence on the social and economic development of a multicultural region, serving as a model for similar developments worldwide during the 19th century.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, formerly known as Victoria Terminus, is an exemplary blend of Victorian Gothic Revival and Indian traditional architecture.
It was designed by F. W. Stevens and built over a decade starting in 1878. The terminal’s remarkable features include a stone dome, turrets, pointed arches, and an eccentric ground plan reminiscent of traditional Indian palace architecture.
Serving over three million commuters daily, it reflects a fusion of British, Italian, and Indian architectural styles, featuring intricate 3D-stone carvings, and carvings of local species. It has elaborate detailing in yellow Malad stones, Italian marble, polished granite, and white limestone.
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the station retains its original structural integrity, showcasing authenticity through its carvings, gargoyles, allegorical grotesques, and figures representing India’s diverse communities. The entrance gates, crowned with a lion and a tiger, further add to its iconic status as a monumental representation of cultural fusion.
Nilgiri Mountain Railway
The plans for a mountain railway from Mettupalaiyam to the Nilgiri Hills were initiated in 1854. The line opened in June 1899, initially operated by the Madras Railway, later managed by the South Indian Railway Company.
Stretching 45.88 km from Mettupalaiyam to Ooty, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway boasts of a track that is a meter gauge (1000 mm), featuring 16 tunnels, 250 bridges, and a maximum speed of 30 mph on “Non-Rack” sections.
The region, receiving rainfall during monsoons, showcases stunning landscapes, making the vintage-themed Nilgiri Mountain Railway a unique experience. Nicknamed the ‘Toy Train,’ the metre-gauge line ascends the hills, offering breathtaking views of the Nilgiri Mountain Range.
The UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site connects Mettupalayam to Ooty, passing through picturesque hill stations like Coonoor and Wellington.
Kalka Shimla Railway
The Kalka–Shimla railway, a 2 ft 6 in narrow-gauge marvel in North India, spans the mountainous route from Kalka to Shimla, offering breathtaking views.
Built in 1898, it aimed to connect Shimla, the summer capital during the British Raj, with the Indian rail system. It was designed by H. S. Harington and the railway features 107 tunnels and 864 bridges.
UNESCO recognized the Kalka–Shimla railway as a World Heritage Site in 2008. The rail link, a single-track working marvel, was built during British rule, earning the Guinness World Record for its steep ascent and scenic beauty. Described as the “crown jewel” of Indian National Railways, the Kalka–Shimla railway is a testament to brilliant engineering, featuring the world’s highest multi-arc gallery bridge at Kanoh and the world’s longest tunnel at Barog (at the time of construction).
The journey unfolds with the train departing from Kalka station, ascending through deodar, pine, ficus, oak, and maple woods. The experience is enriched by changing vegetation, Gothic-style bridges, and the allure of railway stations along the way. The nostalgic ride, often called the “toy train,” captivates passengers with the cool breeze, fresh dew, bird chirping, and scenic beauty, making it a memorable journey.
Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh
Gwalior Fort is perched on a steep mass of sandstone. It has witnessed historical events, battles, imprisonments, and jauhars (mass suicides). The fort is celebrated for its legacy.
The entry to the fort is a steep road with statues of Jain Tirthankaras carved into the rock face. The outer walls of the fort stretch to two miles in length and rise 35 feet high.
Inside the fort, medieval architectural marvels include the 15th-century Gujari Mahal, constructed by Raja Mansingh Tomar in dedication to his Gujar Queen, Mrignayani. It stands as a symbol of their love. It also has an Archaeological Museum housing rare antiquities, some dating back to the 1st century A.D.
One notable exhibit within the museum is the statue of Shalbhanjika from Gyraspur, a representation of the tree goddess. This statue is considered the epitome of perfection in miniature. It can be viewed on request under the custody of the museum’s curator.