Wednesday, 25 December 2013

National Railway Museum

The railways were first introduced in the Indian subcontinent from Bombay to Thane, a modest 34 km journey. In 1951, the railway system was nationalised as one unit, known today as the Indian Railways, becoming one of the world's largest networks. Today, Indian Railways is the world's ninth largest commercial or utility employers, by number of employees. Hence, it would not be wrong to say that India has had a rich railway heritage. 

The static exhibition of railway relics began in the late nineteenth century when items from the early days of the railways were put aside, rather than being discarded or sold as scrap. To such men goes the credit for the preservation of early railway history. The first museum devoted purely to the railways is said to be that of Hamar, in Norway as it was set up in 1896. John Westwood in his book Railway Preservation writes, "One of the world's most beautifully situated museums. Its collections include documents, pictures, track and signals, passenger cars and locomotives. Especially, the locomotives, like many similar museum, include early British models, demonstrating the leading role in Britain in early railway technology."

India's first transport museum, the National Railway Museum in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi is home to some of India's finest and rarest locomotives. Situated behind the embassy of Bhutan in New Delhi, the museum is spread over 11 acres of land. The idea of the railway museum in India was initially conceived in 1962 though the idea was accepted only in 1970 and was formally inaugurated in 1977. The museum, being the first of its kind in India, is located both indoors and outdoors. The administrative wings and other departments are located in an elegantly designed octagonal building. 

Early rakes of the Neral-Matheran Railway
WDM-2: The first diesel engine of ALCO
The outdoor exhibits are true crowd-pullers and has plenty of open space. The open spaces display various real-life exhibits with lines of different gauges and specimens of railway engines such as WDM-2 18040, the first diesel engine built byAmerican Locomotive Company (ALCo) and the earliest rakes of the Neral--Matheran Light Railway. 

The Fairy Queen: The oldest surviving steam engine
The yard houses several vintage locomotives, carriages, complete royal armoured trains and various other exhibits, the most notable being The Fairy Queen. The Fairy Queen is the world's oldest surviving steam engine which was originally purchased by the East India Railways (EIR) in 1855.  In one corner, stands the rake of the Palace on Wheels, India's first premier luxury train. 

Each locomotive is kept in a good condition, having been restored and maintained on a regular basis. The locomotives have dedicated plaques which give tourists a brief synopsis about the history of each engine and the respective carriages. While some engines are placed in sheds, most are in the open. A prominent feature of the railway museum is the turntable. A turntable is used primarily to change the direction of the train and switch it to a different track, which in this case, happens to be part of the museum's mini railway network.

The indoor sections of the museum has some magnificent live exhibits also including a museum section which houses models of railway engines and coaches. It also has write-ups which chart the evolution of India's railway network. There are working as well as still scale models of various railway engines and coaches that have been used by the Indian Railways over the years. Also on display are a number of historic photographs, documents and coats-of-arms. One can also find a number of antique furniture pieces on display along with various instruments that have been used by the Indian Railways in the past in addition to mannequins. 

The Pamban Bridge in Rameswaram
There is the working model of the famous Pamban Bridge near Rameswaram built by the Southern Railway in 1911-1913 to shorten the journey from Tuticorin to Colombo by roughly 12 hours. The bridge has 145 deck type spans of 40 feet girders and two leaf "Scherzer" rolling life bridge. The length of the viaduct in total is 2.15 km. When the "Scherzer" span is lifted, it permits ships to pass. A cyclone in December 1964 resulted in washing off nearly 124 spans of this viaduct. The girders were salvaged from the sea and the bridge was restored to traffic in a record time of two months. 

WDM4: India's first Electro Motive Diesel locomotive
Apart from models, the museum also has a mini toy train network that goes around the museum in a circular format mainly designed to attract kids. It also has some interesting exhibits such as a collection of builder plates of companies that have constructed some of the locomotives which are on display such as the WDM-4 locomotive, India's first EMD locomotive. 

Early rakes of Mumbai Local Trains

Lifeline Express: India's first hospital-on-wheels train

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

ON AIR: The HAL Museum

As India emerges as one of the fastest growing aviation sectors worldwide, the absence of dedicated aviation museums in India are a huge disappointment. India's aviation history goes back to 1932 when J.R.D. Tata, flew an airplane from Karachi to Bombay. Hence, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited's Heritage Centre and Aerospace Museum in Bangalore is a pleasant surprise for an aviation enthusiast. The HAL Heritage Centre and Aerospace Museum is open for the general public and also permits photography at very minimal costs.

The unique museum was formulated by Dr. Krishnadas Nair, the then chairperson of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, one of Asia's largest aerospace companies. It was formally inaugurated on August 30, 2001. Through meticulous descriptions and carefully illustrated exhibits, the museum narrates the tale of India's aviation progress and in particular, maps the growth and progress of HAL. The museum, with its extensive collection of aircrafts and two mock-ups, is one of the largest public aviation museums in India.

Devon Aircraft 
Hansa designed by NAL
The museum's biggest attraction is its aircraft collection which is exhibited outdoors. Aircraft designed, developed and built by HAL as well as those produced under a licensing pattern for the Indian Air Force are on display. Each aircraft has its own a display zone which is cordoned off by chains with a plaque giving details of the aircraft. A few prominent planes displayed here are the transport plane Devon, the small plane Hansa developed by the National Aerospace Laboratories, a mock-up of the Light Combat Aircraft and HAL's trainer aircraft Pushpak and Kiran, both of which are still used by amateur flying clubs and the Indian Air Force. 

A scaled down model of a PSLV
A scaled down model of a GSLV
There are also some exhibits on the Indian aerospace industry, among them being scaled down models of polar satellite launch vehicles (PSLV) and geosynchronous satellite launch vehicles (GSLV). The most interesting space-related exhibit has to be the full-sized model of the nose-cone of the PSLV, the heat shield used to house the satellite and protect it on its journey through the Earth's atmosphere. 

HAL factory site: January 1940
Lord Mountbatten visiting HAL
The museum also chronicles some interesting HAL history. Hall 1 is housed in a circular building which has several rooms and each room depicts milestones in the HAL story over the last 65 years. Other photos include those on the production line of some of HAL's planes and some others of famous visitors to HAL, including Lord Mountbatten, India's last viceroy.

HAL ATC Tower and Tarmac: April 1957
Hall 2 gives visitors an idea about the various technologies involved in aircraft manufacturing and the changes that have taken place over the years. The upper levels of the hall house two rudimentary flight simulators and the popular Air Traffic Control Room. Although there is also some dummy ATC equipment, the real attraction here is the clear view that the ATC has of Bangalore's old airport runway. 

In a country where preservation of aviation history is not on the priority list, this modest attempt by HAL to educate common visitors is commendable. The setting up of the HAL Heritage Centre and Aerospace Museum is a giant step forward in preserving India's aviation history and heritage. This is largely a tribute to the hardworking scientists and machines that have propelled India's rise into the global aviation field making it a force to reckon with. 

P.S.: There is a nominal entry fee of Rs. 20/- for every visitor plus Rs. 25 to be charged for a camera for still photography. A video camera attracts Rs. 45 as the fees. There is a staff of ten to look after the Museum's operations, including a security detail to keep visitors off from touching the exhibits. The Museum houses a small souvenir shop that sells mementos, postcards and posters for reasonable rates.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Book Review: Randamoozham

Book: Randamoozham

Author: M.T. Vasudevan Nair

ISBN: 9788122608311

Pages: 300

The Mahabharata defines the Indian literary sphere. As an introductory statement in the original Sanskrit version states: "The tree of the Bharata (Mahabharata) inexhaustible to mankind as the clouds, shall be a source of livelihood to all distinguished poets." In hindsight, one realises the truth in such a prophetic statement made by Vyasa. While the Mahabharata has had multiple retellings and interpretations in Indian languages, in Malayalam, the Mahabharata finds a perspective in Bhima, the mightiest of the Pandavas. 

Randamoozham begins from the point where Krishna is not such a revered figure but a local king who failed to take revenge on Jarasandha and instead uses Bhima to seek revenge. We have known him as the second Pandava, the mightiest of the five, unequaled in wielding the mace, a fine general in war, a ruthless adversary, a fierce warrior who made every one afraid by his very presence. Here we see Bheema as he is originally-straightforward, slow to comprehend, but brutal in expression of feelings, practical to the core, one who did not have any separate interests or desires, who played the second fiddle to Yudhisthira and Arjuna from the start to the finish, who is unique in his own way.

It takes a reader right from the time of Kunti and the entry of the Pandavas into Hastinapura following King Pandu's death. It breezes through all the major incidents stated in Mahabharata culminating in a stunning climax. The book beautifully captures the pain and tribulations of Bhima and shows Kunti,Draupadi, Drona, Yudhisthira, Krishna, Arjuna, Karna, Duryodhana and all the other major players of this story as mere humans of flesh and blood. 

Every incident stated in Mahabharata as a divine intervention is shown in a new light to the readers. The master wordsmith also describes how the bards make it a point to blow an incident out of proportion. The way in which political and mind games of Mahabharata are played out giving equal importance to all the characters is well worth a mention, as is the way in which he describes the times, architecture and lifestyle of that era.  

Revisionism is not a popular style when it comes to Indian Literature. There have never been many champions who thought ‘what if a certain story of old was not how it actually happened?' and tried to look at the same story from a different perspective. Randamoozham or The Second Turn, therefore, penned by Jnanpith award winner M.T.Vasudevan Nair, one of the living legends of Malayalam literature, has to be held in high esteem. 

This book, which was first published in 1984, won the Vayalar award for the best literary work in Malayalam of the year. Randamoozham stands apart in the way the author has steered away from the mythological setting, and in the masterstroke of casting the characters as mere mortals, a stark contrast from the divine and godly setting portrayed in the epic. The way in which political and mind games of Mahabharata are played out giving equal importance to all the characters is well worth a mention, as is the way in which he describes the times, architecture and lifestyle of that era. The work was hugely successful and well received by the reader despite the controversial and divisive tone of the subject.