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Legend has it that the engineer tasked with building the Barog tunnel on the Kalka-Shimla railway shot himself after he got the alignment wrong. With frequent repetition, the story has passed into history. But where are the sources to prove it?
There’s a town called Barog in Wales, and there’s another Barog on the road to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. The Indian Barog is known for the longest railway tunnel on the Kalka-Shimla route, but in recent years it has become famous for a ghost – the ghost of a British officer named Col Barog.
The story is so good, you wonder why a film hasn’t been made on it. If you haven’t heard the story already, here’s a summary: When the British started work on the Kalka-Shimla railway, the job of building the longest tunnel fell to Col Barog. Because it was a very long tunnel – more than a kilometre in length – he commenced digging it from both sides. But his alignment was off, the two arms didn’t meet.
The officer was embarrassed, and the government humiliated him some more by fining him a rupee for doing a shoddy job. What did the colonel do? He went up to the mouth of the flawed tunnel on the Shimla side, with his dog, and shot himself.
Thus far, the story has an engineering challenge, failure, humiliation and tragedy. But it gets better. It is said that Barog was buried at the mouth of his tunnel, and the place was named Barog in his memory. Redemption.
Next, an Indian diviner named Baba Bhalku/Balkoo from a village near Chail steps into the picture. He helps the British railway engineers find the right alignment through the weak rock of the hills. Without him, the tunnel could not have been built, so the viceroy honours Bhalku. Shimla city even has a railway museum named after him. So, there’s national pride involved.
And finally, when all the others who worked on the tunnel have passed, the good colonel decides to stay on in Barog as a ghost. He haunts the tunnel. In a good way, though. He is said to be a friendly ghost. Affable.
The Barog story has been told for many years. I found it online 20 years ago after I saw the railway tunnel (the one in use) for the first time. And I believed it. Not the bit about the ghost, but the failure and suicide didn’t seem doubtful.
Judged by the increase in YouTube videos on the subject, many others believe it too. Weekend trekkers have been making trips to see Barog’s abandoned tunnel and his grave. Oddly, everybody reports the grave has now disappeared. In 2007, a team of Unesco observers returned after failing to find Barog’s grave.
Was there a body?
In 2021, the internet makes it easy for you to search old books, newspapers, and government papers. I have devoted many hours over the past month searching for Col Barog. My quest began out of curiosity. I wanted to know more about this interesting officer’s case, but today I doubt there was a Col Barog in Barog, and that he killed himself.
The main problem with the story is that Barog was called Barog before work on the tunnel started. So, it could not have been named after an officer who shot himself on failing to complete the tunnel. Here’s an excerpt from The Bombay Gazette of August 14, 1899:
“A detailed and final reconnaissance for the Simla-Kalka railway has now been completed by Mr Harrington (the chief engineer)….The proposed alignment will necessitate the construction of three important tunnels, viz. Koti spur...Barogh...and Tara Devi.” In reports of that time Barog, Solan and Harrington are often spelt as Barogh, Solon and Harington. Shimla is uniformly ‘Simla’.
Actual construction of the Kalka-Simla line started in the summer of 1900. And Barog figures again in a report from The Engineer of May 25, 1900:
“The first sod of the mountain railway from Kalka to Simla has just been turned….The heaviest parts of the undertaking are two large tunnels which have to be made….The second is the Barog tunnel, under Solon Hill, about halfway to Simla. The tunnels are being taken in hand first as they will require upwards of two years to complete…”
No mention of mistake
Let’s say work on the Barog tunnel started in May 1900. From the beginning, it was known that it would take more than two years to build. The earliest it could have been finished was in May-June 1902. Now, if Col Barog had dug in the wrong direction and realised his mistake only when the tunnel’s two parts didn’t meet, the project would have been delayed by many months, if not years.
Instead, The Railway Engineer of December 1902 reports the two “headings” of the Barog tunnel were to have met on October 24, 1902 – comfortably close to the original estimate. So, right up to September or October, or even December 1902, there was no sense of alarm. No panic. Nor any reports of a “mistake” leading to delay.
The same report explains that work on the Barog tunnel was taking long because of natural obstacles. For example, its course lay through sandstone punctuated with springs: “The miners having had to work at times under deluges of water.”
By then, the rate of advance (of the two halves together) had increased to 50-70 feet every week. The officers and workers were paid a weekly bonus to speed up work, and they toiled “day and night”.
“Tons of dynamite have been used,” the report adds.
Is Baba Bhalku real?
Barog tunnel was made straight as an arrow to prevent a buildup of smoke from the steam engine inside the coaches. It was kept level so that the engine would use less coal in the confined space
Legend has it that after Col Barog’s suicide, Baba Bhalku pulled the project together and told the railway engineers where to dig. But reports from that time show it was quite a technologically advanced operation. In its May 11, 1901 issue, Indian Engineering talks about a “powerful compressed-air plant now being started” at the Barog tunnel.
The Railway Engineer of December 1902 also says, “The work has been carried through with the aid of heavy air-compressing machinery got out expressly from England.”
And tunnelling was only half the work. The tunnels also had to be lined with masonry, which cost considerable time and money. Three years after work started on the tunnel, it was nearing completion. The Bombay Gazette of June 15, 1903 says, “The masonry lining of the great Barog tunnel is completed throughout all but 500 feet of its length.” The entire tunnel is 3,752 feet long.
Not once does the name of Bhalku appear in these reports. It’s unlikely that the press would deny him credit just because he wasn’t white. It’s too good a story – a native diviner deciding the alignment of a railway tunnel – to suppress out of racial prejudice.
Signs at the entry to Barog railway tunnel on the Kalka side
The original deadline for the Kalka-Simla railway was October 1903, and it opened on November 9 that year. There was no delay at all. The Barog tunnel was completed within the overall project deadline. It took longer than originally anticipated, but that was because of the unexpected difficulties encountered.
Coming back to Col Barog, if he did shoot himself at the mouth of his wrongly aligned tunnel, why was he buried there? Why not in Subathu or Dagshai or Kasauli? There were British cemeteries all around.
Also, why is there no report about his suicide in the papers from that time? A colonel killing himself would have been a big deal. It would have been reported not only in India but also the UK and Australia. Yet, you find no mention of a Col Barog anywhere. Besides, he’s not mentioned even in the project plans. Other people are listed in charge of work at Barog, Dharampur and Solan throughout.
Finally, if you have visited the other tunnel, rather cave, you would have noticed it’s not big enough for a train to pass. It’s quite low in fact, somewhat like the mouth of a coal mine. And maybe that’s what it was, for as the Punjab State Gazetteer for 1904 says, “In tunnelling the Barog hill section of the Kalka-Simla railway a coal seam was also seen.”
Trains those days ran on coal, and a coal mine halfway to Simla would have been very useful. But that’s just conjecture. We don’t know what the other tunnel was for, but it’s hard to believe it had anything to do with the Barog railway tunnel.