The narrow-gauge Kangra line through the foothills of the Himalayas is never far from temple or shrine. Escaping the heat Tim McGirk, our India correspondent, climbs aboard; THE WORLD IN MOTION: INDIA BY TRAIN
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OLD DELHI station. It is 9.26pm, but the air is still roiling hot like the inside of a tandoori oven. I'm carrying water, a suitcase and an assortment of locks and chains that would baffle Houdini and, I hope, the Indian railway's fast-fingered thieves. My train, the Jhelum Express, leaves at 9.30, but I don't know from which platform. While I'm frantically scanning the monolithic timetable on the station wall - India runs over 7,000 passenger lines a day - a cow wanders in, chewing a discarded chapati, and also seems to be consulting the rail schedule. The Jhelum Express leaves from platform 10 and I now have three minutes to get there.

One slight problem: between me and platform 10 are probably 40,000 people, many engaged in the same furious search for their trains. We stumble along platforms, up and down stairs and elevated walkways, jostling past porters balancing impossible bundles on their turbans, and we pick our way through fields of picnicking families and sleeping Sikh soldiers. It is dark and scalding hot. To add an infernal touch, every so often a grease fire spits from one of the puri-seller's cauldrons. Hawkers swarm everywhere, frying omelettes, slicing mangoes, pouring tea as thick as mud, and offering a far better standard of novels than you'd find at a British Rail newstand. Just 30 seconds before the two sharp whistles blow for departure, I swing on to my air-conditioned, second-class sleeper, drenched in sweat but exultant.

The British laid the first 20 miles of track in 1853, between Bombay and Thane. From this modest start, they and the Indians after them spun a steel web of more than 62,000kms of rail around this huge country. Every year, 3 billion pasengers ride on Indian trains, but I confess that rarely am I one of them. Distances are so vast in India that journeying by train anywhere is like entering a parallel universe, one in which time and motion obey different laws. Life doesn't revolve around the rise and fall of the sun. The cycle depends on when a train pulls in and out of the station, each one pulling 20 wagons with more than 1,000 passengers aboard. Indians are perfectly willing to shut themselves up in a train for 36 hours. They feel perfectly at home, lounging around in pyjamas and in their special pairs of train slippers. And because they feel at home, they are wonderfully hospitable to strangers, sharing their meals, and they are even kind to other passengers' brattish children.

Serendipity seems to rule this other universe more than any timetable. I remember once racing in a car through southern India with a friend to catch a Bombay-bound train. Our driver had crashed into a cow and was certain its ghost was galloping alongside us. After driving madly for three hours, we were stopped at a last level-crossing before the station, only to watch our train thunder by. We settled down for the long wait for the next connection, only to find that a few minutes later a special Bombay Express train was making an unscheduled stop there and we were able to board.

More often, however, this chaos seems to conspire against travellers. Although Indian trains are usually reliable, a simple, short journey can drag on for spectacular lengths of time, in which the train skids into some kind of Twilight Zone and remains there, stuck. India's longest train ride is the Guwahati Express, which is supposed to run from Assam, in the northeast, to the subcontinent's southern tip of Kerala in a mere 71 hours. Not once in its 10 years of service has the Ex-press ever made it on time, and the conductors are chuffed if the delay is measured in hours and not days. In the guidebook, India by Rail, an often-told joke is quoted of the conductor who catches an old man travelling on a child's ticket. "When I started this journey," replies the old man, "I was a child."

Many trains are named after India's holy rivers, and people crowding the platform as their train arrives often have the same giddy intensity that you find, say, among the pilgrims at Benares stepping into the Ganges river. I can imagine in 50 years time, some spin-off cult developing in India that worships a god who is half-man, half-locomotive, wearing a conductor's uniform and waving with his many pairs of hands lanterns, signal flags and coveted air-conditioned class tickets. This is not to say that travelling by train through India is necessarily a spiritual experience. It is often boring and always exhausting, but there is an exhilarating sense of immersing yourself in the great current of humanity that sweeps across India.

My own objectives for this trip on the Jhelum Express were to do entirely with self-preser-vation: like those seekers who follow the Ganges up to its icy spring in the Himalayas, I wanted to escape the 118 degrees of Delhi and follow this broad-gauge river of steel up until it narrowed and rose into the mountains. I wanted to reach as close as I could by train to the snowline of the Himalayas.

I had several choices. There is the toy steam train that puffs up to Darjeeling (this may soon be one of the few steam rides left in India; this year the last of the steam locomotives are being retired from service on the eastern and western railways). The other trip I contemplated was to Simla, a hill station where the British empire-builders used to take refuge from the sweltering heat of the plains.

Instead, my Indian friends who know their trains pointed me towards the Kangra line in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. One station in the Kangra valley, Palampur, perches on the edge of the Dhaula-Dar, the imposing outer range of the Himalayas. From Delhi, this trip entailed an overnight ride on the Jhelum Express which reached the junction of Pathan-kot, on the border of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, at 7.30am.

There, I had an hour's wait before a so-called express was due to take me on the last leg of my journey along the narrow-gauge Kangra line. This was one of the few narrow gauges the British laid; most of India's narrow gauges date back to the private railways operated by the maharajahs and nawabs and were absorbed into the main network after independence. India intends to phase out its narrow gauges and standardise its lines, with a loan from the World Bank, but this may take several decades.

Built at the turn of the century and finished in 1929, the Kangra is a breathtaking ride. The British were in such a panic to escape the scorching heat and the malaria that they blasted their way up through the hills, ignoring natural contours and aesthetics. You can understand their haste; until then, they had to travel up to the hills by donkey or camel. Eleven camels were recommended per family, double that number if the memsahib insisted on bringing along the grand piano, as some did. The Kangra Line rises along the ridges, leaping across the jungle canyons and ravines of the Himalayan foothills with 971 steel and stone bridges. It took engineers three years to lay the 164kms of track up the Kangra valley. They were pestered by tigers, troops of monkeys, locusts and landslides. Worst of all were the monsoon floods which swelled the rivers by 40ft, sweeping away their bridges.

Before travellers from Delhi get to the cooling reaches of the Kangra valley, however, there is the journey. As the Jhelum Express pulled out of the capital, I found my berth and chained my suitcase to the floor. The thieves are magicians. You close your eyes for a few seconds, mesmerised by the train's raga-like rhythms, and your suitcase, camera and rucksack, all stashed under the seat, have dematerialised.

The train was headed for Jammu, a site of pilgrimage, and many of my fellow passengers were families on their way to the Vaishnudevi shrine. Bliss for an Indian is to be riding a train to a holy temple or mosque, loaded with aluminium tiffins stacked with curries, biryanis, pakoras, chapatis and sweets for the trip. Anxious to avoid eating more of the gooey Bengali sweets that these kindly gourmet pilgrims kept plopping into my hands, I went and stood in the open doorway. The night in the Punjab plains was black and pungent; I felt as if I was brushing against the side of a slumbering water buffalo.

As a final precaution against thieves, I wrapped my suitcase around my foot and slept like prisoner attached to his ball and chain. The train's movement sounded like a slow drumming, coming from deep in the Indian earth to summon the monsoon rains. The next morning, only a few minutes late, I reached the Pathan-kot junction. Unshaven and rumpled, I leaned into the station superintendent's office for information about the Kangra line. He was in deep discussion with a group of signalmen, their green and red flags in hand. He asked me to return in 15 minutes. "Go refresh yourself. We have a bath in the first-class waiting room," he suggested. I did as he said, and found that the first-class waiting room was mainly inhabited by first-class mosquitoes.

When I returned to the office, the superintendent was still busy and waved me to a chair. My porter stood outside the door impatiently. The Kangra train left in a few minutes. I had a moment's panic when I noticed that the wallclock and the wristwatches of the superintendent, the signalmen and switchmen were all running on different times. Suddenly, my own watch seemed unreliable, too, and I could hear the seven warning bells meaning I had only five minutes before the train scooted off.

"Yes?" the super said, finally, turning to me. I asked him the name of the most scenic station. "Palampur," he replied, then he recited all 30 names on the line. "We call this the goddess line, because 60 per cent of our stations are near temples." I thanked him and, following my bandy- legged porter, dashed to the train. The diesel engine looked like a Fifties fridge and it pulled six or seven ancient wooden wagons.

A first-class fare cost 114 rupees (pounds 2) for a 96km trip. Had I travelled second class, the ticket would have set me back only nine rupees. Sadhus, Hindu holy men, travel for free, and there were many of them on the goddess train, rag-haired men with their faces painted in ash and turmeric and carrying bronze tridents.

With a sound like a tree full of startled birds, the Kangra train began its slow chug towards the Himalayan foothills. Anywhere else in the world, these would not be considered foothills but impressive mountains. There were eight of us crammed on to a bench built for four in a cupboard-sized first-class compartment, while in second class many seats were empty. Another box of gooey sweets was pressed on me. The train climbed imperceptibly; it was almost as if the earth was falling away beside the track, shaping itself into a river gorge, a pine ridge or the bright-green mosaic of terraced rice paddies. Every so often, we would cross a dry riverbed strewn with giant boulders; in two months, the monsoons would batter the Himalayas, the snow would melt, and the rivers would grow to over a mile wide and run devastatingly swift.

It was while crossing one of these dry river-beds that the Dhaula-Dar range framed itself in the train window, where it remained for the rest of the journey. The peaks, turbanned with snow and clouds, seemed to give off an effervescence. Everyone was in a good mood, though it might have had something to do the fragrance coming from the fields of marijuana growing wild behind every station. At each stop soldiers arriving on home leave threw out their duffel bags and jumped off the train. Tiny schoolchildren were herded on and off the train like geese, and farmers' wives boarded with baskets of pale purple aubergines or apricots. Drifts of violet bougainvillaea carpeted the platforms. The train's coming was a big event. Boys along the track broke into a run as if trying to race the engine and then gave up with an exhausted wave as if to say: next time, I'll beat you.

The scenery is not alpine. Out of the train window, I saw snowy ranges floating above rice paddies and groves of bamboo. The Scottish engineers who built the Kangra line would probably strongly disapprove of the monkeys trapezing across the steel gridwork of the bridges. The Kangra valley inspired a school of miniature painting whose subject was often the playful antics of Krishna, the cosmic lover, and Radha, his divine consort. They belong here in the Kangra, cavorting in the waterfalls and smooching under the mango trees. Today, an artists' colony high up the valley keeps the traditions alive.

Disembark from the train anywhere in the Kangra valley and there is much to explore. From Kangra station, the hill town of Dharam-sala where the Dalai Lama lives in exile is only 23kms away. It is not unusual to see a Tibetan yogi meditating in a cave or studying at one of the many Buddhist monasteries that have sprung up in the valley. The train also stops at Baijnath, a 2,000-year-old Hindu temple with a fearsome stone carving of Kali, the goddess of destruction. She is thin-teated and frightening, with a garland of skulls. I saw a blur of movement behind the statue and out from between Kali's legs slithered an evil-looking chameleon with turquoise claws.

On my return journey to Delhi I was seduced into making a reservation from Pathankot junction on a train with the sweet-smelling name of the Shalimar Express. It is a mistake I hope never to repeat. The Shalimar arrived two hours late, and seemed to wander on its own like a free-range chicken all over northern India. The next afternoon, six hours late, it rolled into Old Delhi station. The same cow was there, chewing and gazing rather wistfully at the Indian Railways timetable. !