In December 1942, when American military engineers were tasked with constructing the Ledo (Stilwell) Road from Assam to Kunming in order to supply China’s war effort against Japan, a comprehensive survey conducted by British railway officials in the late 19th century came to their aid.

The survey had explored the linking of the railway systems of Burma and Assam in 1894-’95. It was led by chief engineer RA Way and included a team of mostly British engineers and army officers, who relied on Khasi labourers to clear the jungle paths and members of other indigenous groups of North East India and Burma to understand and navigate the rough terrain.

A report released by the Public Works Department of the British Indian government in April 1896 provides minute details of the expeditions in what was then newly-acquired territory for the empire. It found the best way to connect India and Burma by rail would be through a 457-kilometre line that would begin in Ledo, a small town in Assam’s Tinsukia district, and cross into modern-day Arunachal and Patkai Range before entering Burma. A little more than half of the route – 241 kilometres – would be through cultivable, but thinly-populated, land, while the remaining would be through hilly terrain. After surveying three routes, the Public Works Department vouched for this alternative, which also opened up northern Burma for commercial exploitation.

Linking the territories

India entered the railway age in April 1853 when a train left Bombay’s Bori Bunder for Thana. Over the next few decades, the railways expanded to many parts of the Indian subcontinent, especially the areas that had natural resources that could be extracted by the British.

Assam got its first railway line in 1881 when a 65-kilometre-long metre gauge line connected Dibrugarh with Makum. Burma’s first line was ready six years later in 1877 with the opening of the 259-kilometre Rangoon to Prome line. While the British initially found it easier to access the southern parts of Burma from India through ferry services, once they had control of all of Burma by 1885, the focus shifted to building a railway line to link the territories. At that time, Burma was a province of British India.

A US Army soldier and a Chinese soldier place the flag of their ally on the front of their jeep just before the first truck convoy in almost three years crossed the China border en route from Ledo, India, to Kunming, China, over the Stilwell road in 1945. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

“When in 1893 it was decided that a survey should be made for a line of railway to connect the Assam and Burma systems, it was supposed that the most desirable route would be found by striking south from Chittagong, the terminus of the Assam-Bengal Railway, following the Aracan coastline to Akyab, and then turning eastwards and crossing what is known as the Aeng Pass to Minhla on the Irrawady; at Minhla the line would have crossed the Irrawady, and continuing eastward would have connected with some suitable point on the Toungoo-Mandalay line, possibly Mektila Road,” the Public Works Department said in its 1896 survey report.

It would have been easier and more economical for engineers to construct a line that was parallel to the Bay of Bengal coast, but such an idea was vetoed by the military authorities. In 1894, a survey was conducted of the Aeng Pass in the Rakhine state by railway engineers, who said the area was unsuitable for a railway line.

The second option that was explored for an India-Burma line was through Manipur. The Public Works Department’s report said, “At the same time a careful reconnaissance was made of a route, which starting from a point on the Assam-Bengal Railway near Lumding, crossed the Barrail range in the Naga Hills country, and working up the Barak River, emerged into the Manipur Valley at its most northerly point; traversing the Manipur Valley from end to end, this route next crossed the Yomaduong range and descended into the Kubaw Valley at Thummu and thence along the Yu River to its junction with the Chindwin at Yuwa, at Yuwa it would be necessary to cross the Chindwin (2,000 feet wide) and continuing eastwards, a connection would be made with the Mu Valley Railway in the neighbourhood of Wuntho.”

Engineers found this route to be feasible but said it was not an ideal alignment for a railway, as it involved crossing three mountain summits. This would have involved heavy work and cost the exchequer Rs 6.5 crore or Rs 1.69 lakh per mile on a 385-mile stretch.

Death on the way

Chief engineer RA Way seemed to be the keenest on a line that would connect Assam with Hukong (Hukawng) Valley in northern Burma. The valley, which is ringed by dense mountain ranges and was at that time a major habitat of tigers, was one of the prized possessions of the British, who were keen to extract its gold.

Way’s team decided to go on the expedition after the 1894-’95 monsoons. A team of 500, including 350 Khasi labourers, was organised for a three-month expedition from Ledo, Assam, to the Hukong Valley.

“It was decided that the expedition should start from the Assam side, and that an escort of 100 rifles under the command of a British officer, should accompany it as far as Ningbyen in the Hukong valley, at which place it was to be met by a similar escort from Burma,” the Public Works Department’s report said.

Not all of those who went on the expedition survived or even made it as far as Burma. A large group of Khasi labourers contracted cholera in Margherita, Assam. And although they were given the cholera vaccine developed by the Russian Jewish doctor Waldemar Haffkine, 35 of them died from the disease. “It was remarkable that, with their fellows dying around them the coolies remained so quietly in the camps provided for them as they did, but the constant presence of the British medical officer amongst them, and the close attention which they received from him and from Chandra Kishore De, the hospital assistant who lived in the camp, inspired them no doubt with confidence that everything was being, and would be done for them that is possible,” the report said, adding that the Khasis were “absolutely amenable to discipline”.

After the surviving Khasi labourers recovered, the group continued to survey the land and move towards Burma. The surveyors recognised the practicalities involved in setting up and servicing a railway line in the region. For instance, their report mentions a plan to expand the Margherita coal field and use the mined coal for the railway line.

Transportive words

Although what the Public Works Department produced was essentially a bureaucratic document, it provides a window into some of the remotest parts of eastern India and Burma. In it a reader can find rich descriptions of the landscape – probably written by Way – including of the Patkai, a series of mountains in modern-day Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and northern Burma.

“From the camp on the crest of the Patkai Ridge (3,977 feet), about 100 yards to the west of the track, a magnificent view was obtained: on the north, the valley of the Namkri and part of the Namphuk, with their jumbled up hills, lay in front and to the east; while to the west, the more open valley of the Namchik with its low rolling hills, suggested that as a more practicable line of approach to the Patkai,” the report said. “The Brahmaputra river could be seen in the distance and beyond it the wooded hills of the Mishmi country, while over these the snowy peaks and ranges of the Himalayas, some 150 or 200 miles distant, extended across the northern horizon, completing a splendid picture.”

The report also described the area around what is now called the Lake of No Return or Naung Yan, which is in the area of the Pangsau Pass. The British called the lake Nongyong. The area is now only visited by adventurous trekkers and history enthusiasts looking for remnants of the Ledo Road.

The team surveyed the thick jungles and hills on the descent to Burma and the work that would be required to lay the future railroad. The terrain got much easier when they entered the Hukong Valley. “On reaching the Hukong Valley (mile 146) all difficulties disappear; there are some six miles of rolling country as the hills die out, and then a flat easy country offering no difficulties whatever to railway construction; this continues the whole way to Mogaung,” the report said.

Costly affair

In 1896, the estimated cost for this line of 284 miles or 457 kilometres was worked out to Rs 3.88 crore. The engineers were keen to construct what would have become one of the most scenic railroads on the planet. But the proposal was held up in the British Indian bureaucracy and did not see the light of day until after the First World War. The Indian government conducted a preliminary survey of the Hukong Valley route in 1919, with the cost estimate coming to nearly Rs 7 crore. The survey relied largely on the information made available by the expedition led by RA Way.

The project remained in discussion until 1937 when Burma was separated from British India. A large part of the proposed railway line was incorporated into the Ledo Road, which played a crucial part in the Chinese resistance against Imperial Japan. The road fell into disrepair after the Second World War and has since been swallowed back by the jungle.

As New Delhi looks to strengthen trade ties with Asean countries, a trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand is being constructed. There has also been a proposal to have a rail link parallel to this highway. Such a link would not only help increase trade and travel between India and its eastern neighbours, but also fulfil the dreams of the early pioneering engineers of the railways in the Indian subcontinent.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.