India Post and Indian Railways, "the two pillars on which the British Empire was built", in the words of chief postmaster-general, West Bengal, Arundhaty Ghosh, came together recently at a venue that is a symbol of our colonial history - the Victoria Memorial.
Eastern Railway celebrated the 160th anniversary of its maiden run with a stamp exhibition at the venue.RK Gupta, general manager, Eastern Railway, provided a historical context to the celebration. "The East Indian Railway Company was founded in 1845, within 20 years of the construction of the first railroad in England. Around the same time, the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) was formed in western India. But the seed was sown by Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, who saw the railways during his trip to England in 1842 and floated Great Western Bengal Railway Company the next year with the aim of transporting coal from his Raniganj colliery." The British did not allow his dream to come true.
Gupta talked about the race that ensued between the two companies to get off the block first. "EIR suffered strange setbacks. The French did not allow tracks to be laid in Chandernagore. Ships carrying locomotives from England ended up in Australia. Another ship carrying coaches sank near Diamond Harbour." Thus GIPR became the first to run a train from Bombay to Thane on April 16, 1853. EIR had to be content running a passenger train from Howrah to Hooghly on August 15, 1854.This was the start which Eastern Railway commemorated through the stamp show on the global history of railways. A special cover was also released on the occasion.
Drawing from the award-winning collection of Mohd Mujibullah, the heritage assistant of Eastern Railway, the exhibition put on view 12,000 stamps from 154 countries.
The cynosure of all eyes was the used Penny Red, the second oldest adhesive stamp in the world, on an envelope with a picture of a locomotive. A couple of burnt-at-the-edges envelopes drew attention. One was damaged in a Railway Mail fire in California in 1960, and the other in a caboose fire in Canada in 1959.
Another rare exhibit was postal currency. During the American Civil War, there was a shortage of coins and people started using postage stamps as substitute. But since the gum made the stamps stick together, the government was forced to step in and issue postal currency, worth 5c, 10c and 50c. These had replicas of postage stamps printed on the notes.
The exhibition traced the history of the railways from horse-drawn carriages and steam locomotives down to the superfast trains of today like Eurostar and France's TGV. There were also stamps on metros, undergound trains, monorails, freight trains, inspection locomotives, diesel container trains and even a cattle container train from Guyana.
A 3D stamp of Manama encapsulated the history by having a steam locomotive on one face and a monorail car on another. Many countries also pay postal tribute to rail engineers, engine drivers, plate layers and porters.
The most popular theme was George Stephenson's Rocket, an early steam locomotive that was deemed the best designed of the day. Stamps from Austria, Bhutan, Cuba, the emirates Ajman and Fujeira, and Hungary commemorated it.
A version of this was first published in The Telegraph, Kolkata on April 12, 2015
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