The Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express train number 15906 crosses India from the northeastern state of Assam to the southernmost town of Kanyakumari. The 85-hour journey along the country’s eastern coast covers 4,273km and carries, at times, more than 1,800 people, taking passengers through seven states and traversing beautiful landscapes in destinations such as West Bengal and Kerala.
For most people, this train ride – without flushing toilets, sufficient air conditioning or comfortable sleeping arrangements – would bring with it dread and discomfort. For Canadian photographer Ed Hanley, it was a chance to explore a different side to a culture he holds very dear.
This epic cross-country adventure marks Hanley’s 10th visit to India. However, his adoration for the country began with music rather than photography. “I'm a professional musician specialising in tabla, the principal percussion instrument of North Indian classical music,” he said. “I've spent lots of time in India studying music and performing over the years. I love the country and her people.”
Soon, Hanley saw that India was a country that begged to be photographed. “India is the most photogenic place I've ever been,” he said. “It’s a mix of colour and personality, where beauty and chaos coexist in the same moment, and where ancient traditions absorb and integrate modern ways.”
Throughout his 85 hours in motion, Hanley documented every aspect of the journey he could: passengers, landscapes, facilities and vendors were all captured as the Vivek Express trundled southwards. Hanley described the train as “a rolling street market”, where customers can buy anything from the mundane (soft drinks and chocolate) to the bizarre (a new mobile phone or a hardboiled egg). “I wanted to buy everything! But I restrained myself,” he said. For Hanley, it was all about authenticity, and no Indian train journey would be complete without a cup of chai: “I bought tea. Lots and lots of tea.”
Despite his veteran status as a tourist in India, Hanley still had moments that scared and shocked him. He recalled his frightening encounter with the train’s Railway Police Force, when he was served a “withering glare” from one officer he tried to photograph.
Poverty is something any traveller to India must become accustomed to, but Hanley found the presence of children begging aboard the train to be particularly shocking.
“A pair of young girls boarded the train at Jagiroad, Assam,” he recalled. “One did a precision tumbling routine down the length of the train car, while the other one provided groovy drum accompaniment on dholak. They were both incredibly talented, and they made some money, but they should have been in school.”
For Hanley, this incident illustrates a larger issue in India: “Child labour is a big problem,” he said. “Education is really the only way out of the poverty cycle, so it's sad to see kids begging at six or seven years old when they should be in school.”
Despite these reservations, however, Hanley adores this South Asian country and plans to visit again – but next time, perhaps he’ll travel by car or foot. “When we arrived in Kanyakumari,” he said “my legs took a few hours to get used to solid land!”
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