On India’s trains, photographer finds a moving world ‘where all of life happens’

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Canadian photographer Sara Hylton spent months traveling India's railways

"I kind of felt like it was where all of life happened," she said

CNN  — 

As the scenes outside India’s trains shift from the lush tea gardens of northeastern Assam to the Arabian Sea along India’s western coast, the snack offerings at the stations vary from mitha dahi (sweet yogurt) to idli (steamed rice cakes).

India’s trains and the more than 23 million passengers that ride them each day are a symbol of the country’s rich diversity of food, culture, language, religion and class. On the journeys that extend from one end of the country to another, many passengers spend days on the trains.

Canadian documentary photographer Sara Hylton spent months traveling India’s railways for her photo series, “A Temporary Home.” A temporary home is what the trains have become for the migrant workers, families, missionaries and beggars Hylton met along the way.

“I kind of felt like it was where all of life happened, and I didn’t even need to get off the train,” Hylton said.

Photographer Sara Hylton

One photo captures a passenger shaving in the train’s communal bathroom sink before he reaches his final destination in India’s southern state of Kerala. In another, a mother is asleep with her baby on the final leg of the journey from the northwestern state of Punjab to Kerala. Another photo captures a vendor showing textiles to passengers on the Vivek Express, the longest train in the country.

“The thing that stands out to me most about Indian trains is their intensity,” Hylton said. “The number of people that pack on to some of these trains, some of the smells, the sheer distance that these trains travel. … Their scope and their culture is so much more intense than what I experienced on other trains. Everything feels multiplied.”

India’s railways were a training ground for Hylton, a place where she picked up much of her knowledge of the country’s culture. She recalled learning about many Indians’ more flexible concept of time when a political protest in the eastern state of Bihar resulted in a near five-hour delay. While the wait left Hylton extremely frustrated, no one else seemed to care.

“The sense of letting go and going with the flow was so prevailing to me on these train journeys, because nothing goes to plan,” Hylton said. “There’s so much patience in the culture.”

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    On the Kochuveli Express running from Punjab to Kerala, Hylton met PP Singh: a turbaned, Sikh man traveling with his family to visit relatives in Mumbai.

    “He and his family were the only family I really connected with in the compartment,” Hylton said. “It wasn’t his story. There was nothing really special about him … just his warmth and his openness. That to me is the warmth I feel from Indians in general.”

    Unlike most passengers, Singh and his family had the luxury of traveling in second AC, the train’s most expensive compartment, which offers air conditioning, bedding and more space and privacy.

    “As a foreigner it’s easy to get caught in the what is most foreign to you or to me specifically. It’s easy for me to go on a sleeper class or the general class and take pictures of these mass amounts of people, but that doesn’t really say something to me,” Hylton said. “I’ve seen a lot of that, and I wanted to represent all of life on the train rather than just ‘poverty porn.’ “

    For her photos, Hylton used a Rolleiflex camera from the 1950s, which she said helped her approach the project with more intimacy and quietude. This gives the photos an older feel, perhaps fitting considering the railways are a legacy of British rule in the country.

    India’s first passenger train began running in 1853, and today the country’s railway system is one of the largest in the world. Despite the India’s growing middle class and domestic airline industry, trains remain a popular mode of transportation.

    “This to me remains so much a part of Old India,” Hylton said. “That’s something that really fascinates me as India becomes this superpower in the world.”

    Sara Hylton is a photographer who splits her time between New York and New Delhi. Part of her project was funded by the Pulitzer Center. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Visura.