India, with its embarrassment of riches for tourists, presents a quandary for a visitor: where does one start in such a vast, diverse country? One of the most delightful ways to explore India is to skip the antiseptic flight option and board a train instead.
Trains are among India's most famous institutions and come with their own quirks. On a long distance chugger, you're likely to be woken up at the unearthly hour of 5am with incessant, loud calls of 'chai' and 'kapi, kapi, kapi'. It's also likely that you'll be adopted by the entire compartment and assaulted by the omnipresent aroma of food. In 2010, the Maharaja of all trains – The Palace on Wheels – was launched and got the kind of attention fit for a king. Its success spawned new routes and luxury trains with deluxe cabins, butler service, a spa, a bar, catering by the Taj group of hotels and even a conference room. A journey on board one of the luxury trains, the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey, is as memorable as the destination itself.
The Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey travels between Mumbai and Delhi (and the other way round) once a week between October and April. The whirlwind trip takes in the magnificent Ajanta and Ellora caves, a boat ride on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, tiger spotting in Ranthambore, an elephant ride in Amber Fort, Jaipur, and the unforgettable Taj Mahal before offloading passengers in Delhi with a royal send-off.
The luxury train maintains high hospitality standards, pampering their clientele for seven nights and eight days. Revelling in the royal treatment will cost you between $595 - $995 per night, based on a shared twin room, but it's well worth the experience, which is evocative of the old world charm and taste of traditional India.
So now that you've elected to play monarch for the week, you'll be welcomed with the royal turban and garlands at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST station, the World Heritage Site formerly known as Victoria Terminus) in Mumbai. Soon you'll be chugging off, armed with cocktails and a concierge, to Aurangabad to visit the intricately carved Ellora Caves.
The monasteries and cave temples of this World Heritage Site were carved out of the vertical face of a high basalt cliff between 600-1000 AD. The Ellora caves offer sanctuary to three religions - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The architecture and intricate workmanship is nothing short of a marvel.
After a lunch break on the train, a visit to Ajanta caves, 100 kms from Ellora, is on the cards. Cut into the volcanic lava on the side of a cliff, the caves depict the life of Buddha. These caves were briefly 'forgotten', unlike Ellora, until a British tiger-hunting party 'rediscovered' them in 1819. With supple figured sculptures, symmetrical balance and exquisite detailing; the execution of the art is sublime.
Leaving behind the state of Maharashtra, the next stop is the charming city of Udaipur in Rajasthan. The desert state is modernising rapidly, yet the traditional values of the Rajputs remains unchanged. Dress modestly and try not to show your surprise when young kids selling souvenirs chat people up in French, Arabic or Japanese. You could pack in a lifetime of adventure wandering around the state that defines the concept of royalty with its sumptuous palaces, forts, havelis and colourful stories. Colour, the dominating theme here, runs riot in the dress, architecture and legends, and Rajasthan has a tendency to leave visitors wondering what hit them.
Udaipur is Rajasthan's most romantic city with the grand City Palace set against the backdrop of the Aravalli Hills on the banks of the Lake Pichola. This marble and granite monument built by Maharana Udai Singh is a great example of India's finest architecture. The Maharana was weighed in gold and silver at the Triple gate, which was distributed among his subjects. It is in the royal courtyard that the Maharana met a sage who planted the idea of founding a city here in the fertile, royal brain.
Next on the itinerary is Sawai Madhopur. Probably the most exciting leg of the journey, Ranthambore was once a princely game reserve, situated at the junction of the Aravallis and the Vindhyas. With lakes, diverse topography and exotic flora and fauna, it's a rewarding visit even if the tiger plays truant. Fortunately, the tigers are known to possess a vain streak and are quite happy to preen and pose for pictures.
The final stop in Rajasthan is Jaipur, also known as the Pink City. Jai Singh II is to be given credit for laying the foundations of this city, which is now grappling with chaotic development. Fortunately, you'll be heading 11km away from the bustle to the Amber Fort, built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh. An elephant ride here is considered a great attraction. After taking its passengers around the marked route, it graciously accepts friendly food bribes with a salute.
Jaipur, Agra and Delhi form the Golden Triangle, and if there's one sight you cannot afford to miss in your lifetime it's the Taj Mahal. Every superlative has been exhausted while describing this ode to love on the banks of the Yamuna, and they don't even begin to do justice to the splendour of the Taj. Apparently, the Emperor Shah Jahan was so inconsolable over his begum Mumtaz Mahal's death (who passed away while giving birth to their 13th child) that he went into mourning for a year. When he emerged his hair turned white, his face was crumpled and his back was bent. He gave up music, jewellery, rich garments, and even perfume for two years. The mausoleum stands as a magnificent and eternal ode to their love. Makes you rather envious, doesn't it?
From here, you'll visit two heritage sites, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra before rolling contently into the capital.
For a package that includes jeep safaris, guides, a boat ride on Lake Pichola, Ayurvedic massages, chefs from the Taj and entertainers visit: The indian Maharaja
Have you travelled through India by train? Tell us about your trip in the comments below.
Written by Namrata Bhawnani
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About the author: NamrataNamrata Bhawnani
Namrata Bhawnani is a London-based freelance travel writer and the co-founder of the ecotravel web magazine www.ecophiles.com.