Rediscover the old-world charm of travel by unravelling the architectural marvels of India from the comfort of an award-winning luxury train
Many love trains but never end up taking them as they’re always in a hurry to reach where they can start their vacation. But, why just get somewhere when you can make the journey as glorious as the destination? In this age of all things instant, trains give us that perfect opportunity to experience the simple pleasures of going slow. Not just that. They often evoke a sense of nostalgia and bring memories and stories of faraway sojourns. Though we may like the idea of reaching a destination in hours rather than days, there’s nothing that can quite match the thrill of rail travel. The rhythm of the wheels, the guard’s piercing whistle, the sound of horn as the train approaches and departs a station, watching the ever-changing landscape from the window seat, chatting with fellow passengers; these little things come together to create a certain magic on board a train. Besides, train journeys reveal a country as flights can never do.
Being a wanderlusting couple, our idea of celebrating any special occasion is taking off for a holiday. And this time, we were lured by the idea of a long, leisurely train trip with a cabin to ourselves. Imagine the palatial Deccan Odyssey winding its way through the historical and architectural jewels of the country, unmasking their heritage, beauty and character, layer by layer. Our itinerary? Eight days aboard the train, disembarking each day to experience a new marvel, beginning with Bijapur, moving on to Aihole-Badami-Pattadakal, then Hampi, followed by Hyderabad and finally to the stunning Ellora and Ajanta Caves, before heading back to Mumbai.
The voyage began at Mumbai’s remarkable Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), where we were greeted with a lezim (Maharashtrian folk dance) performance by men and women dressed in vibrant, traditional garb. Immediately, our cameras and cellphones were out, eager to document the beginning of an epic journey.
Inspired by the imperial carriages used by the Maharajas in the past, each of the coaches of the luxury train speaks about a different regal era of Maharashtra, ruled by diverse dynasties.
After settling down in our dimly-lit, wood-furnished cabin, we were excited to unfold a heap of mosques, mausoleums, palaces, temples and fortifications while moving on wheels. The next morning, as we roll up the window blinds to catch the sunrise, we see the train rolling into Bijapur (renamed as Vijapura in 2014), our very first stoppage. Post a hearty gourmet breakfast, we hop off to discover all about Deccan’s Islamic era in the historic city that was once the capital of the Adil Shahi kings.
At the magnificent Golgumbaz mausoleum, we clambered a few octagonal seven-storey towers of the dome and witnessed terrific acoustics of the circular ‘whispering gallery’, thanks to over enthusiastic local school children who love to demonstrate echoing effects by creating various sounds.
After observing the graceful arches and spacious inner courtyard of the Jama Masjid, we headed to Malik-e-Maidan to witness the 4m-long cannon that was brought to the city as a war trophy by 10 elephants, 400 oxen and hundreds of men.
The finely-proportioned Ibrahim Rouza with its intricate calligraphic embellishments is a complete delight for architecture aficionados. It is said that the 24m-high minarets of this Islamic monument have inspired those of the Taj Mahal, and we couldn’t agree more!
The third day was devoted to exploring the ancient Chalukyan regional capital of Aihole and the nearby Pattadakal. Punctuated with more than 125 temples, all built between the 4th and 6th centuries AD, Aihole is an introduction to the Dravida (South Indian) and Nagara (North Indian) architectural styles. While most of the temples were remarkably well preserved, a few were in ruins yet it was interesting to see how they are situated in clusters within the village, in surrounding farmlands and on sandstone hills. The Durga, Lad Khan, and Meguti temples portrayed significant events from Hindu mythology and proved to be absolute stunners.
However, the high point of the day was the Pattadakal Temple Complex, a group of finely carved Hindu and Jain temples that collectively make a World Heritage Site. Every figurine and sculpture in the complex dazzles with grace and artistic excellence. Located on the west bank of the Malaprabha River, Pattadakal is where one can appreciate the remarkable craftsmanship of the Chalukyas.
By now, we were used to bathing, sleeping, eating, drinking, with the rocking cradle effect! While we were missing the typical tea boy who frequently makes an appearance in typical long-distance trains, carrying his kettle and squealing, “Chai, garam chai”, we were definitely enjoying the luxurious experience. Ours was a strikingly different train journey with a decent measure of privacy, clean showers, gourmet meals and green tea in refined cutlery. Taking in the sights, sounds and smells on way, we had entered Hospet railway station, the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi. The last capital of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar in Karnataka, the city impresses you with its haunting ruins.
The six metre-monolithic statue of Narasimha, the grandeur of Virupaksha Temple, the dramatic Tungabhadra river surronded by boulders, the ornate elephant stables, the intricate stonework at Hazara Rama Temple, the bustling Hampi Bazaar, the iconic stone chariot at the Vijaya Vittala temple, the view from Matanga Hill – all remind you of a bygone era. Curio hawkers, nomadic magicians and locals only add a lot of character to the forgotten city. We wanted to spend days simply sauntering around the many sites of the ruins, but like the fading sun, we had to depart with a promise to be back.
For train travellers, sticking to a schedule is essential. Hence we move on to exploring Hyderabad, the royal city of the Nizams. During the 90-minute tour of the Golconda Fort, we climb up around 700 steps to reach the summit that offers stunning vistas and witness the ingenious acoustics that guarantee echoing every smallest sound from the entrance to the fort complex. The fortified citadel with its rugged structure and massive massive gates studded with iron spikes, once used to obstruct war elephants, can give one a lesson in warfare.
However, the highlight of the day was indulging in high tea at the astoundingly opulent Falaknuma Palace Hotel, the former residence of the sixth nizam.
The pristine white palace features high wood-beamed ceilings, spacious rooms furnished in pastel shades, fine wood fittings, an oak-panelled library and the world’s largest dining table. Another absolute must-visit is Suraiya Hassan’s weaving unit located a few kilometers from the bustle of Hyderabad proper. The looms focus on the revival of Persian brocades, particularly; Mashru, Himroo, Jamavar and Paithani. Run by widows, the store adjoining the workshop is a textile lover’s treasure and and stocks a wide range of ikat and kalamkari print fabrics in earthy colours.
Before retiring to our train cabins, we stroll around the vibrant Laad Bazar, famed for its sparklingly colourful bangle shops and savour delicious Hyderabadi Biryani prepared by the chef onboard.
We had packed few novels for the trip, thinking we’d need them. Oddly, we found ourselves unwinding in the common lounge, conversing with fellow travellers or just lying in bed with the blinds pulled up, watching the world pass by. The windows invited us to look out. We were at Aurangabad, the nearest railhead to Ellora cave temples.
The world’s largest monolithic sculpture, Kailasa Temple is one of the best example of ancient Indian architecture. Here, one if bound to wonder about the skill and imagination of 7,000 labourers who carved the temple over a period of 150 years. Used as monasteries, chapels and temples, the caves served every purpose.
The following day, we set out to explore Ajanta caves – one of the oldest UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India. Here, we drift away from the chattering groups to let the space speak for itself and reveal its secrets. It is believed that several Buddhist monks spent a significant amount of time at the Ajanta caves during the monsoons as they were forbidden from travelling during that particular time of the year. This was when they put their time and creativity to use and painted the walls of the caves.
As the remarkable train journey was nearing an end, snapshots of the last few were rushing into our heads. We realised the trip had allowed us time to repose rather than a being a stressful interlude between home and destination. What had started as just another vacation had turned into a love affair with history, culture and heritage of our home country – India. Even today, the memories encourage us to partake in the Great Indian Travel experience, a little more often.
Author Dagobert Runes had rightly said,
“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the people they ignore at home.”