India by Train. By Jayant Doshi(On a recent visit to India I had two different but interesting train journeys. First was to Lucknow and the second was the famousPalace on Wheels in Rajasthan. Many members have requested me to write about these, and I am presenting my reportherewith. )To Lucknow with LoveIt was a wedding invitation that I could not resist because this type of wedding nowadays would be rare.It had a feel of nostalgia and I knew that this type of invitation comes once in a lifetime, and I had to go.The wedding party was to travel by train from Mumbai to Lucknow , a distance of 900 miles to becovered by train in 27 hours of travelling. The whole trip was to be over 5 days including 3 days stay inLucknow, the cultural capital of India.It is said that “match is made in heaven”, but in this case the match was arranged by internet , and Imean it literally . The boy, a Gujarati from Mumbai,was studying in USA . The girl, from an educatedfamily from the Hindi belt area of India was inLucknow. Both met on the internet and becamefriends. For nine months they communicated viainternet, exchanged pictures and perhaps talked onthe phone but never met. They became very closeand decided to become life partners. The boy flew toMumbai and told his parents, who reluctantly agreedto meet the girl. The girl , for the very first time,met them at the Lucknow station without her parentsknowing about it . The boy liked the girl even more,the parents were happy and so they went to see thegirl’s parents who reluctantly, but then happilyagreed to the wedding. To emphasise this internetconnection, the wedding card was also designed like a floppy disc.There were 162 members in the wedding party, and the ages ranged from 5 to 80 . The logistics ofmanaging such a large group was incredible, and overall it was a mammoth task. On average eachpassenger had 3 bags. Due to the winter, and fear of much colder weather up north, passengers carriedblankets for the trip, which added to the total luggage carried. When the platform is packed with
people, and when the train stops for a very limited time, it was a great challenge to put all the bags andthe passengers onto the train in a limited time. Even bigger task was to make sure each passenger knew which compartment, and which seat they would be occupying, and then ensuring that each one got their bags where they were sitting. Also each passenger had to be informed in which hotel and which room they will be staying while in Lucknow, and it had to be tied up with the baggage of each passenger. Every detail was worked out and put on the computer and all the organising members were carrying files with all the details. Each passenger was given a card with name, seat number on the train, and the hotel room number, and each card had a colour ribbon to tie it on the bag, and the colour also indicated the hotel where the bag was going.Arrangements were made to cook hot meals in the train kitchen, but all the provisions had to be carriedwith the party. Also provision was made for snacks and fruits so that everyone was well fed and lookedafter over the long journey. Even minute details were not overlooked. A hand towel was put near eachsink, and a bucket put in each toilet. A doctor and a nurse were also included in the party, and thedoctor was kept pretty busy over the five days trip. In short, every minute detail of the trip, and thecomfort of the passengers was thought of and catered for. Nothing was left out or no mistakes werediscernible for anyone to criticise.We reached the Chhtrapati Shivaji Station in Mumbai at 7.00 in the morning when, as is normal inMumbai, the station was buzzing with thousands of people. The station name, which is a mouthful foranyone to repeat, is still known by its old name of Victoria Terminus, or VT in short. We were alldirected to stand on the platform at a point where it was assumed our compartment would stop. Whenthe train came, and panic set in with thousands rushing to get a space, we were informed that while twocompartments would be where we were standing, one would be at the other end. Moving through thosecrowds, and keeping one’s baggage also, is a very difficult task. After that early commotion andconfusion, and some haggling and pulling strings with the staff at the station, it was then arranged thatall the three compartments would be near to each other. One compartment was fully reserved for ourgroup, while the rest of the group were scatteredin the other two compartments.After all that commotion, that running around andfrayed tempers, everyone was safely on board andsettled down in no time. Soon, groups wereformed, and every one occupied themselves insome sort of activity. While 27 hours seems a longtime, surprisingly the time just flew. Snacks,fruits and food kept flowing, and that in turnmeant that time also kept flowing. Sleeping onthe train is not easy. The changing speeds, therollicking on the uneven rails, stopping andslowing of the train, the buzzing and shouting at
passing stations hardly is conducive to sound sleep. At the same time, the rocking and the sort of musicalnotes formed by the rails are pleasant to the ear. To some, this musical movement of the trains has itsown charm and lulls one to sleep as a baby is rocked to sleep in its cradle. We reached Lucknow at about 11.00 in the morning and we all were transported to the main guest house which was to be our base for the next three days. Each member of the wedding party, or “barati” in Hindi, was welcomed with garlands and a red spot on the forehead. After tea and light snacks, all went to their respective guest house and room, where the baggage was already there, had shower and came back for lunch. After an afternoon nap, everyone gathered in the hall for what was to be an entertaining evening of some artistic presentations. For the next three days, we werepampered and lavished with variety of delicious meals.The bride family perform “mehndi” ceremony which involved some singing from the mother and aunts ofthe bride. The bride herself gave some exquisite dance performances. Later the groom’s family memberspresented a mixture of singing, jokes and dancing performances by various members of the family. Thewhole programme lasted for over 5 hours and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the presentation.Next day, a sightseeing tour of Lucknow was arranged and everyone enjoyed the sigtseeing. Lucknow ,like most cities in India, have some wonderful historical buildings and monuments. The Mogul and Islamicinfluence is evident in its buildings. Lucknow, the city of Nawabs , the city of Urdu the sweet and poeticlanguage and city of Islamic architecture at its best. The language of the city is so sweet and polite thatit is said that even a quarrel involving abusive language is conducted in a polite language. The maze inone of the palaces was amazing and an architectural wonder. There are no supporting pillars in the hugepalace, and at the same time the ceiling supports the whole maze with thick walls on top of the ceiling.At five in the evening the “barat” or the wedding party left for the reception followed by wedding.According to their customs, wedding takes place as late as possible at night, and is traditionally held inthe home of the bride. As the space at home is normally limited, the very immediate family membersnormally stay for the wedding. It was so cold that everyone was wrapped in blankets and quilts whilewatching the wedding ceremony.Next day the bride is collected from her homeby five members of the groom’s family. Afterlunch, preparations were made to depart forhomeward journey. There were some farewelland thank you speeches from both sides, andafter all the baggage had been loaded on truckwe reached the station by five in the evening.Unloading the trucks, and separating theluggage was a huge task, and ensuring that eachpassenger got their bags was even moredaunting. But with joint efforts of severalvolunteers it was accomplished successfully intime. The return journey passed by as smoothlyand quickly as the out bound journey.
This was a wonderful journey. People interacted with people they had just met. Friendships were made,and old acquaintances were renewed or refreshed. For five days, everyone had forgotten the world. Forfive days, we had moved from a fast moving hectic life to a slow leisurely trip that relaxed and gavegreat pleasure. A Palace on Wheels We arrived at the Delhi Cantonment station at 4.00 on a Wednesday afternoon. Many of the passengers were there and all the baggage was lying around. As is usual to see in India, there was lot of confusion and chaos in the small waiting room. There were two men playing flute and drums. But soon, we were led onto the platform leading to the train. Two girls , clad in traditional colourful saris , put red spot on our foreheads and a fresh flower garland around our necks. We were led to the trains by our attendants, who were to be at our service for the next week.The train was long stretching from one end to the other end of the long platform. All the carriages wereinter-connected so it was possible to walk from one end to the other. It was painted in ivory colour, withcoats of arms or similar design to imply its royal connection. The train had 21 carriages. Besides theengine, the store room , there were 13 carriages for the passengers, one carriage was converted into twokitchens, there were two carriages converted into dining rooms, one carriage was converted into a barsaloon and a general lounge. Each passenger carriage had four cabins with two beds. The beds werewider than normal train beds and quite comfortable. Some cabins had an extra bunk bed in case of threepassengers were sharing. There was a small cupboard to keep clothes, and a mirror and side table.Adjoining the cabin was a toilet, a sink and a shower with hot water provided all hours. Like a hotel, allthe toiletries were provided. The upholstery, consisting of the bed spread, pillow covers and thecurtains, in the cabin was rich looking. In the same carriage there was a small lounge area wherebreakfast was served, and also where the passengers of that carriage could meet and relax and watchthe television whenever reception was possible. On the other end of the carriage there was double bunkbed for the attendants. There was also a refrigerator, and heating equipment to make tea and breakfast.We left Delhi at 6.00 p.m. After a while the train stopped to let the passengers eat their dinner withoutmuch rollicking and movement. Five course dinner is served with a wide choice of items which could betermed as a mixture of Indian and westerncuisine, and vegetarian and non-vegetarianmixture in its variety. We soon found that anyspecial request was immediately attended toand implemented. So we started getting lassiand had khichadi also. A request for more spicycurries was also complied with . The morningbreakfast is served either in the cabin or in thecarriage lounge. Besides tea and coffee,breakfast included cereals, toast, puris,omlette and parathas . We were woken upbefore seven on most days as we were expectedto leave for sightseeing by eight.
As our first destination, Jaipur, is a short distance from Delhi, the train stayed stationary for most of thenight, allowing us to have peaceful sleep. We were welcomed to Jaipur, the pink city of India, bycolourfully decorated elephants, muscians on shehnai and dholaks, and pretty girls with garlands. Therewere three air-conditioned coaches to take the eighty or so passengers on a sightseeing tour of the city.Each coach had a professional guide who gave a historical background to the various sites. True to itsreputation, the city is built entirely in pink stone, and buildings which are not in pink stone are painted pink. After a photo session outside the Wind Palace, we stopped at Amer Palace with its beautiful marble carvings, wall paintings and a hall totally fitted with small mirrors. The mirrors were a way of saving on lighting. One candle would reflect in thousands of those tiny mirrors and give light that many fold. The palace also had intricate water cooling system which would puzzle any modern engineer. The palace had huge gardens, and in one compound there were quarters for 12 wives of the king. The planning was such that the King could visit any of the queens, without any one else knowing about it even though all the twelve quarters were withinone compound only.We had lunch at Rambagh Palace Hotel, with beautiful architecture and artistically laid gardens. Wevisited Janatar Mantar in the afternoon. This is a garden with all types of astronomical structures whichwere originally built in metal but were later changed to marble and stone. Built in 1728, the sundial stillis accurate to 20 seconds which is a remarkable piece of architecture. We visited a museum in a palace,part of which is still occupied by the former king who owns the palace. The museum has clothes from thepast kings and their servants, and include clothes of a king who believed in eating and living , was 7 fttall and weighed 500 pounds. As is usual on such tours, the sightseeing ended with a visit to a carpetfactory where we were shown the making of a carpet which involved over twenty operations and tookover 6 months to make one carpet.As our next destination was over a long distance, the train left Jaipur by 5.00 p.m. to go to Jaiselmer,the golden city of India. Jaiselmer, on the veryprosperous silk route, and now a skeleton of itsformer glory, still has signs of its past prosperity inits architectural heritage. With the discovery ofsea route to India by the Europeans, the silk routelost its prosperity and with it Jaiselmer lost itsprosperity. Jaiselmer has buildings made fromyellow stone, hence its fame as golden city, and isfamous for its very intricate and minute carvingson the buildings. We walked through the town,admiring its havelis with its architecture andintricate carvings on the walls and railings. Wewalked around the fort, which is claimed to be theonly fort with a population living to this day. Wewent back to the train for our lunch, and as we had some free time, we organised a taxi and visited someJain temples on the outskirts of the town. In the afternoon, we drove to the desert, which divides Indiaand Pakistan, and did camel riding and watched the sun set under the golden sand. We were treated to afive star dinner at a palace hotel in its gardens, and there was a cultural show during our dinner.
Jodhpur, the blue city or the Sun city, was visited on the third day. As per its reputation, most of thebuildings were in blue. The cenotaph for the royal family, and a well maintained fort were the highlightsof this visit. We were treated to a lunch at Palace Umedrai Hotel. It was a modern impressive buildingand had some beautifully laid gardens. On the fourth day we left early to visit Sawai Madhopur nationalpark. We were taken in open vehicles sitting 20 people in each. It was very cold that time of the morningand we did not see much by way of wild life. We were back to the train before 11 and we had our first day time train journey of the trip. We reached Chhitorgarh by late afternoon. Chhitorgarh has a very impressive, well planned and well built fort. It is 3 miles long and is the biggest fort in Asia. The fort, which is 3 miles long and the biggest in whole of Asia, is most impressive in its defence capabilities. On the fifth day, we visited Udaipur, the marble city of India. As the tracks to Udaipur have still not been converted to broad gauge, we were taken to this beautiful city by coach. The city is beautiful with lakes and well laid gardens, the road planning seems much modern and the buildings look in much better state then in other places. We were taken for lunch to the world famous Lake Palace Hotel, built in the middle of a lake. It is a wonderful building with a wonderful location and some eye catching scenery from its balconies. After dinner, our train moved to our next destination at Bharatpur , where we all went for a visit to the bird sanctuaryriding in bicycle rickshaws. The bird sanctuary islisted by the world heritage foundation and ispreserved as such. From there, we were taken to thepalaces of Fateh Sikripur by coach. The guided tourof the palaces and the forts was very interesting. Thelarge compounds, some interesting carvings andarchitecture and the detailed history outlined by theguide made the tour very interesting. We were takento Agra, where we were taken to the newly buildgrand JayPee Palace Hotel, where President Clintonstayed during his recent visit to India. After asumptous lunch, we were taken to the Taj Mahal,one of the eight wonders of the world. We weregiven plenty of time to savour the wonder and thetranquillity of this grand monument. With all theaction taken by the government to prevent damageby the environment, we could see a great differencein the atmosphere compared to my last visit thereonly a few years back.(more reports on websitewww.jayantdoshi.yolasite.com)