King of the rails: All aboard India's newest luxury train

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The new Maharajas' Express offers luxurious journeys to some of the sub-continent's most astonishing destinations – but you'll need stamina to appreciate the packed itinerary on offer

Clouds of petals, a brass band, television cameras and the flickering flashbulbs of scores of photographers: that was how we were welcomed as we arrived at Kolkata's magnificent railway station. Beautiful girls decorated us with scarlet bindis (ceremonial red dots worn on the forehead in India), garlands of flowers, and a red carpet – the first of many – led to the longest train I have ever seen.

I was among the first passengers to travel from Kolkata to Delhi aboard India's newest luxury train, the Maharajas' Express. There she was, her maroon finery stretching as far as the eye could see: more than 500 yards long, with each of the 24 carriages named after a different precious stone. Even more valuable: one of my fellow passengers on the 1,524 mile, eight-day trip would be Sir Mark Tully, for 20 years the BBC's man in Delhi, and someone who understands this dazzling and diverse nation better than any other foreigner.

Once aboard, I watched the excitement mount as we waited for Kumari Mamata Banerjee, the Minister for Railways, to arrive and send us on our way. Huge television screens were erected along the crowded platform, so were able to watch the people watching us. An Alice in Wonderland moment this, the first of many, as we finally left the station at about 10 o'clock waved off by a crowd bemused onlookers.

My cabin was amazing. A small sitting room with two armchairs, a table and writing desk was separated from the bedroom by a carved wooden screen: a modern take on the marble palace jallis we would see later. Both the bedroom and sitting room had a large panoramic window, double-glazed and bullet-proof, so we could look safely out on the world beyond.

The bed was queen-sized. It faced two spacious cupboards, a large television screen and a door leading to the bathroom – which itself was a triumph: marble, with not only a large shower but a marble bath as well. With rosewater sprays, saffron and jasmine soap and piles of fluffy white towels on offer, the effect was almost absurdly luxurious.

That is the point of the whole enterprise. The Maharajas' Express is billed as the most luxurious, most expensive, biggest and most glamorous train to hit the rails.

Many parts of the world, including India, already have luxury trains. But this is the first joint venture between a British tour operator, Cox & Kings, and the world's greatest transport undertaking: Indian Railways. Building the train cost £10m and took nearly a year. The venture needed a special bill from the (Indian) Parliamentary Committee. So, no ordinary train. And no ordinary journey.

The Maharajas' Express is the first special train to have a licence to go anywhere in India. Initially, though, she will stick to two routes that connect the capital, Delhi, with the nation's two greatest cities: Mumbai and Kolkata.

The Mumbai-Delhi run is called Princely India on the way south, Royal India on the way north. It transits the deserts, forts and palaces of Rajasthan. The Delhi-Kolkata link is called Classical India; I was taking the return journey – Celestial India. While you can cover the distance on an "ordinary" express, this one meanders marvellously through the waist of India, with Varanasi, Bandhavgarh and Agra among the highlights. We would pass through Unesco World Heritage Sites and a National Park, crossing from Bihar into Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and finally Delhi. Most excitingly, it embraces a wealth of Indian history, from ancient through Buddhist and medieval Hindu, to 16th-century palaces and, of course, the jewel in India's crown, the Taj Mahal – with one of the last refuges of the Indian tiger thrown in for good measure.

Enormous care and planning has gone into the train and the number and variety of things to see. The downside, however, is that with a packed itinerary to get through, you need stamina as well as enthusiasm to enjoy it to the full.

Double bed and marble bath notwithstanding, I was so excited that I hardly slept a wink as we set off that first evening. But I gradually realised that the rhythm of life on the train is not what one might expect it to be. Any vision I'd had of trundling along as I sipped cups of tea and watched the world pass by were soon dispelled. Partly because of the intricacies of the national railway network, we really only spent the nights and early mornings in the train. Perhaps this was just as well: one writer compared rail travel through central India to "a Geoffrey Boycott innings – hour after plodding hour of determinedly dour viewing". Our mighty carriages were relegated to the sidings as we spent the days sightseeing, with a long stop every day for lunch at the nearest luxury hotel.

By late afternoon on day two we were given some spiritual sustenance. The train pulled into the station serving the holiest site in the world for Buddhists: Bodh Gaya. We plunged into a huge crowd of fellow tourists and pilgrims, who were visiting the many temples and monasteries built on the approach to the site.

As we made our way to the Mahabodhi temple, however, chaos and confusion ceased, replaced by a sense of peace and gentleness. Korean nuns dressed in grey robes, Sri Lankan monks kneeling silently, group after group of pilgrims from all over the world prayed or chanted softly around the great temple with its pyramidal spire, and passed to kiss the stone in front of the Bodhi Tree – where Buddha is reputed to have meditated before he attained enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago.

The original temple, a circular stupa (now no longer visible), was built by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. The loving devotion of the huge number of pilgrims, sitting so still, as hundreds of oil lamps flickered in the early evening light, was unforgettable.

We returned to the train and dinner taken in one of the two spectacular dining carriages. The Mayur Mahal ("Peacock Palace") boasted a glittering glass mosaic ceiling, and glass tables set with gilt cutlery specially made in Paris, as well as exotic gold and white plates and glasses. The Rang Mahal ("Red palace") had a Mughal flower-patterned ceiling, and gold and pink décor.

After a full day, I was ready for my cabin and comfortable bed – the more so, as the programme for the next day announced a wakeup call at 3.30am. Our destination was Varanasi, claimed by some to be the oldest city in the world.

Also known as Benares, Kashi, or the City of Light, Varanasi is at least 3,000 years old. In the 21st century it remains an extraordinary place. This city, situated on the west bank of the Ganges, is sacred to Shiva who burst into the sky here in a pillar of light.

For the Hindus the Ganges is a living goddess, and streams of pilgrims, old and young, as well as tourists, flood towards the river to worship. The holy river gushes from Shiva's head in the Himalayas. By the time it reaches Varanasi, it is nearly half a mile wide. Here, tens of thousands of people worship, bathe, pray and scatter the ashes of their loved ones. We rose early to see the sun rise and the pilgrims arrive.

Later we wandered around the old city. We passed great piles of wood being chopped for the two cremation ghats, the wide steps leading down to the river, and the clacking looms creating priceless Benares silk brocades in the Muslim area. In the afternoon we drove to another sacred site: Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.

To end the day, we returned to Varanasi to watch the evening celebration of Agni from our boat on the river. As the light dies people mass on the ghats lit with halos of lights and thousands of tiny oil lamps, as bodies were carried gently down to the log pyres; priests and pilgrims sang and chanted as the day came to a close.

Every expedition needs its expert, and we struck lucky with Sir Mark Tully – who ran the BBC's bureau in Delhi for 20 years. As the world's largest democracy struggled to hold itself together, he spent two decades shuttling (mostly in second-class air-conditioned sleepers) from Amritsar to Bhopal and Agra to Mumbai, making sense of the passions and politics of India.

"In this country there is always the uncertainty of certainty – and the certainty of uncertainty," he told us. This applies especially to Indian Railways; however good the planning, the Maharajas' Express will never have the clockwork efficiency of the Orient Express or the Rovos in South Africa. But hopefully passengers will enjoy guest speakers of Tully's calibre. Michael Buerk, the writer and broadcaster is scheduled to join the train in the autumn and Vivek Singh, the celebrated chef at London's Cinnamon Club restaurant will join one of the journeys.

The train offers a good choice of Indian or Western food, including a four- or five-course dinner. Masala dosa, the South Indian rice flour pancake stuffed with masala potatoes was an excellent alternative to eggs and bacon for breakfast. The high spot, however, was definitely the wide variety of Indian desserts.

Our tour directors looked after us with great care both on and off the train and local guides at each site were excellent. This applied equally at spiritual sites – and Bandhavgarh National Park.

A century ago, 100,000 Bengal tigers roamed through India; today, fewer than 2,000 of the animals remain. Several dozen roam within this precious patch of protected land, described as "a morsel of wilderness at the heart of India". The drive through the park after lunch at the Taj Safari Lodge of Mahua Kothi was scenic – through dense yet delicate woodland – but the promise of a big tiger sighting went unfulfilled. Although we heard the warning cries of the sambar and spotted deer that a tiger was close we did not see one. A good reason to return.

The next morning – after a rare lie in – we reached Khajuraho in Madyha Pradesh, known for the sensual and explicit erotic carvings on its temples. But there is much more to this glorious temple. It encompasses the flowering of North Indian sculpture, which reached its height under the Chandela dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. Gods and goddesses, maidens, animals,V Cdancers and musicians are among the carvings. Gaze at them and wonder: they are glorious to see.

The next day, our penultimate one, was one of the high spots: Agra. We started early, ahead of the tourists, and went first to the Agra Fort – the great red sandstone fort on the west bank of the river Yamuna that was built by Emperor Akbar between 1565 and 1573 and added to by Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan during their reigns. The power and drama of the moated exterior are balanced by the grace and beauty of the halls and palaces inside. From the tower of the Musamman Burj the imprisoned Shah Jahan could look out on the Taj Mahal.

Next, the world's most glorious testament to love: the great tomb of the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz between 1631 and 1653. The monument is less grandiose and more graceful than I expected, with exquisitely carved flowers inlaid with precious stones. The marble is so light and delicate that it is hard to comprehend how it is fashioned into such a majestic and imposing memorial.

Our last day was at Gwalior, the late 15th-century fort whose great walls stretch some two miles along the cliffs above the city. Colourful tiles of powdered lapis and yellow jasper in the forms of elephants, ducks, peacocks and parrots decorate the façade. Inside the fort is a series of temples as well as Man Mandir Palace, with finely carved stone screens and sculptures.

To finish the day we wandered around the 19th-century Jai Vilas Palace, with enormous chandeliers and a miniature silver train that runs on tiny tracks around the dining table bearing a cargo of cigars and liqueurs in crystal decanters. Then, after high tea in the palace gardens, we returned to our luxury train.

After a week onboard, you will need at least as long in quiet contemplation to make sense of all the places you have seen. In no other country could a station such as Umaria display a notice to announce the availability of "Shady Trees" – and explain their precise locations on Platforms 1, 2 and 3.

India and its people are wonderfully diverse. As Sir Mark Tully says, "Unlike Europe, no one here asks you to be more Indian, in order to assimilate. If you want to live here, you're just another shade of Indian."

Travel essentials: Maharajas' Express

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.com), which offers an eight-night tailor-made trip on the Maharajas' Express from £5,475 per person. The price includes return British Airways flights to Delhi and onward flights to Kolkata, transfers, two nights' B&B at The Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata and The Oberoi in Delhi, six nights' full board on board the train, a walking tour of Kolkata, entrance fees and an English-speaking guide.

Red tape and more information

British passport-holders require a visa. These can be obtained from VFS Global (0905 757 0045, calls 95p/minute; in.vfsglobal.co.uk) in London, Hayes, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester and cost £30 for a single-entry tourist visa.

India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org

Royale Indian Rail Tours: rirtl.com

Network India: The railwayman's railway

You need not invest £4,000 in the cheapest Maharajas' Express ticket to appreciate the wonder that is Indian Railways: a 20-rupee (25p) ticket through suburban Mumbai or Chennai will suffice. Invest a further £13.99 in the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable: the compilers grapple masterfully with the puzzle of connecting the 6,800 stations and 40,000 miles of line (in three different gauges, and with six different versions of first class alone).

Britain introduced trains to the sub-continent, but we could learn plenty in return – from good-value fares to good manners. A ticket issued by the Southern Railway of India wishes you "Happy Journey", and quotes Mahatma Gandhi: "Let all of us Hindus, Mussalman [Muslims], Parsis, Sikhs, Christians live amicably as Indians, pledged to live and die for our mother land".

Mark Smith, the rail guru known as "the Man in Seat 61" says: "Trains aren't just the best way to get around the sub-continent – they're an essential part of the Indian experience. They may now have air-conditioned carriages and an electric locomotive, but Rudyard Kipling's Kim would still find himself at home on an Indian train in the 21st century."

See seat61.com/India.htm for advice to help you plan a trip. One of the finest trips is aboard the noble little Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, above: a seven-hour climb covering just 50 miles. In contrast, the fastest express on the 850-mile run from Mumbai to Delhi takes only 16 hours.

Even if you make up an itinerary as you go along, the helpful railway clerks at each station will do their utmost to oblige. At Mumbai's majestic Victoria Terminus, book a ticket from Kolkata to Delhi a month ahead and you know that your place aboard the Rajdhani Express is assured.

Once aboard the sleeper, you will be nourished by a constant stream of vendors offering chai and chapatis, and lulled to sleep amid this mobile community – surely the most civilised way to travel.

Indian Railways has recently lost market share to the excellent range of low-cost airlines, but it continues to expand: a 250-mile line north into Kashmir is under construction, featuring the world's highest railway bridge en route to Srinagar.

Simon Calder

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin visits her 1990s work ‘My Bed’ at Tate Britain in London, where it is back on display from today
artsBut how does the iconic work stand up, 16 years on?
Life and Style
life + style
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor