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
* 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 CalderReuse content