India - Palace on Wheels
Written by Raaja Bhasin
Nothing can match the romance and old-world charm of steaming through India on its luxury trains. Equipped with restaurants, well-stocked bars, and spas, they are a graceful way of traversing a mesmerising part of the world.
The writer Rudyard Kipling once remarked that the ‘Maharajas were created by providence to provide mankind a spectacle’. And when a prince – or the British Viceroy of India, for that matter – boarded his private train, it was a grand sight that thundered across the land. As the flag-bedecked locomotive hauling flower-garlanded carriages steamed into a station, bands would strike up and, from a saloon as richly appointed as any palace hall – complete with chandeliers and ornate furniture – the ruler would step out. At the time, the British did not allow the princes’ broad gauge lines within their feudal states, so many simply kept carriages for the occasions when they visited the larger cities – and often enough, lived in them as they were equipped with state rooms for entertaining, bedrooms, baths, and kitchens.
In 1982, on the lines of the grand state trains and using some of the old rolling stock, Indian Railways launched the Palace on Wheels as a luxury train that toured India’s desert state of Rajasthan. It was an immediate success. Today, the coaches have been redecorated and modernised but all of the original ambience and luxury are still there. The Palace on Wheels has 14 interconnected coaches; each is named after one of the princely states of Rajasthan.
It leaves Delhi for a week’s tour and covers a spectrum of the magnificent sights of Rajasthan – Jaipur, ‘the pink city’; Jaisalmer with its immense fort and ornate havelis, palatial homes; Jodhpur, the second largest city of Rajasthan with the imposing Mehrangarh fort and several palaces; Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambore wildlife park; Chittorgarh with its imposing victory tower and inspiring tales of valour; Udaipur and its fabulous palaces on and beside a lake; Bharatpur and its once impregnable fort and the famous bird sanctuary; and the last stop on the return is Agra, which has the abandoned city-fort of Fatehpur Sikri and the superlative Taj Mahal. The ‘Palace’s’ two rolling restaurants, named ‘The Maharaja’ and ‘The Maharani’, serve a choice of cuisine, while the bar is well-stocked.
Following the triumphant passage of the Palace on Wheels, other luxury or ‘heritage’ trains have been added to India’s railway network. The world’s oldest functional steam locomotive dating from 1855, the Fairy Queen, trundles out of Delhi for an overnight trip to the Sariska National Park. The Deccan Odyssey (with a spa on board) leaves Mumbai for a tour of south and central India. From Bengaluru (Bangalore), the Golden Chariot covers historical sites in the south. The Mahaparinirvan Express is a pilgrimage train that goes to places connected with the life of the Buddha; on similar lines, in late December 2010, another luxury train was launched to visit the five Takhts, temporal seats of the Sikh gurus.
Taking a cue from the tradition and imagery of grace, leisure, and elegance associated with railway journeys, the Indian Railway Tourism and Catering Corporation in association with Cox and Kings has launched the Maharajas’ Express with four different itineraries.
New Delhi’s upmarket Chanakyapuri has the National Rail Museum. Sprawled over 11 acres, it has indoor display galleries and a simulated railway yard. The galleries have documents, photographs, and railway memorabilia dating from the mid-19th century. Originally built for use in the princely state of Patiala in 1907, a steam monorail engine with replicated coaches circles the yard. Prize exhibits include the Morris fire engine built in 1914, several steam locomotives – ‘black beauties’ – troop wagons, and princely state coaches.