Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Touring through Northern India from Mumbai to New Delhi zigzagging between some of the most beautiful cities and cultural spots of Rajasthan is far from being a rarity, but doing it aboard the Maharajas Express train is a unique experience and the journey of a lifetime filling your head with everlasting memories.
Today India is harmoniously mixing modernity and thousands-year-old traditions. It’s not uncommon to see women wearing colourful saris while riding their scooters with one hand and holding their smart phone in the other or to notice a cheap local food restaurant where customers eat their daal using their fingers open next to a brand new international café where you can have your favourite cup of coffee. And so is the Maharajas Express Train: a luxury hotel on wheels with modern amenities combined with the charm and decoration of 19th century style coaches keeping alive an attentive service with an unmistakable British touch.
One of the main advantages of being on the train is that you don’t have to pack and unpack your bags every day to go from one hotel to another and drive on the busy Indian roads. On the first day of the trip you will meet the staff and the other passengers of the train in a luxury hotel in Mumbai during a cocktail party and from that moment you won’t have to carry your luggage anymore. Then it’s time to discover the train. A music band will welcome you on the platform and walking on a red carpet you will get to Rajah Club Lounge car where your personal butler will be waiting for you to show you to your suite. With two double beds or a queen size bed, air conditioning, a plasma satellite TV, a direct international telephone, a WiFi connection and a fully equipped bathroom the suites are comfortable and have big windows allowing you to enjoy the landscapes of the Rajasthan. To be honest I must tell you that even if the beds are comfortable you’ll have to get used to sleeping while the train is moving on the bumpy Indian railroads! It’s the joke of the day with the other passengers on the first breakfast but surprisingly everybody quickly gets used to it and gets a beauty sleep on the following nights.
There are two dining cars on board both beautifully decorated mixing English style furniture and Indian materials. The tables are elegantly set with fine Limoges plates, crystal glasses by Swarovski and gold and silver plated cutlery. The chef and his staff really do everything to provide each passenger the perfect meal: on request they can fix you lactose free meals, kosher meals, ovolacto veg meals, gluten free meals Jain meals, non vegetarian meals or vegan meals. There are two menus for each meal: an international cooking one and an Indian one. If you like spicy food, don’t hesitate to ask for the amount of spices you like: they will adjust each plate to each passenger! Take this opportunity to discover the Indian wines that are worth discovering. The chef will be proud to show you his large kitchen as clean as can be and lined with shelves full of jars filled with ingredients bearing mysterious names: amchoor, urad dal, kasuri methi, garam masala, dal rajmah, jeera… Your taste buds are on an exotic journey too!
Every day the train will take you to a new destination and make you discover great sites of Northern India. And every day local musicians and dancers will wish you a good trip and give you a colourful scarf or a flower necklace. This joyful liveliness attracts the nearby villagers who will wave and smile at you making you feel like a privileged maharaja!
The first visit will take you to the Ajanta Caves. These 30 Buddhist caves were cut into the side of a cliff from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE and have been forgotten and swallowed by the jungle for centuries before being rediscovered by a British officer on a hunting party in 1819. They are temples cut into the rock ornate with colourful paintings and statues from the Theravada and Mahayara Buddhist traditions depicting the life of the Buddha as well as scenes from every day life. Walking on the pathway running across the cliff and overlooking a small river you will visit the most interesting ones accompanied by your personal guide. This visit in its bucolic surroundings is both interesting and soothing.
On the next day you’ll enter Rajasthan with its many forts and palaces. You will visit Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaipur, Rothambore National Park and the Taj Mahal but each time besides exploring the main touristic sites you will be able to live an out of the ordinary experience. In Udaipur, after a boat trip on the peaceful Pichola Lake that will take you to the foot of the City Palace you will have a private lunch in the gallery of Fateh Pradash Palace one of the eleven palaces of the City Palace.
Bikaner is a town in the Thar Desert where nomadic tribes have been living for centuries. After a short and picturesque camel cart ride watching the sunset casting a golden glow over the dunes you will enjoy a barbecue diner. Comfortably half sitting, half lying down on soft cushions you will be served drinks and numerous delicious courses. Then musicians and dancers from a Kalbeliya gypsy tribe of the desert will take place around a big wood fire. Their dances also known as the snake dances are now listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage. The dancers’ hands mimic cobras’ attacks while their whirling try to mesmerise the audience. An enchanting show in the middle of the desert night!
Close to Bikaner you may also visit the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok where pilgrims come to worship thousands of holy black rats. They are treated as sacred and protected by their goddess Karni Mata one of the many incarnations of Durga. There are rats everywhere in the temple drinking milk in large bowls and eating heaps of food brought by the pilgrims. It is said that among the black rats there is only one white rat and if you happen to see it, it will bring you good luck. This visit is optional so don’t feel like you will have to face this terrible experience if you are afraid of rats!
Jaipur will be the place to have fun. Right in the City Palace you will take part in a polo match played on elephants back! These elephants belong to the Maharaja of Jaipur and are especially trained to play polo. Of course the game is not as fast as it is with horses but it is pretty tricky. Then it will be time for a tasty picnic and Champagne in the gardens surrounding the polo grounds. So chic!
Tigers are the emblematic animals of India. To get a chance to see these magnificent animals you will leave the train at dawn to go on a jeep safari in Ranthambore National Park. These former hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur are now dedicated to their protection. It’s not rare to see them and one tourist out of two will actually see one or several tigers. There are many other animals to discover in Ranthambore: leopards, stripped hyenas, Sambar deers, macaques, jungle cats, caracals, mongooses, crocodiles, turtles, peacocks or kingfishers among many other species might be seen. Devoted guides will make you share their passions for these now well cared for species.
Last but not least you will discover the Taj Mahal in the early rising sunlight. This famous white marble tomb was built during the 17th century by Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumbaz Mahal who died when giving birth to their 14th child! The place is awfully crowded and you won’t be able to stay too long inside the tomb but you’ll make beautiful pictures. Afterwards you’ll have breakfast with Champagne on a terrace of the Taj Khema from where you’ll get a beautiful view over the Taj Mahal.
The Maharaja Express Train certainly is one of the best way to discover Rajasthan: wonderful places to see, unique entertainment, good food, kind and helpful staff, luxury accommodation: who could ask for more?
For more information: www.maharajas-express-india.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny