NEW DELHI – At the Safdarjung Station in New Delhi’s diplomatic quarter, we’re treated to red carpet, cordoned-off access, and perhaps more amazingly, no crowds. Will the next week onboard “The Indian Maharaja,” a new luxury train to Mumbai be spent in a similar bubble of splendid isolation?
The butlers with dark red uniforms and turbans work in the sleeping cars; the others (navy blue uniforms and turbans) service the two restaurants, bar, lounge, and fitness area with spa and massage. I don’t want to be called “Sir,” so we agree I’ll be called “Mr. Marko” instead. Fabulous dinner as the train rumbles through the dark Indian night.
Day 1. Agra. First high point: the 16th century Mogul Red Fort. Huge enclosure, powerful architecture. Swarms of ravens in the early morning mist, monkeys scaling the massive walls, and later --when we move on to the Taj Mahal nearby-- a file of women (“domestic tourists”) wearing vivid saris, resplendent in the bright sun.
What to say about the Taj Mahal? A seemingly weightless white structure outlined against the bright blue sky. Built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz. There’s nothing to say, except maybe “enjoy.” Remember Stefan Zweig’s description (“a tear turned to marble”) and forget that the same man so stirred by the premature death of a beloved young wife only inherited the Mogul throne because he’d had all his potential competitors murdered.
“Just wonderful,” always euphoric Mr. Hamid, our travel guide, murmurs when we find a quiet place in the gardens to get a view of the much-visited monument from the reflecting pool.
The sandstone pagoda fort of Fatehpur Sikri in the afternoon. The Muslim Moguls who dominated the northern part of India from the 16th century combined the tiered roofs of Buddhist architecture with elaborate Hindu decoration and their own penchant for symmetry --under Emperor Akbar (1556–1605), religious tolerance was practiced. In the light of the setting sun, the stone elephant figures seem to echo both the wisdom and bloodshed of times long-gone.
On the train, dinner awaits. There’s a choice of western-style contemporary cuisine and something called “Indian Experience:” a thali with portions of different, delicious dishes.
Day 2. Overnight the train travelled to Jaipur, a “pink city” of colored marble buildings that look as if they’ve been iced. The bus rolls past the Palace of Winds and its 950 windows, stirring memories of the 1980s series “Far Pavilions,” a story of forbidden love in 1800s India.
Nine kilometers north and I’m on a wooden platform mounted on an elephant’s back for the slow climb uphill to Fort Amber. The sun is just rising on the 12th century fort. It’s still misty – I can’t see the other elephants behind us although I hear the cries of the mahouts, their drivers. A voice in my head is saying something about tourist baloney, quelled immediately by another: come on, stop with the pseudo-critical thing, it’s part of the program and people – including you – love it.
Once at the top we’re projected into a labyrinthine maze of inner courts and mirrored halls --a space and time warp. When Mr. Hamid asks "”isn’t it terrific?” I actually say “shhh!” so as not to break the spell.
Dinner in the torch-lit inner court of what was the Maharajah of Jaipur’s city palace turned luxury hotel. Another highly photogenic setting. “Your cameras are going to start taking pictures all by themselves,” gushes Mr. Hamid. Later, however, when I confide that the dancing transvestite entertainment isn’t exactly knocking my socks off, he appears speechless. He recovers fast though, and says there’s some “amazing food” coming up. He’s right: incredible buffet in an incredible setting.
Day 3. After breakfast, we climb into jeeps to check out the tigers in Ranthambhore National Park --but, in keeping with their on-the-verge-of-extinction status, we fail to spot a single one. Plenty of monkeys and crocodiles, however.
That night we get to dance to some Hindi Pop. This was in the train lounge. At first, things were a little flat. But then we talked management into letting in the waiters, butlers and cooks --who were on the other side of the glass door, watching-- and it was like being morphed onto a Bollywood film set. Mr. Hamid had already gone to bed, so it was up to me to provide the commentary: “Unforgettable!”
Day 4. Arrival in Udaipur, city of temples and lakes with shimmering island-palaces. We visit an over-sized palace (the owners need the money tourist entry tickets bring in) and march past the portraits of mustached, turban-wearing male ancestors in a gallery with more crystal chandeliers than I could count.
Day 5. On board things are more laid back. The Canadians have now also managed not to be called “Sir” and “Madam.” After lunch the view out the windows over a landscape covered with freshly-picked bright red chili peppers rolls by like a movie. We’re descending from Rajasthan into Maharashtra state.
Day 6. Mr. Hamid pronounces the caves at Ellora to be “awesome.” And he’s right. These are silent Buddhist cathedrals inside a mountain, with sculptures and reliefs dating back to the 6th century. A meditation in stone. Awesome indeed.
Day 7. Overnight the train rolled on, and today we visit the ancient caves at Ajanta painted with scenes from the life of Buddha. More of the by-now familiar game: we take pictures of Indian “domestic tourists,” they take pictures of us (to them, we’re just as exotic), and on it goes like some kind of mobile phone reincarnation cycle.
Day 8. Mumbai. The final day. Sad to leave. We say our goodbyes; porters wait on the platform to carry our luggage away. It wasn’t a sterile bubble after all: the welcome on and off the train was so heartfelt that India’s unique contradictory authenticity, its noises and smells, came through loud and clear. “Terrific!” as Mr. Hamid would say.
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