A luxury train ride across India: Deccan decadence

Posted on 18 October 2013

How could I resist an invitation to experience the Deccan Odyssey, reputedly a maharaja palace on wheels? The eight-day itinerary would take me on a journey though Maharashtra State from Mumbai to Goa and back via a loop across the Deccan Plateau to visit the famed Ellora and Ajanta caves.

Late one afternoon, a bus delivered our motley group of travellers to the back end of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus where we threaded through a chaotic scene. This was Mumbai’s railway hub. Commuters by the thousand poured on and off the trains. It was a sea of living humanity on the move, like a vast migration. (Dealing with the sensory overload is one of 10 things to learn in India.) We reached an oasis of calm where women in saris welcomed us with garlands, anointed us with oils and painted red dots on our foreheads while musicians let out a wailing din to drown the sound of shunting engines.

A great indigo python slid into the station, turning every head on the platform. Men in gold turbans and blue tunics emerged, rolled out red carpets and ushered us through flower-garlanded doors into the air-conditioned interior.

In no time we were off… and India began spooling past our windows. Each day the train would stop and we’d disembark for tours of the towns and countryside. There was a visit to the 17th-century Sindhudurg sea fort, perched on a tiny island. This was once a naval base of the Maratha Empire and its fort had never been conquered.

A short ferry ride brought us to a makeshift jetty which ended in a portcullis. Above towered brown walls fashioned from huge square blocks whose foundations were set in molten lead. Slits for muskets, bigger apertures for cannons. Unlike the geometric shape of most European forts, this one’s wall organically followed the island’s three-kilometre perimeter, leaving invaders no foothold to land.

sea fort mumbai goa train ride

The next stop was Goa: Rome of the East. For centuries, this was Portugal’s most valued overseas possession. It was Good Friday and catholic Goa was all pomp and religious ceremony. We toured the magnificent church complex that comprised the Basilica of Bom Jesus and Se Cathedral.

East now, into rural India, piped music filling the carriages. Next came Ellora. Dating from the 5th century, this World Heritage Site comprises 34 rock-cut temples that represent the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths in a chain of halls, monasteries and temples. The 8th-century Kailasanatha is the most impressive temple at Ellora and the only single-piece structure to have been chiselled from the top down. It’s one of the largest monolithic structures on earth. We climbed up, over and through this astonishing building carved from a single chunk of stone.

Ellora: temple in rural India

Back on the bus, we were whisked off to see Aurangabad’s replica Taj Mahal. The a mausoleum is not so much a fake as an inferior copy of the Taj, commissioned by the emperor’s son in 1679 as a tribute to his mother.

Then came Ajanta: For many, this was the highlight of the trip. Dating from the 2nd century BC, this once forgotten cave complex was discovered accidentally by a party of British officers on a hunting trip. It comprises 30 Buddhist caves carved into the walls of a horseshoe valley. Ajanta is famed for its exquisite frescos which adorn the interiors. Most depict the lives of the Buddha and cover the walls, columns and ceilings like an exotic version of a Renaissance chapel.

Buddhist caves of Ajanta

Late afternoon, we detrained at our last stop,  Nashik, a holy city on the banks of the Godavari River lined with ghats (steps flanking holy water) and temples. Our goal was the Panchwati Ghats where the pious were flocking for evening worship. A smaller version of the Ganges at Varanasi, this is a haunting place of water, light and prayer.

Train ride from Mumbai to Goa

Some worshippers were bathing, ritually cleansing their bodies, others floated small fire boats into the stream. Chanting echoed across the water and off the surrounding buildings. The sun set and all around us were candles and the murmur of prayers. Everything was suffused in a golden afterglow, enhanced by ochre buildings and the women’s red and orange saris. The air smelt of rotting fruit, cow dung and curry powder. It was dirty, mosquito-ridden and beautiful.

Later, we sailed into the night bound for Mumbai and back to our mundane lives. We had glimpsed the India of the maharajahs. What a journey, what a train!

The trip was arranged by Luxury Trains of the World, an agency that promotes and sells the Deccan Odyssey. India Tourism, Johannesburg, was the organiser of the flights. Rates for a deluxe cabin on the Deccan Odyssey start from US$575 a person a night sharing. This includes all meals and activities (but excludes alcohol). The Deccan Odyssey currently has a special offer for 2013 of ‘buy one ticket and get one ticket free’ on tours departing on 23 October, 20 November and 25 December 2013 on the Maharashtra itinerary. Tel 021-813-6588, email  [email protected], web www.luxurytrainsoftheworld.com.

The lounge car of the Deccan Odyssey.

train station, Mumbai Hill building: train ride from Mumbai to Goa


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