India is a land of stupendous dimensions. It is often said, India is not a country but a continent. The “Incredible India” marketing blitz launched by the Ministry of Tourism in all the major cities of the world as well as participation in some of the most renowned International Travel Fairs like the ITB Berlin, the WTM London, etc…. have indeed paid rich dividends in terms of popularizing India as a tourist destination.
Travelers from affluent countries like the USA, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, etc…are increasingly opting for luxury train travel as they believe the best way to discover India’s enormous variety and diversity is best explored on the ground level rather than flying aimlessly at rarefied heights of 30,000 plus feet high onboard airlines.
Recently a team of 20 Archaeologists from France had come on a fortnight’s visit to India to attend an international seminar in New Delhi conducted by the Government of Rajasthan. I was entrusted with the task of guiding the group during their fortnight’s stay in India.
After the end of the high-profile seminar, the Department of Tourism, Government of Rajasthan offered the entire group a complimentary weeklong train journey aboard the luxurious “Royal Rajasthan on Wheels” train.
The state of Rajasthan is the land of royalty. Its walled cities, impregnable forts, and dazzling palaces are an impressive reminder of its rich virile past. Incredible legends of a bygone era narrate the romance and heroism of the battle-scarred Rajput warriors who reigned supreme in this part of the world with gusto and fanfare, which is unparalleled in India.
It was to be a weeklong train journey from New Delhi that would take us to places like Jaipur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Bharatpur.
Given the highly-priced tour package, it wasn’t surprising to see a majority of guests being foreigners from affluent Western countries with the odd NRI in between on their mission to rediscover their native country, which they may have left long back.
The unbelievable success of the “Palace on Wheels” train that was launched way back in the year 1982 and the burgeoning demand of the discerning international traveler to visit Rajasthan on a royal carriage has prompted Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation to come up with an additional royal carriage in the form of the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.
As the train chugged off from New Delhi’s Safdarjung Railway Station, the quintessential whistle blew its final salutation to all that was royal and grand about India. The train with its 13 royal coaches offers all the royal indulgences one would associate with the erstwhile Indian royalty.
Apart from passenger coaches, the train also has an exclusive coach dedicated to conferencing as well as coaches that serve as royal restaurants. The Spa coach is meant for those inclined to rejuvenate their senses with the most relaxing of natural therapies.
We were given a warm traditional welcome and I had some light snacks and went about exploring the royal opulence that was on offer in the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels. I stopped by the elegant Bar and had a sip of my favorite tipple, ventured into the exclusive Spa coach and the gymnasium, and returned stupefied to my coach, completely bedazzled with all the regal aura inside the train.
My frenetic exploration of the various coaches of the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels made one curious bellboy (Khidmatgars) laugh excitedly at me and I thought it would be prudent to take his help as a guide.
Vishal who has been working in this royal carriage since its inception made me aware of all the facets of this one-of-its-kind luxury train, like the ethnic style interiors as well as the architectural content of the royally designed coaches. Each coach is aptly named after some of the finest historical places in the state of Rajasthan.
In course of my animated conversation with Vishal, the affable Khidmatgar disclosed that the luxury Royal Rajasthan train was a joint endeavor of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. and the Indian Railways. This train is ranked among the best luxury trains in the world and is up there with the likes of the Orient Express of Europe, the Eastern and Oriental of South East Asia, and the Blue Train of South Africa.
Our first halt was Jaipur, India’s “Pink City”. From Jaipur, we traveled in an air-conditioned coach to some of the most popular tourist sites of this incredible city. The Old City was especially of great aesthetic value to the discerning French guests and they were amazed by the sheer architectural grandeur of the walled city.
Apart from visiting landmarks like the Hawa Mahal, City Palace, the Observatory, Central Museum, and the gorgeous Ram Niwas Gardens, we undertook a walking tour of the city’s principal shopping district – Johari Bazzar, which was buzzing with activity. A few of my French guests went on to buy some costly jewelry items that were indigenously manufactured by skilled local artisans.
After a fascinating bout of sightseeing, we returned back to our respective coaches and settled for a sumptuous lunch. Post lunch, the train once again chugged off leaving behind the splendid historical facades of Jaipur only to halt at Sawai Madhopur station from where we proceeded to the world-famous Ranthambore National Park.
The magnificent Ranthambore National Park is ideally located in between the picturesque Aravali Hills and the plateau of Vindhya. The park has attracted dignitaries and world-renowned personalities galore with its magical charm.
High on the list of present-day dignitaries visiting Ranthambore was the charismatic former President of the USA, Bill Clinton who was mesmerized by Ranthambore’s prized possessions – The Tigers.
To be able to come face to face with the Big Cats needs lots of luck and you should count yourselves very fortunate if you can spot one in a day’s safari. That’s exactly what had happened to us. To track Tigers at Ranthambore, you need someone who knows the topography well as also the skill to interpret the telltale signs in the form of pugmarks. Mind you, not all pugmarks are fresh. You need loads of experience to correctly make a call.
I must thank the Forest authorities for providing us with a gem of a naturalist – Neeraj who knew the entire Ranthambore landscape by the tip of his fingers. He had a conversation with a Forest guard the other night who informed him that a Tigress had given birth to a cub at Zone No –2 near a watering hole.
Now we knew for sure that we would be able to spot the Tigress because she had just delivered a baby cub barely a few hours back (3 A.M.) and would in all probability be recuperating.
Off we went “Zip-Zap-Zoom” on our 4 Wheeled Drive to Zone No-2 and parked our vehicle near the watering hole. Still no sign of the Tigress and her newborn cub. We were becoming restless. Finally, my photographer friend Neeraj spotted the Tigress’s tail waging by the side of a thick bushy grove. We could view only the tail, nothing much.
Mathurdas decided to take a deft left turn and there they were – the Tigress licking its newborn cub with her tongue in such a tender manner that only a mother could. We marveled at the sight and the mystery of creation.
For my French guests, it was a lifetime’s experience and the scene was straight out of a National Geographic TV episode. We were literally emptying our camera rolls on the Tigress and its cub. I had my “Nikon Vibration Reduction” lens ready and went on clicking from as many angles as possible.
Finally, after frenetic clicking of 20 odd minutes with our cameras, we decided to leave the Tigress alone since we thought it would be dangerous to spend too much time here, particularly at a time when she had just given birth to a baby cub.
After a thrilling wildlife safari, we commenced our onward journey to Chittorgarh and had a sumptuous Rajasthani meal onboard. By the time we reached Chittorgarh, it was 4 P.M. and we could see the red molten ball dipping across the far horizon. Without wasting any time, we hopped in our coach that took us to the magnificent hilltop Chittorgarh fort.
The sheer grandeur of the fort is such that it reminds one and all of its heydays and if you take a closer look, you are liable to catch a whiff of that romantic heroism in the air.
This impregnable fort is located on a 700-acre site on top of a 180-meter high hill that rises abruptly from the surrounding plains. Once inside the fort, we were mesmerized by the multiplicity of attractions that awaited us like the palace of Rana Khumba, Fateh Prakash Palace, the colossal Tower of Victory, the Gaumukh Reservoir, Padmini’s Palace, and the Tower of Fame.
More surprises awaited us as we were told by one of the Khidmatgars that an informal tea party was being arranged inside the fort. With the evening sun setting down and high voltage lights illumining the fort, the experience was ethereal, to say the least. My French guests loved the ambiance and who doesn’t know the penchant of the French people when it comes to romancing nature!
We commenced the next leg of our Rajasthan sojourn that would take us to the exotic Thar desert and those intricately built havelies, which the world comes to see here in Rajasthan. We covered Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, the world-famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, and of course the ethereal Taj Mahal.
While Udaipur is amongst the most romantic of places in the desert state of Rajasthan with its magnificent palaces, Lake Pichola, Fateh Sagar Lake, and the gorgeously landscaped Saheliyon Ki Bari; Jaisalmer is all about a “Living Museum”.
It is one of India’s most exotic and unusual towns renowned for its exquisitely built houses and mansions carved out of the finest variety of golden sandstone.
From the humblest shop to the regal palace and temples, the whole town glows in the same golden color. What is so praiseworthy about Jaisalmer is the fact that even new buildings that are built in this medieval town must conform to the existing architectural specimen of the town so as to blend perfectly with the local design pattern.
As far as Jodhpur is concerned, this marvelous city stands at the edge of the Thar Desert and is conspicuous by its colossal fort that rises right in the middle of the town dominating the cityscape. We were urged to visit the fort by the loyal Khidmatgars from where we basked in the uninterrupted sight of the city.
Since we had enough time on our hands, we went on a walking tour of the Old City, which is a fascinating jumble of winding streets of great interest to wander about.
Our next stop was at the world-famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (Keoladeo). What we saw at Keoladeo was a veritable feast of nature. Birds, birds, and more birds.
It was fascinating. I have never seen so many varieties of birds in one place. So fascinating is Keoladeo in terms of Bird Watching that it has been included in the list of Ramsar Sites. Further, it also has the distinction of being declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 1985.
The vegetation here is diverse as it includes woodlands, shrubs, grasslands, and wetland species. Its diverse fauna encompasses members from aquatic invertebrates to large mammals and representatives of fish, reptiles, and avifauna.
As many as 369 species of birds have been spotted at Keoladeo which is the only winter retreat of the rare and endangered Siberian Crane.
At Keoladeo, we were intrigued by questions like how the birds cope with cold, how Secretary birds catch snakes, why a Gull has a red spot on its beak, or how the Osprey catches fish. For bird watching, the accent is on patience. The phenomenon of male Ruffs with their beautiful head and neck plumage strutting around in a special area- (Lek), in order to attract the females for mating was awesome.
From the verdant natural vistas of Bharatpur, our penultimate halt was at Agra and there is only one reason why visitors to India halt at Agra – to marvel at the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world. It was a very special moment for my French guests as they stood stupefied in front of the world’s most extravagant monument ever built for love.
I was lucky to come across a local guide who could converse fluently in French and requested him to offer his interpretational services for a fee. This arrangement was much appreciated by the French guests as they found all their answers from the well-informed guide with regard to the history and architectural splendor of the Taj Mahal.
We were now coming towards the end of what was to be a memorable odyssey through one of India’s most colorful and exotic regions. It was but natural for us to be a touch poignant and tried to relive the stupendous regal experience of the past one week at the train’s well-stocked bar.
Dinner was to be an intimate affair and the resident chef had come up with the most exotic Rajasthani spread on the fervent appeal of the French guests.
The past week, as we traveled together discovering some of India’s rich virile past, fascinating palaces, impregnable forts, and stunning architectural facades meant that we were all bonded in a unique manner, sharing the diversity of culture and heritage that each of us was bequeathed with.
Today even after 6 months had elapsed since we undertook that magical royal train journey; many of us still keep in touch with each other through telephone, E-mail, and online chatting reminiscing about that memorable train journey.
Indeed, a journey onboard the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels is one of the world’s most unique train journeys. Are you up for the ride?