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 at the township of Kalyani in the state of West Bengal and thereafter proceeded to the city of Mumbai for a “Workshop on Archaeology” conducted by the University of Mumbai. I was entrusted with the task of guiding the group during their fortnight’s stay in India.
The French have a sentimental attachment to the city of Chandannagore in West Bengal, which once used to be the headquarters of the colonial French rulers. After doing the rounds of the French City of Chandannagore, it was time to depart for Mumbai where prior arrangements had been made for their accommodation at the fabulous Taj Mahal Palace & Towers.
And as a token of affection to the French guests, the Department of Tourism, Government of Maharashtra offered the entire group a complimentary weeklong train journey aboard the luxury Deccan Odyssey.
The state of Maharashtra is one of the largest in India both in terms of population and area. Its booming capital – Mumbai, makes it not only one of the most important states economically but also a major arrival point for overseas visitors. Most of the state stands on the high Deccan plateau and historically this was the main center for the Maratha Empire, which defied the mighty Mughals for a long time under the leadership of Shivaji.
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.
As the train chugged off from the Chatrapatti Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, the quintessential whistle blew its final salutation to all that was royal and grand about the state of Maharashtra. The train with its 21 royal coaches out of which 11 coaches are exclusively meant for passengers offered all the royal indulgences one would associate with the erstwhile Indian royalty.
Apart from passenger coaches, the train also had an exclusive coach dedicated to conferencing and two coaches that served as royal restaurants. The Spa coach was 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 Deccan Odyssey. I stopped by at the well-stocked library, stepped into 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 Deccan Odyssey made one curious bellboy laugh excitedly at me and I thought it would be prudent to take his help as a guide.
Vishal who has been working for the Deccan Odyssey for the past five years 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 and forts in the state of Maharashtra.
In course of my animated conversation with Vishal, the affable bellboy disclosed that the luxury Deccan Odyssey train is a joint endeavor of the Maharashtra 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.
The seven days round trip covered some of India’s most fascinating tourist destinations like Mumbai, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Goa, Kolhapur, Pune, Nashik, Aurangabad (Ajanta – Ellora), Nasik, and Mumbai.
Our first halt was at Ratnagiri. From Ratnagiri, we traveled in an air-conditioned coach to the picturesque Ganapatipule beach, which is considered to be amongst the most beautiful beaches on the coast of Maharashtra. As we passed through the meandering lanes of Ratnagiri, we were captivated by the town’s charming ambiance.
Ratnagiri is world-famous for Alphonso mangoes, easily one of the best mango varieties in this part of the world, a majority of which is exported.
The Ratnagiri-Ganpatipule circuit is actually a fine blend of nature and history. Majestic Maratha forts, palaces, and temples vie for attention with some of the most breathtaking stretches of virgin beaches you will ever encounter in India.
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 Ratnagiri only to halt at Kudal station from where we proceeded to the heritage town of Sawantwadi.
My French guests couldn’t stop marveling at the grandeur of the majestic Sawantwadi Palace, which we were told was built by the gallant Maharaja Khem Sawant Bhonsale III way back in the 18th century. Although photography inside the palace is prohibited, a few of my French guests could resist their instincts.
If the Sawantwadi Palace was Marathi royal grandeur at its very best, the Shilpa Gram (Crafts Village) was an eye-opener to most foreign guests. The opportunity to view rural Maharashtrian craftsmen at work in the village was a unique experience for all of us. As a token of appreciation, most foreign guests bought handicraft items from the Shilpa Gram as souvenirs.
By evening, with dusk gradually descending on Sawantwadi, a captivating cultural song and dance performance by the local artists of the village was the perfect parting gift to my foreign dignitaries.
We were back at Kudal railway station and hopped into our respective coaches. We were now entering one of India’s most beautiful tourist hubs – Goa, where the world comes to the party. At the dinner table, my French guests were given a fascinating insight into Goa as a tourist destination by one of the knowledgeable guides of the Deccan Odyssey.
I was surprised to know that most of them knew quite a bit about Goa and a couple of them had reportedly visited this enchanting state a few years back as backpackers.
After a relaxing night’s rest, we woke up refreshed in the morning and alighted at Sindhudurg railway station, and hopped into a waiting air-conditioned coach that transported us to the Malvan jetty for a glimpse of the magnificent Ocean Fort, which used to serve as a strategic naval base during the rule of the Marathas. The fort was built in the period between 1664-and 67 by the courageous Maratha ruler Shivaji.
After doing the rounds of the magnificent fort, we proceeded to the picturesque beach resort of Tarkali. The mandarins of Deccan Odyssey have included the Tarkali beach on the itinerary given the fact that most foreign guests are particularly keen to spend a considerable amount of their time at the beachfront so as to be able to soak in the balmy beach ambiance.
The beach is long and slender, ideal for sunbathing. After an impromptu lunch on the beach, we proceeded to the fascinating village of Walaval to pay our homage to goddess Laxmi Narayana and were back at Kudal railway station where the Deccan Odyssey train was parked.
For a change, tonight’s dinner was strictly Marathi. The past 3 days we had a bit of the Continental, the Mexican, and the nouveau international but never really savored the gastronomic delights of Maharashtra.
Laid out on the table was the quintessential Bombay Duck or “Bombil”, which was fried to perfection by the train’s resident chef along with boiled rice and “Bhakris”, which is basically soft “Chappatis”. Other miscellaneous tid-bits were Rice Puris, Amboli, Urad Dal, Papad, and Shreekhand (Sweetened Curd), etc…. which made our dinner sumptuous to the core.
On Day 4 we arrived at Karmali in the state of Goa and an air of expectancy prevailed amongst the guests. Our first stop was Old Goa or “Velha Goa” as it is popularly referred to. Old Goa has a distinctively Portuguese flavor and easygoing ways. It used to be the principal bastion of the Portuguese and is replete with many elegant churches, monasteries, and convents.
This small Portuguese enclave is still one of India’s most touristically important places.
We went on a whistle-stop tour of Old Goa and visited the renowned Se Cathedral, The Convent & Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Church of St.Cajetan, the church of St. Augustine, The Church & Convent of St. Monica and other lesser-known heritage buildings.
We also visited the Latin Quarters at the capital city Panjim and my French guests marveled at the city’s colonial ambiance. Panjim’s main attraction is the narrow winding streets, small cafes and bars, and the occasional old stone buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
We returned back to Verne Railway Station and had lunch on board the royal restaurant and after a brief post-lunch siesta was off to the nearest beach. We were given enough freedom to indulge in beach activities. Some splashed on the waves, some indulged in Wind Surfing and the more reticent ones enjoyed a session of beach volleyball.
A Goan cultural troupe was invited to entertain the guests and after all that Goan razzmatazz we proceeded to Madgaon railway station to board the Deccan Odyssey for our onward journey to Kolaphur and beyond.
Day 5 and Day 6 were spent discovering the sights and sounds of Kolhapur and the city of Daulatabad. While Kolhapur is renowned for its 250 odd temples, the quintessential Kolhapuri Chappals, and the distinct Saracenic style of architecture, Daulatabad is renowned for the Bibi-Ka-Maqbara, which is a kind of mock-up of the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world.
My French guests were completely overawed by the intricate designs patterns like the Paithani, Bidriwork, and Himroo and bought some fabulous handicraft items from the local craft showrooms dotting the city.
We were now heading towards the fag end of the royal train journey and reached Jalgaon station on the penultimate day of the tour. We hopped into our waiting coach and proceeded to the world-famous archaeological site of Ajanta.
Ajanta is a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site renowned the world over for its cave paintings and frescoes.
There are a total of 29 caves, each one unique in its representation. The cave paintings date back to the period from 200 BC to 650 AD. The shape of the Ajanta cave is semi-circular resembling a horse’s hoof. The middle portion of the cave is conspicuous by the presence of paintings adhering to the Mahayana sect of Buddhism and the rest of the paintings to the Mahayana Buddhism.
Ajanta remained hidden from human eyes for thousands of years and it was largely due to the efforts of one British patron by the name of George Griffith who for the first time uncovered the mask of Ajanta to the rest of the world.
The manner in which the stories and legends of the Jataka period are depicted through murals and engravings is truly outstanding and needless to say, in the present times commands the admiration of the entire world.
By noontime, we once again assembled for lunch onboard the Deccan Odyssey and had a few forty winks as the train proceeded to Nashik Road station where we alighted and boarded a luxury bus that transported us to one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites – the Panchawati Ghat.
It is here that the all-important Kumbh Mela is held. After doing the rounds of this all-important “Ghat” we boarded the Deccan Odyssey that was stationed at Deorali station for the last leg of our journey to Mumbai.
The past week, as we traveled together discovering some of India’s rich virile past, fascinating palaces and forts, breathtaking beaches, 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 one full year 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 Deccan Odyssey is one of the world’s most unique train journeys. Are you up for the ride?