Opulent India

“Indian Railways is the world’s second-largest employer, with 1.6 million employees on its payroll, 40,000 miles of track, and 7,000 stations,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis.

“Moreover, the Jewel in its Crown, known as the Palace on Wheels, offers the best way to see India‘s major tourist sites in a single week of comfortable travel.

“The Palace on Wheels (www.spaintraintours.com) is a luxurious private train that pulls out of Delhi’s Safdarjung railway station on a Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. Not out of the bustling, overcrowded public part of the station, but from the more refined and tranquil Purdah Platform, where once the private trains of India’s Rajahs stopped with their cargoes of veiled maharanis and other ladies from the princely households who were kept from the sight of unrelated men.

“No veils these days, however, only the gorgeous turbans, frock coats, and white jodhpur trousers of the Khidmatgars, or personal attendants, who assist travelers for the fit-for-a-king ride around the fortified city states of Rajasthan where opulent maharajahs once held sway. Endlessly fought over by their quarrelsome rulers, these statelets were the scenes of unimaginable opulence and grandeur, as well as ferocious battles and terrible jauhurs, or mass immolations, when, once their last man had fallen, the palace women leapt into fires rather than face slavery and enforced prostitution.

“Arid and flat, with areas of pure desert, Rajasthan is dotted with these impressively fortified cities, topped by splendid palaces and bearing some of the most famous names in Indian history, including Jaipur, Jaisalmar, Jodhpur, and Chittorgarh. Throw in a slight diversion to the Taj Mahal at Agra on the return journey, and a week riding the Palace on Wheels offers you a generous helping of the best India has to offer.

“Travel and dine by night, sight-see by day. That’s how a Palace on Wheels excursion works. Each carriage contains four private sleeping cars equipped with two single beds apiece, fitted carpets, and its own bathroom. The carriage also has a lounge, where breakfast is served.

“Night falls quickly in the tropics, and, shortly after leaving Delhi, the dinner gong sends passengers trooping into the paneled dining and bar cars, all generously staffed with turbaned servants. The menu offers a choice of Indian or European dishes, or you can try a little of each–roast chicken and lamb rogan josh, say.

“India’s outrageous import taxes leave little alternative to drinking the local wines, but these are respectable these days.

“Arrivals are also at Purdah Platforms, where you are welcomed by a painted elephant and a committee of saried Indian girls ready to put blobs of colored paint on your forehead and festoon you with marigolds.

“The most exciting thing about the first stop at Jaipur is the elephant ride up a steep track to the enormous mountain-top Amber Palace, where the mahout expects some rupees and Jumbo puts his trunk out for a banana–so have one ready.

“Earlier you’ve seen the House of Winds, a cleverly built palace harem that captured the breeze on hot days while allowing the wives to watch street life without being seen. Nearby is the maharajah’s collection of astronomical inventions, including a giant sundial that tells the time to the nearest second. Unfortunately, there is no escaping a visit to the local carpet factory, though you don’t have to buy.

“The second stop is Jaisalmer, the most spectacular of Rajasthan’s fortified city states, protected by massive stone walls and entered only through four successive gateways. Inside lies the palace, the beautifully decorated vavelis, or mansions of rich merchants, and a famous Jain temple.

“Jainism is a small, ancient Indian religion, similar to Hinduism but stricter and with the Swastika as its most sacred symbol. Inside the temple, white-robed priests wear surgical masks so as not to inhale insects, while constantly sweeping the ground in front of them with little brushes to avoid crushing ants and beetles as they walk.

“This slows the pace of living, and many Jains have fled overseas to become successful businessmen. Some will likely be among your fellow passengers returning to see the old country again like other ‘N.R.I.’s,’ or non- resident Indians, as the Indian Diaspora is officially termed.

“A proposed camel ride in the nearby desert is not advised, as passengers are seated two to a beast with the second in danger of slipping off over its tail. Dawn visits to tiger and bird sanctuaries seldom yield even a glimpse of a tiger or an interesting bird.

“Jodhpur is another city-state on a hill with fort and palace. From its battlements you can see that the houses of the common people at the foot of the hill have all been painted blue, because the Indians believe this deters mosquitoes. I don’t know if this is true. The Palace on Wheels is air-conditioned.

“Lunch is the main attraction when the train gets to Chittorgarh, because it is served in the stupendous state banqueting hall of the new palace the Maharadjah built himself in the 1930’s as a thoughtful gesture to reduce unemployment among his subjects.

“That meal, with turbaned servants outnumbering guests, offers a taste of a Maharadjah’s life in the days of the British Raj. The present Maharajah still lives in a wing of the palace but has turned the rest into a hotel and given up his private train.

“When you tour the ruins of sprawling hilltop fort nearby that once surrounded the finest palaces in Rajahstan, insist the guides show you the site of the jauhars that occurred here, which they don’t like doing.

“Then on to Udaipur for another memorable lunch at a palace in the middle of a lake that has almost dried up and a glimpse of the rings where elephants once fought each other to entertain the Maharadjah.

“Then Agra with its Taj Mahal, the most photographed building in the world that needs no further description. And back to Delhi by early morning.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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