If you want to make the most of a visit to India, take to the tracks and explore regal Rajasthan by train - it can be a palatial journey
Ornate maharajas' palaces, hilltop forts and a rainbow sea of saris are at every corner in India’s royal state of Rajasthan. To get around, however, takes time. And no wonder - it’s the same size as Germany and the country’s largest state. If you want to see its highlights but are limited by the number of days you have to spare, there is no better way to see quite so much than by jumping on board the Palace on Wheels train. You hit the rails by night and explore by day.
When you climb the train steps for the first time on the Delhi Cant platform, it is like stepping back in time to an era when the state’s famous maharajas rode the train. Khidmatgers, or attendants, usher you in, elegantly attired in deep red turbans and silk waist sashes. They have a masterful knack of whisking your bags away, silently disappearing and then reappearing with cold drinks. If this doesn’t feel like royal treatment enough, then you will also find yourself being addressed as ‘Maharaja’ or ‘Maharani’.
Situated in northwest India, bordered by Pakistan to the west, the Gujarat to the south and the Punjab to the east, Rajasthan is a landscape of regal proportions. It is the home of the legendary Rajputs, the ruling class, who held power for over 1000 years and doggedly followed a code of chivalry like the medieval European knights. Their bravery and sense of honour is legendary, with events such as the Chittogargh mass suicides, the jauhar, when loyal wives threw themselves onto funeral pyres when their husbands were massacred by invading enemies.
The more pleasant aspects of court life, however, are portrayed in the ink drawings that hang in the passages and sitting room of the train’s carriages. These compartments are no longer the original rolling stock used by the maharajas but replicas, decorated using many of the same materials and designs. Inside each compartment, deep crushed velvet throws embroidered in gold and red cover the beds.
As the outskirts of Delhi finally slip out of view and open countryside slides by the carriage window, with farmers working the fields, holy cows wandering in the dust and village life chaotically spilling out on the trackside, you can find a comfortable seat in the bar and settle down with a gin and tonic and watch it all pass by. When you retire to bed, the train keeps moving through the night.
Travelling southwest from Delhi, the first port is the hectic state capitol of Jaipur, where camels, cows and Ambassador cars all vie for space in its bustling streets. When you enter the walled old city, known as the ‘Pink City’, you will be met by the enthusiastic cries of rickshaw drivers and traders touting every imaginable good.
The five-storey Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, is one of the most ornate examples of the city’s sandstone pink buildings. Close by, the curious sight of what looks like an open air sculpture park is actually the Jantar Mantar observatory, a bizarre collection of gigantic devices still used for celestial calculations. The real highlight lies a short distance out of town at the Amber Fort, perched on a high rocky bluff, which provides your first glimpse into the lives of the famous maharaja princes.
Back on board, you travel further westwards and enter the heart of the Thar Desert and the ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer. Thrusting upwards out of a barren landscape, with an almost otherworldly quality, the huge bulk of its imposing sandstone fortress, which glows golden in the sunset, towers over the city below. Frequently described as a gigantic sandcastle, its fortifications open into a labyrinth of streets and alleyways, where several thousand people still live. Once inside, you will discover the decorative havelis, the richly ornamental homes of Rajasthan merchants.
Travelling east, colour strikes again in Jodhpur, home of the famous horse-riding trousers. It's also dubbed the ‘Blue City’, and a patchwork of cornflower blue front doors punctuate the cityscape, denoting the houses of the Brahmin priest caste. You can also explore more remarkable castle fortifications at the Meherangarh Fort, which sprawls above on the hillside.
In complete contrast to the city sights is the Ranthambhore National Park, offering the chance to spot one of its world-famous tigers and considered the best place in India for a sighting. You can track these powerful cats with a professional guide, on board a safari vehicle. Close encounters can be pretty exciting if they dart out from the surrounding undergrowth.
Flashes of colour come in a different form the following day in the vibrant ornamental gardens and cushioned roof balconies of the famous Lake Palace Hotel, situated in the centre of Lake Pichola, on Jagniwas Island in the romantic city of Udaipur, the ‘Venice of the East’.
As you head back down the tracks to Delhi, there’s time see the country’s most romantic monument as you pull into Agra for the Taj Mahal. One of the seven wonders of the world, this marble white Mughal mausoleum was built by the heartbroken Emperor Shah Jahan as an unending symbol of love to his wife who died in childbirth.
While there are many ways to get around Rajasthan, there is no better way to immerse yourself in its history rich culture than by travelling in your own mobile palace.
When planning your trip, try to avoid the hottest times of the year (April to June) when temperatures can reach 45 degrees. At many of the sights a reasonable amount of walking is involved, which is much more enjoyable in the cooler months.