A Maharaja’s journey through Rajasthan: part one

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The Maharajas Express awaits us for our luxury holiday

The Maharajas Express awaits us for our luxury holiday

Rajasthan, in the northwest India, is one of the regions that any traveller has to consider visiting once in his life. Formerly known as the Rajputana during the British Empire period, Rajasthan is on of the iconic tourist regions of modern India. Pronouncing the names of its main cities as Udaipur, Birkaner, Jaisalmer or Jodhpur is like opening a box filled with dreams of elegant palaces and tall forts where beautiful slender princesses dressed in colourful saris stood by Rajahs both wearing the most precious jewels.

To visit Rajasthan, all options are available. For the lowest budgets backpacks, local buses and inexpensive street-food are the standard rule, but the trip will be, although extremely interesting, much more tiring, and you will need to travel for a few weeks.

The great majority of visitors come to discover this large region through classical group or individual packages. Travelling on board a comfortable coach or in a private car, with their own guide, they spend long hours travelling from one place to the next one and every few nights they will have to register in a different hotel. And packing and unpacking luggage are the two most boring things to face when you have to do it everyday during your holidays.

The Gate of India in Mumbai

The Gate of India in Mumbai

However for a few lucky travellers there is another option but one that might break the money bank! These people have only to board the luxury train “Maharajas Express” for one of its journeys that crosses the whole of Rajasthan. Three times awarded the prize of World Leading Luxury Train in 2012,2013 and 2014, the Maharajas Express is the ultimate way to discover this part of India. It’s a luxury hotel-on-wheels that, day and night, provides its guests with an amazing service not only on board but also during all outside activities. Running only from October to March, the train program offers a choice between 4-day or 8-day journeys. For our first trip on board the Maharajas Express we choose the “Heritage of India” journey, an 8-day trip beginning in Mumbai on the Arabian Sea coast and which ends in Delhi.

To get to the vibrant city of Mumbai, there are countless options including British Airways and Air India but this time we flew on Air France. And, to be in the mood for our train luxury, we took two seats in business class. The on board service was as expected and the food was great. Every six months a new set of menus composed by well known chefs is available to business class passengers and the cherry on the cake was the large reclining seat that can be transformed in a comfortable kind of ‘bed’ where it’s so good that you can get a reasonable night’s sleep.

Mumbai, the ‘gate of India’

In Mumbai the afternoon meeting point was at the famous Taj Mahal Palace on the sea front, and that gave us the opportunity in the morning to walk to the city’s top tourist attraction right next to the hotel, the “Gateway of India”, the huge yellow basalt triumphal arch built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in December 1911. It was through this arch, on 28 February 1948, that the last regiment of British troops left the country when India became independent.

the first part of our welcome to the Express

the first part of our welcome to the Express

Back to the peace and quiet of the Taj Mahal Palace, we met the Maharajas Express train management and all the other guests, around a nice buffet. After a few minutes of individual registration and a short presentation of the life on board and of the detailed program of the journey, we discovered that the great majority of passengers were coming from Europe and North America, with a few from the India sub-continent. Most of them were first-time travellers to Rajasthan and to India.

Despite the permanent Mumbai traffic-jam we were transferred in time to the station where our Maharajas Express train offered us a memorable welcome with a long red carpet and the whole crew in beautiful uniforms forming a guard of honour. All around a gentle crowd of Indian people gazed at us and we felt as proud as movie stars entering the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards.

Entering the train is like walking back in time to the dawn of the late century. The on-board decoration recreates the atmosphere of an earlier age and none of us would have been surprised to meet elegant ladies wearing crinolines and British officers of the Indian Army with their beautiful uniforms. Our first steps in the train were to discover the make –up of life on board. The Rajah Club car and the Safari car, with their traditional wood panelled walls and doors, are the two lounge bars providing comfortable relaxing seats, perfect places to unwind and to socialise whilst tasting any of the exquisite range of spirits and wines available. The Mayur Mahal and the Rang Mahal are the two fine dining restaurants, delicately decorated with hand painted fresco ceilings. The huge modern kitchen takes up an entire car between the two dining cars.

then come on the dancers

then come on the dancers

Each car is named after precious gems and are outfitted as 4 standard cabins or 3 junior-suites. One entire car carries the Presidential Suite. For each car a single butler is dedicated night and day to provide an exclusive friendly and unobtrusive service.

Guided by Prabhakar, our private butler we walked down the train to our cabin, a junior-suite in the Manik car (Manik means Ruby). It was quite large with two windows in the bedroom to enjoy the landscape when the train is moving. Looking at the stylish decoration, the amenities, the comfortable double bed, the nice desk, the armchairs and the en-suite bathroom (with a shower cubicle and a third window) it was hard to resist the thought that we would be comfort and good hands for our lavish journey.

Soon the train began to move leaving the crowded suburbs of Mumbai for a overnight trip. After having shared a glass of wine with some of the guests at the Rajah Club, we moved to the Mahur Mahal car to enjoy our first dinner on board. The menu had a large selection of International and Indian courses. Both of us being Asian food addicts we opted for the Indian ones, and soon we were delighted by the taste of Indian spices.

Ajanta, the temple-caves valley

a first view of the Ajanta Caves

a first view of the Ajanta Caves

The next morning Prabhakar awaked us very early with a cup of hot tea and one of coffee, a nice morning present that is a regular daily ritual. Then all the guests met at the restaurant for the rich daily breakfast before boarding the very comfortable coaches (belonging to the company) for our first excursion to the Ajanta Caves, the first of the wonders of India that we would be visiting on this trip.

We travelled for 90 minutes along reasonable roads via villages and fields. The women were dressed in bright coloured saris and we noticed that all farmers were only working in the fields with oxen. We also saw numerous sellers in their very small shops at the roadside. We were in the heart of the real countryside of India, far away from the buzzing cities of the country.

one of the fresoes in the caves

one of the fresoes in the caves

Ajanta is a major Buddhism site hidden in the U-shaped gorge of the small river Waghur. Among 30 cave monuments cut into the tall south cliff, five of the shrines are called ‘Chaitya Halls’ because they are built around a central stupa. The other caves are ‘Viharas‘ very small monasteries with only a central hall surrounded by monks’ cells. These caves had been built during two distinct periods, the second century BC and around the 5th and 6th centuries AD. But what made the Ajanta Caves a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are the quality of the Buddha’s sculptures and the profusion of amazing paintings decorating the walls.

To get to the long path that links the caves halfway up the cliff we had an option. We could either climb up a steep access path or we could take the lazy way and use the service of local sedan chairs carried by four men. Arriving at the first cave we were surprised by the beauty of the site, a long line of caves overlooking the valley and the dark river down below. Each cave has its own size, shape and decoration. Some have a very simple entrance but many have carved frontages with beautiful columns directly cut in the rock. We visited as many as we could in the time available but couldn’t manage them all. We admired the art of the sculptors who carved the cave walls and ceilings and we were astonished at the delicacy of the portrayals of young sexy women that are surely some of the finest ones ever discovered in India.

the caves are much bigger than I thought

the caves are much bigger than I thought

With our heads, filled with beautiful images, we returned to the train which immediately started off for Rajasthan. This long leg of our journey gave us a full afternoon of rest to enjoy the great service on board. And the next morning around 10am – a civilised time of the day to start sightseeing – we arrived in Udaipur for another day of fabulous visits.

 

Text and photos ©Frederic de Poligny

 

 

 

 

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