I have always loved Indian-English and the way it clings to formality, dredging up archaic verbs and half-forgotten idioms. Indians don’t argue, they quarrel; they don’t think someone is nuts, but that they ‘have bats in their belfry’. It is a dialect that bathes in hyperbole, whether that’s a best exotic hotel or “the most auspicious cabins and modern facilities” of a train.
That was how the rooms were described over the tannoy the night we boarded in New Delhi, before the same voice added: “Welcome onboard to have a delightful experience on the famous Maharajas’ Express.”
I was on-board for the Indian Panorama programme, an itinerary that takes eight days and seven nights to travel around 2,300km of northern India, but which is really a journey through time. We left New Delhi in the 21st century, then arrived in Jaipur in the 18th. We would go to sleep with the Mughals, then awake with the British. We breakfasted before visiting a Buddhist monument, then got back for dinner after watching a Hindu ceremony.
In between times, as the train travelled its long and occasionally bumpy route, it was hard to tell exactly when we were, let alone where. For many people in rural India – those in the fields with ox-drawn ploughs; the peasants arranging dried disks of cow dung for fuel – life has surely not altered much in several centuries.
Watching those strangely familiar pastoral scenes from my cabin window, I felt oddly disconnected, as though none of it was actually out there, just a few metres away, but instead part of some big budget documentary aimed at showing we foreign passengers how life used to be. On high ridges on the horizon I would see crumbling forts, the names of which I would never know, and below them yawning, untouched meadows. Again and again I struggled to believe that this vast, seemingly empty land was the same country whose population is now thought to exceed 1.2 billion.
Few of that gargantuan number have travelled India in the same manner as the 40 or so passengers of the Maharajas’ Express. Despite stiff competition from more famous trains, The Maharajas’ has, for the last four years consecutively, been voted Leading Luxury Train at the World Travel Awards, leaving the likes of the Orient Express and the Blue Train in its wake, along with several would-be rival luxury trains in India. The excellence of the food and the diversity of the itineraries are undoubtedly factors in this success, but ultimately it can be attributed to the wonderful staff, whose dedication to their guests fits in that uneasy intersection of a Venn diagram between hospitality, servility and efficiency. Each carriage is assigned a butler in a flamboyant turban and neat yellow blazer, men who seem to possess a Batman-like ability to appear out of nowhere and solve problems.
But they are just the most conspicuous cogs in a marvellous machine, one which – once you factor in all the butlers, bosses, waiters, chefs, barmen, supervisors, planners and engineers – sees the staff comfortably outnumbering the passengers.
The level of coordination required to make the journey a success seemed miraculous to me, especially in a country as colourful and chaotic as India. When we arrived in the stations, actual red carpets were rolled out for us, the platforms decked out in fiery flowers. Bands noisily heralded our arrival with horns the size of 10-year-old boys. Almost every time we stopped we were presented with a necklace or scarf, a bright tilaka daubed on our foreheads. We got a lot of attention.
Yet station life didn’t stop for us as we disembarked: the goats kept butting each other, the Tannoy kept babbling away, the hawkers kept on hawking. The ceaseless bustle seemed largely uninterrupted by the train, save for those locals with camera phones, snapping away in case we happened to be famous.
The first stop was pink city of Jaipur and it set the tone for the week on-board. We were whisked through the bedlam of the station and onto an air-conditioned coach to navigate roads filled with bikes and rickshaws and cars and buses and horses and camels and people – so many people.
We battled our way out to the mighty 16th-century Amber Fort, which dominates a hillside just outside Jaipur, and from there we were taken to the Royal Palace, where another band played us in and women in garish saris pelted us with flower petals. When we walked out into the immaculate garden in the heart of the palace we were met with painted elephants, more camels, and men in ceremonial uniforms on horseback. It felt like we were quite literally being treated like royalty, invited to witness these exoticisms and applaud politely while waiters solemnly delivered more canapés.
As early as the fourth day we were in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. A few years ago, it was officially confirmed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, a controversial list featuring several places that many people had never heard of, and omitting many others which are widely loved. Some complained bitterly that Cambodia’s Angkor Wat wasn’t included, but for all the bickering and noise around the selection process, few sought to deny the Taj’s claim.
The now-legendary love story that motivated its brilliant construction (Mughal emperor Shah Jahan spent a fortune on building it as a grand tomb for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal) masks the darker elements of the project. Having spent so much of his wealth on building the Taj Mahal, Jahan’s ruthless, murderous son Aurangzeb, fearful that more of his inheritance would be squandered on a second mega-monument, seized control of the empire for himself, deposing his father and confining him in Agra Fort for the rest of his days.
Aurangzeb then battled his brothers, eventually capturing and executing them in the sprawling Gwalior Fort. It seems unlikely that the majority of the seven million people who visit the Taj Mahal each year get this extra detail, but the Maharajas’ Express passengers were led on to the Gwalior to glimpse this grim past for themselves.
More days passed on and off the train, learning, feasting and being serenaded all the while. When we arrived in Khajuraho to visit its near-pristine, 1,000-year-old Hindu and Jain temples, we were met in the dusty station by an acrobatic dancing troupe. As the men bounced around, shouting and slapping sticks, a small child popped up by my side to watch the spectacle. I ushered her to the front, only for progressively tinier children to tumble forward like unpacked Russian dolls. Behind them a teenage boy with a shirt too tight and trousers too high nervously brushed back his hair, while just outside mynah birds squabbled over a discarded piece of puri before a bullying crow swooped in to steal it.
The great writer of train travel Paul Theroux compared life in Indian stations to that of a village, with all the politics and drama one may find rurally transplanted inside. “At night and in the early morning the station village is complete, a community so preoccupied that the thousands of passengers arriving and departing leave it undisturbed,” he wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar. “The newcomer cannot believe he has been plunged into such intimacy so soon.”
It’s true that India’s poverty can hit like a punch on the nose, and as we gazed out the windows of the train, it simultaneously felt too close and very far away. While we fretted about the strength of the Wi-Fi signal or whether the food was too spicy, just a few yards away desperately poor people wretchedly toiled to survive.
Perhaps it was the emotions stirred up by this struggle, but everything seemed to build towards Varanasi, the Maharajas’ Express’ penultimate and easternmost stop. Said to be one of the world’s longest continually inhabited cities, this settlement on the River Ganges is renowned as a place of worship for Hindus, but receives thousands of Buddhists each year too. Those pilgrims come to visit Sarnath, the location where the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, gave his first sermon 2,500 years ago. It was a hot afternoon when we visited, but we were joined by thousands of devotees in robes of white and orange and vermilion, all huddled around the colossal Ashoka Pillar to worship.
As the sun went down, we were gathered back at the coach and transferred down to the Ganges, then quickly through battalions of girls aggressively selling candles and flowers, and onto private boats to cruise down the river. In the dusk, squadrons of swallows took to the sky, and downriver we could hear the gentle crashing of cymbals. Every now and then, the breeze would carry the smell of incense.
Varanasi is the only place in India where public cremations can take place through the dark of night. For Hindus there is no better way to enter the afterlife than on the banks of the Ganges, and so an unending industry has grown to cope with huge numbers of bodies arriving from around India.
As our boat slowly approached, we saw that while one pyre roared, another smouldered. Behind them, dried wood and spectators were stacked high. Holy cattle ambled around, the orange light illuminating their big, wet eyes. I turned to look at my fellow passengers and saw two Japanese guests noiselessly weeping.
It may seem like a macabre way to have spent an evening, but as I watched the reverence and love with which the departed were treated, I found myself hoping that they had at least a little of this affection in life, and that they knew someone cared enough to tap a drum, to place a flower, to light a flame.
The sky turned dark and we turned away, silently sliding downstream towards an enormous Hindu ceremony held high above the river banks. These elaborate practises happen every night and draw sizeable crowds; of the thousands of people there, in boats and on land, it was impossible to tell who were tourists and who were congregation. As the priests began chanting and raising up candles, I tried to recall something I’d heard on the train. The guide’s words had sounded like theatre on board, but at that moment they rang true: “Varanasi is not somewhere you go, but somewhere you feel.”
A version of this piece was published in Aspire in April 2016