The Great Indian Train Journey
Book your ticket, hop on, and make sure you get a window seat! Here’s a warm, nostalgic look at the richly textured experience of train travel in India.
As a steam engine train, smoke billowing, roars past a meadow of tall grass in rural Bengal, two young children run alongside it. This iconic image from Satyajit Ray’s classic Pather Panchali has been etched in the hearts and minds of India for more than half a century. In reality, it remains true even today. Some of my earliest memories, too, go back to watching the train go by, standing alongside a railway track in a remote village in southern India.
It was during one of those childhood summers, a little more than three decades ago, that I took my first train ride in India. I was young, very young! It was that time of life when pressing my cheeks on the iron rods of the glassless window was liberating, an adrenaline rush even though it blackened the face with soot from the steam engine. Time, of course, was on hand aplenty! Arriving at a destination a few hours late or sometimes a day later was not uncommon. Those were not the days of modern India that we all experience today—a nation in a hurry, digitally connected, but temperamentally impatient. There was no Facebook/Twitter/Instagram to instantly broadcast to the world, and the world didn’t care much about the time either. Low cost airlines were not even on the radar!
Running to fill water in the platforms (there was no bottled water in those days), drying clothes tied to the window as the train chugged along, and the joy of friendship and camaraderie that developed along the journey with co-passengers of different states are some of the lasting impressions I have of those unhurried days. Language was never a limitation. Through the Aravalis, Vindhyas, Nilgiris, Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats, Deccan plateau, Shiwaliks, the Himalayas, the deserts and the rainforests, the chuck-chuck-chuck is a much loved sound across India. In its 164th year of founding, Indian rail connects to the ends of the country’s landmass with its vast human and cultural diversity and is an integral part of its unification.
Around the world, rail journeys have come a long way. High-speed trains are new developments. But Indian Railways, a government enterprise since independence, has evolved relatively slowly, managed by a bureaucracy.
By no means is it perfect! “There are not enough facilities for medical care in case of emergency,” says Anurag Batra, a doctor in England. “There were times I have treated patients with heart problems and some children falling sick on my overnight travels to my post-graduate course,” he said. “I miss the variety of foods that we relished station after station, though we didn’t care much about the packaging or the quality.”
Indian Railways ferries 22 million passengers a day. Some trains, like rivers, take you to those corners and destinations where no other transportation can ever take you. With over 67,000 km of rail network, Indian rail is alive everyday across 70,000 stations and counting, for every generation of Indians and others before independence and 70 years thereafter.
It was those khullars, the mud cup for chai that Ravi Sinha recalls from his green surroundings of Corvallis, Oregon. “More than the chai, I would get a kick by throwing those empty cups on the rail tracks,” he said. “These days plastic cups have taken over,” he remarks disparagingly.
There is a train for every kind of passenger, for every kind of price. Toy trains, heritage trains, luxury trains, express trains, slow trains, metro trains, monorail, and suburban trains employ close to 1.4 million employees. An enterprise the British built for their elite to travel and Indians optimized to connect a vast country of 29 states and 7 Union Territories—it truly is a wonder of the world.
After many years of flying, I find the Indian rail journey is all about liberation, beauty, and chaos. Often getting inside the train is like a confusing maze. Within minutes of settling inside on a berth/ cabin, there is a synchrony of activities that follows. To the swaying of coaches and the rhythmic sound of chuk-buck, chuck-buck, there is a certain music that travels with everyone. People you may otherwise ignore will smile at you, build a conversation, and hawkers hop on and hop off selling everything under the sun: umbrellas to jasmine flowers, hair clips to sandals, maps to mops, samosas to dosas, they are the supermarkets on wheels.
People-watching is a pleasurable way to pass the time on Indian trains. On a long journey, be it day or night, one can watch the unending mêlée of people, station after station: anxious, joyous, restless. Some passengers get off the train at every station, even when it stops in the middle of nowhere. There are some who might be creepy, others often chirpy, those who hang on to their berths as if they own them, and then there are snoopers and dupers! Not to leave out those who give constant gyan with their worldly wisdom to everyone by default. Entertainment becomes a moving human experience.
(Left and below) Chai and coffee, not to mention snacks and sodas, are sold on railway platforms.
Then there’s the variety of delicacies along rail journeys in India, often carried from home or sold by an unending line-up of hawkers right inside the coaches. Prepared specially for the journey at home, the dabbas with delicacies are the favorite of the family travels on trains, then and now. Within minutes of the train leaving, the dabbas are out, and it’s a communal feeding to their own group and to those who are co-passengers. Rice crisps, idli, dhokla, bhelpuri, vadas and chaklis, delicacies come with their own regional flavor.
Chaieee….Chaieee…that sound of the chaiwalla on the train continues to resonate in every passenger even after alighting from the train. Passing through the aisle every 30 minutes or even less, the little cups of tea and coffee are a perennial favorite of everyone aboard.
“It is not as easy as air travel,” said Roshni Unni, who travels to India thrice a year at least. “Yet, it was the most convenient and comfortable journey to my hometown near Calicut.” It is true, the arduous challenges of getting in and out of the train, platform, porters, reservations, sleeper berth, and so on are not the easiest to handle. Yet, getting into a packed overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi or the six-hour Himalayan Queen through the foothills of the Himalayas, or having a panoramic view of God’s Own Country through the twelve-hour Island Express, every train journey has a wonderful romance to it.
No one venerated train journeys more than Mahatma Gandhi himself. Stations turned to town halls, and the compartments he traveled in were his meeting venues. On his last journey, the ashes, too, traveled by train to Allahabad. For freedom fighters to film stars, college students to cockpit pilots, train journeys have remained the synergy of travel across the country.
(Left) The heritage steam engine named 'Akbar' was featured in over two dozen Bollywood and other movies.
So woven are the railways into the fabric of India’s daily life that the movie industry couldn’t help but notice. Superstar Rajesh Khanna wooed his ladylove Sharmila Tagore singing “Meri sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu” and the Himalayan Queen train was immortalized in the romantic heart of India. The nation fell in love, and the toy train became iconic. “There was a newfound allure to train rides, and it felt like everyone wanted to romance on the railgaadi,” said Venkatesh Bhat from the Bay Area. “There was a sense of obsession attached to the trains, and it was considered cool to be traveling by trains for a long time.”
The fascination of Bollywood for trains has produced many a memorable movie. Films by romantic heroes like Rajesh Khanna and Shah Rukh Khan (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil Se, Chennai Express) seem to have the most attraction and have created a world of imagination for the common man for the mystique and drama of rail journeys.
That charm and romance on the train was the catalyst for Ashwini Haldipur’s falling in love with her husband. On a journey from Goa to Mumbai on the Mandovi Express, recalls Ashwini, “The monsoon was at its peak, and traveling at a gentle speed to the fresh air from the valley, we just developed a conversation surrounding the rain, the greenery, and the local delicacies. It didn’t take us too long to take the same train as husband and wife.”
(Left) Train takes a turn in Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh.
Aboard the all-air-conditioned Rajdhani Express, traveling 36 hours from Bangalore to New Delhi, one would experience at least fifteen different delicacies that are local to the region from south to north. Though India’s upwardly mobile class often takes to air travel, the fascination, convenience, and the economics of family travel favor train journeys, and food stitches well with the tapestry of the landscape.
Indian trains by no means stick to punctuality and organization. It is not easy to run to the station for a long distance journey and hop on with a return ticket as in other countries. Political unrest, social unrest, strikes and bandhs, occasional calamities, if not some unknown holidays, all are factors to be considered for planning your long distance travel.
Despite the unending narratives about India’s caste-structured society, a journey on Indian Rail will give ample evidence of how far India has moved on socially and consciously. People connect, chat, share, exchange cards, and play antakshari without any reservations. It is all a part of the journey, part of the human experience, and part of finding new destinations and friends.
(Right) Victoria Terminus building, Mumbai.
The railway stations, the life and soul of the journeys that connect the dots, are amazing points of intersection. The British not only laid the tracks but also built stunning architectural buildings that are a destination in themselves. Stations then were the meeting place for trade, commerce, and social connection. Today they have become hubs connecting the trapeze of rail networks. Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic style Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as VT), Kolkata’s Howrah Station, and the Nizam-style Kachiguda station in Hyderabad are some examples of marvelous architecture that came about as a result of the railways.
There will be new tracks laid and new destinations connected. Like its mascot Bholu the elephant, many more trains will wind their way through forests and gorges, often encountering real elephants, too. “Railways could lead in protecting the elephants and their habitat,” said Ranjan Kumar Das in Seattle. Despite the railways’ phenomenal service to humanity, one bone of contention is their conflict with the wildlife in several regions. Elephants in particular are affected as new rail tracks are laid through their natural corridors.
Trains may gather speed (the bullet train may arrive one day) and rail networks may get longer, but the romance of train travel won’t change. Experience it in full by riding in one of India’s long-distance trains. It is the only way to really understand the nation.
Some special trains for memorable journeys
(Left) Inside the Golden Chariot.
Mandovi Express: A journey of 12 hours from the historical Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus in Mumbai to Madgaon, Goa, this express cuts across the magical Arabian Sea and the Sahyadri hills in the Western Ghats.
After crossing the urban sprawl of Mumbai, the train races down a narrow strip of land, rattling over bridges and rivers, cutting across tunnels pierced through with basalt, laterite, and limestone. Once in a while, the sea view opens up, and hawkers will constantly feed you in preparation for your sojourn either at the colorful Goan beaches or the energetic streets of Mumbai, depending on which way you’re headed. The journey takes you through the Western Ghats, its ecosystem and richly biodiverse environments.
(Right) Leaving a tunnel.
Himalayan Queen: Built by the British for their summer sojourn, this is a magical train journey from Kalka in Haryana to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. A six-hour journey with twists and turns through 87 bridges and 900 curves is an engineering marvel and a feast to the passengers. The attraction of this train journey has only increased as years pass by.
Traveling at 14 mph, each coach is color coded with yellow and red. While seats are as big as the economy seats in the airlines, the windows are open and the doors of the coach never shut, acting as your natural air conditioner. After the densely populated Kalka surroundings, the train chugs to the higher elevation eventually reaching Shimla at 7,500 feet. At each of the 102 tunnels, people joyously squeal, shout, and whistle until there is light at the end of the tunnel!
The Desert Queen: Running between Jodhpur, the blue city, to Jaisalmer, the golden city, past traditional rural mud huts and occasional camels in the distance, this journey will warm your heart in the desert country.
From the ceremonial wave at the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, you will see the blue colors turn into gold sand, a semi-arid desert peppered with shrubs and thorny acacia trees. Men with colorful turbans trudging along with camels, little kids playing around small bushes and desert fields, and women with pots of water on their heads become common scenery. To break that monotony, a peacock will flutter its colors as it searches for its mate.
(Left) Interior of Palace on Wheels.
Indian Maharaja, Deccan Odyssey: A luxurious train between the two large metropolises, Mumbai and Delhi, it’s a seven-day cultural extravaganza on wheels passing through royal Rajasthan.
Colorful landscape, bright attires of the locals, mosaic of colors along the journey, historic havelis and palaces, and the glitter and glimpse of the royalty of Rajasthan transport you between history and modernism. Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, and Delhi, the historically ancient city and modern India’s capital, will connect the dots for the grand odyssey of the Deccan Maharaja. If you are lucky, you may spot a tiger in the wilderness of Ranthambore.
(Right) View of Dudhsagar Falls from the Goa Express.
The Goa Express: If views are what make a train journey, this will be the one. Chugging within a stone’s throw of the famed Dudhsagar waterfalls, this train offers amazing vistas from Vasco Da Gama to Londa in just three hours.
Passing through many Goan villages, the train travels between Karnataka and Goa, revealing the beauty of both states. Stand at the edge of the door to watch the train climb up the steep Braganza pass and follow a horseshoe bend over the valley as it approaches the falls. In the monsoon, the spray from the falls creates a mist, giving an ethereal experience through the valley. After the 3 hour 30 minute journey, the evening glow in Londa created by the late evening sunset punctuates the beauty of the Western Ghats.
(Left) Sunset time somewhere in central India.
Vivek Express: For those who want to get a pulse of India’s railway network, travel south from the east, Dibrugarh in Assam to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu on the longest train journey in India. Three sunsets and stopovers in 57 stations on an epic 87-hour train ride—how amazing that can be!
(Right) The 2nd longest sea bridge, Pamban Bridge. (Photo: Tamil Nadu Tourism)
This ride is for the hearty souls. Other than a few patches of the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam, crossing over the land of the Nagas in Nagaland, much of the journey will be a test of endurance and patience. If you slumber during the day time, a cell phone ringing loudly somewhere in the coach will help you keep awake to see the terrain crossing over from Orissa, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu. If you have a creative and open mindset, for sure you will meet a great diversity of people, from the bamboo furniture maker to the coconut shell dealer!
The Toy Train (Darjeeling-Ghum): Immortalized by Bollywood, the 51-mile Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs on a 2-ft-wide gauge pulled by blue Glasgow-built steam locomotives.
At a super speed of 6 mph on a track laid along the narrow streets of Darjeeling, the train passes so close to the houses and the fruit market that you can almost shop as the train trundles along. Through its many loops, reverses, and curves, you are graced with a view of the famed Darjeeling hills with its sprawling tea estates and tea pickers. With some luck as you ride along, a view of the Himalayan peak Kanchenjunga is almost guaranteed.
Bhaskar Krishnamurthy is a widely published travel journalist, an explorer, and a Fulbright scholar. He is the founder of clicabroad. org, a social empowerment platform for communities living in the hinterlands.
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