By Ravi Valluri
“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going,” writes the prodigious Australian author Anna Funder.
Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Khajuraho and Varanasi are cities which capture the ancient, medieval and modern periods of Indian culture, history and ethos. These cities cover the states of political Delhi, mystical Uttar Pradesh, valorous Rajasthan and vibrant Madhya Pradesh.
Striking monuments and places of worship dot the landscape which fires the imagination of the backpacker. These populous states are miniature representations of the culture and heritage of India. Thus in order to witness the grandeur and charisma of India, it would be perspicacious for a tripper to hitch on to the bandwagon of the Central India Tour proffered by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation of India (IRCTC for short).
The entire region is marked by wildlife sanctuaries, tribal habitats, opulent resorts and ancient pilgrimage sites. Without doubt, the Central India Tour offers to its visitors an assorted platter of attractions.
Central India prides itself for housing in its midst the heritage capital of India. The architectural marvels located in the area fascinate Indian and international trippers alike who come in hordes to this part of the country. Central India travel packages enthral and engross sightseers when undertaken in its entirety.
Prologue- Stay at Delhi
Tourists are received by representatives of the IRCTC at Delhi, either at the airport or the railway station and are then transferred to an estimable hotel for an overnight stay.
A sumptuous breakfast is followed by a city tour of New Delhi & Old Delhi. As per mythology the potentates of Hastinapur (now part of Delhi) were the Kaurava and Pandava princes. Thereafter several singular Hindu rulers left their stamp, such as emperors like Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka, Harsha and those of the Gupta dynasty.
There was a change of hands (and fortunes) as the new sovereigns from the Sultanate period period took over followed by the Chauhans and then the Moghuls until the city capitulated to the Britishers. It was then that Lutyens’ Delhi was established. So the city offers variegated colours and shades of heritage and is a repository of history, knowledge and culture. It is a veritable melting pot of India.
Tourists cover the Birla Temple, India Gate, Parliament area, prominent Government buildings, Humayun's Tomb, the Qutab Minar, the Gandhi Memorial at Raj Ghat, the Chandni Chowk market, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, to name but a few sites. It is indeed a sojourn into history.
The Valour of Rajasthan
At the crack of the dawn, the globetrotters head to Delhi Cantonment Station to board the prestigious Shatabdi Express to the Pink City of Jaipur, the capital city of the state of Rajasthan. It evokes a distinct feeling of royalty among the visitors. The city was established in 1727, and has expanded far beyond what is known as the Old City or ‘Pink City’ for its resplendent trademark terracotta pink buildings.
At the centre of its stately street grid, which is quintessentially Indian, stands the opulent, colonnaded City Palace complex. Upon arrival guests check in at an upmarket hotel. In the afternoon a meticulously planned sightseeing tour of Jaipur is organised by the officials of the IRCTC. The tour includes spots like City Palace, the Observatory (Jantar Mantar), the Albert Museum, the Hawa Mahal and shopping for the famous jewellery and objects made from camel leather.
Jaipur to Agra
Breakfast the next morning is a hearty affair. A typical Rajasthani breakfast is quite a regal affair, which every foodie must attempt. Some of the favourites offered by the chef include - Pyaaz Kachori, Bajra Roti and Lahsun Chutney, Kalmi Vada, Moong Dal Pakori, Methi Bajra Puri and Aloo Subzi.
Travellers check out and depart for an excursion to Amber Fort (on elephant-back!) and thereafter motor down to Agra in the afternoon.
There is a brief stop-over at the deserted capital of the Mughals, Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri is a bijou town, west of Agra, founded by a 16th-century Mughal emperor. Red sandstone buildings cluster at its centre. The ‘Buland Darwaza’ is the entrance to the Jama Masjid mosque. In the vicinity is the marble tomb of Salim Chishti. The Diwan-E-Khas hall has exquisitely embellished central pillar. Jodha Bai’s Palace is an amalgam of Hindu and Mughal styles, next to the five storeyed Panch Mahal which overlooks the site.
Stay at Agra
Breakfast at an upmarket hotel is followed by a leisurely walk in the market area where artefacts (exuding a magnetic charm of their own) are available. Despite having had a lip- smacking breakfast, several tourist gorge on golgappas. Thereafter the day is spent visiting the Agra Fort and the Sikandra Tomb. In the evening, one explores the prepossessing Taj Mahal.
Agra to Khajuraho
The trippers next day board the much acclaimed Shatabdi Express from Agra to Jhansi and thereafter travel by road to Khajuraho. The Khajuraho Group of Monuments is a genus of Hindu and Jain temples in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, about 175 kilometres southeast of Jhansi. These monuments have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples are famous for their nagara-style architectural symbolism and their erotic sculpture. It is sheer delight to marvel at the structures – from the sensual and erotic to the sublime. The evening is spent watching the spectacular son et lumière, which traces the history and brings to life scintillating nuggets of the local lore.
After chilling out the night at Khajuraho, the following morning guests are taken to the Ken River to watch the cascading waterfalls and to have a look at the ancient volcanic rocks. Thereafter, the sightseers board a flight to Varanasi.
Varanasi is an ancient city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, dating as far back as the 11th century B.C. and is considered the spiritual capital of India. The city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges and also perform the last rites on the banks of the river. Along the city's winding streets are some 2,000 temples, including the iconic Kashi Vishwanath, the ‘Golden Temple’ dedicated to Lord Shiva. Visitors are taken to Sarnath where Gautama Buddha, upon attaining enlightenment delivered his first sermon and also to the Rishi Valley School, established by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.
The icing on the cake is to watch the pageant of Ganga Aarti on the banks of the Ganges. It is a breath taking ceremony which never fails to amaze those witnessing the spectacle.
Back to Delhi
The following afternoon, the travel-weary backpackers board Vande Bharat (the second fastest train in India), which scorches the tracks and reach New Delhi at 11pm. They slowly depart with memories etched firmly in their minds.
“What thrills me about trains is not their size or their equipment but the fact that they are moving, that they embody a connection between unseen places,” writes the talismanic author, Marianne Wiggins.