I am on an irresistible travel experience: a journey on the Palace of Wheels train around Rajasthan, ‘The Land of Rajputs’ (Princes), totalling almost 3,000 km and covering its cities with stirring names. Rajasthan is historically significant as a frontier state and, consequently, offers a plethora of forts, palaces, lakes, and wildlife sanctuaries – which I can’t wait to discover.
Jaipur ‘the pink city’ is our first stop and it surprises with signs of urban planning. The red sandstone Amber Fort is set amidst the Aravalli Hills and its austere façade gives way to regal splendour once inside. Visit Amber Fort’s turban collection – it’s the world’s largest. The City Palace is sizable enough that it once required a staff of 500 people and it offers abundant exhibits. I especially recommend the Armoury with its fine collection of swords dedicated to Mughal Emperors, daggers and guns. I moved to the whimsical Hawa Mahal façade with its 356 jharokhas (overhanging enclosed balconies) of pink sandstone, where the palace women could sit in privacy while watching street life. Near the palace entrance is Jantar Mantar Observatory, with its 17 unusual geometric devices in masonry that work as accurately as Western equipment.
Usually, I find early mornings on journeys jarring but on the train, there is no need to be rush. So, my mood will be blissful when we alight from the train for a day of guided sightseeing. That bliss will immediately be overcome by the sensory rush of an Indian welcome. Folk dancers twirl, a soft ‘Namaste’ is spoken, scents of marigold malas (garlands) waft around. Once auspicious vermilion marks are applied between our eyebrows, where the spiritual eye is located, we’ll be allowed to go sightseeing.
Udaipur ‘city of lakes’ is built around interconnected open lakes and is the most picturesque, refreshing city of Rajasthan. It’s well liked by film directors, and the comedy movie ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and television series ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ were filmed here. Pichola Lake is the address for a few fabulous heritage hotels converted from royal properties. The Taj Lake Palace is stunning from afar as it spreads over the whole 16,000 sqm of Jag Niwas Island in the middle of the lake. Another is Oberoi Udaivilas, set amongst the hunting grounds of a former Maharana, and the most recent addition is the Leela Palace Udaipur. We cruise past, and then visit, the historical City Palace that was built over a period of four centuries and contains 11 palaces.
Our train compartment measures 10 sqm. We appreciate that the beds are not bunks and can be configured either as a double or as twins. The en-suite washroom has a sink, shower, toilet and hot running water. The Palace on Wheels is India’s first luxury train. There are four compartments per train carriage and each carriage has its own salon.
Agra ‘the city of Taj’ experienced a golden era during its rule by Mughul emperors. We visit the stately Agra Fort, which once housed the largest state treasury and mint, before heading for the Taj Mahal. Its features have subtle significance. The main red sandstone gate acts like a veil which slowly lifts to reveal a woman’s face. The marble changes from soft pink to dazzling white to cream during the day, and under moonlight it becomes a mesmerizing pearly-white – all depicting the different moods of a woman. When you get close, you’ll see soaring calligraphy motifs and exquisite pietra dura work. Myth has it that the Emperor intended to build his own mausoleum opposite, in black marble, but that his son did not permit it and, when the Emperor died, had his father’s body interned next to his wife, in the simplest of manners.