Riding the Rails of Rajasthan

An itinerary, and some advice, for a first-time visitor to India

by G. Bruce Knecht

NO country has more poignant images than India, and its exoticism, nourished by ancient cultures, natural beauty, and extraordinary contrasts, has long been an irresistible lure for travelers. But India is also tremendously intimidating, partly because of its size and diversity but more because of the frequent natural disasters that occur there, its deadly religious frictions, and its desperate beggars.

Deciding to confront the images with the reality while I was a visiting fellow at Oxford University, I asked several of the India experts who are connected to the university to help design the perfect trip for the first-time visitor to India. All of them offered the same basic advice: First, I had to pick a single region; given India’s vast dimensions, the two-week trip I envisioned was too short to see anything more. Second, I should travel by rail; the roads are among the world’s most dangerous, but the trains, a legacy of British rule, are safe and generally reliable. Finally, I should be careful about timing; many regions are unbearably hot in the summer, and many are pervasively wet during monsoons.

I eventually decided on Rajasthan, an arid state in northwestern India where wealthy maharajahs once erected sprawling fortresses and extravagant palaces. The four cities I especially wanted to see— Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, and Jaipur—are readily reached by train, and since November to February is the best period to visit, the region suited my December timetable. Not only did my advisers endorse my plan but one of them, an Oxford graduate and a journalist who had spent several months living in India, agreed to join me.

Thanks to the Indian government’s desire to increase tourist revenues, foreigners are given special treatment by the Indian railways. We were therefore not particularly alarmed when, having flown to New Delhi, we found a thick mass of humanity at the city’s train station. Some people were waiting in long ticket lines; some were selling things, everything from oranges to shoes; and many others, some of them children, were begging. We went to the International Tourist Bureau, on the second floor, to buy fifteenday first-class Indrail passes. Their cost, $165 each, would turn out to be greater than the individual fares for the journeys we would take, but since the passes would allow us to avoid the ticket-buying lines, they were a worthwhile investment. (It turns out that Indrail passes are available in the United States, from Hari World Travels; call 212-957-3000 for more information. The Government of India Tourist Office will gladly answer inquiries of all kinds; call 212-586-4901.)

Long lines and mind-numbing bureaucracy are irritating facts of life in India. Paying for a restaurant meal often requires signing three or more receipts, all of them in quadruplicate. The process of obtaining our Indrail passes illustrated the problem: While we each filled out six detailed forms, a clerk entered our names and passport numbers into three large ledger books. The passes must be paid for with Western currency or traveler’s checks, and the clerk required that we print our names, home addresses, and passport numbers on each of our checks in addition to signing them. Not until he had meticulously examined and re-examined each of the checks and all of the documents and ledgers did we receive our passes.

Still, although the officialism was frustrating, it generally works: we left the station with our passes—and with confirmed reservations for the night train to Jodhpur. When we arrived at the station a few hours later, our names were posted and our compartment had, as we’d requested, just two berths. Although the chamber’s condition was not consistent with most Westerners’ idea of first class, dirty floors and grimy windows are hardly surprising in a country where the annual per capita income is less than a dollar a day. The train departed on time, and after a couple of hours talking with a group of rum-drinking army officers, we fell asleep to the train’s steady rumble.

Food and drink are generally available on first-class trains, and the next day began when the conductor rapped on our door to deliver omelets and a thermos of sweetened coffee, along with the news that we would soon arrive in Jodhpur. We could see nothing but barren desert from our window, but as we rolled into the city, the Rajasthan my advisers had described was very much in evidence. Leaving the station, we were swallowed up by mazelike streets as we instinctively headed for the Mehrangarh Fort, the fifteenth-century fortress that Rudyard Kipling described as the creation of “angels, fairies and giants.”As cows and colorfully dressed children wandered across the foreground, I tried to take photographs that framed the red sandstone fort between the narrow, shop-lined streets. Even as I stood in place, my lens was filled with kaleidoscopic movement. I took so many pictures that I worried I had not brought enough film.

THE legacies of the maharajahs are central to Rajasthan’s appeal. The former rulers devoted much of their wealth to great building projects, and although Indira Gandhi’s socialist-leaning government limited their lucrative property rights and officially nullified their royal status in the early 1970s, the forts and palaces remain. Indeed, they have become valuable touristic assets as the royal families’ diminished economic circumstances have led many of them to turn the palaces into hotels. Rajasthan boasts more than fifty palacehotels.

In Jodhpur the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which took some 3,000 workers sixteen years to build and which looks more like an American statehouse than a home, now incorporates both a palace and a 100room hotel. Though the condition of India’s trains may disappoint the discriminating traveler, its top hotels are worldclass—amenities, service, and all. My friend and I strolled through the Umaid Bhawan’s marble-clad halls and two rotundas with this-can’t-reallybe-here amazement. Eventually finding ourselves on a porch with a sweeping view of extensive formal gardens, we sat down to enjoy cocktails, one of the great sunsets of all time, and a leisurely dinner.

Our next stop was Jaisalmer, a remote desert city not far from the border with Pakistan. Here, too, a family of maharajahs built a sprawling hilltop fortress. With ninety-nine huge cone-shaped bastions, the golden-yellow sandstone stronghold is strikingly beautiful in spite of a gruesome history: an eight-year siege by a sultan of Delhi ended in 1295 with the defenders’ defeat and the mass suicide of the city’s women and children. Wandering through the stone-paved streets inside the fort, we visited a richly decorated Jain temple and saw how the fortress’s modern-day occupants live. They are, by just about any standard, poor, but the only beggars were children who seemed to be more interested in social interaction than rupees. The feeling of having to stay on guard, which had caused us to keep a constant hold on our wallets in Delhi, was absent here.

One of the costs of India’s exoticism (and sometimes unsanitary kitchens) is that its food can be too much for Western stomachs. Drinking bottled water is mandatory, and only recommended restaurants should be patronized. But even those precautions are sometimes insufficient or hard to follow: one morning in Jaisalmer after we ate at a simple restaurant that we happened upon, my friend woke up with stomach pain so great that he did not leave our hotel for the next two days.

While he recuperated, I set out on a two-day desert camel trek with two Britons and several local guides. Camel riding was a new experience for me, and although the desert is beautiful in its barrenness, it must be said that camels are not among the world’s most attractive modes of transportation. Mine lowered himself to his knees and then sat on his haunches to receive me, but when he rose, by first unfolding and extending his hind legs. I thought I would fall right over the top of him. When he began walking, I was surprised by his attentiveness to the reins, but also astonished by the uncomfortableness of the saddle, which was fashioned out of several wool blankets. We spent the night in a small valley formed by sand dunes. The air turned cold as soon as the sun set, and shortly after the guides served a simple meal of dahl and chapatis, we retired. Lying between the blankets that had been our saddles, we could see the profiles of our camels against a sky filled, astonishingly, with shooting stars.

When I returned to Jaisalmer, my friend was almost fully recovered. We left the next day for Udaipur. Along the way the desert turned into rolling hills and eventually rugged mountains; before we reached Udaipur, we passed through lush fields where teams of buffalo worked primitive-looking waterwheels to irrigate black soil. Udaipur itself, sometimes called the Venice of the East, is a romantic city full of temples, palaces, and art galleries. It is dominated by the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. With more than a thousand rooms, the City Palace now houses a museum and two hotels, including the Shivniwas Palace, where we stayed. The Shivniwas overlooks Lake Pichola and yet another hotel, the one that may be India’s best known: the Lake Palace, an idyllic white-marble edifice that, because it occupies the entirety of a small island, appears to float. Udaipur was our favorite city, and so we spent three days there: we rode bicycles (they cost five rupees apiece, or about sixteen cents, a day), took a boat tour of Lake Pichola, went to the Lake Palace Hotel for dinner, and relaxed around the marble swimming pool at our hotel.

The City Palace and the Lake Palace both belong to the maharana of Mewar. (He is a maharana, or “light of the Hindus,” rather than a maharajah because his ancestors not only ruled the province but also played an important spiritual role during their 1,400-year reign.) The maharana was not the first among his peers to go into the hotel trade, but he is unique in that he has expanded his business beyond his own palaces and because he manages seven of his eight hotels himself. He commands great respect in Udaipur, partly because of his ancestry but also because of the extent to which he contributes to the local economy: his various enterprises employ more than a thousand people and support many times that number.

Curious as to how his family had transformed itself from royalty into hoteliers, I arranged to see the fifty-year-old maharana in his open-air office off the City Palace’s innermost courtyard. Tall and bespectacled, the maharana dresses in a traditional achkan and has a thick white beard, which he carefully parts at the center of his chin. As we drank cups of tea, his familial pride and an aristocratic sense of duty were palpable, but his practicalmindedness seemed to leave him devoid of arrogance. “Respect is not automatic,” he said. “And it does not come about because of what your ancestors did a thousand years ago. If we didn’t know how to adapt, we would not have survived.”

THE last city on our itinerary was Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, a place of broad avenues and bustling commerce. Many of its houses are painted pink, a tradition that began in honor of the 1876 visit of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Here the City Palace, the home of the current maharajah, contains two enormous silver urns that one of his ancestors filled with Ganges water to take on his six-month journey to witness Edward’s coronation. Since some of Jaipur’s most interesting sites were too far from the center for us to visit on foot or by bicycle, we hired a taxi to take us to the Amber Palace, which was the center of power in seventeenth-century Jaipur, and the Tiger Fort, built by order of the maharajah in 1734. By sunset we had returned to our temporary home, the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel, formerly a maharajah’s residence. The weather was warm and clear, as it had been throughout the trip, and, sitting on the closely cropped lawn, we watched kites and birds dance across the darkening sky.

From Jaipur we could either return directly to New Delhi or make a one-day stop in Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Although Agra is in the state of Uttar Pradesh and our original plan was limited to four cities in Rajasthan, we decided that we would like to see the Indian equivalent of the Eiffel Tower. We began, however, to think that we had made a mistake when the conductor rapped on the door to say that three armed guards would be traveling with us “for your protection.” Since the rifle-toting guards were obviously drunk, safer we did not feel. In the early evening, when we arrived in Agra’s darkened station, our supposed protectors disappeared, and we found ourselves surrounded by taxi and rickshaw drivers, all of them aggressively demanding our patronage.

The next morning we visited the Taj. Perhaps because I had been told repeatedly how disappointed I would be, I was not. On the contrary, I was awed by its serene beauty. Agra was as ugly as Udaipur was beautiful, but the Taj is still more captivating than the many photographic images of it would suggest.

When we left the Taj Mahal, we got another dose of Agra irritation: even with our Indrail passes, which had until then readily secured seats on every train we wanted to take, there was no room for us on the express train to New Delhi. Since my flight to London was departing that evening, we had to hire a car. The drive, all four hours of it, was terrifying. The highway we traveled operated according to the law of the jungle: big trucks had the right of way over small ones, small trucks over cars, and bicycles—well, it is better not to ride a bicycle. We saw the results of several head-on collisions, and had a few near misses of our own. In one we were forced off the road by an oncoming truck. In another we spun out of control as we sought to avoid a horsedrawn wagon that had no lights. The car stopped only a couple of feet from one of the horses.

In the end we made it to the airport without physical injury. As we began in the airport lounge to relive our adventures, I realized that India had not so much differed from my expectations as exceeded them. The lows—namely, the extent of poverty and the seeming lack of respect for human life—were worse than I had expected. But the highs—the natural and man-made beauty—were far greater than I had ever imagined.