Myths, magic and maharajas

Why hope to live like a King when you can be Emperor? Shihab Salim becomes the ruler of India aboard the Maharajahs’ Express

Posted: 02.03.12

There is magic afoot aboard the Maharajas Express. This isn’t some cliché borrowed from the Travel Journal’s Handbook, where every island is paradise and sand always comes in pristine white, I’m talking real, proper magic, the kind that only happens when someone waves a wand and presto! You’re in another world. Leave reality behind. Normal rules do not apply.
It starts from the moment you arrive at Delhi’s Safdarjung Station (no, you haven’t heard of it, it looks like something painstakingly made by a toy enthusiast, then blown up to real proportions), where there are no commuters, peddlers, beggars, or police, in fact no hustle and bustle at all. Instead a row of glamorous women cover us in garlands and treat as to refreshments while a live Qawwali band serenades us. As you do.
And then, when the train rolls in, majestic and silent under the glistening moonlight, an imposing yet sleek snake that stretches all of 23 carriages, it’s a sight that would do any arrival at Hogwarts station proud.
You don’t step aboard as much as you glide across the red carpet, all the way to your carriage (all named befittingly as precious jewels), where your cabin – dripping in five-star appeal – awaits you. They spent £9 million building this beauty. And it shows. We have our own butler. In fact, the number of staff, all clad immaculately in regal turbans and tunic, rivals the guests at a ratio of five to one.
With a full capacity of 84 guests, it’s still maiden days for the Maharajas Express, and at just a dozen of us, we literally feel like the Chosen Ones. But with rave reviews received on both sides of the ocean spreading the word, there will come a time when reserving a place on here will be like gold dust. Because this is unlike any other journey you can imagine – it literally travels through time, taking you to places that only exist in the loftiest corners of your imagination. However much you think you might know about India, once you’ve been aboard the Maharajahs’ Express, you’ll see it in a light that can only shine but once in a lifetime.

India is dirty and crowded
Not from where we’re sat, it isn’t. I have no idea how they do this, or if India really has completely changed since I last visited, um, last year, but every station we stop over at during our Celestial India tour, is utterly spotless. No hawkers trying to sell their wares by our blacked-out windows; no crippled child guilting us into handing over our rupees (this is more of a Mastercard kind of trip, but how would they know?). In every instance, we are greeted by women daubing us with tilak and showering petals upon us, as we walked down the red carpet to the beat of a live drum, and in Khajuraho, a complete dancing troupe.
Proud to be a ‘sojourn exploring the hidden treasures of India’, everywhere we go is not only clean and gleaming, but frequently free from queues of tourists – but then it’s not every tourist that gets invited to dinner at the palace of the royal family of Gwalior – and it is a measure of our adventures that our least favourite destination was the Taj Mahal. Police blowing whistles inside the tomb of love, barking orders for the crowd of people to walk in single file? Not on this trip, thank you.

Traffic in India is a nightmare.
Not when you have police escorts wherever you go! That’s right, everywhere we went in our state-of-the-art coach, we zoomed through the streets thanks to a jeep full of scary men wielding batons leading the way, another jeep behind us, flanked on either side by cops on motorbikes. This sort of treatment is unthinkable unless you’re an AA-List celebrity, a VV-important public figure… or a guest at the Maharajas Express.

You only eat curry and drink masala tea in India.
Yes and no. On the very first evening, the Maharajas Express served up fois gras, salmon terrine, Chateau Briande steak, marble chocolate slab and champagne. But there was always an a la carte Indian menu, and I made friends with the versatile chef Vivek Singh very quickly, who was soon knocking up specialities from all across India… simply because I liked the sound of them. If you’re wondering how much extra that cost, the answer is not a rupee. Food and drink on board are absolutely free, and you can drink till you fall into a coma, should you wish to be that tacky (the higher brand spirits and cocktails cost, but they didn’t mind our repeated requests of mocktails topped up with any house spirit that took our fancy. By the end of the journey, the sommelier was even preparing us his own imaginative blends just to see if we liked them). And get this, not one guest complained of an upset tummy.
The trip isn’t designed for dieters. We were treated to high tea at the five-star Taj Khema (Agra), banquets at Usha Kiran Palace and Jai Villas Palace (Gwailor), traditional feasts in Varanasi, Lucknow and Umaria (where we sampled the local moonshine Mawra, petrol basically, before heading off – off our heads – to a safari where we couldn’t tell if we saw tigers but were slightly sure we may have spotted a T-Rex). But by far the most unexpected treat was dining on the rooftop at the home of Muzaffar Ali, the director of the original Umrao Jaan, who also threw in a private live kathak show (well, you can’t very well be a Maharaja without dancing girls, now can you?).

Indian time is random.
Everything on board and on tour the Maharajahs’ Express runs like clockwork. As you’d expect, yours truly dragged his feet and missed a couple of the coaches, but in every instance, the beyond-hospitable Personal Relations manager arranged for a ride to get us to our tourist hotspot, where we’d happily be filled in on what we missed by the guides (who were more often lecturers on ancient history at universities than the repeat-the-handbook variety the hoi polloi had to contend with). And because the train travelled smoothly through the night, all the guests woke up peacefully knowing there was a breakfast fit for a king awaiting them in one of the two opulently decorated dining carriages.

India isn’t really spiritual.
This is a relatively new idea that’s often peddled by many who think real India is about pain and suffering, and that the only people who ‘find themselves’ there are privileged westerners on happy pills. That’s a maybe, and I certainly thought the same once upon a time (staying in roach-infested hostels with your buttocks forever hovering over a hole in the ground has a habit of blitzing away your Zen), but once you experience India through the eyes of a guest on Maharajas Express, everywhere you look is a source of poetry. From seeing all notions of the age-old religious conflicts washed away through the Indo-Islamic architecture in places like Lucknow, and traders of all creeds working side-by-side in Vanarasi, to the hospitality extended to us by villagers in Umaria (they wouldn’t accept tips regardless of how many of their guavas we gobbled), not to mention the otherworldly scenery of Orchcha – you’d have to have the heart of a statue not to melt. And in all my decades of searching, I have never experienced a moment quite so profound as witnessing a moonlit evening aarti at the ghats aboard a boat in Ganges. With promises of moksha (‘eternal release’) ringing in the chants of Sanskrit mantras, the clash of cymbals and drums, the scent of flowers, incense and sandalwood, and blazing camphor lamps around burning bodies, well, if you can think of a better setting to exorcise demons and unload life’s stresses, I’d like to know where that is!

Life in the west is better.
I’ve not been a wealthy man on either side of the ocean, but no one can convince me you can have better treatment in the UK, however much you splash around for the privilege – for the simple reason that Indians are the best in the world when it comes to being courteous, accommodating, friendly and just so darned happy! The best part is that while you might expect all this in any of India’s five-star hotels, on the Maharajahs’ Express, the staff doesn’t hover around for tips. And seeing as the whole experience is designed to make you feel like an emperor, where would you rather act out your fantasies… Buckingham Palace or the Man Mandir Palace you see on the opening pages of this feature?
The whole experience will always be embedded in my mind as the single-most incredible voyage I’ve ever been on, and while I thank my lucky stars that I was privileged to ride the train before even the Bollywood elite and megarich socialites have had the opportunity, don’t feel too envious of me. There are no words that can fully express the horrors of waking up from a beautiful dream to find myself on Platform 2 waiting for the delayed 08:23 train to London Bridge from Peckham…

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