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Splendours of Maharashtra

A decadent journey through Maharashtra on the luxurious ‘Palace of Wheels’ perfectly fulfils the desires for travel and comfort, with an intimate interaction with Indian culture.

Many, many years ago, we had first spotted the original avatar of the fabled 'palace on wheels' — the Maharaja of Jodhpur's fabulous train that transported the royal family. I recall ogling at the luxury of it all. We then saw the Queen's coach at the rail museum in Mysore with its gold and silver fittings; I sighed – ah, what luxury!

When I finally got an opportunity to ride on one of these luxury trains, courtesy Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) and Indian Railways, with a special invite from Cox and Kings, I was transported to my own la-la land! The Deccan Odyssey: Splendors of Maharashtra, was a rail trip of a lifetime—seven nights and eight days on the dreamlike train.
Day 1: Mumbai
We reached the special terminus at the Chattrapati Sivaji Terminal, the iconic gothic structure that symbolises Mumbai. I was thrilled by the royal treatment with the flower garlands, aratis, et al, that greeted us. There were some dancers from Maharashtra grooving to ethnic music with their charming cymbal beats and trumpets. It was almost midnight by the time the train started – very smoothly indeed!
Day 2: Nashik
Our first stop was Nashik – the ancient, holy city of Maharashtra, where people come to perform sacred rituals for the dear departed. The place, like similar places in North India, was very poorly kept. We walked through numerous bylanes selling dried raisins of all kinds–Nashik is well known for the grapes it grows and raisins (seedless and with seeds) are as much a by-product of Viticulture (the whole process of growing and cultivating grapes), as wines are.
In the afternoon, we had a lunch date at the Grover Vineyards, where we got exhaustive lessons on wines and their many varieties—with wine barrels parked all around. Sushant Gupta, the young sommelier, certainly knew his stuff and fielded all our questions very well. A delightful lunch and then it was back to the train–rested and refreshed for dinner, while the train chugged on towards Aurangabad.
Day 3: Ellora Caves
Aurangabad is a thriving industrial town in Maharashtra. It is also the trailhead for the famous World Heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora caves – the ancient Buddhist sites which were discovered by a soldier riding through the forests.
The Kailasha/Kailashnatha temple of Ellora is a marvel of ancient architecture. The hillock of black stone was carved from the top, downwards! Normally all buildings and structures are constructed from the foundation upwards, but this rock-cut temple was in the making for 150 years and was constructed in reverse. The amazing symmetry of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain figures speak of our wondrous history–of the fine skills and enormous patience of our ancient sculptors, whose passion was exemplary. The workers cut down the mountains, made exquisitely perfect corridors and columns, carved lions, elephants, stories from the Ramayana, stories from Lord Krishna's childhood, and so much more…
An interesting tale was told by our very learned guide. His great interest in the caves brings him to these tours year after year. While the Mughals made a number of attempts to destroy this temple, Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore made Aurangzeb her rakhi brother and asked him for the gift of the Kailasha temple. The emperor had no choice but to cede her request. The queen then restored the plaster of the outer walls and some of the paintings, etc. Thus what we see today is one ruler's attempt to destroy and another's attempt to save–and posterity has preserved this gem and the ruler's name.
Day 4: Ajanta Caves
At 8 am we took a regular AC bus and then at Fardapur, we were asked to board an eco- friendly bus for the last two km to the caves, to preserve its integrity.
The caves are in an open area which spreads over many acres and have been numbered from 1 to 29. They are now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The caves of Ajanta are home to some of the most magnificent masterpieces of Indian art, dating from 2nd century BC to 6th century AD.
The art is credited to several Buddhist monks, who spent a lot of time at the Ajanta caves, especially during the monsoons, when they were forbidden to go out. This was the time they put their creativity and time to good use and painted the cave walls. After the 6th century, apparently, the forest took over and spread all over the caves.
In 1819, Captain Jon Smith, who belonged to the 28th Cavalry, accidentally chanced upon the horse-shoe shaped rock while tiger-hunting in the Deccan Plateau region. The entrance to the cave-like structures intrigued the British official and he crossed the Waghora River in the vicinity and reached the caves. His discovery was very exciting and archaeologists set to work excavating and identifying the artwork.
The caves are dark inside but the paintings and frescoes have been lit up for visitors to see. All around us, we see stories from the Buddha's life – his wife's endless wait for him to return, the gardens of Kapilvastu, his son Rahul's reaction when he returned for a while—all etched in great detail.
Day 5: Kolhapur
700 km from Pachora was Kolhapur, our next stop, where we disembarked at 12 pm. A traditional welcome awaited us on the platform—battle horns, dancers and the huge traditional circular trumpets. At the station, we had an exciting turban tying session. We drove to the New Palace museum with its artworks and locally excavated artefacts. One must buy Kolhapuri chappals when in Kolhapur—after all, we spent all our college life in handloom saris and Kolhapuri chappals!
A cultural show of Marathi music and dance at Hotel Pavillion–the 'Lavani'–is a dance form we were all waiting to catch, along with Powada, Ghondar and Vasudev. After tea, we drove to the Old Rajwada (palace), where most of the buildings have been given over to schools, NGOs etc. There we witnessed 'mardani khel' – a special show of Marathi martial arts encouraged in both boys and girls, men and women of all ages–the youngest was a four-year-old boy, while the eldest was in his 70s. All dexterously wielding strong wooden staff (lathis) and actual swords.
Day 6: Goa
350 km from Kolhapur is Goa. We got off the train and were escorted by a traditional Goan band all the way to the bus, which was to take us to Panaji in Old Goa! What clean quarters and classic style–it reminded me of old Athens, especially the cobbled pathways and the grills on the windows. We stopped to taste the wares at the Bakery, where all the traditional baked goodies, which used to be produced in homes during the two weeks between 20th December and 6th January, are now made all the year around.
We visited the Sahakarai Spice Farm for an authentic Goan lunch, served to us in wooden bowls and on plates made from palm fronds–a delightful spread of chicken and prawn curry, fried fish and sweet potatoes, native rice, with salad and buns. The dessert was a throwback to my childhood: meetha bhaat, something my dad loved and maybe, the first thing I learned to cook and enjoy!
Then it was time to move on–to the Palace du Dion, which is an old Goan home of the Dean or the head priest. It has been conserved and is now a heritage home and museum, being looked after by Rubin and Cilia. A high tea was laid out for us at the Belvedere, the lovely patio, with trellis work and rambling roses all over. We were then taken to Colva beach and being January 26, it had a complete holiday mood, with families thronging the beach! We then returned to Mudgaon station, to have dinner on the train.
Day 7: Sindhudurg-Sawantvadi
150 km from Goa is the district of Sindhudurg, and therein lays the palace of Sawantvadi, where we were scheduled to have lunch with its erstwhile royal family – the Bhonsles host this lunch for visitors of the Deccan Odyssey. But before that, we visited Pinguli village, where we saw a very cute puppet show on the history of the place. There is a small museum of musical instruments here, not seen anywhere else.
The Sawantvadi Palace is not a humongous building but is spread out over a fairly large area. Rajmata Satvashila Devi was there to greet us at the entrance to the Palace in a simple cotton sari. She lives on the premises with her son Khem and daughter in law Shubhada. There were women here who were all set to tie the 9-yard sari on whoever of us was game for it. The men are asked to wear a dhoti. A lot of fun and games have been set up outdoors too – you can get your portrait sketched or painted, buy some ganjifa cards or some beads made from local weed, try your hand at a spinning or pottery wheel, make a rangoli, etc. Another round of local dances and then we had lunch–a sumptuous spread starting with kokum, a cooling drink made from a local flower and lovely fish fries, modak, as well as chicken curry and much more.
Our excitement was winding down and by 3:30 we were back on the train. At 6 pm, we were treated to a Bollywood night. Each one was given a ready-to-wear zari sari. The Indians wore colourful outfits while the foreigners wore saris. As the music began to play, we danced almost till the break of dawn….a great way to wind up our journey! On the eighth day, we reached Mumbai and did some sightseeing, before finally heading home.
The ticket price for foreigners for an 8-day trip is Deluxe Cabin–$6,100 for single, $8,750 for double, and $6,565 for kids. For Indians, it is Deluxe Cabin–Rs4,27,000 for single, Rs 6,12,500 for double and Rs 4,59,550 for kids. Presidential suites are also available.

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