Maharajas' Express, India: One of the world's most luxurious train trips

Climbing the ladder on to the elephant's back and wielding the long polo stick was the closest I came to exertion all week. It was the first of eight days aboard the Maharajas' Express, and national rivalries had been invoked by the umpire-cum-master of ceremonies as he marshalled us into teams for a few chukkas of polo. The ponderous movements of the elephant made it almost impossible to intercept the ball, so whichever side secured the first contact invariably scored. An alliance of Brazil, Australia and Britain suffered defeat at the hands of the Russians.

Consoling champagne was soon at hand as we watched the other chukkas from the open marquee on the polo field of the sprawling City Palace, created by the maharajas of Jaipur, which was being prepared to host a wedding of 5000 guests. Each time a goal was scored, a colourful troupe of brass and percussion musicians released a noisy fanfare.

The 60-odd passengers from Australia, Brazil, Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States had boarded the train the previous evening at Safdarjung station on the outskirts of Delhi. Much of the pleasure of tourist trains derives from convivial company, and there was no shortage of it. A Virginian couple were travelling with their three delightful teenage children on a 10-month global odyssey, and one of two widowed sisters revealed she had travelled the whole of Route 66 on the back of a Harley. Predictably, most guests had chosen the train as a relaxed, luxurious way to see part of India in safety.

The 19-car train wants for nothing to make life on board comfortable. The sleeping cars have a maximum of four cabins per carriage, making them unusually spacious, helped by the wide Indian track gauge. You can even have a whole carriage to yourself, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one with a bath) and a lounge. All have been thoughtfully designed with good lighting, en suite shower and lavatory and enough wardrobe and drawer space for a week. There is a television and DVD player, and a good Wi-Fi signal was available for about three-quarters of the 2322km we travelled on the India Panorama, one of five routes it is possible to take in the Maharajas' Express and one that takes in the splendours of Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi and Delhi.

Meals are taken in the two 42-seat dining-cars with contrasting red/cream and green/blue/gold decor, while two lounge/bar cars form the social hubs of the train with plenty of reading matter and games. Anyone expecting to dine to the standard of the Orient Express will be disappointed, but the cooking of Western and Indian dishes is more than adequate.

The Indian Panorama route begins in Jaipur, where the first of many garlands were looped over our heads and red bindis placed on the forehead. A Mercedes coach and local guide took us through the only city in India laid out on a geometric grid pattern. Passing between the city's famously pink buildings, we headed out into pale hills enlivened by the occasional explosion of bougainvillea.

Before the remarkable Jai Singh II created Jaipur from 1727 onwards, his capital was Amber Palace, a fusion of Mughal and Rajput architecture with hardly a surface unadorned by carving, mirrors, precious stones or painted decoration. After the polo match we visited Jai Singh's 18th-century equivalent of Jodrell Bank, a collection of astronomical instruments, made from masonry, that forms the World Heritage Site of Jantar Mantar.

Next morning we left the train bleary-eyed at 6.30am to be cocooned in rugs against the early chill as our open-topped land cruisers whipped through the quiet streets and away from the city to Ranthambore National Park. It was once the hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and its lightly forested hills and lakes form an area of great natural beauty. There was talk of Machali, the tigress who is the pride of the park and became famous after her battle with a 4.3-metre crocodile was caught on film - the first time such an encounter has been recorded. There are 55 tigers in the park, which is an upper limit because tigers need such a huge territory. Though we left without a glimpse of one, the spotted deer, monkeys, peacocks and pigs were entertainment enough.

The balance over the week between eating on and off the train, daytime train travel and excursions is well judged, and the journey on to Fatehpur Sikri allowed time for watching scenes that so enthral foreign travellers on Indian Railways. From lush green fields women emerge with bundles of grass perched on their heads, making for a cluster of rudimentary dwellings. Close by are discs of dung, painstakingly arranged in herringbone fashion to form a beehive-shaped pile to dry in the sun. Herds of long-eared goats are looked after by children too young for school, and camels hauling carts wait at level crossings, their head and necks in a haughty posture as though expressing their disdain for such humble work.

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Can there be a more grandiloquent white elephant than Fatehpur Sikri? This vast architectural marvel was commissioned by Akbar, the third Mughal ruler, and work began in 1571. It was completed in the mid-1580s, but within 15 years the place had to be abandoned when the water supply gave out and the capital was moved to Agra. We wandered the ornate halls, courtyards and gardens and gave silent thanks to Lord Curzon who put restoration work in hand in 1905.

Another dawn start, but no one minded because the reason was to see in the soft early-morning light the world's greatest monument to love. I had only seen the Taj Mahal in the searing heat of summer, and the experience of a misty spring morning is utterly different and more magical. This sublime creation by the heartbroken Shah Jahan is incomparable, made the more poignant by his last years incarcerated by his ruthless third son, Aurangzeb. From his prison window Shah Jahan was at least able to see the huge white tomb built for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

We were able to continue our appreciation of the Taj Mahal from nearby gardens as Moet & Chandon was dispensed with breakfast in a marquee overlooking the trees and gardens surrounding the great dome; it was hard to imagine the two-mile ramp built to enable elephants to drag the Makrana marble to its upper levels.

A procession of Jains, the men naked and the women in white saris, wound its way through the streets of Gwalior as we approached this formidable fortress, rising from the top of sheer cliffs above the city. After roving the warren of passages and small courtyards in the 500-year-old sandstone palace, we descended to the vast Jai Vilas Palace, designed by Lt Col Sir Michael Filose. The Maharaja of Gwalior's 400-room palace was ready to receive Edward, Prince of Wales in 1875-76 during his 17-week tour of India.

Even he must have been astonished by the Durbar Hall, lit by two 31/2-ton chandeliers - then the heaviest in the world - whose weight on the roof structure had caused such anxiety that it was tested by 10 elephants using a specially built ramp. But Edward would not have seen one of the palace's most famous objects, the silver train carrying decanters and cigars around the long dining-table, which stops when a decanter or container is lifted; the train was supplied in 1906 by Armstrong Whitworth of Newcastle, with an override for the maharaja to omit a stop if he felt someone had had enough.

After sunset the huge square of gardens within the four white wings of the palace made an enchanting setting for dinner under the stars, with changing coloured lights illuminating the dozens of jets playing into the middle of the fountain at the centre of the garden.

Perhaps the least well-known site visited during the week was the medieval fort palace of Orchha. In the Raj Mahal are some vividly coloured 17th-century murals of religious subjects and court life, a welcome insight into the activities that once filled the palaces. Narrow-entranced camel stables stand beside another palace still decorated with cobalt and turquoise tiles. As an imaginative change from our Mercedes coach, we used three-wheeled tuk-tuks - thankfully running these days on compressed natural gas - to take us to rejoin the train at Orchha station.

An unseasonal thunderstorm created a dramatic sky for our visit to the temples at Khajuraho; as my room valet Bansi Lal put it as he armed me with an umbrella, "rain is going on out there". The temples are famous for their erotic sculptures, but the improbably nubile couplings on the Hindu and Jain temples built by the Chandela kings between 950 and 1150 make up less than a tenth of the fantastically intricate and well-preserved carvings, most depicting elephants, horses and battle scenes.

Varanasi was one of Hindus seven holy cities and the place where the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha, preached his first sermon circa 528 BC. It is therefore the religious capital of India, but its chaotic public realm makes it a disturbing place.None the less, the evening boat journey along the Ganges to the cliffs of stone buildings along the ghats to witness the evening puja ceremony is unforgettable; Brahmin priests chant and make offerings to deities watched by thousands gathered on the steps overlooking the theatrical display of fire waving and bell ringing.

Our final day was spent in Lucknow where a strong army and air force presence has helped preserve the cantonment area of large bungalows in generous and well-kept grounds. Admirably the most famous memorial to the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence has been well cared for post-independence; the Residency was besieged for 87 days, and fewer than a thousand of the original 2994 incarcerated troops, sepoys and civilians survived. Among the ruined, roofless buildings forming the Residency is St Mary's church and cemetery where one of the heroic defendants, Sir Henry Lawrence, lies with the simple epitaph: "Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty."

As famine-relief projects go, Lucknow's Great Imambara must take some beating: this immense late 18th-century building for mourning has one of the largest vaulted halls in the world, measuring 49.7 metres long and 14.9 metres high. Above the hall is an extraordinary maze of narrow passageways on two levels, accessed by 489 identical doorways, with a flat roof above giving panoramic views of the city.

Saris and kurta pyjamas were given to everyone on the train to wear at the final dinner, hosted by the Raja of Jahangirabad and his wife at their city palace in Lucknow. Watercolours of English landscapes jostled on the walls with Victorian prints of scenes from Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, Indian miniature paintings and photographs of a visit by Jackie Kennedy. Our entire party could be seated on settees and armchairs in one of the two side-by-side double-cube reception rooms for a performance of Indian classical dances before a buffet dinner. The raja sounded very like country-house owners in Britain as he talked of the need to make his palaces pay, and his country palace has become a largely educational institution.

As we returned to the capital, it was extraordinary to think that in the time of our circuit, 210 million journeys had been made on Indian Railways, the world's largest employer with over one million people on the payroll. My previous travels on Indian Railways had been in every class from first AC to second three-tier sleepers, and been relished at the time, but as I stepped on to the red carpet for the last time I felt I might find something missing next time I took a service train.

Take a photo tour of the Maharajas' Express in the gallery above.

ESSENTIALS

Getting around

The six-line Delhi Metro system is the cleanest part of the city and a model of efficiency. The airport is served by the Red Line, and there is a train every 20 minutes between 6am and 11pm to New Delhi station interchange. Guided day or longer itineraries can be arranged by Greaves Travel (greavesindia.co.uk), based on 30 years' experience on the subcontinent.

Rail itineraries

The Maharajas' Express (maharajas-express-india.com) operates five itineraries: three-night Treasures of India and Gems of India; and the seven-night Indian Panorama, Indian Splendour and Heritage of India.

Where to stay

Character and luxury are combined at the Imperial Hotel (theimperialindia.com) in New Delhi, opened in 1936, where the walls are hung with an outstanding collection of topographical paintings and prints. Doubles from pounds 179. Even more historic and retaining its colonial charm is Maidens Hotel (maidenshotel.com) of 1903 where Lutyens stayed while working on New Delhi. 

More information

incredibleindia.org
delhitourism.gov.in

See also: World's best and cheapest train trips
See also: World-record holding train trips

The Telegraph, London

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