Clover Stroud offers the inside track on the country's finest rail journeys
Offering what is arguably the most thrilling of India's rail trips, the Maharajas' Express is a joint venture launched in 2010 by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and travel company Cox & Kings.
The fine attention to detail is reflected in the excellent food and charming service - passengers also have their own butler standing by in case they fancy a masala chai in the middle of the night. The Express has two restaurants, a lounge and bar and a presidential suite with a bath.
The Classical India trip is particularly tempting as it's a roll-call of India's greatest hits, starting at the Taj Mahal before heading to Gwalior.
This town, with its spectacular fort, palaces and sandstone citadel, is packed with gems. The tours available include seeing the glittering walls of Man Mandir Palace, Saas-Bahu temple sculptures and the Jai Vilas Palace, with crystal staircase and two of the largest chandeliers in the world.
Gwalior is followed by a brief stop at the lapis lazuli palace of Jahangiri Mahal at Orchha, before passengers head to the extraordinary and erotic temples of Khajuraho, dating from 950AD. Sitting incongruously among bougainvillea-lined dusty tracks, the temple carvings display the full spectrum of human emotions, not simply the erotic.
The journey then takes in Bandhavgarh, for potential tiger spotting, before heading to the sensual onslaught that is Varanasi, a place of ancient pilgrimage.
Nothing here disappoints, and returning to the train after an evening cruise surrounded by the chanting of Sanskrit mantras and the drifting scent of sandalwood is a wrench. But the following morning's journey through the green fields of Uttar Pradesh more than makes up for it, especially if you happen to be tucking in to the delicious green curry and sliced mango served on board.
The cultural odyssey continues to Lucknow and Nawabi and, finally, New Delhi, with little treats along the way such as a sound and light show at Khajuraho and an evening of feasting and dance at Nawabi.
The only downside is the price: an eight-night Classical India journey is from $7555 a person, twin share. Then again, a trip on the Maharajas' Express is the train ride of a lifetime.
So great is the draped and twinkling luxury on board the Indian Maharaja that it sometimes feels as if you've stepped into a Bollywood movie, with the all-singing, all-dancing accessories of luxury living. Tired of the crowds at the Taj Mahal? Head to the steam bath, gymnasium and ayurvedic massage area. In need of urgent Skype action? Slip into the business centre and library.
The journey begins in Mumbai, before heading north towards Rajasthan. One of the troglodyte highlights of the itinerary is the Ellora caves site, dating from 600AD, housing Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples carved into the rock, and then the Ajanta caves, with paintings dating from the second century.
The caves are followed by the lusher country of Udaipur and the white City Palace on the banks of Lake Pichola, once home to the Maharani of Udaipur. Although this trip is less rich in wildlife than others, it offers the chance of a tiger safari at Ranthambore National Park, although sightings are quite rare.
No one should miss the Taj Mahal, of course, but possibly the highlight of the journey is the Pink City of Jaipur, in Rajasthan, especially the Amber Fort, an ancient hilltop citadel, and the City Palace, home to the current Maharaja.
The tour also takes in Bharatpur, near Agra, visiting Fatehpur Sikri, the red-sandstone city that was built by Akbar the Great in the 16th century as India's political capital but deserted after 14 years.
Above Agra itself, many visitors often overlook the Red Fort. It was here the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife, was imprisoned by his son. From his prison he could see a slice of the Taj but he died in his cell without visiting it again.
The journey finishes in Delhi with a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi to take in Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
Critics of smart train travel complain it can be a sterile way of removing the visitor from the pleasurable sights and sounds of one of the most stimulating countries on the globe.
The Golden Chariot, however, confounds this notion and is perhaps the most charming of all the trains reviewed here. It's also the trip most closely connected to the landscape and wildlife of India, because after starting in Bangalore (Bengaluru) the train stops at Nagarhole National Park. You'll see leopards and tigers if you're lucky and lots of birds - there are more than 300 species; take an early morning boat safari.
The first main stop is Mysore, city of palaces and temples, where outlandish domes and turrets jut from sacred temples lining the streets. One of the best of these is Mysore Palace, which houses some of the most eye-popping art in India. Also worth visiting is Srirangapatna, the island fortress that was home to Tippu Sultan.
At Shravanabelagola you can visit Asia's largest monolithic statue, the Jain pilgrimage centre at Vindhyagiri, which, with 700 steps, is exciting but not for the faint-hearted. The deeply romantic ruins at Hampi, a World Heritage site and capital of the 14th-century Vijayanagara empire, are a huge part of the appeal of the route followed by the Golden Chariot. The ruins cover 25 square kilometres, a melancholic memory of a great but broken city along the banks of the Tungabhadra River. They're followed by more regal splendour at Badami and Pattadakal, a ruined ceremonial centre for the Chalukyan kings, with extraordinary carved temples on the Malaprabha River.
The final stop before flying out of Bangalore is Goa, its churches and beaches predictable but possibly a relief after rumbling for eight days across India.
Palace on Wheels
Studded with rich architectural monuments, including a high concentration of palaces, forts and carved temples, Rajasthan embodies the colourful romance of exotic India but its size is overwhelming, which is why a train trip is such an effective way to see it.
This tour is good value, although groups may be larger than on the other trains and sightseeing trips tend to be in coaches rather than minibuses.
Starting in New Delhi, the train heads straight to Jaipur, where a tour of the Amber Fort and Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, is accompanied by an elephant ride. Here you may spot an elusive tiger at Ranthambore National Park but more interesting is the visit to India's largest fort, Chittorgarh, before you head to the Lake City of Udaipur, with its creamy palaces on the edge of Lake Pichola, and Jag Mandir. A whistle-stop tour of the city is followed by a trip into the Thar Desert to the sandstone fort of Jaisalmer, a city studded with latticed havelis and grand mansions. There's also a chance to ride a camel into the desert before moving on to Jodhpur, with its imposing Mehrangarh Fort.
Before the final stop in Agra for the Taj Mahal, and then home from Delhi, there's a trip to Bharatpur to visit the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, home to thousands of Siberian cranes, egrets and other migratory water fowl.
Each train runs a variety of slightly different routes, so the following are examples of one route. Prices are based on two in a twin/double cabin.
An eight-night Delhi round trip Maharajas' Express Classical India journey is priced from $7555 a person until March 31. Phone 1300 836 764, see coxandkings.com.au.
A seven-night Mumbai to Delhi Indian Maharaja train tour costs from $3877 a person, twin share, until April 4. See themaharajatrain.com.
A seven-night Bangalore round trip on the board the Golden Chariot is priced from $2995 a person, twin share. See thegoldenchariot.co.in.
A seven-night Palace on Wheels Delhi round-trip Week in Wonderland itinerary is priced from $3425 a person, twin share. See palaceonwheels.net.
The carved temples at Khajuraho are spectacular and it's worth touring them with a guide who can explain their meaning.
Don't miss the exquisite Jain temples.
If you're looking for the spirit of old India, take a rickshaw tour through Varanasi, which rivals New York as the city that never sleeps. Varanasi heaves with chai stalls, religious ceremonies and throbbing street life.
In Mumbai, take a boat across the harbour to Elephanta, an island home to a fishing community and a Trimurti Shiva sculpture in a cave temple. Boats leave every 30 minutes from the Gateway of India (daily 9am-2.30pm; from about $2).
All trips offer shopping opportunities. Jaipur is good for blue pottery and textiles, Jaisalmer is famous for wooden boxes and pattu shawls and Mysore for sandalwood, silk and incense. In Goa, check out the Saturday Night Bazaar at Arpora to buy local goods and modern trinkets — there's live music until about midnight, when the market closes. There's an excellent market in Nawabi and, in Agra, don't miss the chance to buy pietra dura marble and Mughal jewellery.
Escape sprawling, modernised Delhi in the quiet, self-contained village of Nizamuddin, near Mathura Road. It has mosques and tombs, including the lovely Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah.
- The Telegraph, London