It wasn’t too long ago that the maharajahs of Rajasthan state, in Western India, could afford just about anything they wanted — from multiple wives, supplemented by comely concubines, to luxurious palaces spread across their kingdoms. Around the turn of the 19th century, the toy of the moment among the royal set was the railroad.
While these lines were not extensive, they permitted the rulers and their entourages to chug about in, of course, their own lavishly outfitted private cars, entertaining their guests royally.
Times have changed, but even today, late each Wednesday evening between September and April, a train called the Palace On Wheels pulls out of Delhi’s Safdarjang Station.
India’s potentates are no longer onboard — instead, the railcars are full of tourists. For the next eight days, a commissionable tour program called A Week in Wonderland, marketed by Palace Tours, Ltd. in Princeton, N.J., will crisscross Rajasthan state visiting some of India’s most spectacular historical and cultural cities.
Luxury in the ‘Land of the Kings’
Rajasthan — meaning “Land of the Kings” — is indeed a sprawling land of some 132,150 square miles. From the 8th century, its history has been marked by medieval splendor, the battle heroics of its Rajput warrior clans and their palace intrigue and romances.
Much like a cruise liner, the Palace On Wheels travels mainly at night, permitting passengers to be in a different city, or even several cities, each day. That leaves passengers ready each morning to prowl palaces and ancient forts, visit museums and, of course, shop.
Each passenger car is staffed with a captain and an attendant, clad in traditional Rajasthani uniforms — complete with long-tailed Rajasthan turbans called pachranda. Come morning, the pair brings wake-up tea or coffee to their passengers, then serves breakfast in a small sitting area at one end of the coach. Evening tea is similarly served there. The coach attendants also prepare food for their passengers from a small, but efficient, galley at one end of the coach.
Most days, during a break in the day’s sightseeing, a buffet lunch is provided at one of the local palaces that has been converted into a luxury hotel. Dinner most evenings is again served in the restaurant coaches. Because of kitchen space and staff limitations, there is no a la carte service. While the onboard menu offers a choice of either Indian or Western fare, from a Westerner’s standpoint, the choice is really either Indian food or “Indian-style” Western food.
Still, few can quarrel with the outstanding sightseeing attractions that await each morning at yet another stop. During the week, the train will travel 2,106 miles while under way for a total of 72 hours. The stops begin at Jaipur, the famed “Pink City,” with visits to the Palace of Winds and the Amber Palace — reached by riding an elephant uphill. Next, is Sawai Madhpur, where passengers leave by 7 a.m. onboard open-air vehicles for the Ranthambhor National Park. During three hours in the protected reserve, visitors may see wild animals such as antelope, deer, boar and, if lucky, a leopard or one of the 30 tigers in the park. Then, it’s on to Chittograph with its vast walled fort complex that rivals anything in Europe.
Day four takes the passengers to Udaipur where lunch is served at the local maharajah’s spectacular Lake Palace, followed by a tour of his City Palace. Then, the train proceeds for Jaisalmer, a city of twisting narrow lanes, elegant private residences known as “havelies” and the Jaisalmer Fort. From there, a camel ride is offered at a tiny outpost called Sam, on the edge of the vast Thar Desert sand dunes.
The next day’s destination is Jodhpur with its spectacular 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort, its collection of white-marble royal cenotaphs and lunch at the luxurious Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel. That afternoon, the train pulls out headed for a 450-mile, 15-hour run to Bharatpur. Early the next morning, passengers can mount bicycle rickshaws to tour the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. In the early morning quiet, clients travel alongside wetlands that are home to hundreds of species of migrating wild fowl.
Next, passengers board a motorcoach for a trip to the fort at Fatehpur Sikri, before a train ride takes them to the city of Agra and the Taj Mahal. With souvenir pictures and memories to cherish, Palace On Wheels passengers return to their train for their final dinner onboard. Early the next morning, they are back in Delhi, their excursion though centuries of India’s most glorious history at an end.
Palace On Wheels
In different configurations, a Palace On Wheels train actually has been around for some years. The earlier versions, however, used aging coaches actually left over from when the real maharajahs rode them. These were air-conditioned but lacked such features as private bathrooms. As a result, not many American tourists were interested in the product.
In 1993, however, the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation completed construction on an entirely new train. Custom-built in Madras, India, at a cost of some $7 million, the new 21-car train is fully air-conditioned. Each of the 14 passenger coaches (which are called saloons per British train terminology) has four compartments (called coupes). These coupes are configured with either a double bed or twin beds and each has its own bathroom and shower. Twin-bed compartments have a third pull-down bunk, as well.
With two guests in each cabin, the 52-room Palace On Wheels accommodates 104 passengers; in the unlikely event that all third bunks are used, the capacity goes to 130 passengers. The staff aboard the Palace on Wheels numbers 64 under the supervision of a train manager.
In all, the Palace On Wheels consists of a WDM 2,600-horsepower diesel locomotive; two generator cars with two sets of 750-volt generators permitting, among other things, 220-volt and 110-volt power to passenger compartments so that such personal appliances as hair dryers may be used; two combined staff and supply cars; two restaurant cars each seating 40 at a time; a lounge/bar car seating 80 guests; and the 14 passenger cars.
Depending on the season, the rates vary from $ 2,710 to $3,965 based on double occupancy. Single occupancy rates vary from $3,605 to $5,310.