Suddenly, noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers had assembled, and no sooner did we get off the bus than they started beating the drums. After a moment’s hesitation, I breathed in the luxury of the moment. Train journeys are inspiring as they whisk you past landscapes that exist in real and in your mind. I was on the Golden Chariot, a luxury train in South India that runs across the state of Karnataka and ends its journey in Goa. The name of the train conjures up romantic images of historical tales, bejeweled scimitars and ornate thrones. History and heritage are its mainstay, but there are moments in the ‘wild’ in the tiger territory of Nagarhole Park and a relaxed time on a Goan beach with glistening white sands.
Rock and roll
Every coach is named after a dynasty that ruled the State or a part of Karnataka, and detailed historical accounts of the dynasty hang in the respective lounge. The train is a regal purple and gold on the outside; guests stay in cabins with carved wooden paneling and a carpeted floor. Every coach has a valet, who is equipped to supply coffee addicts such as me with umpteen cups.
Travelers feast off fine china and heavy silver, watching landscapes and lifestyles change as the world slides past. Each day at breakfast, the train stops at a destination where guests disembark and get on an air-conditioned bus to see the sites. Sitting by a corner seat in the dining car and working your way through a pitcher of coffee, a bowl of cereal or a dosa and pongal , you can capture hundreds of everyday moments in Indian life.
Our first stop was Mysuru, a city of palaces and temples and ancient buildings with domes and turrets. The Mysore Palace is a grand spectacle with stained glass, large pillared halls and scalloped arches. From there, we headed to Kabini River Lodge to spend the night. A glimpse of wild elephants on our jungle safari in the evening and a boat excursion the next morning kept us in good spirits.
The next three days took us from the ancient stone temples of Belur and Halebid in Hassan to the sprawling 10-square-kilometre remains of the Vijayanagar empire in Hampi, a UNESCO world heritage site, and to the rock temples of Badami, another world heritage site. .
On returning from the excursions, the coach staff would greet guests with a fresh juice or cocktail and a cool cloth to wipe the dust off faces. The beds would be made, the room arranged, laundry cleared, and sweets, cakes or chocolates left on the bedside table.
Home on the rail
The Golden Chariot is the first luxury tourist train in Karnataka, and is run by the Karnataka State Tourism Board in partnership with Mapple Group of Hotels that manages the hospitality on and off board. The train has 11 guest coaches, two restaurants, one bar and one coach with a gym, spa and business center.
I stayed at the Chalukya coach, named after the dynasty that ruled over the Deccan between the 8th and 12th Centuries. The room had twin beds, a built-in writing desk, a teeny wardrobe, attached bathroom with modern amenities and a large glass window. The other coaches are equally lush and inspired by the State’s rich architectural heritage. The two restaurants Nalapaka and Ruchi reflect the intricacies of the Vijayanagara and Hoysala architectures. Madira, the bar, mirrors the Mysuru palace. The red-and-gold bar, the use of purple in the restaurants and the deliberate overuse of gold in the floral designs on the walls bring out the area’s tryst with royalty.
The executive chef on the train, Deepak Acharya, enquires after your taste preference and adjusts your meals accordingly. Mahendra Rathore, the F&B Manager, doubles up as your guide on the field. The food pays homage to the classics — mulligatawny soup, roasted bell pepper and tomato, carrot and coriander.
As the train moved, I could hear the creaks of the train wheels and the whistle of train engines. In the lounge, inspired by the art and architecture of an era gone by, our group of travellers sat, living moments in conversations and planning new routes to cover.
The route: Bengaluru-Mysuru(excursions to Srirangapatna and Kabini)-Hassan (Belur-Halebid and Shravanabelagola)-Hospet (Hampi)-Badami (Pattadakal and Badami rock temples)-Goa (Old Goa and beaches)-Bengaluru.