Shatabdi Express left from New Delhi station, platform 1. It flinched and rattled, it seemed like it found difficult to move among the flood of people surrounding the 200metres long wagons. Thousands of people and luggage brought by stretcher bearers in red were crowding harsh carriages. Then, crowd disappeared while there were still some little groups of people hanging at doors. Thanks to windows, we still managed to see the capital’s bazaars.
At that time, we were part of 16 million of Indians, who everyday move along the railway built 160 years ago by English colonists to strengthen trade within a territory as big as Europe. The train manages to fill better the gap than the President and God Shiva among enormously different cultures of the biggest democracy in the world. Without the train, India would not exist. Our ambitious trip would have taken a lifetime, if we hadn’t taken our 40 days trip by train, in comfortable air-conditioned compartments . We first stopped after 4 hours and 30 minutes among rich rose palaces of Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan: legendary land of maharajahs, the starting point to explore the most picturesque of Indian states, up to mud villages of Indigenous tribes Minas and Jaipur Jaisalmer stronghold, beyond which elephants parades are replaced by caravans of camels directed to Thar desert.
A week later, we continued our trip to South, back in time. In the morning we got to Jalgaon station. It took one night to pass from sand dunes to tropical forests. Rajput medieval palaces were just a memory at that moment, we were entering Ajanta Buddhist stone caves, carved two centuries B.C. Another night trip East Bombay and we arrived in the majestic Hampi temple complex : heart of the ancient Hindu reign, during the 16th century submitted to Mogul Muslim empire, the rests of which we were going to admire in the Fatehpur Sikri stronghold, at the end of our trip. People changed together with landscape and architecture.
Passing from a train to another, we were going down to the deep cradle of Dravidian civilization, where indigenous ethnic group remained free from Arian Northern invasions. Travelers’ skin darkened, clothes changed. Men wore tunics instead of short trousers, women wore bright colored saris and preferred nose rings rather than multiple forearms bracelets. Quick impressions, random pictures to enigmatic rituals, fragments of speeches in different languages (there are 1600 languages, including dialects ) among hawkers around stationary wagons.
The invisible film flowing on the platforms was gradually showing us versatile range movie of India.
One constant only: the huge number of people inside and outside the train. Along its way, there were beggars slums, wandering school groups and flocks, spicy fast foods to feed travelers were improvised. In India, the train is an outstanding reference point. And people that do not catch it, wait for it anyway because it brings money and hope. It is a car of the future but it moves in an ancestral way. While we were circumnavigating Bangalore, Indian prodigious Hi-Tech capital, its lights in the darkness seemed like a far galaxy.
We celebrated the first two weeks of travel at a mime dance Kathakali spectacle in Fort Cochin, Portuguese ex colony. At the station, there was a surprise for us: people were waiting for the train on real benches, not on the ground. A demonstration of Kerala state lux, a little wellness paradise in the ocean of misery of the country. The following day we kept on moving to the delightful Allapuzha, with its canals and little islands defined by coconuts. And its inhabitants’ strange gastronomy: in the North the rat is untouchable and venerated as a God while in the South it is “adored” as a culinary deli only.
Three days later we were at the midpoint of our railway trip, in Kovalam next to southern point of India. 2700 km from Delhi, where we were going to get back by moving up the east coast for more than a week up to the cosmopolite Calcutta. We were going to stop in Madurai and Konark fantastic temples and move to west by crossing emerald green ranges in the Bihar rice fields. On the way back, we got to the most important destinations of Indian mysticism: Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. Spectacular Kama Sutra and Khajuraho temples. And the most important place for Hindu cult : Benares.
We got there at the dawn of the 34th day. The very first sensation when we arrived in the Ganges city was profane. In the semi-darkness we were about to fall on sleeping bodies on the quay. Hundreds of families, children and elderly people waiting for the next 3rd class train to flee from countryside poverty and arrive to the unknown poverty of the megalopolis.
A few hours later, crematory ceremony along the river did not move us the same way. Delhi is already 800km far away. But it is the vision of the body that becomes ash, the rise to Nirvana before reincarnation, that was the right ending and symbolized our “ passage in India”.
We woke up to life, by passing from paradise of the 1st class wagon to the daily tragedy of the station population , we discovered artistic beauties and magic rituals passed from a millenary religion, we came back to the dark in train. And then again, as the incessant Hindu cycle of life, death and resurrection.
Journey in brief Itinerary: Distance: about 13000 km (by bus as well) Duration: 40 days Legs: Delhi – Jaipur – Jaisalmer / Deshnok – Jodphur /Ranakpur / Pushkar – Jalgaon /Ajanta – Indore / Sanchi – Hospet / Hampi – Fort Cochin – Allapuzha – Trivandrum / Kovalam – Madurai – Pondicherry /Mamallapuram – Chennai – Visakhapatnam /Valle di Araku – Puri /Konark – Calcutta – New Jalpaiguri / Darjeling – Gaya / Bodhgaya – Varanasi – Satna / Khajuraho – Agra / Fatehpur Sikri Curiosities: April 16th 1853: first rail link (Bombay-Thana: 34Km) 2004: introduction of electronic ticketing 63,140 Km: railway network extension 14500 trains a day More than 1 million and a half Indian Railways employees, the highest number of the world after Chinese army 2.225 mt.: Ghum altitude, the highest railway station in the world to be reached by steam locomotive : Darjeing Humalayan Railway (Unesco world heritage 1.072 mt: the longest platform in the world, at the Kharagpur station 3745 ( 74 hours and 55 min): longest train route in India: it links Kanyakumari e Jammu Tawi through Himsagar Express 140Km/h: highest speed attained by Shatabdi Express, the speediest train in the Faridabad-Agra route