Close to 23 million travellers use the Indian Railways every day. The numerous routes that knit through the country are a marvel of engineering, traversing many terrains, tunnels, and bridges. They take passengers on countless journeys through the vast subcontinent, across many stunning landscapes. Here is a selection of some of the most scenic rides in the country.
Snaking along the coast of Tamil Nadu, the Boat Mail Express connects Chennai in the north to the temple town of Rameswaram on Pamban Island, in the southeastern part of the state. It passes through the port town of Cuddalore, offering lovely coastal vistas. But the high point of the journey is when the train gets on to Pamban Bridge, connecting the town of Mandapam on the mainland to Pamban Island. Waves lash about in the Palk Strait underneath as the train crosses the bridge at an easy pace, filling the last minutes of the journey with scenic bliss.
The Mandovi Express travels through an endless montage of enchanting vistas, including at some points, the Arabian Sea. Impossibly green swathes of the Western Ghats, cliffs, and endless fields punctuate the journey between Mumbai and Goa. One of the highlights is travelling on the 213-foot-high Panval Nadi viaduct, believed to be the highest in India. But the main perk of the journey is that the sights change rapidly, from the 90-plus tunnels to a valley, followed by a stop at a low-key station.
The most charming section of this route that connects New Delhi to Goa is the coastal section between Goa and the town of Londa in Karnataka. It is here that the Goa Express winds through forests and hills, passing peaks and valleys of the Western Ghats. But the undisputed highlight of this joyride is when passengers get to see the long silvery cascade of Dudhsagar Falls. This is best viewed on the outbound journey from Goa to Delhi when the waterfall is visible in the clear light of day.
Seated at the window of the Island Express, passengers can watch the swaying palm trees of Kerala, and view the backwaters between Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam. The Island Express runs between Kanyakumari and Bengaluru, but it is especially scenic on the stretch between Kanyakumari and Thiruvananthapuram. It offers travellers an opportunity to see the southwestern coast of India and glimpse life as it unfolds along the way.
The beauty of India’s northernmost state with its green vales and charming towns unspools like a film when one looks out the windows of the Jammu Mail. The train starts in Delhi and makes it way north. Entering Jammu & Kashmir, it winds past photogenic stations with sloping roofs and green fields dotted with coniferous trees. Snowy Himalayan peaks form a continuous backdrop along the way. While the view is reason enough for many to hop on to this train, the recently extended route from Udhampur to Katra also brings in a different crowd, that of pilgrims making their way to Vaishno Devi.
Without a doubt, the best time for a journey aboard this train that runs within Jammu and Kashmir is when thick layers of snow cover every inch of the Kashmir Valley. Groves of chinar are slathered in white and cottages are adorned with gleaming icicles. Vast meadows spread out like fluffy white canvases, and children bundled up in winter wear frolic in the snow as the train chugs its way through this winter wonderland. En route to Baramulla, the Baramulla-Banihal DEMU train runs through an 11.2-kilometre-long tunnel cut into the Pir Panjal range. The longest and highest tunnel in the country, it is a feat of railway engineering that’s enabled access to northern parts of J&K. To extend this route, a massive rail bridge is being built over the River Chenab. Once complete, it will be among the tallest bridges in the world.
Only one train, the Visakhapatnam-Kirandul Passenger, travels through Andhra Pradesh’s picturesque Araku Valley, past the lush green Anantagiri hills and sprawling coffee plantations. It passes through 58 tunnels and traverses more than 84 bridges during the Kothavalasa-Kirandul stretch, which is the most beautiful part of the journey. Along the way it stops at Shimliguda station, located at a height of 3,264 feet; this was once the highest broad gauge railway station in the country. The popular hill station of Araku Valley is located in the thickly forested Eastern Ghats with its deep gorges and cascading waterfalls.
Starting from Silchar, close to the Assam-Bangladesh border, the railway line passes through British era tea gardens in the Barak Valley. It then curves along the emerald hills of the Haflong Valley to reach Lumding in the central part of the state. This track through the verdant valleys of Assam is one of the most scenic rail routes in the country. Long-distance trains like the Kanchanjunga Express ply this stretch.
Scenes from the jungle and India’s many heritage sites adorn the exterior of the semi-luxury Tiger Express that journeys to Rajasthan from Delhi. Passengers travel to Udaipur, Chittorgarh, and Ranthambore National Park to soak in the tranquility and myriad sights of the forest, and perhaps catch sight of the magnificent striped cat. The entire train is a tribute to the national animal, so a journey aboard ensures the image of the regal beast stays with travellers long after the safari has ended. (5 days/4 nights from ₹30,000 per person on twin-sharing basis.)
The largest brackish water lagoon in Asia is a serene sight to behold from the trains that run along the east coast of the country through Odisha. Trains like the Falaknuma Express and Howrah-Chennai Mail skirt the edges of this wetland, offering a peek of its flora and fauna. In winter, this route can be quite a treat as passengers might spot flocks of migratory birds.
Golden sands, brooding camels, and smiling men and women in colourful clothes and ornate silver jewellery—all the imagery typical of Rajasthan—make an appearance on this Desert Circuit route. Starting in Delhi, this semi-luxury train makes its first stop at Jaisalmer. Passengers explore the city during the day, while the evening is spent on the Sam Dunes with a camel/jeep safari, dinner, and folk music. As the train winds its way across the state’s varied sights, its history and legends come alive. These include Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, and Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, and City Palace in Jaipur. The sojourn ends with a traditional Rajasthani meal. (5 days/4 nights from ₹33,500 per person on twin-sharing basis.)
A traditional welcome with garlands and vermillion awaits passengers who board the Palace on Wheels. This luxury train starts in Delhi and loops through many famous tourist attractions in Rajasthan, before returning to Delhi via Agra. Its elegant saloons, restaurants serving Rajasthani and continental cuisine, and furniture with inlay work take passengers back to a time when maharajas ruled the land. Palace on Wheels showcases the best heritage and wildlife along India’s Golden Triangle, including the grandeur of Hawa Mahal and Amber Fort in Jaipur, the wilderness of Ranthambore National Park, the timeless sands of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, and Agra’s centrepiece the Taj Mahal. (rtdc.tourism.rajasthan.gov.in; 8 days/7 nights for ₹2,34,170 per person on twin sharing basis.)
Those looking to experience the best of central and northwestern India in the lap of luxury should board the opulent Maharajas’ Express. The train runs on five separate routes across the states of Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat. Depending on the journey chosen, passengers may visit a dinosaur excavation site in Gujarat, feast on local delicacies, and explore the temples of Khajuraho. In addition they get to relax in luxurious suites with large windows and have their meals in elegant dining cars. (www.the-maharajas.com; 4 days/3 nights for ₹2,57,430 per person on twin-sharing basis.)
Be it the erstwhile hunting grounds of Mysore’s maharajas in Kabini, Tipu Sultan’s Daria Daulat Bagh palace in Srirangapatna, or the temples of Mamallapuram, The Golden Chariot flaunts the best of South India’s wonders. The train runs on two routes, both of which begin and end in Bengaluru. On board, guests live in cabins with modern decor tinged with traditional elements. The cuisine changes with the region the train is passing through, and local artists often perform in the train (www.goldenchariot.org; ₹1,54,000 per person on twin-sharing basis.)
Dubbed the “blue limousine,” the interiors of this train bring to mind the era of Deccan rulers, thanks to its jewel colours, extensive woodwork, and attendants dressed in traditional Maharashtrian attire. Its two restaurants, Peshwa I and Peshwa II serve Indian and continental cuisine. Rooms on the train have modern amenities and decor with a traditional touch. The Deccan Odyssey runs on six routes across the Deccan, and also covers Delhi, Mumbai, Aurangabad, and parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan (www.thedeccanodyssey.com; doubles from ₹5,36,710 for 8 days/7 nights).
The mountain railways of India are narrow gauge trains curving across wooded hills and challenging mountainous terrain. Three of these trains are part of UNESCO’s Mountain Railways of India heritage list, while the fourth has been submitted for review. Affectionately called toy trains, they traverse some of the most beautiful routes in the country and are marvels of British rail engineering built between the 1890s and early 1900s.
This darling of Indian mountain railways was built in 1881. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was also the first of its kind to get UNESCO heritage status. The 88-kilometre-rail line is all about the journey rather than any of the stations en route. It chugs upwards from New Jalpaiguri through tea gardens, flower-filled meadows, and vertiginous curves to about 7,200 feet at Darjeeling. The highlights of this heritage track include the famous Batasia Loop, a spiral line near Darjeeling which offers gorgeous 360-degree views of the Eastern Himalayas, and the lovely mist-draped station of Ghum, among the highest railways stations in the world. Originally built to take British officers from Kolkata’s humidity to Darjeeling’s cooler climes, the steam-powered train still remains one of the most charming ways to journey into the hills.
Built in the 1890s, the Kalka Shimla Railway has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the gateway to Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj, and still among India’s most popular hill stations. Five trains run along the 96-kilometre track which is a massive engineering feat featuring 102 tunnels and a staggering 864 bridges with glorious viaducts. Offering a spectacular ride through small hill towns and forests of fir and pine, this route is popular with holidaymakers and honeymooners. Indian Railways has also introduced two special charter coaches—the Shivalik Queen (From ₹3,495 for eight persons including meals) and the Shivalik Palace Tourist Coach, which offer privacy, giant picture windows, and plush onboard comforts (fare ₹4,970 per coach seating six persons including meals).
The third of the UNESCO heritage railways opened in 1899 and was extended up to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) in 1908. Nilgiri Mountain Railway offers a memorable journey through the lush Nilgiri Hills. Starting in Coimbatore, the train puffs its way through the hill towns of Coonoor, Wellington, and Lovedale before culminating in Ooty, having travelled 46 kilometres through tea plantations and mist-filled valleys. The train was a boon for travellers to these hills at a time when the only way up was on horseback. Its construction led to the further development of hill stations in the region. Today, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway together with the misty Western Ghats form a popular backdrop for Indian films. Several abandoned stations, old churches, and cottages along the way add to the route’s nostalgic charm.
The Kangra Valley Railway’s narrow gauge track is the only one on this mountain railway list yet to receive UNESCO heritage status. Running from Pathankot in Punjab to Joginder Nagar in Himachal Pradesh, the route dating back to the 1920s is both scenic and cleverly engineered. The well-designed track offers unsurpassed views as it makes its way up hilly terrain rather than tunnelling through the mountains. Although not a mountain railway in the strictest sense—the train meanders through forests, fields, and valleys before making its way up into the hills over a distance of 164 kilometres. Kangra Valley Railway is nearly always backed by the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range. Aboard this train, passengers can see the various facets of the Kangra Valley, from its urban centres to its rural heart.
If enlightenment could be found on wheels, it would be aboard the Mahaparinirvan Express or the Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train. On this circuit, passengers travel to four key Buddhist sites in India and Nepal. Starting in Delhi, they first pay homage at the Mahabodhi Temple complex at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Buddha attained enlightenment. The train then moves on to witness the serenity of Sarnath’s Dhamek Stupa, and the fifth-century reclining Buddha at Mahaparinirvana Temple in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh. A bus ride to Lumbini in Nepal follows, taking passengers to the spot where Siddhartha Gautama was born. (8 days/7 nights from ₹62,880 per person on twin-sharing basis, including stay.)
Jaw-dropping sculptures and murals, serene deities, and mandapams: the pious and spiritually curious have much to see on the Dakshin Darshan train tour. There are numerous Dakshin Darshan tours, starting from Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, and Agra among others. Itineraries include a visit to Trivandrum’s eighth-century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which is revered for its statue of Lord Vishnu reclining on a serpent. At Rameshwaram Temple, columns carved with ferocious mythical creatures greet visitors. And in Madurai, the highlight is the towering gopuram of Meenakshi Temple covered in sculptures painted in bright pinks, blues, and reds. (8 days/7 nights on the Mumbai Dakshin Darshan from ₹6,690; 13 days/12 nights on the Delhi Dakshin Darshan from ₹10,920; prices per person on twin-sharing basis.)
Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “The Great Indian Journey”.
Bookings for standard trains and special tourist circuits can be made on www.irctc.co.in. Luxury trains can be booked via their individual websites. Prices mentioned may be subject to change.
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