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India, said author Nirad Chaudhuri, can make even the lowliest commoner feel like royalty. You only have to stand in the street and do something a bit different and a crowd will gather, looking at you in awe. Before you know it, you have attracted a following.

Royal flash: Mihir (second left) prepares to step onto the Maharajas' Express.

But, even allowing for this very Indian trick, the way we were greeted as we arrived at the Kolkata station to board the Maharajas’ Express did make us feel special.

Nothing during the previous two nights in Kolkata – formerly known as Calcutta – had prepared us for Chitpur station, as far removed as possible from the mania of Howrah, the city’s historic rail station.

For a start, Chitpur is not a relic of the Raj and, by Indian standards, very new at just five years old. And instead of coolies, men in red who dog your every step at a station hoping to carry your luggage, we had to fend off the Indian paparazzi trying to capture everything we did.

Walking on a red carpet, in front of us stood beautiful ladies offering garlands and putting a red spot on our foreheads.

In the carriage the Indian rail minister greeted us. As the feisty Mamata Bannerjee, who hopes to unseat the communists who have ruled the province of Bengal for 30 years, bid us bon voyage, it was difficult not to believe that we were indeed descendants of a long line of Indian Maharajas. Any lingering doubts were banished by a tour of the train’s interior.

As its name implies, the Maharajas’ Express is meant to recreate the train the Indian rulers had at the height of their pomp and power. But the operators, not content with that, decided that they would have two of everything: two bars, two dining rooms and luxurious compartments where there were often two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The train has been designed to be the ideal sanctuary while exploring India. You escape from the heat, dust and the insistent cloying crowds and retire to the train and the other India of luxury and regal comfort.

We were travelling between the two capitals of British India (Kolkata, the first, and Delhi, the last), a journey that an ordinary train makes in 24 hours. Now we were to spend seven nights, not only taking a different route but seeing what was billed as ‘celestial India’ – an astonishing panorama of history, wildlife, sex and culture.

Beginning in India’s holy land of Nalanda, Sarnath and Bodhgaya, it promised boat rides on the Ganges, a drive through a tiger park, an examination of erotic sculptures and, before reaching Delhi, an evening at that ultimate monument of love, the Taj Mahal.Sure enough, this being India, there were contradictions.

An express train suggested speed when everyone in India knows they are the slow trains. If you want speed you catch mail trains. And, while our fellow passenger Sir Mark Tully explained that India was a country with no full stops, eight days on the Maharajas’ Express was full of the most curious stops.

Regal: The train offers guests the chance to cross India in true style. Image courtesy of Mail on Sunday

So during the day the train ground to a halt. We travelled only at night, on one occasion for two hours before dawn broke. This meant that the trip lacked an essential ingredient of all train travel, sitting by a window looking out at the sunlit world going by.

Our first stop was Nalanda, which dates back to the 3rd Century Indian empire ruled by Ashoka, the king who renounced violence and made India the first Buddhist country in the world.

We visited the remains of a university that flourished in the 5th Century and claims to be the oldest in the world. The glory of its academic reputation flourished until the 12th Century when ended by a Muslim invasion.

Nalanda might have remained a ruin but for the British who, from the early years of the 19th Century, began to rediscover India’s often buried past. The ruins give a feel of what this great university must have been like and our guide made a pointed reference to the restoration work of the British, an illustration of how India, 60 years after the British left, is coming to terms with the Raj’s complex legacy.

Nalanda provided the appropriate prelude to seeing Sarnath and Bodhgaya – India’s equivalents of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for Buddhists.

The ancient Bodhi tree, under which a little known Hindu prince called Siddhartha found inspiration after years of meditation and became Buddha, is still growing at Bodhgaya. The town round it today provides a wonderful insight into modern religious tourism.

Hindus also accept Buddha as the ninth incarnation of their god Vishnu but, a decade ago, Bodhgaya was an obscure backwater even for those on the hippy trail. Now it is full of foreign religious tourists – Japanese, Koreans and Sri Lankans. It is they, particularly the Japanese, who have made this a thriving tourist centre.

An overnight journey took us to Sarnath where Buddha preached his first sermon addressing five people who had originally mocked him but had now recognised his greatness.

The museum at Sarnath has two of India’s best preserved relics – the original Ashoka pillar with its four lions dating from the 3rd Century BC – now the symbol of India – and a statue of Buddha, now the oldest such statue following the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan.

If the land we were in is just as holy to Hindus, Jains and Buddhists as the Holy Land is to the Jews, Christians and Muslims, there is a striking contrast. The Abrahamic religions cannot seem to stop fighting while Hinduism and its two offshoots appear to co-exist happily here.

Sarnath is near Benares, which made for an easy transition from the heart of Buddhism to the Hindus’ holiest city.

Indian summer: Mihir caught sight of India's most magnificent river, the Ganges. Image courtesy of Mail on Sunday

Benares can attract or repel but, as old as Thebes, Babylon and Nineveh, it can never be boring – defined as it is by the Ganges, the river that is a deity for Hindus.

After the Buddhist monastic calm, Benares was Hindu chaos writ large, a combination of noise, clamour, kitsch and materialism clothed in religion.

The evening boat ride on the Ganges was a classic. Benares is a town of ghats, or steps that lead to the river, many of them cracked, some of them elaborate and built by the richest of Indians. Our boat took us to a ghat to see an aarti, a religious homage to the goddess Ganges performed by seven priests.

As they sang Bhajans ( religious songs) and circled images with lighted candles, at the next ghat half a dozen funeral pyres were burning with the dead we were given an offering of flowers and a candle to float on the river in the hope that, in making this gesture to the mighty Ganges, we would earn merit.

The next day we were meant to change gear. Having seen holy India, we were due for an early-morning tiger watch but this became an early-evening affair and the tigers, probably upset by our failure to keep the original appointment, did not show. However, as our convoy zigzagged through the reserve, we did see some spotted deer, langur monkey and wild boar.

If the tigers did not come out for us, then ancient India’s other great noticeboard, erotic sculptures, were ready for us. India today is prudish about sex. Bollywood movies do not allow kissing and, in the land of the Kama Sutra, copies of Playboy wrapped in brown paper are much sought after.

In the Bombay of my youth, a restaurant owner who had decorated his walls with some of the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho was forced to remove them after a judge ruled that they might outrage the modesty of Bombay’s residents.

But now the guide explained that these sandstone sculptures, more than 1,000 years old, were part of a Hindu temple and meant to explain life to us. One interpretation is that, before you seek divinity, you must leave such carnal desires behind. But looking at the high-breasted nymphs displaying their wonderfully contoured and be-jewelled bodies, and the positions taken up by love-making couples, made it hard for us to believe such scenes were preparatory to making us feel holy.

That evening we wrestled with this ancient Indian quandary.

Instead of the normal rush to the Taj Mahal on arrival in Agra, our visit to the city was choreographed through a series of medieval cameos that illustrated the roller-coaster history of the Mughals.

We went first to Agra Fort built by Akbar, the grandfather of the Taj’s architect Emperor Shah Jahan. There we dwelled on the room where Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb imprisoned him and the deposed Emperor’s only consolation was that he could gaze at his beloved Taj, albeit on the other side of the river.

And then just before we arrived at the Taj we went to the baby Taj, almost like a first draft. It marks an architectural transition from red sandstone and marble decorations of the Agra Fort to white marble, flower inlay designs and lattice work at the baby Taj.

The Taj should have been the final stop on our journey. Delhi is a short ride away but, with the Taj not open on a Friday, the day before we were due to arrive in the capital, we had to go on a Thursday.

Home from home: After a long day of sight-seeing, you can retreat to your cabin. Image courtesy of Mail on Sunday

So, for our last stop before Delhi, we retraced our steps to Gwalior. It did mean that we ended our journey on a train meant for royals with a visit to what was once one of India’s great princely states.

We were taken to the royal palace and given seats round the long Gwalior dining table. As we sat down, as if on cue the lights came on and a model train whizzed round the dining table as it used to in the heyday of the Gwalior rule, except for us there were no refreshments to be had from the train.

The next morning as we arrived in Delhi and were reintroduced to the bustle and chaos, it served as an useful reminder of the essential contrast of India.

This, for all its recent growth, remains a country of great poverty, where 600 million live on two dollars a day.

But it has also, always, been a land of unimaginable opulence.

Travel Facts

Greaves Travel (020 7487 9111, www.greavesindia.com) offers a seven-night Classical India itinerary from £4,950pp. Price includes flights with British Airways, six nights’ full-board accommodation on the Maharajas’ Express and one night’s B&B in Delhi, transfers and all excursions.

      

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