Full Steam Ahead!

Make tracks and the let the train take the strain. A tour of India’s Golden Triangle, with Shimla, the Raj’s Himalayan jewel, is the ultimate stress-free adventure.

Star of the TV series Indian Summers, Shimla, the capital of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, is a dazzling jewel set among the foothills of the Himalayas. Populated with colonial architecture and standing some two kilometres above sea level, this captivating town has stopped time in its tracks. The summer capital of India from the 1860s until Independence, government officials, military attaches, viceroys and pretty much everyone who was anyone in the days of the British Raj, took sanctuary here from the heat of Calcutta. From May until September, a vast delegation of colonial brits ruled a fifth of the world’s population from this remote hill station and to travel here is to step back in history

The Kalka–Shimla Railway – a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008 – was built in 1898, to connect Shimla with the rest of the Indian rail system to service the annual Crown rule migration. With 107 tunnels and over 800 bridges, travelling this fascinating railway is a wonderful adventure for first time rail tourists and veterans alike. As an introduction to this culturally opulent continent, it’s difficult to beat. As a prelude to touring India’s famous Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra – home of the Taj Mahal and Jaipur), it’s the holiday of a lifetime.

The Railway Touring Company has a long-established reputation for providing a variety of rail holidays from day trips by steam to long distance tours across the UK, Europe and Worldwide. It offers an unforgettable ride along the same narrow-gauge railways of the Kalka-Shimla line into Britain’s colonial past – an atmospheric mix of adventure and relaxation. After flying to Delhi, spend two magical days aboard a steam train, hauled by a heritage locomotive as it wends its way from Delhi to Rewari and on to Kalka, where an exclusive vintage railcar bound for historic Shimla will depart from the narrow-gauge line platform. The switchbacking ‘toy train’ zigzags the scenic 60 mile climb from Kalka to Shimla, along the foothills of the Himalayas. Through tunnels and over bridges and aqueducts, it negotiates an altitude difference of 1400 metres, until finally the old town shimmers into view, straddling an eight-mile long ridge, with colourful buildings clinging precariously to the green hillsides.

Sightseeing in Shimla includes a visit to the tiny but famous, Gaiety Heritage Theatre, whose impressive restoration gives visitors a taste of the atmosphere of the Raj. Opened in 1887, Queen Victoria’s jubilee year, its gothic style architecture and ornate interior adorned with papier maché panels and ruched crimson curtains is an evocative combination, radiating its own heady memories. Rudyard Kipling and Robert Baden-Powell (and a lifetime later, Michael Palin) trod its boards. Lord Kitchener and Field Marshal Roberts were regular visitors. The theatre is arguably the most atmospheric Raj relic in the region. It can’t get complacent about the title however because the Vice Regal Lodge, a vast baronial pile sprawling across the Observatory Hills, housing the table at which Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten carved up the subcontinent, makes a similarly strong case for itself.

The town’s architecture is fed in large part by the cedar forests blanketing the plush hills and ranges from Scottish baronial quintessential English country cottages, to mock Tudor (including notably Barnes Hall, the official residence of the Governor of Himachal Pradesh), shuffling up alongside ancient temples and churches, set against a backdrop of the world’s most famous mountain range. The rest of the world feels a million miles – and as many years – away, but the Golden Triangle calls and the compensation for leaving Shimla’s time-capsule-perfect world is the return vintage steam train ride back to Delhi via Kalka.

Under the influence of the many rulers who ruled this region, Delhi has been built, destroyed and re-built over seven times. The monuments tell the story of these different eras and a cycle rickshaw between them is the best way to get around.  Explore the narrow lanes of Old Delhi, taking in the magnificent havelis, tiny shops and wholesale trading of almost everything you can think of. Raj Ghat – a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi – marks the spot of his cremation on 31st January 1948, the day after he was assassinated. A black marble platform, an eternal flame burns at one end. On to The Red Fort in the centre of Delhi, the residence of the Mughal emperor of India for nearly 200 years, until 1857 and then the magnificent Jama Masjid, built between 1644 and 1656 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Constructed by more than 5000 workers, it was originally called Masjid-i-Jahan-Numa, meaning ‘Mosque with commanding view of the world’ and its courtyard has a capacity for 25,000 people to pray at the same time.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was Delhi visited in a 24 hours and after some R and R overnight and a good breakfast, you’ll be raring to get back behind the (rickshaw) saddle and head back into the centre of the city to see the 42-m high India Gate, built by the British government to commemorate the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during World War I. At 42 metres tall it’s an impressive monument and viewed from Rajpath, a long mall flanked by parkland, it draws the obvious comparison to the Arc de Triomphe. If you get a chance to go back at night its well worth seeing the Gate lit up with the colours of the Indian flag.

Delhi envelops the traveller in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour and bustle and the odd oasis of reflection and calm is a welcome change: the Laxmi Narayan Temple, built by the industrialist G.D. Birla in 1938, is dedicated to Laxmi (the goddess of prosperity) and Narayana (the preserver). The temple was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi and people of all religion and faiths can worship there. It’s very colourful and always crowded, yet retains a peaceful air of calm and contemplation.

The second point of the golden Triangle is Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. A bullet train whizzes you from Delhi to Agra, where a guided visit of the Baby Taj, regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal precedes a visit to a local marble factory to witness the inlay work of precious stones, known as pietra dura – the stone work method illustrated on the Taj Mahal & Baby Taj. No one wants to wish a day away, especially while on holiday and Agra is truly beautiful, but you do feel a little like a child on Christmas Eve when the morning promises a dawn visit to the most famous of the seven wonders of the world.

It’s undeniably an early start, but with a little luck and a clear day, this is a view that will burn in your memory forever. Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, like all the best bits of history, the Taj Mahal is a love story. A court poet wrote of his despair at her death, “The colour of youth flew away from his cheeks: the flower of his countenance ceased blooming.” To honour her, Shah Jahan vowed to build a tomb so magnificent it would be remembered throughout the ages. The porous white marble helps it absorb light deeply before reflecting it back and it changes colour depending on the hour, day and season, which in turn is mirrored in the water of the Yamuna river it stands beside. The statistics are as eye-watering as the view: visited by eight million tourists a year, the perfectly symmetrical monument standing tall since 1653 AD, took 22 years & 20,000 labourers to complete.

The final point in the golden Triangle is Jaipur, the capital and largest city of the Indian state of Rajasthan. In 1876 Jaipur was coloured in terracotta pink to welcome Prince Albert, and earned itself the nickname ‘Pink City’. Ascending Amer Fort on the back of a decorated elephant, by now the UK feels not so much far away, as never having existed at all. After less than two weeks in India, the fact of reality back home feels like the thinnest of fictions. Palaces and temples – Sheesh Mahal; Jai Mandir, Birla Temple, Moti Dungri, Hawa Mahal Palace tumble over each other to fill your senses; in the Sukh Niwas, a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace. It would be a soulless traveller indeed who did not return from this railroad tour with a renewed sense of perspective and a lighter spirit.

The Railway Touring Company offers the Golden Triangle with Shimla rail tour, multiple dates, from £2100.

 

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.