x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

From India's silicon city to hallowed cave by rail

Travelling through the state of Karnataka on a luxurious train, Tim Lott's journey really begins when he unfastens the doors to watch the landscape roll by with the air, light and heat pouring in.

The Golden Chariot train, above, takes travellers in relative luxury to parts of Old India that were not long ago only the domain of locals and backpackers.
The Golden Chariot train, above, takes travellers in relative luxury to parts of Old India that were not long ago only the domain of locals and backpackers.

Travelling through the state of Karnataka on a luxurious train, Tim Lott's journey really begins when he unfastens the doors to watch the landscape roll by with the air, light and heat pouring in. For a visitor, there have generally been two ways of experiencing India - as a traveller, independent and unencumbered, but embattled each day by a thali of discomfort and inconvenience, or as a tourist, comfortable but stranded in great packs of Day-Glo cagoules, shuffling dutifully around commercialised tourist sites. The Golden Chariot, a luxury train which takes you across south India from Bangalore to Goa, promises a third way. It visits remoter parts of the ancient sites of Karnataka - hitherto the preserve of backpackers - with a minimum of discomfort, but with the prospect of access to the remote enclaves of the Old India.

It sounded right up my middle-aged-tourist-who-fancies-himself-as-a-traveller street. And the train itself was impressive, by Indian "luxury" standards (which can tend towards the garish). There were wood-panelled cabins with flat-screen TVs, hot showers and tiled bathrooms. It was quiet - no muzak - with a dining car that managed to be decadent without being too ostentatious - all white linen tablecloths and polished crystal. The liveried staff were solicitous and polite and you were comfortingly woken every morning with a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit and welcomed back to the train following excursions with icy flannels and soda drinks.

But the early signs were discouraging. Arriving at Bangalore, I found myself surrounded by the standard coach party brigade of badly dressed bourgeois Europeans accessorised by a troop of small, camera wielding Japanese people. The snob in me started to worry that I had let myself in for a spiced up equivalent of a coach trip to Morecambe Sands. We started in Bangalore, known as the Indian "Silicon City" and part of the lumbering westernised behemoth that is the New India. The great carnival of ancient life is gradually eroding here. Instead of spiritual practices, raw materialistic desires are spelt out in advertisements for concrete and steel, for jewels and computers, in prayers delivered from the pulpits of billboards.

Coach party style, we were ferried around attractions like the Tipu Sultan's Palace, the Bangalore Bull Temple and the Lal Bagh Botanical gardens. It was quotidian tourist fare - tramping in groups from one less-than-marvellous "architectural marvel" to another. The second day things perked up a little, as we headed out to Kabini, where we were to spend a day at a wildlife park to go spotting - potentially - tigers, leopards and elephants. For me, safaris tend to involve a great deal of discomfort in exchange for what usually amounts to a brief glimpse of some creature that could be better viewed at a zoo. And nothing that exciting was to be seen anyway, as the large predatory cats were keeping their endangered heads down.

Given the number of picnicking families by the lake, I doubted that there was anything remotely dangerous there in the first place. We saw monkeys, deer, elephants and something called a Malabar giant squirrel which is basically a very big squirrel from Malabar. It was no more than OK. On day three we were still within the umbra of standard tourist India. At the central market at Malabar, like all exotic markets, you never buy anything but admire the colour and artistic arrangement of the vegetables and osmotically absorb what is called atmosphere. In the evening we drove to a sort of choreographed coloured fountain show at Brindavan Gardens under the shadow of the vast Krishnarajasagara dam. It was basically what it said on the tin - a large garden with a lot of coloured fountains.

The fourth day marked a watershed. For the first time, I actually found myself waking up on a moving train, which in itself was a joy - the sense of journey is so accentuated by the rattle and clack of the wheels on the sleepers. And by this point, a few of us had started travelling in a small minibus instead of the tourist coach that met the party of 30 at every station. This is the crucial step to take if you are to get the most out of this journey - for the real mystery of India can best be enjoyed in relative solitude.

By now, at Hassan, we were way off the beaten track. A climb of 640 steps took us to a vast statue of Lord Gomateshwara. Don't make the mistake of trying to understand Indian religious iconography. All you need to know is that there are about two million gods who spend most of their time morphing into one another. Those who couldn't be bothered to walk took a palanquin (like a sedan chair). I wouldn't recommend it - apart from being humiliating, the speed at which the porters rush and stumble make it karmically inevitable that someone will eventually propel a startled occupant out of their chair like a catapult and send them 15m into the air.

The statue, at a modest 18m, supposedly being "the largest monolithic structure in Asia", was adequately statuesque, even impressive, but I didn't locate my sense of awe until later in the day when we visited the temples at Belur and Halebid. Here are ancient star shaped temples with the walls completely subsumed in sculptures like a community's thoughts and fantasies congealed into rock. The guide uses a reflected light from a small mirror as a pointer to all the remarkable detail. There are erotic sculptures, scenes from the Mahabharata, gods, monsters and epic depictions. It is a transcendent vision, not unlike the more famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

It is also a living temple. While I was there, a procession of 30 or more women all in vibrant colours entered, jangling and ringing with bells and charms, in orange, yellow green and purple, with orange flowers braided into their long hair. Great silver doors open to reveal the priests within, who offer puja (a blessing to humble the ego). Water is sprinkled on heads, or drunk, and supplicants turn themselves round in circles.

The next day, a visit to the ruined city of Hampi was almost hallucinogenic. Hampi is the Indian equivalent of Ancient Rome. Spread across 26 square kilometres, it is a landscape of vast red stone boulders punctuated with ornate and stunning 14th-century temples, water tanks and gardens of deep emerald. As I walk through this bizarre and empty dreamscape - truly now out of the grasp of tourist clutter - sounds of bells and drums float across the air in the distance. Monkeys parade past a trio of holy men, dressed in vivid orange, blue and pink. Down the hill, the temple in the centre of Hampi is, like Belur, covered in carvings.

In the temple square a wedding is taking place. The bride looks despairing while female relatives cluck and fuss. A lone trumpet player serenades them with broken notes. They are washed with buckets of cold water and anointed and blessed. Their clothes are drenched, the bride's purple and pink robes reduced to uniform crimson. At the climax then they spit water over one another, perhaps not the most romantic of ceremonies, but it is at this point they finally smile and relax. This is the kind of spontaneous street theatre that makes India irresistible.

The next - penultimate - day, we visited Pattadakal, another remarkable temple complex, entirely comprised of Shiva lingam shrines. A Shiva lingam is basically a stone representation of the male organs of regeneration - to put it delicately. It is never less than clear that in India sex is seen as a fundamental human reality and spiritual in nature rather than the falling from grace western religions insist upon. The dignity of the whole complex was only partially undermined by an explanatory note on the architecture pointing out that one of the temples was supported by "queer dwarves". This, incidentally, is one of the great joys of India - the use of Indian English offers endless bizarre and archaic turns of phrase. Newspapers' crime reports, for instance, are populated not by criminals, but "miscreants" and "brigands" and "wrongdoers".

Our final visit was to the great caves of Badami, four sacramental caves carved out of sandstone cliffs. Here the main entertainment were the oikish monkeys, one of whom mugged a schoolgirl, whipped her bag and then proceeded to delicately remove each and every item and throw it down a cliff face. We spent the last afternoon travelling towards Goa, and discovered that the staff didn't mind if we unfastened the train doors and sat by the open doorways watching the landscape roll by and the air, light and heat pour in. Oddly enough for me this was one of the high points. The sheer vivid thereness of India - lives of no possibility, yet somehow vibrant and enticing as any natural spectacle - flooded into the train in a way that a sheet of glass always prevents.

I returned to the status of fully fledged tourist on the last day, stretching out on a sunbed in Goa. I had been well fed and looked after, protected from uncertainty and hazard and yet the putative traveller in me had been satisfied. Culture had been there, and mystery, and peculiarity, and variety. As we left the train the entire staff lined up to wave goodbye. In reality, after a seven day shift, they were doubtless glad to see us go. But I can say without doubt, and gladly, that the feeling was utterly unreciprocated. travel@thenational.ae