Tahir Shah boards India's newest and most opulent luxury train to take in a royal selection of sights between Mumbai and Delhi.
On the Maharajas' Express, your carriage awaits
A wild rumpus of Indo-Gothic architecture, Mumbai's Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) stands as a monument to the excesses of the British Raj. Palatial beyond belief, the railway station is awash with the turrets and spires, great sprawling domes, leering gargoyles and, of course, towering statues of Imperial Britannia.
By 6pm the evening rush hour is well under way. Oceans of commuters surge through the body of the station at breakneck speed. A blur of humanity, they pack into the carriages, or simply cling to the sides, as the awaiting trains heave away towards the suburbs.
India's rail network is vast and efficient, but low on frills. It's all about getting a whole lot of people across town - or across the country - with the least amount of fuss. The network has more than 100,000 kilometres of track - enough to encircle the Earth two-and-a-half times. One of the busiest stations on the planet, CST serves more than three million passengers each day - day in, day out. In their rush to get home, most don't notice the commotion at the far end of the terminus.
On the last platform, well away from the crowds, there's the distinct whiff of luxury, on a scale that would have impressed even the most discerning administrators of colonial rule. An army of liveried staff are rolling out a long red carpet - up the steps from the VIP parking and along the platform. As soon as it's laid, a bearer sprinkles it with pink rose petals, while another steps forward with a silver tray laden with flutes of chilled champagne.
A moment later, a brass band has slipped into position. And, as they strike up a welcoming march, the sleek crimson carriages of the Maharajas' Express glide into place.
Arriving at the station through a private entrance, a special bus eases to a halt at the end of the red carpet and, in their own time, the passengers descend.
Most are from England and Russia, the United States and Australia, all of them lured by the prospect of the world's most indulgent railway ride.
Although established only a year ago, the Maharajas' Express has already attained almost mythical status. It is run by Cox & Kings, founded in 1758, making it the oldest travel firm in existence,.
Their necks festooned in fragrant garlands, the passengers have symbolic red tikka dabbed onto their foreheads, and their fingers sprinkled in rose water. Then, one by one, they are led aboard.
From the first moment you step up onto the Maharajas' Express, there's a Willy Wonka sense of expectation. Like holders of golden tickets, the passengers slip through the keyhole into a magical world conjured from fantasy. It's a realm where extraordinary indulgence is the norm, in which one's whims are happily fulfilled.
The Maharajas' Express is a travelling palace unlike any other. There are 16 guest carriages, two restaurants, a pair of bars and dozens and dozens of staff. Every inch of the decor has been considered, creating an ambience of real luxury, rather than one inspired by jarring bling-bling.
Once aboard, I was led through the snaking length of carriages to my cabin, located halfway down the train. Adorned with sumptuous fabrics and with mahogany furniture, it was panelled in teak, soaked in old-world charm.
Best of all - even better than the fact there was Wi-Fi everywhere - was the en-suite bathroom. Ornamented with marble and with silver fittings, it boasted a flush toilet and a power shower. More decadent still, the larger cabins have roll-top baths and spacious sitting rooms.
Appearing like a kind genie, my personal valet, Dasrath, introduced himself and implored me to make any request of him, however trivial it might seem. Turbanned, ever-smiling and exquisitely polite, he melted into the shadows but reappeared whenever I thought of him. This sixth sense was something he shared with the other staff, each of them trained in the art of telepathic anticipation.
A few minutes after boarding, the Maharajas' Express floated out of CST station on a schedule all of its own. As it did so, I grasped the meaning of real luxury - a world in which the train waits until the passengers are ready to leave.
Pushing out through forests of low-cost housing and Mumbai's endless slums, I lay on my bed, thanking God that I was on the right side of the window that divided such extremes.
My fellow passengers were an eclectic mix from all walks of life, most of them touching retirement age. There was a Californian couple who owned high-end comedy stores across the US, an English insurance salesman and his wife, an Australian businesswoman and her best friend, a mysterious Russian tycoon, whose family was holed up in the Presidential Suite, and a well-known British pop star lying low from the limelight.
Gradually, we pushed out into farmland, lizard green and luxuriant, bathed in the long shadows of dusk. Like everyone else aboard, I knew we were heading northward to New Delhi, the Indian capital, but there was a sense of mystery. I had no idea what marvels were to unfold in the eight days to follow.
On the first evening I took dinner in the Rang Mahal restaurant. Beneath a hand-painted ceiling - a gold floral motif on vermillion - the dining car was beyond opulent. The plates were fine Limoges, edged with gold, the glasses hand-cut crystal, and the cutlery monogrammed with the letter M.
I dined on foie gras served with slivers of toast, followed by supreme of chicken with mouth-watering asparagus, and camembert soufflé. While I feasted, the chef approached my table. Courteously, he enquired if the meal was to my satisfaction, hinting that if it were not, he alone would be responsible. When I motioned to my empty plate and gave a thumbs up, he beamed like a Cheshire Cat.
With an entire carriage devoted to the kitchens - packed with chefs, equipment and the freshest supplies, the two restaurants serve a daunting range of cuisine from both east and west.
Cushioned in luxury, with stomach filled to bursting, I found myself wondering about the world of the maharajas, who lived like this all their lives.
With the coffers of the Princely States overflowing, there was funding for any newfangled whim their rulers might have. Famed for their collections of bespoke Rolls Royces and their love of jaw-dropping gems, a great many of the maharajas had railways constructed through their dominions. It was a way of employing the masses in times of drought.
Vying with each other to create the most luxurious carriages, the maharajas installed salons and billiard rooms, private suites, and even air conditioning - made from electric fans that blew air over blocks of ice.
The nizam of Hyderabad's carriages were regarded as the most opulent of all. Overlaid with ivory and 24-carat gold, they were equipped with all mod-cons. As royalty, the princely rulers expected to be surrounded by the trappings of their status even when on the move. The maharaja of Vadodara took first prize for sheer indulgence. He had a throne installed aboard his royal train. It was along his stretch of track that the Maharajas' Express journeyed first. A little after dawn, I woke to find we had reached the city of Vadodara.
Stepping down onto a red carpet once again, we were serenaded by musicians, and then led on a tour of the ancient Gaekwad culture. And with it, came the first of a royal flush of palaces - a banquet at the Jambughoda Estate at lunch, and another at the awe-inspiring Laxmi Vilas Palace at dusk.
During the night the train roved northward, reaching the Rajasthani city of Udaipur as I finished my eggs Benedict. Unlike the variety of train travel that most of us know, on the Maharajas' Express there are no greasy breakfasts or triangular sandwich packs, no cramped plastic chairs bolted to the floor, or any of the rush about getting on and off. When the train reaches a destination, you can take all the time you need.
One of the great treasures of India, Udaipur has palaces by the dozen, each one more astounding than the next. At the centre of it all is the Lake Palace, floating like a magical marble island amid the serene waters of Lake Pichola. Famously, it featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy. From a vantage point high above, we were given a private reception in the 16th-century City Palace, in which the current maharaja and his family still reside.
Through another night we rambled on towards Jodhpur. Set on the edge of the Thar Desert, the "Blue City" bustles with life, with wares, and with a mesmerising kaleidoscope of colour. The buildings dyed blue with indigo signify the homes of aristocracy.
On the evening of our visit, we were treated to a banquet on the battlements of the colossal Meherangarh Fort. And therein lay the real magic of the Maharajas' Express. After all, such an experience would be quite off limits for ordinary tourists.
Leaving the ramparts and parapets behind us, we made our way back to the red carpet, and slipped up onto the train that we all now regarded as home. A whistle, a jolt, and the iron wheels ground against the tracks.
And, with dawn, we reached Bikaner. The day was spent touring the exquisite Lalgarh Palace, its rose-pink sandstone adorned with sublimely carved filigree. There was time to relax, to stroll through the countryside. Then, just before nightfall, we mounted a convoy of camel carts and trooped along a bumpy track into the depths of the Thar Desert.
In the middle of nowhere a banquet had been prepared under the stars - Rajasthani tribal dancers twirling, meat roasting on spits and campfires illuminating the night. As before, there was a sense of extraordinary privilege, as if all the stops had been pulled out just for us.
Another day, another adventure.
Next stop, capital of the land of kings - Jaipur. A raw and regal fusion of medieval and modern, at times, it's sensation overload - almost too much to take in. Traipsing through the streets, teeming with camel carts and rickshaws, merchants and mendicants, I was comforted by the thought of my quiet little cabin awaiting me.
The highlight of the entire journey came for me that afternoon. Having reached the Jai Mahal Palace, we were invited to take part in the sport of kings - a match of "elephant polo".
Mahouts steer the elephants, while the riders lean down with their mallets, in a desperate attempt to knock a football into the goal. Quite unlike the rip-roaring speed of equestrian polo, the game played on elephant back is sedate - the overwhelming problem being that the elephants tend to burst the ball by treading on it.
After Jaipur, the Maharajas' Express rumbled on to the tiger reserve at Ranthambore. Peppered with Mughal shrines, the reserve is a haven of breathtaking beauty, one of the only sanctuaries where the great striped cats remain.
And on again to the deserted Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri. Constructed by Emperor Akbar, these days it's a Unesco World Heritage Site. Having misjudged the supply of water, the Mughals abandoned it four centuries ago.
The following morning, we reached the most famous landmark of all - the Taj Mahal. Its chilling beauty grasps even the most wayward attention span. That the Maharajas' Express should deliver us so close to such a jewel of human endeavour seemed like the ultimate perfection.
Late that afternoon, the carriages heaved through Delhi's slums, again reminding us of our astonishing good fortune. By now, there was a definite sense that it was our train, just as the thought of leaving it was almost too much to bear.
Moments before I stepped down to the red carpet for the last time, my valet appeared as if by magic. Smiling until his eyes were lost in creases, Dasrath pressed his hands together in goodbye.
"You will come back?" he asked timidly.
"I hope so," I sighed.
He tapped a finger to my cabin's teak door.
"This is your room," he said gently. "We will both be waiting for you."
Tahir Shah is an author based in Casablanca.
If you go
Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,455 (US$396) return, including taxes and surcharges.
The seven-night, eight-day Princely India Tour from Mumbai to New Delhi on the Maharajas' Express (www.rirtl.com) costs from US$7,344 (Dh26,973) for a deluxe twin or double cabin, including taxes.