Story and Photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
The Golden Chariot Train trip through the Indian state of Karnataka is not only the most comfortable and deluxe way to go… it’s the only way. Well that is not exactly true, you could travel hours through the small villages and farm lands on chaotic and unreliable roads, fighting for highway space with ox-drawn carts, people on bicycles or foot, and unfettered animals lumbering across the road simply to get on the other side. But to make your journey through one of the most exotic and well-preserved historical regions in India less stressful, treat yourself to a cruise-on-land and take The Golden Chariot Train. www.goldenchariot.org
Our trip begins in Bangalore - now known as Bengaluru - at the Yeshwantpur Train Station. A 4-piece Indian band led us down the platform towards two hostesses dressed in colorful saris. They applied the traditional red bindi dot to our foreheads (representing wisdom, love and prosperity) placed a fragrant flower lei around our necks, and directed us to walk the red carpet to the purple train. Indians love ceremony, music, and color, and a crowd of onlookers were there to enjoy the bon voyage spectacle and cheer our departure. Our baggage preceded us to our cabins, so hassle free we were directed to the bar car for a welcome drink.
Our small group’s trip was organized by Our Personal Guest, a high-end tour provider for the independent luxury traveler, or small group that demands the ultimate in individualized service. OPG takes the concerns out of even the most exotic trips and assures that their guests receive the finest accommodations, the most knowledgeable guides, relevant information on destinations for anywhere in the world you want to travel. Before departure, each traveler is provided with a beautiful embroidered case containing a detailed itinerary and travel tips. During the journey OPG provided our group with personal guides, transportation, hotels, and destinations not included on the Golden Chariot’s menu. www.ourpersonalguest.com
After dinner on board I retired to my cabin looking forward to being lulled to sleep by the gentle swaying of the train… not so, while the train’s wheels may be well oiled, the tracks are not, and there was a considerable amount of squeaking and moaning. Unfortunately this was something OPG could do nothing about and once we were speeding along the ride was gentle and soundless.
First stop was Bandipur/Kabini and the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, in times past the private hunting reserve for the Maharajas of Mysore. Upon arrival, we were outfitted with life vests and boarded a small boat for a water safari. What a unique opportunity to view the animals as they came out of the thicket to drink and frolic at the waters edge. We saw elephants, monkeys, deer and impala, wild boar and large bison. That night was spent at the luxurious Orange County Hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. OPG organized this hotel as an upgrade from the train’s itinerary, and what a treat it was! We re-boarded the boat and a short ride took us to their dock and a marvelous dinner. The hotel is a collection of small thatched lodge’s organized like a traditional village. Each lodge has a living room/dining room, a large bedroom, modern well-appointed bathroom, a shaded back porch with a hammock, and an internal private garden with an enormous Jacuzzi that provided a perfect ending to a fun-filled day. Filtered water for drinking is located in each room along with a coffee maker and a refrigerator packed with complimentary drinks, snacks, and sweets.
The next morning we did the traditional land safari hoping to spy a tiger, but if one saw us, unfortunately we didn’t see it.
The resort provided some unusual activities such as coracle and elephant riding. The coracle is a small circular hand-woven boat that is paddled from a kneeling position. The boat often leaks so a small stool was placed in the center for me to sit on while I tried my hand at paddling… it looked a lot easier then it was but that may be because I was laughing so hard. Afterwards a friend and I took a ride on the elephant Meenaskshi, a sweet lady who good naturedly suffered our gleeful attentions. Sadly we waved goodbye to Meenaskshi and our Orange County hosts, and returned to the main group for a visit to the glorious Mysore Palace. www.orangecounty.in
The Mysore Museum is in the front of the Palace and is open to the public. On display are some of the treasures of the Wodeyar Kings such as the jewel-studded golden throne which was once hoisted on the back of an elephant to carry the king through throngs of his adoring subjects. The massive Palace is still home to the ex-Maharajah, who resides in a corner of the huge edifice. At night the spectacular Palace and grounds are illuminated which is a sight to behold.
Back on the train to share our safari sightings and plan the next days adventures at Hassan. For those with the strength and determination to climb 700 steps, Shravanabelagola, the colossal 58 foot high Jain statue of Lord Gomateshvara, was on the agenda. The size of the statue and view from its height is purported to be awesome but nevertheless I declined the climb and instead spent the morning being pampered in the train’s spa. In the afternoon we visited the 12th century Hoysala Temple Complex at Belur. The temple is still in use today and no one could fail to be moved by the remarkably detailed and intricate carvings and friezes… easy to believe it took 103 years to complete. The complex at Halebid was constructed a decade after Belur and the Hoysaleshwara Temple there is considered to be one of the finest examples of Hoysala art. The statues are so lifelike they look as if they could walk right off the walls or talk to you from where they stand… it is a grand and awesome sight.
But if Belur and Halebid captivated our imaginations, Hampi was to leave us awestruck.
The train arrived at Hospet early and after breakfast we boarded the air conditioned bus for the drive to Hampi. Hampi is classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site and is a major tourist destination. After the sack of Delhi, North India went into a period of decline while Vijayanagar Empire in South India became the largest and most prosperous state in India - circa 14th to the 16th century. Contemporary accounts rave of a city rich beyond compare and adorned with fabulous works of art and architecture. Within the vast area of the Vijayanagara Empire, at its center on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, was the village of Hampi. There is some reference to Hampi predating the Vijayanagara Empire which makes sense as it occupies a prime location between the torrential river and high granite cliffs and presents a totally defensible position against the constantly warring states... well almost totally, as the Empire was laid waste by an alliance of the Deccan Sultanate and Mogul invaders in an attack so savage and devastating as to make its rebuilding unthinkable.
We can not know exactly what wonders the Empire possessed but visiting Hampi today is transfixing. The huge area is separated into the Sacred Centre and the Royal Centre. The buildings were constructed with, around, and sometimes out of, the huge pink granite boulders scattered throughout the region. The rocks are of such size and shape as to create an otherworldly landscape that must be seen to be believed. After exploring the upper reaches of the Sacred Centre - previously hidden by a megalithic boulder - the still working Virupaksha Temple came into view in the valley below. Virupaksha’s conical stone peak towers over the ancient city of Hampi. The steep grade down the well-worn rock hill looked far more intimidating then it turned out to be and was easily navigated. Waiting for us at the temple entrance was the “keeper of the gate” a somewhat greedy bestower of blessings; the temple elephant. I saw children place a coin in her truck which she quickly passed to her mahout (handler) and then laid her truck on the child’s head in a blessing gesture. When I followed suit, she passed the coin on but refused to bless me… it seems adults are required to pay a tribute of paper money before being worthy of a blessing. Once I got it right, I received the elephant blessing which was really a bop on the head. But to apologize for my innocent faux-pas I repeated the act and this time I accepted the blessing with my hands clapped together in the Namaste greeting.
You could spend days in Hampi exploring the clusters of temples that contain indescribable artwork, and taking pictures of the temple monkeys that seemed to be everywhere and were adorably photogenic; but for me, the most magical moment was in the Vittala Temple Complex at the Royal Centre. That afternoon, on our way to the temple we drove through the Vittala village where preparations were under way for the monthly full moon festival. Cows were painted with pink circles and festooned with brightly colored tassels, hooked up to carts filled with family members dressed in their finery, and on the move to join the ceremonial tower being paraded around the town. The town radiated a festive air with music, flowers, colorful clothing, and smiling faces all merging in a tapestry of joyous celebration. Temple offerings were made and priests gave blessings to throngs of celebrants. Our bus inched its way through the crowds and arrived at the temple complex at dusk. As we were admiring the temple carvings, the moon rose between the pillars as a bright orange ball, adding to the magic of the site. But we were in for another surprise, for once the moon was high in the sky, lights came on in all the buildings, illuminating the carved pillars and competing with the moon for sheer radiance.
In front of the Vittala Temple is the massive stone chariot or ratha. The ratha was carved from a single stone and its wheels were engineered to revolve like the real rathas that carried temple idols during festivals. The King’s Balance is also near the Vittala Temple. Vertical granite pillars are connected at the top by an adorned horizontal bar from which scales were suspended. The King was weighed against treasures of gold, silver, and jewels, and when his weight was “balanced” by the treasure, it was distributed to Brahmins (priestly caste) for the poor.
Our final temple visits the following day were to the unique Badami Caves and the beautifully preserved Pattadakal Temple Complex. Badami Caves is a site like no other. Cut into the steep rose colored sandstone cliffs rising from the Malaprabha River, are a series of four cave temples, each one at a higher elevation then the previous one. Dating from the 6th century, each of the caves is rock-cut into the mountain and covered with geometric designs and images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses - except for the top-most cave which is a Jain sanctuary. Under the rule of the three Chalukya dynasties the existing small kingdoms of Southern India were consolidated into one large empire. The first of the three, the Badami Chalukyas, developed a style of architecture based on a combination of both Southern and Northern styles. They initiated the blending of cultures and ideas between the South and the North, had an efficient administration, expanded international trade, practiced religious tolerance, and patronized art and culture. The 8th century Pattadakal Temples were mainly used for ceremonial purposes and are wonderfully preserved. The UNESCO World heritage Site is beautifully landscaped with broad green lawns, flower beds, and walking paths.
Our Golden Chariot adventure ended the next day with a site-seeing visit to Goa. Goa is on the Arabian Sea and like many beach-front towns has a sybaritic sophistication absent from the other towns we visited. Its cosmopolitan air is most likely an echo of the 451 years under Portuguese rule and it is as well known for its cuisine as for its golden beaches. I found it fascinating that the Portuguese introduced chilies to India and altered forever Indian cuisine. We had the privilege of visiting one of the old Portuguese houses for afternoon tea. The house was built in 1780 and lovingly restored by its current owners literally one inch at a time, with only old drawings and black & white photographs to guide them. The terraced gardens have been coaxed back to their original finery with even the statues once again looking out proudly over the fruit trees fronting the house.
From Goa we returned for our last night on the train and after breakfast we bid farewell to the entire crew that had taken such good care of us during our week’s odyssey in the exotic state of Karnataka. www.karnatakatourism.org
HOW TO GET THERE:
Jet Airways has direct service from both Newark and JFK to Mumbai with one stop in Belgium for refueling. From there it’s a short domestic flight to Bangalore. www.jetairways.com
© May 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.