They don’t make holidays like this anymore.
The year was 1976. I had left Campion to join Scholar School in the 11th grade and they were offering a summer holiday to students that would take them across central and Eastern India. This was going to be a rail tour but with a unique difference. Instead of train hopping our rail coach was going to be attached/detached to the trains that were going to get us to our destinations.
We were about 30-35 in all assigned to a rail compartment that could sleep upwards of 40 people. The contingent, included my classmates, Yogendra (Yogi) Agarwal, Naysar Parikh, Sunil Puri, Safzar Merchant and Deepak Melwani, as well as students from other grades, along with two schoolteachers and Naysar’s parents who were the driving force behind the tour. Last but not the least, our team included about six to seven cooks and housekeeping staff, along with their paraphernalia, who were going to take care of our meals and basic hygiene onboard.
There were three distinct phases of our tour. Our itinerary was packed and would take us through the heart of India and the Indo-Gangetic plain, upwards then to the Buddhist Circuit and Kathmandu in Nepal and finally to Eastern India before returning home to Bombay.
Phase 1: Central India and the Indo-Gangetic Plain covering Jabalpur, Khajuraho, Allahabad, Benares, Sarnath and Mughalsarai (8th to 13th May ’76)
Phase 2: The Buddhist Circuit and Nepal covering Bodh Gaya, Patna, Kathmandu, Rajgir and Nalanda (14th to 22nd May ’76)
Phase 3: Eastern India covering Calcutta, New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling (23rd to 31st May ’76)
The three phases of our trip
In this blog, I have tried to capture the unusual, sometimes hair-raising but mostly exhilarating and enlightening moments of this sojourn.
* We departed early morning from Bombay’s Victoria Terminus on 8th May heading North-East to Jabalpur in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. Our rail compartment was immediately behind the locomotive. Yogi suggested we befriend and request the engine driver to allow us to join him in the engine cockpit. Seven of us took turns with Safzar and I going first. To be in a locomotive cabin was an enthralling experience and I distinctly remember the dead-straight tracks fading into the horizon.
* We reached Jabalpur at dawn the next day. The city is renowned for its Marble Rocks, a stunning gorge alongside the Narmada River that has been carved naturally out of soft marble. That day, the mercury touched 46° Celsius (114.8° F) a level that I have not experienced since.
Marble Rocks at Jabalpur Pic credit: Incredible India
* On 10th May, we reached Khajuraho, a UNESCO heritage site that boasts of a complex of temples built by the Chandela dynasty between 950-1050 AD. Some of these temples are renowned for their erotic sculptures and from Yogi (who was the only one amongst us to maintain a diary) I gathered that only those who were above 15 were allowed entry into the temple precincts. The outer façade of a few temples have sculptures that are sexually explicit and for many of us who were in the throes of our teenage years, it was hard fathoming the link between eroticism and divinity. It was not until quite recently that I discovered the significance of these temples as explained by Osho.
One of the several temples at Khajuraho Pic Credit M.P. Tourism
* For most of our train journeys, we passed time playing antakshari, a singing competition of sorts, playing cards and cracking jokes as any fun holiday should. But this trip had the added element of discovery at scale and an experience which cannot be replaced by books or classroom learning.
* One of our biggest challenges in a rail trip like this was bathing. It is too difficult to bathe in the toilet of a rail compartment though some of us did manage to with only partial success. On reaching a new destination we would head straight to the station waiting rooms and secure a bathroom by hook or by crook.
The stupa at Sarnath where the Buddha is known to have delivered his first sermon, Pic from author’s collection
* In the vicinity of Benares lies Mughalsarai, a rail junction which boasts of the longest marshalling yard in India and the largest in Asia. Naysar’s mother and one of our teachers, Sir Mehta were instrumental in convincing the station master to allow us to watch the process of marshalling also known as shunting. The visit to the control room happened late at night and the head was a friendly Bengali gentleman who took pains to explain the process of marshalling. Because Mughalsarai is a junction, wagons from different parts of the country are sorted to match their destination. The way it works is that wagons are pushed by a rail engine down a slope and at a particular point, the track doesn’t bifurcate, rather it opens up into 39 different directions. The whole process is automated and managed from the control room. We were just awe struck!
The Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya Pic from author’s collection
* The best part of Kathmandu was that it was 16 degrees cooler than Patna, a truly refreshing change. The cars in Nepal were all Japanese and European imports and what was unusual was that cars were parked in the centre lane of the road as opposed to the kerbside. Our stay in Kathmandu was characterised by a shopping frenzy. The India of the ‘70s didn’t permit import of consumer goods leave alone imported cars and we were exhilarated to see the vast range of imported wares. I remember buying a French chiffon saree for my mother, a gift she cherished for several years and a pair of Tibetan Llama boots for myself.
The heritage town of Patan, Nepal Pic credit Shaouraav Shreshtha on Unsplash
* Rajgir, is the place where the Buddha delivered several sermons. Atop a hill on Rajgir, better known as Vulture’s peak, and at an elevation of 400 metres lies the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, a marvel of Japanese engineering. At that time, I recollect that access to the stupa was only by a ski-lift and that we were strapped to our chairs but with a footrest. One of the scarier moments while going up was when the power supply went off and we were left stranded in mid-air with a steep fall beneath our legs. Thankfully that lasted only four minutes before we resumed our upward ascent.
The archaeological ruins at Nalanda Pic credit Wikipedia Commons
* On reaching Calcutta, a city that boasted the best club culture in the country and a city of extreme contrasts, few of us decided to alight our rail compartment parked in the yard and walk till we got to the nearest taxi. Little did I realise that we were amid 24 Parganas which was then one of the most underdeveloped urban districts in India. We walked miles and leave alone a cab we could barely spot a car. After a long trek, we did however manage to find a taxi that took us to the main city via the Howrah bridge.
* At New Jalpaiguri, we had an experience that remains unforgettable. Post dusk, the town had an invasion of insects which seemed like an unending swarm of locusts. We quickly closed the doors and windows of our coach and exited in the absence of ventilation. We ended up spending several hours on the railway platform swatting locusts as there was no nook nor corner which we could turn to. They were literally falling out of our ears. Finally, Naysar’s mother managed to convince the station master who allowed us to use the 1st class waiting room facilities.
A view of Mt. Kanchenjunga on a clear day from Darjeeling, Pic credit Darjeeling Tourism
An aerial view of Batasia loop, a marvel of engineering, Pic credit Darjeeling Tourism
In 25 days, we traversed over 7000 km of multiple terrains to experience a cultural kaleidoscope. My friend, Sunil Puri reminded me that this trip was like a coming of age for him as I am sure it was for several others. In this sojourn, although we were deprived of luxuries, we gained priceless exposure and friendship. Forty-six years later my memory faculty may have weakened but this trip remains evergreen. After all, they don’t make holidays like this anymore.
If you would like to read the full account of this trip, you can do so here
Shakti would like to convey his thanks to Yogendra (Yogi) Agarwal whose diary helped him with the details and to Sunil Puri and Naysar Parikh for their support in bringing this piece together.
Shakti Saran is the Founder of Shaktify, an initiative to power social and environmental change and is a Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own
Sounds fun and fortunate Shakti – especially the lack of coordination of trains required.
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Thank you Andrea. The tour operator managed this for us beautifully. We didn’t have to search for our train(s) and yes, we had no coordination to do
Well written Shakti. I can never forget that trip! Not many folks would understand India of the 70s. That is for our generation ! The bonding, sense of adventure and camaraderie felt can never forgotten. Cheers
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Thank you Pavan. True, what a rich basket of experiences. It was a different era altogether.
Loved it. Filled with nostalgia – and like Benjamin Disraeli once wrote “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen” – you too have been able to create the magic of a school trip
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Thank you Ravi. Yes, the duration, the sheer diversity of terrain and experiences, and the fact that it was a rail trip, all put together made it a magical one.