Stuart Forster takes a journey on the Golden Chariot luxury train in south India, from Bengaluru to Goa.
The Golden Chariot is south India’s answer to the Palace on Wheels; this is a luxury train transporting tourists in five-star comfort between sites of cultural and historic interest. Every Monday of the season, the purple train pulls out of Bengaluru’s Yeshwanthpur railway station to tour regional highlights.
If you thought luxury train travel belonged to the world of Agatha Christie and went out of fashion with the Charleston, think again. The concept of exploring India’s heritage sites from the opulent surroundings of a train with dining carriages, a lounge-bar and comfortable sleeping quarters is proving increasingly popular.
Luxury rail travel in India
The acclaimed Palace on Wheels – which tours attractions in the ‘golden triangle’ of Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra – rolled into service back in 1982 but remained India’s only train of its kind until Maharashtra’s Deccan Odyssey entered commission in 2004. The Golden Chariot’s inaugural journey took place during March of 2008. The Royal Rajasthan on Wheels entered service, in the north of the country, in 2009.
The idea of establishing a luxury train service in Karnataka was long in the offing. “This was considered for the last ten years…primarily we felt that the interior parts of Karnataka were very difficult to access. The accessibility was an issue. We did not have good roads, we did not have good airports or even good tourism infrastructure, like hotels, in places like Hampi, Badami and Hassan. So that was one reason we felt an up-end traveller would not be able to see and access these beautiful places. So we thought, after seeing the success of the Palace on Wheels in Rajasthan, why not have a similar kind of a train that overcomes this problem until we can get good infrastructure in place,” explains Vinay Luthra, the Managing Director of the Karnataka State Tourism Development Commission.
Exploring Karnataka’s heritage sites
Compared to neighbouring Kerala and Goa, Karnataka is only slowly entering the mass consciousness of international travellers, despite having much to offer. The slogan “One State, Many Worlds”, emblazoned on Golden Chariot’s flank, is used in Karnataka’s ongoing promotional campaign. This journey showcases a subset of the cultural diversity and vibrancy for which India is renowned. Remarkably, 609 of the nation’s 3600 centrally protected monuments are located in the state. This oldest monument you’ll see on this journey is 1600 years old.
Two of the stops along the route, Hampi and Pattadakal, give you opportunities to explore UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Shravanabelagola, with its monolithic, thousand-year-old statue of the Jain ascetic Lord Bahubali, Mysore’s Indo-Saracenic style Amba Vilas Palace, and the intricately sculpted twelfth-century Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid are also on the itinerary.
Indian wildlife and Goa’s coast
Though none of the state’s coastal resorts are included on the journey, Goa, the train’s final stop, provides an opportunity to enjoy golden sands and the briny warmth of the Arabian Sea. There’s also a chance to enjoy some of the region’s wildlife. An overnight stay at the Kabini River Lodge provides opportunities to take jeep and boat safaris within the Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarhole) National Park. I was fortunate enough to sight a tiger while there.
An air-conditioned coach follows the train throughout its journey, picking up the Golden Chariot’s passengers from the railway stations and providing transport to and from sights of interest. Should you develop a case of ‘temple fatigue’ or feel the need for a break from the daily infusion of in-depth commentaries provided by guides, local specialists who join up with the group at each of the stations, you can always opt out of the excursions.
wellness and fitness on the Golden Chariot
The train’s Aragoya carriage houses an ayurvedic spa, a compact gym with cardiovascular fitness machines and a business centre with internet access. The spa treatments, administered by specialist staff, include aromatherapy and Swedish massages, plus de-tox and de-stress packages. Impressively, despite the obvious space constraints of a railway carriage, the spa is equipped with two steam rooms.
The train runs to a prodigious length, with a total of eighteen coaches, including engines on either end. Eleven of these carriages are given over to sleeping quarters named after the dynasties which formerly ruled over territories in Karnataka, such as Rashtrakuta, Vijayanagara and Chalukya.
Butler service aboard the train
Each of the carriages has a full-time coach attendant who provides an attentive, butler service. The four cabins have en suite bathroom facilities and are decorated with bedspreads made of hand-woven silk. The cabin designs are influenced by the Mysore and Belur-Halebidu schools of art and architecture but feature light-coloured wood and a flat-screen plasma television.
One of the highlights of travelling on the Golden Chariot is the outstanding food. The executive chef, Deepak Chaubey, does a great job of sourcing top-quality fresh and seasonal ingredients. His team create their dishes using electric ovens and hot-plates, as gas cooking is not permitted on the Indian Railways. The cooks work in two narrow galley-style kitchens, one for Indian cuisine and the other for Continental style preparations.
Dining on the Golden Chariot
The on-board meals are served in two dining cars, named Ruchi (Sanskrit for ‘fine taste’) and Nalapaka (after a king and legendary chef from the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata), by attentive waiters who aren’t afraid of chatting about themselves during respectful, good-natured exchanges of small talk.
The presentation of the food, throughout the week long journey, is consistently of a high standard. The desserts, with their glazed fruits and decorative strips of chocolate, stand out as being especially artistic. Yet the colour combinations of the Indian dishes, served as part of the traditional thalis (literally ‘plates’), are as noteworthy as their aromatic flavours. Even the shepherd’s pie – traditionally a no-nonsense blend of minced meat and mashed potato – is served to look aesthetically attractive and appetizing.
The Golden Chariot luxury train
The range of food is impressive. Continental and Indian options are served at every mealtime, with vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices in both. Karnataka is rich in regional cuisines, with Udupi, Kodava and Mangalorean cooking counting among the state’s varied and celebrated styles. Chef Chaubey does a great job of incorporating a range of Karnatakan dishes into his thalis.
After a good dinner what is there left to do but retire to the bar for a nightcap? That’s precisely what many of the passengers do. They head to the lounge-bar, situated in Madira, the carriage named after the nectar of the gods, to chat and unwind with a drink.
Knowing that you are trundling towards the next attraction while conversing over a drink, and can effortlessly retire to a comfortable bed, helps take the stress out of travel. That’s one of the chief attractions of travelling on the Golden Chariot.
See the Golden Chariot website for information about departures on the luxury train.
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Thinking about luxury train vacations in India? If you enjoyed this post about the Golden Chariot and want to experience a piece of India’s railway heritage take a look at my post about the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tamil Nadu.
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