The romance of train travel

“The trains [in a country] contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical. ”
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The aspects of uncertainty and serendipity in our modes of travel, are dying a slow death. Not that their presence is a particularly good thing, but I think it certainly keeps some of the romance alive in travel. Think about it, how many times have you fondly remembered the time spent at an airport, even if you were embarking on a life changing trip ?

Most of us are guilty of trading the romance of the journey for the guaranteed pleasures of the destination. While a self-driven vehicle comes quite close to fulfilling athirst for serendipity, nothing comes close to a journey by train. There is a true sense of letting go, almost unrivaled in any other mode of transport. I might be biased, attributable in no small measure to the fact that I was born in the family of an Indian railways employee.

Much into the late 90s, travel by train was an annual exercise. Although we usually traveled to our native place in Kerala, I cannot imagine the setting becoming any different for people traveling to other parts of India by rail.

Preparation for the journey would begin months in advance, for there was no way of knowing whether you were lucky enough to bag a precious ticket. Latest train timetables, even booking agents were consulted before booking. I recollect my father spending a night at the ticket reservation counters to better his chances at booking a ticket.

As the date of journey approached, there was a sense of importance accorded even to the act of packing luggage. Old luggage was first cleaned and polished with a wet cloth. Clothes, gifts and items indigenous to Bombay were neatly packaged at least a couple of days in advance. As d-day neared, meals were prepared and packed separately for each day of travel. Clothes to be worn for the journey were set aside separately, drinking water kegs were brushed and dried, and even footwear was religiously washed.

On the day of the journey, we would reach the boarding station at least a couple of hours in advance. Then as now, the grandiose architecture of the British era train stations in Bombay never ceased to amaze. There was the fear of getting lost in the milling crowds. But that was quickly overtaken by the temptation of snacking at the mobile food carts and the omnipresent chai-wallah. Before the advent of Coke, Pepsi and Bisleri, there was Campa Cola, Aarey and Gold Spot. The ubiquitous weighing machine contraption spat out not only our weights on a ticket, but also our horoscope for the day. There was the delight in discovering treasures at the old book stall, usually a HigginBotham’s, that was manned by a stoic book-seller, standing on a tiny island of space surrounded by reams of print. Then there was the mild exultation when you found your name on the reservation chart, even if it had already been confirmed months in advance.

The journey itself was as variegated as the lands you passed by. Crowds, electric poles, slums and the overbearing noise and smells of an Indian metropolis gave way to hillsides, rivers, pastures and farmlands overnight. The cacophony of metal rolling on metal was accompanied by the (mildly) wondrous smell of diesel fumes mixed with grease and the onomatopoeic chugging of the locomotive.

The food changed with the landscape as well. The comfortingly familiar vada pav and samosa of the city gave way to slightly soggy puri-bhaji as you ventured south, then to bland dal-rice and sour curd and pickle before reverting back to the tastiest idli-vada and fried plaintain you could have on this planet. Just when you were in the mood for a post-lunch snack, a vendor would magically appear out of nowhere, peddling freshly cut cucumber and tomato slices sprinkled with a spicy masala. Ice creams, even close to melting, were prized most heavily in the sweltering Indian summers. And most surprisingly, I never fell ill from the drinking water refilled from the railway water taps.

Conversations with fellow passengers were inevitable, as is wont to happen with people traveling to the same destination. Invariably, someone would turn out to be an acquaintance of a distant relative. Notes on the family size, the parents’ occupation, children’s ages and each other’s residential addresses in the metropolis were exchanged. I recollect a bank employee who stayed in touch afterwards, even managed to help us with some work later, just because we had the good fortune of meeting him on a train.

Boredom could be tackled with an exchange of comics and magazines. Not a day or night would pass by without somebody playing cards on the top berth.

Before you knew it, the morning or evening of disembarkation soon arrived. Hasty byes with co-passengers were exchanged, and a wave at the train as it sped by leaving you at your destination only with the promise of making a journey in the reverse direction.

Maybe I am naive in comparing my childhood memories with an almost certainly better mode of travel that my adulthood has seen. But every now and then, I cannot help wishing for the rocking lullaby of a train, whistling into the night, putting me to bed with happy memories made for the day and promises of more to come.

Get a taste of what travel by train was like in India, in the past few decades in this wonderful BBC documentary.

A filter kaapi in Bengaluru

The joys of an early breakfast in Bengaluru.

Newspaper boys tying and untying bundles of newspapers for delivery. Milkmen and egg vendors ringing their cycle bells. Sweepers doing their best to clean the roads after the previous day’s onslaught of dust and dirt. Flower sellers setting up their stall well before the adjacent vegetable sellers set up theirs. The infamous traffic snarls are either a memory or an omen.

The drift of smoke from the nearest Udupi ‘darshini’ lures you in. Never knew salivating was something you could experience this early in the morning. The concept of a late continental breakfast seems alien now.

“Yes saar”

“Ondu neer dosa, ondu masala dosa, ondu plate idli vada, ondu coffee”

The order given, it is time to look at what others are doing on their plates. But the staff are efficient, making sure you don’t have to wait for too long.

More often than not, the soft and slightly more textured idlis and the crunchy hot vadas are the first to arrive. Accompanied by a small bowl of fresh coconut chutney and piping hot sambar that is filled with radish and tomatoes and is heavier and spicier than their cousins from other states.

That is followed by the masala dosa. The smearing of red garlic and chilly chutney on the insides of the crisp-to-a-fault dosa strikes a good partnership with the mashed potatoes, chilli, onion, ginger and coriander that make up the ‘masala’. The chutney and sambar are on par again.

Next up, the slightly lesser known cousin, the neer dosa – is the perfect antidote to any leftover space in your tummy. Soft, light and fluffy in spite of being so thin – this one has 2 different chutneys. One is a spicier version of the coconut chutney you had earlier. The other is grated coconut mixed with ghee and jaggery. These 2 infuse a world of flavors to a small bite of the mild neer dosa.

After all that needs to be discussed in between is done, and the morning seems like a good start, the coffee arrives. Concocted in special brass filter machines for a few hours, this one has a roasty, mildly bitter taste. Milk poured in from a height so that you get a layer of froth on top, ensures you don’t burn your tongue at the first sip. The sugar sprinkled at the bottom of the silver tumbler doesn’t know how to combine with the coffee yet, but you let it be. Because this coffee is the perfect end to a good south Indian breakfast and the best start you could have to a day in Bengaluru.

What a beautiful world #3 – the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiris 1989. John Sullivan, the father of Ootacamund, in a letter to Thomas Munro the future governor of Madras. *

This is the finest country ever…it resembles I suppose Switzerland more than any part of Europe…the hills [are] beautifully wooded and [there is a] fine strong spring with running water in every valley.

To be fair, Ooty has lost much of its charm to crass commercialization. There are tourists thronging all the roads leading to the hill station and much of the city center. But there are a few experiences that still retain their old world charm, like taking a ride in the decades old Nilgiri Mountain Railway, built by the Britishers in colonial times and still doing yeoman service to the local  populace and the tourists alike.

Read about why hopping on to the ‘toy-train’ as it is more popularly known, is an experience that is not to be missed, in Alde Baran’s article. Some great photographs contribute towards bringing the experience alive. Don’t skip this one – read it now.


Rain, from inside the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, has to be the most uplifting sight ever. Some people keep their windows open and stick their tongue out. I choose to keep my window closed and watch it shudder as the rain hits it. When we finally arrive at Ooty, people disembark, but stick around for a few minutes more. Yes, they look like they’re checking their luggage. But maybe another cup of mint tea will warm them enough to admit that they’re actually gazing affectionately at the toy train that gave them a journey that was, strangely, not about the destination at all.

Here is the link:

The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays and blogs by other photographers and writers.  

* Taken from the book “Almost Home: Finding a Place in the World from Kashmir to New York” By Githa Hariharan


Snapshots in our memories

I was reading a Jim Corbett book  the other day. One of the pages mentioned Rishikesh in passing and all of a sudden, my brain pulled out a vivid snapshot of an extremely  beautiful evening that I had spent in Rishikesh, back in the spring of 2012.

It is a curious matter that out of the countless hours I have spent peering at scenes through my camera’s lens, none come close to the mental images I register while travelling. This blog post is devoted to 2 such snapshots and I will try to describe them to the best of my abilities, without resorting to any photographs.

An evening in Rishikesh

Back in 2012, I had spent a week’s time on the road covering Shimla, Kufri, Kullu, Manali and Dharamsala and had the misfortune of gulping down an old croissant in a  bakery in McLeodGanj. The next 2 days were spent trying to calm down a revolting stomach in Amritsar, before I landed up in the religious and cultural center of Rishikesh.

Here, while my stomach calmed down, the infection had not subsided completely. As a result, I was laid up for most of the day cooped up in a tent on the banks of the Ganges, shivering slightly with fever.

I distinctly remember that it was close to sunset then. My friends had cajoled me to step outside the tent for some tea, and break my languidness. As soon as I stepped out, I knew the moment was picture perfect, and somehow, my mind was feeble enough to dissuage my body from stepping back into the tent for my camera.

The sun still had nearly an hour to go down, and it had cast a golden yellow glow all over the surrounding hills. The forests on the hills were lit up spectacularly with this mellow sunlight, with odd patches of orange and vermilion providing some relief from the monotony of green.

The sunlight had also brought the otherwise chilly weather down, making it feel warm and salubrious.

In front of me, the Ganges gently babbled her way across hundreds of white rounded stones. There was an odd fish that we could spot in places where the river was shallow. On the opposite bank, there were 2 horses grazing on the sparse green grass. One had a rich lustrous skin, brown in color while the other had pale shade of white, turned slightly creamy due to the sunlight. Sometimes, the white one would gracefully toss its mane aside, without ceasing to graze.

I think I must have sat down on a boulder on the banks for half an hour, trying to implant in my mind, the beauty of everything that lay in front of me. It was a panacea, from the agony of the past few days and a memory of a beautiful moment, that I will carry with me to my grave.

A morning in Sakleshpur

In the monsoons of 2016, we were in Sakleshpur, in a colonial era bungalow surrounded by 7000 acres of tea estate. There, our previous day had been a sharp antithesis to the term monsoon capital, for we didn’t experience anything more than a slight drizzle, compared to the torrential rains that Sakleshpur receives every year.

Our host had told us that the previous 2 weekends had been a blur, with guests not even being able to venture out of their cottages due to the incessant rain.

Therefore, after a sumptuous dinner, we had gone to sleep amidst the cacophony of crickets and other nocturnal inhabitants of the estate.

The next morning, sharply around 6, I had woken up since it had grown deathly silent. I groggily pushed open the doors of our cottage and a veritable fairy tale setting came alive in front of my eyes.

There had been no rain at night, but the absolutely thickest fog I have ever seen in my life, covered miles and miles of estate ground and the forests beyond. I couldn’t see beyond a few yards.

The lights dotting the estate were still lit. The ground was wet and it smelt heavenly, and dew drops hung onto virtually every blade of grass. The fog seemed to be alive, darting in and out of places, revealing tea bushes in one instant and hiding them in the next. There was a slight chill in the air, but one that you wished would never go away.

It was a window of time when the birds had not yet stirred from their nests but the insects had all retired, so the silence was deafening. It felt like mother nature herself had a good night’s sleep and had woken up before everyone else, feeling fresh and wishing every one a hearty good morning.

That morning left an indelible mark in my mind too.

Ironically, I think I will visit these places again someday and try to capture vestiges of these scenes on a camera. Before I grow old and hopefully, before my memory fails me.

What a beautiful world ! #2 – Grand Trunk Road

There can be no doubt about the fact that Steve McCurry is one of the greatest photographers ever. Award winning contributions to leading publications notwithstanding, there is a very humane, down-to-earth appeal that is immediately evident in all his photographs.

One of my favorite photo essays are his vignettes of the Grand Trunk Road, which crisscrosses the Indian subcontinent, stretching from Kabul to Kolkata, and is dripping with history at every turn. Virtually all of these photographs will transport you to a different era, in a different place.

Pay attention to the way he captures the proletariat in these places, going about their daily lives, against cinematic scenes unfolding in the background (for e.g., a coal fired train chugging over a bridge, crowded markets buzzing with action); narrating stories of an era long lost.

Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers,
barbers and bunnias, pilgrims – and potters – all the world going and coming.
It is to me as a river from which I am
withdrawn like a log after a flood.
And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle.
Such a river of life as no where else exists in the world.
– Rudyard Kipling, Kim


Here is the link:

The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays by other photographers.  


What a beautiful world ! #1 – Skardu

India’s neighbor, and erstwhile inseparable part of the family is no different when it comes to being blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. How naive it is though, to be a tiny part of a massive universe and see more of the differences between us than the similarities.

In his series of photo essays from the magical land of Skardu-Baltistan (geographically contiguous with Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau), Bukhari gives us a glimpse of the treasures his country has been blessed with. After going through it, there lingers a romantic hope that someday, may there be no borders.


“I was walking on a narrow strip, when a window of a nearby home opened, and a boy with green eyes and a warm smile waved at me. All my exhaustion seemed to just melt away.

I then, made my way to the main road, crunching over fallen leaves that had covered both sides of the road.”



For it is such a beautiful world that we live in ! Click the link below to view the photo essay.


A glimpse of Kalvari Mount

When I first tasted the joys of travel during my MBA days, I naively started drafting a list of destinations. A sort of to-do list. And on top of this list, the very first destination that I wrote, was a little known place named Kalvari (or Calvary) mount. Why Kalvari mount, of all places ? The desire then, was to go truly offbeat. My biggest source of travel reports in those days was the travelogue section on motoring forums in India. And one look at the photographs was convincing enough.

With the advent of smart phones and social media, that place wasn’t to remain off beat for long. A regional film released in 2013 implanted it firmly in the mainstream consciousness. But it wasn’t until I came across Ram’s blog that memories of that dusty old list were rekindled.

When plans for a weekend excursion to Munnar district started germinating, there was hardly any excuse to not visit this particular place. Although, with not much information available even now, we had no idea how the roads were, what kind of terrain would we have to cover to reach the point, and most importantly for me, would we encounter leeches.

Follow the Google maps route, but take the diversion to Adimali and then rejoin the road towards Idukki. Though slightly longer, this is a flat stretch of road whereas the Google maps recommendation is narrow and awkwardly steep in places.

An early start, as I always endorse, was treated with much disdain by my travel mates. Sumptuous breakfast notwithstanding, we covered much ground in the morning but as soon as we left the hills of Munnar, the incessant heat wore us down steadily. Stepping wearily through the gates of Kalvari mount (there is a ticket involved), we were greeted with an enormous cloud cover that blockaded the sun’s heat entirely.

Our first view was nothing short of breathtaking.

Behold, a bird’s eye view of the catchment area created by the Idukki Dam. A small shelter made out of bamboo stem pillars and a thatched roof occupied the otherwise verdant viewpoint.

Not a single sound pervaded the place. Not even the gentle rustling of the overgrown grass in the breeze. It was as if everything stood still for a tiny moment and etched a sharp technicolor photograph inside your brain.

Tiny islands dotting the catchment area, almost seemed to have been added as an afterthought, in order to add some more variety to the scene.
I remembered reading somewhere, that on a lucky day, you could see elephants from the forest wading into the waters.

While the eastern side of the hill is owned by a private party that runs a tea estate, the western side of the hill throws open more panoramic views. A rough road connects everything and I walked over to the western side, past a basic toilet, a small garden with vegetables and a few grazing cows. There I came across the caretaker Benny, digging and planting a few plants, who told me that there is a lot more to explore on the western face.

Benny, the caretaker’s hut is like a dream come true. He told me that the forest office was building a few cottages on the hill, to let out to tourists. 

The sky grew darker through the afternoon. Before long, the calm was interrupted by the sound of thunder in the distance. A strong wind brought in it’s wake, ominous dark clouds from the western horizon.

Kalvari mount deserved a lot more time, I realized with a heavy heart. Something for the future maybe.

One last look from that view point again. 

Oct – Jan would be an ideal time to visit Kalvari mount though monsoons cast a different kind of magic on the place. A tiny shop provides noodles, packaged snacks and other refreshments at the entrance to the place. Though the road to Kalvari mount is not tarmac all the way, we saw hatchbacks carefully treading the incline without too much fuss. 

You have an option to stay in one of the two cottages built for tourists on the hill. Each one accommodates 5 and includes basic sanitation facilitiesthere is no provision for cooking. Get in touch with the forest office at Idukki or Mr. Thomas at +91-9447166084 for reservation.