As The Steam Blows

We are travel addicts; and clearly road trip aficionados. But, when another long weekend struck, there was an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chanced upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India.

Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there!

The closest to Delhi, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Simla, their summer capital. Thus started the search for a suitable train on the Kalka – Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train.

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Our home for a couple of days

We booked ourselves for the onward journey on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka – Shimla route was covered. But, now came the challenge of the Delhi – Kalka stretch. This was an insipid route; all we had to do was to commute.

The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We did not want to take our car to Kalka as we would have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days.

We grudgingly booked the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onward journey and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we waited, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive. A couple of days before our journey, we began checking if the Howrah Kalka was running on time. To our horror, we realized that it had been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours!

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Surrounded by pine trees

We panicked & started thinking about Plan B. Then it struck us, ever the typical middle-income-group couple, that we could take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh.

For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scrambled to the Himachal Tourism website and heft a sigh of relief when we managed to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and booked it quickly.

The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government – ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, was followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.

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Built by a British engineer sometime in the 1800s

Finally, the wait was over. We headed to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat was at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seemed unlikely. Sigh!

Before we boarded, we wanted to have our favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. We were drawn to it like bees to flowers.

Did you know that samosa is not Indian? It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once we were satiated, we grabbed our seats. A quick checking of tickets took place, & we started moving. Yay!

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Trust our army to make just anything better!

Getting out of Delhi was, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It was compounded with the ‘kaawariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in the name of religion. The ‘kaawar yatra’ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshiping Lord Shiva.

We stopped at the Haryana Tourism guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately got a little scare by our bus. While we had dinner, our bus driver & conductor tried to provide comfort to them. Nothing had happened to either them or to the bike. But they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle!

Dinner was a simple fare. We did not want to delay the bus. We observed other families who are carrying their own food. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden. This took us back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we looked forward to, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year.

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When we walked among clouds

Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver.

The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Do you support reclining seats? Aren’t they unnecessary and an inconvenience to fellow travelers? The manufacturers think only of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces.

And we were finally in Shimla! It was early morning, was drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! When you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful.

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Flowers of various colors in gardens

We were soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places we had come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer.

It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public.

The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the decor reminding of the colonial times. Lots of woodwork, lots of English paintings, lots of artifacts dating back to the Raj.

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The iconic Viceregal Lodge

We needed some sleep on a proper bed. So we hid ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slipped into dreamland. It was noon by the time we were refreshed. It was time to hit Shimla. We felt like tourists.

A quick peek into Trip Advisor showed the Viceregal House (or now known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) as the #1 attraction. Our Resort arranged a cab for us. The cabbie turned out to be a friendly, simple chap. He told us more about Shimla.

The Viceregal House turned out to be more charming than we imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition.

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What happens when you book a honeymoon package

There is a short guided tour for the ground floor. It was completely worth it.  After independence, the House became the President’s summer retreat. Later, the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high.

We could not have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, & lots of history!

Next stop- the Mall Road. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we were hungry and wanted to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We took a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point. It was foggy; we deserved a cup of something warm.

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The erstwhile little outhouse

We narrowed down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café. We were famished; Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seemed adequate. Burp!

The rain did not look like it was done with its daily target, but surprisingly, we quite enjoyed it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort was what the Gods intend for us. & we had no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.

We had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the inclusions was a romantic room decoration. Our room looked more wild than romantic. There was an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves.

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Trying to catch the mist in our fists

We could neither stop giggling nor stop shaking our heads. We loved the cheesiness of it. For the decoration, we would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There were also fresh fruits & cookies. We did a little dance around the room.

Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff were disappointed when we asked them to clear the decoration within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!

Day 2 started with Annandale. It was Kargil Vijay Diwas – the day India won the Kargil War. It was an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We had asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliged.

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Crossing almost 100 tunnels

We hold the defense forces in high esteem, especially the Indian Army. India is handicapped without them. Those days, there was a flash flood in J&K. The army carried out the rescue operations. J&K citizens, who have called the army all sorts of names & forced them to be withdrawn, now sought its help. It was an eye-opener how the army serves the nation without expecting anything.

The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do.

So where was Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji was our friendly cabbie.) We planned to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations were unimportant; it was the journey that held value.

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Difficult to imagine this when we live in metros

Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seemed we were in a picture postcard. We have come to Shimla earlier, but have never felt so contented with this region.

The Mashobra apple orchard was completely covered in clouds. The walk up to the Naldehra golf course did not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we were more than satisfied with the journey to the two places.

We headed back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arranged it for us in the small outhouse cottage. This was NICE!

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Pride of the Indian railways

& here was the last day. The day which was the reason for this trip. We were set to experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort.

We clicked photographs with the train in the backdrop. We made a spectacle of ourselves; people gaped at us, but we were too excited to care. We realized that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe! It was good in a way as we sat cozily with each other.

The rowdy boys from our bus were on the adjacent seat. We rolled our eyes. The train was choc-a-bloc full. It was a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags.

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Bringing our little journey to an end

The train pulled out from the station. Thus started a beautiful journey. We traveled through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that was pleasant.

It rained; we hurriedly closed our windows, but the water found its way in anyhow. People opened their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us was lamenting throughout. But we found it amusing, rather than annoying.

The train brought us closer to nature. There were tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. This was surely going to remain etched in our memories for as long as we lived…

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Its charm intact

The train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. It halts at Kalka from where the broad gauge starts. We boarded the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinated us in another manner. The train was spotless, the air-conditioning worked marvelously, the seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the service was impeccable.

Soon, we were home. Our first heritage train ride had been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, liking Shimla…

We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:

Delhi – Shimla – Chail – Delhi

Day 0: Depart from Delhi by bus/ train.

Day 1: Arrive early morning at Shimla. Spend the day sightseeing specially Annandale, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, & The Ridge. Spend the night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 2: Hire a vehicle to take you to Mashobra/ Naldehra. Enjoy the journey! Night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 3: Checkout and head to Chail (a 2-hour drive). Check in at HPTDC The Chail Palace. Take a walk around and experience the former summer capital of the princely state of Patiala at its best.

Day 4: After an early breakfast, head to the Shimla railway station (2 hours again) to catch the trains back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It may snow during winter; so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Fruit chaat, Butter bun & Tea, Gol gappa

Recommended buys: Woolens, Handcrafted antiques, Tibetan floor coverings

P.S. The train bookings were done almost 3 months in advance. We kept a lookout on the ARS.

A Sunday at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

It is strange when you have resided in a city for more than 15 years and yet, are unaware of many of its gems. Now, we were certainly aware of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (RB) but we did not know we could visit it too. When we heard about it from an acquaintance, it was as if the heavens had opened up and God had showered us with Her divinity. Okay, well, we exaggerate, but we did feel a thrill run down our spine. Are you wondering what is so special about this? There are many reasons including our interest in politics, our fascination with heritage, and our love for the ‘new’.

A couple of years back, we had visited the Buckingham Palace to be wowed by its grandiosity. Now, if the Queen can allow visitors, we are sure Mr. President will not mind either! So then, we got down to business. Booking the ticket was fairly simple on the easy-to-navigate www.presidentofindia.nic.in. Do note, though, that:

  1. You have to upload a photograph of yourself and input an identity card number; so, keep these handy.
  2. You may not get tickets for the immediate dates.
  3. Your visit gets postponed to a later day, like it happened with us. But, we found it to be a blessing as instead of moving ourselves early in the January morning, we could laze around and go a little later, when the Sun was out.
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Our tricolor, the Central Dome, the Tuscan Pillars, & the Forecourt – Sandstone dreams!

Undoubtedly excited, we were up and about on Sunday, even if the lure of the quilt was high. After all, we had to meet the President! We had received a detailed email confirming our visit, and containing guidelines and a map. Follow directions as given in the map as entry is allowed from select gates only. It was good to be able to park our vehicle inside the Presidential Estate 😊 Hereon, leave behind anything and everything except your wallet, identity card and the confirmation emails.

After three rounds of scrutiny of our identity papers, we were finally inside The Bhavan. Temporary passes were made for us at the Reception. A Curio Shop nearby attracted us but we realized that better merchandise was available online on the official RB website. Surprise! Post all security clearances, a guide took us through the select parts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan while regaling us with their history, interesting anecdotes and trivia. A PSO followed our group to ensure we did not wander off. We had booked Circuit One which is a tour of the main building.

Lord Buddha Statue: Called the Sahastrabahu Avlokiteshvara, this 1000-armed Lord Buddha Statue was a gift from Vietnam to India. It was brought to India in three parts, and assembled here. The Statue itself is of Plaster of Paris but is surrounded by a marble staircase. The sun rays filtering in through the windows and lighting up the marble stunned us.

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The Government of India Auto Rickshaw!

Durbar Hall: For us, this was the most familiar room as this is where the civil and defense investiture ceremonies, like the Padma awards, take place. The significance of this Hall goes back to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Nehru to form the first government of independent India.

In front of the Ashok Hall, the Durbar Hall looks simple. Yet, it enthralls in its own way as this is the room that lies right under the Central Dome. So, technically, you are in the heart of the Bhavan.

A fifth century AD Buddha statue is placed against the wall and in front of it is placed the President’s chair during ceremonies. No, our visiting RB was not considered a ceremony and hence, the chair was not there!

Two pieces of trivia made our heads woozy. One, when you are standing in the Durbar Hall, you are at the same height as that of the top of the India Gate! And two, the line that runs in the center of the Hall cutting it into half is also the line that cuts the entire Rashtrapati Bhavan into two equal halves, and runs down along Rajpath till the India Gate!!

North Drawing Room: This is where meetings between the Heads of State occur. Historically important oil paintings adorn the Room like the swearing-in of PM Nehru. The Bhavan uses a lot of acronyms; this Room is called the NDR.

Long Drawing Room: Of course, this is the LDR. It is a meeting room where the annual conferences of governors take place. The LDR seemed to be one of those rare rooms that was not paneled heavily with teak. It had a soft green color. Adding to the aura of the LDR were some stunning paintings and gorgeous chandeliers.

Library: Clearly my favorite spot! Sir Lutyens loved circles. Circular patterns can be found everywhere in RB, from ceilings to floors to chairs! The books are arranged chronologically with the oldest dating 1795. To break the sandstone and marble monotony, the Library floor has golden yellow Jaisalmer stone. On a clear day, you can see the India Gate from the Library. We will have to return on a clear day!

Ashok Hall: Easily the grandest part of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. We have been to a few European palaces and seen their fresco art. The ones in Ashok Hall are equal in their grandeur if not better. It used to be the State Ballroom but is now used for ceremonial functions. Being a Ballroom, its floors are made of wood and have springs underneath to give a little bounce. Of course, now it is fully carpeted with Persian weaves.

The painting on the ceiling and the wall frescoes took our breath away. The rich oil colors make the paintings come alive, so much so, that the one on the ceiling has a 3D effect to it. Bordering the paintings are Persian inscriptions. There are two portraits hung in the Ashok Hall- of Nizami the Poet, and a Persian Lady. Strangely, the painter (s) of both these portraits is (are) unknown.

During the days of ball dance, the orchestra would play out of a loft. Now the trumpeters sit here and use their instruments to signal the arrival of the President.

Grand Stairs: To get from one part of the Bhavan to another, we took the Stairs. I am fairly certain I would be lost in this house! The Stairs are a delight in sandstone. This is the spot where Sir Lutyens’ bust has been placed. He gets to enjoy the Indian Sun! The Mughal ‘jaali’ work can be found around the Stairs. Sir Lutyens may have denied any Indian influence on his work but well, it can be seen aplenty.

Banquet Hall: As the name suggests, this is where the party happens folks! Panelled with Burmese teak on all sides, this hall is a classic. The panels, on top, have intricate zardozi work, which was commissioned by President Patil. Earlier, in place of the zardozi work, were displays of medieval arms. But a banquet hall is hardly the place to display firearms, isn’t it?

What we loved about the Hall was the blue-green-red light system. The head butler uses this to instruct the other butlers. The blue light indicates food to be brought in; green light means start of service; and red is to clear the plates. N is contemplating installing this system in our house too 😊

There is a small anteroom just behind the Hall. This is where the band plays while a banquet is in progress. The band cannot be seen but the music can be heard as it wafts in through the walls!

Forecourt: This is the area that leads from the Main Gate to RB. You would have seen the Forecourt during the swearing-in ceremony of the 2014 central government. The path from the Gate to the Forecourt is lined with trees that are cut in an adorable mushroom shape. N wondered why a broken capital occupied prime position in the Forecourt. We soon came to know about the Rampurva Bull, from the third century BC, excavated from Rampurva in Bihar (hence the name!).

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The Rampurva Bull behind the Tuscan Pillars (& the tiny people carrying out the renovation work)

Central Dome: When we stood in the Forecourt and looked up at the Central Dome where our national tricolour fluttered, our hearts swelled with pride. Did you know- if the flag is flying atop the Dome, it signifies the President is in New Delhi? The Central Dome is inspired from the Sanchi Stupa. It is Massive! It is twice the height of the building itself. Who would have thought?

The Rashtrapati Bhavan is a combination of different styles of architecture. Under the Central Dome are the Tuscan pillars which are Greek in style. On top of the pillars are the carvings of temple bells inspired from Karnataka temples.

When we turned away from the Central Dome and tried spotting the India Gate, we saw the Jaipur Column. Trivia about the Column- it has the map of Delhi on its eastern face.

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The Jaipur Column, & beyond that, the Rajpath leading to the India Gate

 

We missed out on the Guest Wing, though, as it was undergoing renovation. But, on the whole, we came away impressed. The Bhavan is grand and thoughtfully designed. It was interesting to see how a few British traditions are still followed but given an entirely Indian touch. When our cities are being taken over by futuristic glasshouses, these visions in marble and sandstone are a treat to sore eyes. We were also fascinated with the numerous fountains on the roof of RB.

The tour itself was well conducted. The cordial nature of the staff members pleased us – no loud voices, no rudeness, process orientation and efficient use of technology.

Sundays are meant for lazing around but when heritage beckons, we had to obey. And we cannot wait to return to the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the remaining circuits!

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