Train Ride to Orchha and Local Life in India

India passenger train vendorsMy 21-year old son Henry and I are ready to board the 10:10 a.m. daily Thirukkural Express at the Agra Cantt rail station heading for Jhansi. The train ride is nearly the same distance as Amtrak’s Downeaster that runs from Boston to Brunswick, Maine in the U.S.A. The timetables are comparable at about 3.5 hours.

A strong stench of urine wafts near the Express train car door. This is a mystery to me until later I observe a cow urinating on a station platform. Animals co-exist with the human population in India. At a snack stand in the station a monkey plays on the overhead pipes. Outside, a goat leans against the wall. Cows meander and dogs trot along what seems to be a familiar path. I like the daily reminder that we share this earth with many creatures.

The attendants on Indian Railways are courteous and welcoming in their dark suits and ties. The car doorways are left open and the trains are long with engines pulling 20 passenger cars and two luggage cars. The passenger cars include general seating, sleepers, and two tiers of air-conditioned seats. Rather than include a café car, vendors walk through the train cars selling snacks and chai directly to seated passengers. The landscape through India’s north central state of Uttar Pradesh into Mahyda Pradesh keeps our attention throughout the train ride.

Passenger train view of Chambal River in India

View from the train of the Chambal River in India.

 

View from the train as it nears Jhansi, India

Jhansi, India landscape

From the Jhansi station we hop into a jeep to Orchha, an Indian resort town on the Betwa River. Historic sites such as the Fort complex which contains the Raj Mahal, Hehangir Mahal and Raj Parveen Mahal; the Chaturbhuj and Laxmi temples and Cenotaphs with gardens along the Betwa River are enough for busloads of Chinese tourists to disembark and wander long enough to take selfie photographs. The streets are lively, lined with shops and the smell of incense.

Orchha cenotaphs

Cenotaphs along the Betwa River in Orchha, India

We linger on the patio of the RajaRam restaurant outside of the Fort complex and drink real coffee, a luxury from the usual Nescafe. In some ways this town feels like a rustic Key West in the U.S. or Playa Del Carmen in Mexico but the flavor here is all India. Statues of Hindu deities, Indo-Islamic architecture, chai shops and sweets including burfi, batti, and Gulab jamun tempt any traveler.

Adventurous travelers always explore outside of the tourist centers. Walk or drive just 10 minutes away and they get a glimpse of the real world of local people – their work and family lives. We did just that. Here is the India we witness as lived by local people just outside of Orchha.

A thousand bricks a day are built here with clay, sand, cow paddies and coal ash. They buy coal ash from the railroad.

 

Farm in Madhya Pradesh, India

Family farmers in Madhya Pradesh grow radish, potatoes, chilies, cabbage and eggplant.

Villagers in Nivari, India

A villager examines seeds as a young girl weaves baskets from bamboo leaves.

India village woman working at home

Village woman in front of her house shows an organic way of life in India.

The next person we meet is a young ceramicist who is a master at creating clay pots with primitive tools and a strong arm. My son had taken four years of ceramics classes while in high school. When he sees this he says, “If you would have told me you can throw pots without electricity I would have said ‘That’s impossible.'” This young man shows us the limits of our viewpoint.

Indian ceramicist

Young ceramicist shapes clay pottery by propelling a circular wheel using a stick.

Henry rethinks what he’s just seen. “There’s a lot of physics involved in how he is throwing the pot. Math equations can explain how his wheel is turning – the same ones that explain how stars spin.” In Orchha, there are many activities including river rafting, the sound and light show at the Fort complex, street market shopping, and an evening prayer service at the temple. These are delightful, but I think what we will remember most is who we met in the villages outside of the town.

 

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Train Travel to Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal visitorsThe Taj Mahal in Agra is one of India’s biggest tourist attractions. It is a beautiful building recognized as one of the wonders of the world. It is also a great place to people watch. People from all over the world visit the site. I happily agree to pose in pictures for those not accustomed to seeing ivory skinned westerners from America. Traveling to the Taj Mahal by train is easy, especially from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

At the airport near Terminal 3 you can purchase a train token and board the Metro to the New Delhi Station (NDLS). The airport Metro train arrives every 10 minutes and takes approximately 22 minutes to reach NDLS. Security precautions require scanning your bags. At the New Delhi station, board the Bhopal Shatabdi Express. If all goes well you will reach Agra in approximately two hours.

Purchase your train ticket to Agra in advance. The Bhopal Shatabdi Express train #1202 is scheduled to leave daily at 6:00 a.m. from New Delhi station and arrive in Agra Cantt (AGC) at 7:57 a.m. Choosing AC1 class gets me a reserved seat in an air-conditioned car for a cost of Rs 1000 (Indian Rupees) or U.S. $15. The train is comfortable and quick. Included in the fare is breakfast chosen from a menu and served at your seat. Passengers receive an Indian Times newspaper and outlets to charge phones are available. Well-dressed attendants answer questions and check seat reservations.

During the train ride I watch the sunrise light up the countryside. The high-speed train makes its way through layers of morning mist. It passes fields, farms, and villages to reach Agra (AGC station) on time. If an early morning train doesn’t work for you there are other trains later in the day. However, they make more stops and take longer.

Tomb of Akbar in Sikandra, india Before going to the Taj Mahal, which is closed on Fridays so plan accordingly, I head to Sikandra. It’s a suburb of Agra where the tomb of Mughal emperor Akbar stands on acres of green grass.

Palm trees line a wide red sandstone walkway that leads to the grand south entrance. In the trees bright green parakeets hop on branches. Songs of Islam can be heard from a building nearby. Four white marble minarets point to the sky. Inside, an old man demonstrates the acoustics quality with a chant that echoes through the building.

 

River view at Taj Mahal

Yamuna river view at Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Nearby is the UNESCO World Heritage site that Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore describes this way: “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.” The river he refers to is the Yamuna.

Bring as few belongings as possible when visiting the Taj Mahal. Security is tight due to terrorist threats. You can purchase a foreign tourist ticket at one of the three gate entrances for Rs 1000. It is estimated that 40,000 people visit the Taj Mahal daily between the viewing hours of sunrise and sunset. The entry lines are not long in late afternoon when I visit.

The massive scale of the white marble building surprises me. It dwarfs the human body. Inside the mausoleum is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the third and favorite wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. You can learn more about the Taj Mahal story at the India government official website.

Visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

 

 

 

I linger on a bench until sunset when the light on the building is soft and beautiful. The reflection pond mirrors the building’s image. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, the Taj Mahal is a peaceful place. There are no commercial ventures selling souvenirs or plastic replicas of the building.

In the evening, I witness a pre-wedding street parade with the groom atop a horse surrounded by family, friends and merriment. He is making his way to meet the bride. The next day I visit Agra Fort where I get a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal at a distance from Shah Jahan’s palace bedroom. It is then that I feel the grief of a 17th century Mughal emperor.

Agra Fort view of Taj Mahal

 

 

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