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Tuesday, 19 February 2013 14:10

South India Rail Odyssey

Written by  Monique Burns
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Japan’s Shinkansen “bullet train” might break speed records, but India—with 40,000 miles of track and more than 6,000 stations—has Asia’s largest rail network. For passengers aboard any one of India’s half-dozen luxury trains, the pace is leisurely—all the better for taking in centuries of cultural heritage sites while being coddled in a style once reserved for Maharajas.
The Golden Chariot is the first and only luxury train to explore India’s south. Its popular 8-day, 7-night “Pride of the South” itinerary visits culturally and geographically diverse Karnataka. Flanked by the peaks of the Eastern and Western Ghats, the state has 200 miles of gold sand beaches along the Arabian Sea as well as extensive jungle tracts replete with elephants, tigers and exotic birds. Karnataka is also a cultural treasure trove. In this “Cradle of Stone Architecture” are hundreds of elaborately carved Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples and monuments, many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 
Agents can book seats on the Golden Chariot directly. But in India—a developing country with a reputation for bureaucracy—it’s helpful to work with a knowledgeable tour operator like Pallavi Shah, energetic founder and CEO of Our Personal Guest. Educated at Bombay University, she worked for 22 years at Air India, where she became Director of Specialty Marketing. In 1989, Shah launched Our Personal Guest. Agents booking trips through OPG earn a 10 percent commission, usually about $100 a day. That can really add up, says Shah, since most trips to India last 14-21 days.


All Aboard for South India!
The Golden Chariot travels round-trip from Bangalore, or Bengaluru, India’s high-tech hub. A 20 to 24-hour flight from the East Coast to Bangalore, India, including one or two stopovers, can be daunting. But a custom tour operator like OPG can design pre and post-trips. Before flying to Bangalore, a client might spend a night or two in Mumbai, or Bombay, India’s bustling fashion, financial and filmmaking hub. Here the most famous hotel is the 560-room Taj Mahal Palace (www.tajhotels.com), an ornate, block-long Victorian-style structure completely renovated after the November 2008 bombings. Doubles start at $335.
From Mumbai, it’s a two-hour flight to ultramodern Bengaluru International Airport. At Yeswantpur Station, the gleaming purple-and-yellow cars of the Golden Chariot, a joint venture between Indian Railways and Karnataka State Tourism, await passengers, who are greeted with traditional fresh-flower garlands. Turban-clad porters then whisk guests off to deluxe cabins featuring silk bed coverings and carved-wood furnishings as well as an LCD TV, a DVD player, Wi-Fi and a private bath. In addition to 44 cabins, there’s a gymnasium car with massage rooms and a conference-room coach for meetings of 25-30. There are also two restaurants, where most breakfasts, lunches and dinners are served, both continental fare and spicy Southern Indian specialties like chicken curry with fresh coconut.
The first night, the Golden Chariot travels two hours from Bangalore to Mysore, 85 miles southwest. In the morning, vans shuttle guests into Karnataka’s interior for a safari and overnight stay at one of two wildlife lodges run by Jungle Lodges & Resorts, Ltd. (www.junglelodges.com). Kabini River Lodge, with both tented and walled cottages, offers elephant sightings aboard traditional round wicker boats called coracles. Bandipur Safari Lodge runs jeep safaris into Bandipur National Park, a major tiger reserve. 
The next afternoon, passengers visit Mysore, “City of Palaces.” Most famous is 1912 Mysore Palace, a confection of sculpted pillars and domed ceilings. Ten miles away is Srirangapatna. Fortress of Mogul warrior king Tipu Sultan, it includes his mosque, with twin minarets, and 9th-century Ranganathaswamy Temple. The day ends, with a dinner show at Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel (www.lalithamahalpalace.in), a 1931 domed Italianate palazzo. 

Karnataka’s Great Temples
Over the next three days, the Golden Chariot explores some of India’s greatest temples. Sixty miles northwest of Mysore is Hassan and nearby Shravanbelagola, with a colossal 58-foot-high granite statue of Jain saint Gommateshwara. Pilgrims and other intrepid types climb 700 steps to the hilltop monument, built in the 10th century and believed to be the world’s largest monolithic statue. But Golden Chariot passengers can be borne aloft on traditional covered stretchers called palanquins. 
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Belur lies 23 miles northwest. Former capital of the Hoysala Empire, which ruled between the 10th and 14th centuries, Belur is renowned for its temple complex. Chennakeshava Temple—whose ornately carved façade features gods as well as elephants, horses and lions—took 103 years to build. Five miles east in Halebid, there’s yet another cluster of early temples. The standout is 12th-century Hoysaleswara Temple whose wall-to-wall carvings include a dancing Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god.
After visiting Halebid, guests enjoy a relaxing dinner aboard the Golden Chariot. Overnight, the train travels 160 miles north. At dawn, it pulls into the town of Hospet, gateway to Hampi, one of India’s grandest UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spread over 10 square miles, Hampi is former capital of the 14th-century Vijayanagar Empire. In the site’s Sacred Area, with more than a dozen temples and shrines, is one of India’s oldest functioning temples, 7th-century Virupaksha Temple, a mass of elaborate towers and courtyards. 
In the site’s Royal Centre, Hazara Rama Temple is covered with hundreds of carved bas-reliefs based on the Ramayana and other epics. Other top attractions are the Queen’s Bath, with verandas and arched windows overlooking a romantic courtyard pool, and the Elephant Stables, with domed chambers for the royal pachyderms. The highlight of Hampi’s riverside ruins is 15th-century Vittala Temple. An architectural extravaganza of halls, temples and pavilions, it includes the Stone Chariot shrine, shaped like a temple chariot drawn by two stone elephants.
The next stop on the itinerary is Badami, capital of the Early Chalukya Dynasty of the 6th -8th centuries. Here are four sandstone cave temples, including one depicting the god Shiva in 81 different dance poses. Pattadakal, about 14 miles away, is where early rulers were crowned. It’s known as the “Red Town” because of its red sandstone temples, including the richly sculpted Virupaksha Temple.

From Portuguese Goa to High-tech Hyderabad 
After several days of traipsing through 80-degree heat, even the most dedicated history buffs need to decompress. Fortunately, the next stop is the seaside paradise of Goa, about 120 miles west of Badami. From 1505 until 1961, a Portuguese colony flourished here, and the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with 17th-century Catholic churches. 
The Baroque Church of Bom Jesus, with gilded altars and marble floors, contains the remains of St. Francis Xavier, Goa’s patron saint. On Monte Santo, or Holy Hill, the Church of St. Monica, the East’s first nunnery, houses the Museum of Christian Art, a treasury of religious artifacts, including gold and jewel-studded rosaries. Passengers can spend the afternoon at Majorda Beach Resort (www.majordabeachresort.com) whose lush, palm-studded gardens stretch down to a 16-mile white-sand beach. 
From Goa, the Golden Chariot backtracks south to Bangalore, where the train trip ends. Guests can fly back the same day, or add a few more days of sightseeing. Though Bangalore is India’s high-tech capital, impressive early sites include the 1790 Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace with elaborate teak balconies and pillars. Centrally located, the historic 117-room Taj West End (www.tajhotels.com) has doubles starting at $260. A stay at the world-renowned Soukya International Holistic Health Centre (www.soukya.com), 13 miles outside the center city, is another good option (see box). 
Hyderabad, to the north, is also a popular sidetrip. Nicknamed “Cyberabad” for its many high-tech business campuses, the city’s most famous site is the massive 13th-century Golconda Fort with bazaars, barracks, camel stables and armories. Hyderabad’s newest hotel is the 60-room Taj Falaknuma Palace (www.tajhotels.com), a grand hilltop retreat of crystal chandeliers and marble staircases where doubles start at $445.
A Soukya Wellness Retreat 
From spa visits to overseas surgical procedures, medical tourism is on the rise. Melding ancient Hindu treatments with cutting-edge therapies, India is a world leader in holistic health. If you’re visiting Bangalore, consider a stay at Soukya International Holistic Health & Ayurvedic Treatment Centre.
Proclaimed “best wellness center” at India’s 2010 National Tourism Awards, Soukya balances the health of body, soul and mind. Guests from 40 countries stay on a 30-acre organic farm where fruits, vegetables and herbs are raised for healthy meals as well as ayurvedic medicines and oils. A Therapy Center offers yoga, acupuncture, reflexology, acupressure and other treatments. There’s also a library, Internet facilities, snooker and table tennis, a 1½-mile track for walking, jogging and biking, and a swimming pool. 
Founder and medical director Dr. Issac Mathai, who trained in holistic health in London and studied at the Harvard Medical School, presides over the center with his wife, nutritionist Suja Issac, and seven other holistic doctors. Each guest receives a complete holistic health evaluation and an individualized treatment program. There are wellness programs to relax and rejuvenate, life management programs to improve the quality of life, and medical programs for more than a hundred diseases and chronic conditions, from alcoholism and allergies to AIDS and Parkinson’s disease.Visit www.soukya.com and www.ourpersonalguest.com.

For More Information
Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) has the most frequent departures to Bangalore from Newark International Airport. There are also departures from New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports aboard Jet Airways and other major carriers. The Golden Chariot has year-round departures. Per-person costs for the 8-day, 7-night train trip are $2,415 (triples) and $2,975 (doubles). Children 6-12 ride half-fare. Log on towww.thegoldenchariot.co.in or www.goldenchariot.org. To book train trips and other India excursions, contact Our Personal Guest atwww.ourpersonalguest.com. For information on Karnataka and South India, log on to www.karnatakatourism.com orwww.incredibleindia.org.

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