My strong belief is that traveling in India, or anywhere else in the world, is a lot more fun when done the way most locals do, not in the midst of opulence, but interacting with all kinds of people, trying out the food of the region, and enjoying minor inconveniences. Despite this, I still gave in when a friend invited me to join his family and guests visiting from abroad for a trip on the lavish Deccan Odyssey, when one member of his party canceled at the last moment. I wanted to see for myself if traveling in a mobile five-star hotel is any different from all other travels I have undertaken through the country. It helped that the company promised to be great and the route we were going to take was one that I hadn’t been on before this.
The Deccan Odyssey was commissioned in 2004 by the Maharashtra Government to boost tourism in the state and surrounding areas. While bookings were slow to pick up initially, which made the government cancel its run for a short while, the service operates fairly regularly now.
There are 6 different itineraries offered by Deccan Odyssey, presently operated by Cox and Kings. These are:
- Maharashtra Splendor – Mumbai to Goa and back, via Nashik, Ajanta & Ellora, Kolhapur and Sindhudurg
- Maharashtra A Wild Trail – Mumbai to Mumbai, covering Ellora, Aurangabad, Ramtek, Tadoba, Ajanta and Nashik
- Indian Odyssey – New Delhi to Mumbai via Sawai Madhopur, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Vadodara and Ellora
- Indian Sojourn – The same as Indian Odyssey in the reverse direction
- Hidden Treasures of Gujarat – Mumbai to Mumbai, covering Vadodara, Palitana, Gir, Little Rann of Katch, Modhera and Nashik
- Jewels of the Deccan – Mumbai to Mumbai, covering Bijapur, Aihole, Pattadakal, Hampi, Hyderabad and Ajanta & Ellora
Deccan Odyssey has 21 coaches overall: 10 regular coaches with 4 twin-bedded deluxe cabins each, 2 coaches with 2 Presidential suites each, 1 conference car, 2 restaurant cars, 1 bar car (that just sounds so nice!), 1 spa car and 4 coaches for staff, luggage, generator, etc. I was staying in one of the deluxe cabins that was surprisingly spacious for a room on a train, with wall-to-wall carpeting, attached toilet and shower, intercom, wi-fi and multiple music channel facilities. The spa coach had a sauna, a massage parlor and a mini gym. A library and DVD player channels were available in the common area to keep one busy. The two restaurants served a number of local delicacies, and the food was good, but not out of this world – the flavors seemed moderated a bit to suit foreign guests, who form a large part of the clientele. A personal attendant was always around to help with anything, and the service was impeccable across the trip.
Day 1: I was on the Jewels of the Deccan trip, which starts from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. Our first evening was spent getting familiar with the many facilities on board. Guests couldn’t stop gushing over the elegance all around. Great service at the bar, good food and comfortable rooms helped us settle down quickly for a week of traveling together.
Photo by ashwin kumar
Day 2: We entered the beautiful Deccan region the next morning, with our first stop at Bijapur, Karnataka, after breakfast and lunch on board. I had read so much about this historical city established by the Chalukyas, which rose to prominence under the Adil Shahi dynasty. We were taken to the Gol Gumbaz, the second-largest dome in the world, and also got to visit the Jama Masjid, Ibrahim Rauza and the Malik-e-Maidan (the largest medieval cannon in the world), before heading back to the train for dinner.
Photo by Sanyam Bahga
Day 3: After breakfast, we took short trips to Aihole and Pattadakal. Aihole is known for its complex of over 100 Hindu and Jain stone temples built by the Chalukyas, and dating to 5th century CE. Pattadakal, located about 30 minutes to the south-west, has temples from the 7th and 8th century CE. A few hours are ridiculously short for admiring the beauty of these two sites, but I was just glad I had finally got a chance to visit these. After lunch on the train, some of us decided to visit the temples and rock-cut caves at Badami, while others decided to sleep off their heavy lunches.
Day 4: The day I was looking forward to the most. Soon after our breakfast, the train entered Hospet. We were close to Hampi! This UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Vijayanagara Empire between the 14th and 16th centuries is too awe-inspiring for words. Even for a country like India, rich in magnificent examples of architecture, Hampi stands at quite a height. There was an option to return to the train for lunch, but I convinced most of my travel mates to stay back and enjoy some local food, and spend some more of the saved time exploring.
Day 5: An early breakfast was followed by a trip to the Golkonda Fort, which was built by the Kakatiyas and rose to prominence under the Bahmani Sultanate. After lunch on the Deccan Odyssey, we were taken to the recently refurbished Falaknuma Palace. A tour of this stunning structure, lovingly restored by the Taj Group, was coupled with high-tea. In the evening, we finally got to experience the real essence of Hyderabad, being allowed to roam freely in the Charminar area, shopping for trinkets and eating local dishes.
Day 6: We arrived in Aurangabad after lunch, driving over to Ellora, another World Heritage Site. Dating from the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu rock-cut shrines here, especially the Kailash Temple, can leave one truly dumbstruck. We were herded back to the train in the afternoon, with no time to visit the many sites of Aurangabad.
Photo by Purblind
Day 7: We had already reached Jalgaon by the time we were done with breakfast, and were driven to Ajanta (60 km from Jalgaon) for a quick visit to the spectacular rock-cut Buddhist caves. After lunch on board, we were for some reason taken to Gandhi Teerth. A museum and research institution dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, it might work as a local tourist destination, but for a bunch of travelers regularly complaining about getting very little time to spend at really outstanding places like Hampi and Ajanta, this was a strange addition to the itinerary.
Day 8: After breakfast, we were back at CST in Mumbai, with very little tiredness after the hectic pace of the trip, thanks to the comfortable train and true Indian hospitality on board.
The train really is quite something. And not just for someone who has experienced many horror stories on Indian Railways. Even the foreign guests in our party were going gaga over some of the comforts on board. But, the whole experience is too sterile. For example, I have been to Hyderabad many times in the past and it just felt like being in a different city this time around, and not in a good way. The trip does try to cover some great sites over a fairly vast area of the Deccan region and manages to do some amount of justice to all. But, it is still done in too short a time.
So, the Deccan Odyssey could be a great introduction for someone new to India, giving time and a protected environment to adjust to the many stimuli one is exposed to suddenly otherwise. But once you have dipped your toe in these waters, there is no way you can’t come back for much more.
Featured Photo Courtesy MaharashtraTourism.gov.in