‘Don’t fear, she’s lighter than a feather,” mentioned the person as he tried to go his aged mom to me – within the prepare – up from the tracks. She eyed me suspiciously, determined I wasn’t a protected pair of fingers and vaulted up the final couple of steps, pushed previous me and hobbled down the carriage.
The son shrugged and gestured down the road the place swarms of individuals, bored of ready for the prepare to drag right into a platform, have been clambering throughout the tracks to achieve it. A resourceful, decided character your common Indian pilgrim. And I used to be one among them, type of.
Day 1: On prepare south
Day 2: Tiruchirapalli: Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, India’s largest temple advanced with 50 shrines and 21 towers, and the extraordinary Unesco-listed Brihadeeswarar temple constructed within the 11th century by the Chola dynasty.
Day three: Morning in Rameswaram: Ramanathaswamy temple, the place Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, got here to worship Shiva and is now visited by thousands and thousands of Hindus a yr. Afternoon in Madurai: Meenakshi Amman temple devoted to the triple-breasted goddess Meenakshi. Thousands of carvings of gods, goddesses and demons and a surprising array of vibrant ceiling and wall work.
Day four: Kanyakumari: Kumari Amman temple lies on the tip of the subcontinent the place the waves of the Laccadive Sea crash outdoors this intimate, atmospheric temple devoted to the virgin goddess.
Day 5: Thiruvananthapuram: a fast detour into Kerala state for a dip within the sea at lovely Kovalam seashore then again to the intense stuff at Padmanabhaswamy temple which is barely open to Hindus.
Day 6: Kanchipuram: in a city well-known for its many temples Kamakshi Amman stands out for its sheer dimension however a lot is off-limits to non-Hindus so I spent extra time at Kailasanathar temple which was constructed within the eighth century and non-Hindus can get a glimpse into the interior sanctum.
Day 7: Tirupati: The temple of Venkateshwara within the hills above Tirupati attracts a whole lot of hundreds of pilgrims a day at sure instances and the anticipate darshan can take an entire day. Many devotees donate their hair to the deity so Tirupati is filled with shaved heads.
Day eight: Return north
Indian Railways’ tourism arm runs dozens of Bharat Darshan excursions throughout India annually – lasting from just a few days to a few weeks – aimed on the nation’s a whole lot of thousands and thousands of religious Hindus, taking them to a very powerful non secular websites.
Transport, lodging on the prepare or in fundamental hostels, vegetarian meals and infinite cups of chai are all included. And the fee? About 1,000 rupees a day, round £11. A discount for a westerner, just-about-affordable for a retired Indian instructor and a once-in-a-lifetime act of devotion for a farmer.
Writer Richard Eilers and fellow prepare travellers. Photograph: Richard Eilers
My seven-day journey began close to Hyderabad and would take me south to Tamil Nadu and its famously vibrant temples. Hopefully I might additionally get a glimpse of India and Hinduism via locals’ eyes.
There can be loads of time to develop into finest pals as a result of the primary cease was Tiruchirapalli, practically 1,000km away
But I used to be barely nervous as I waited on the platform at midnight. I’ve achieved just a few Indian in a single day prepare journeys however in air-conditioned carriages and just for an evening at a time. Here I might be in essentially the most fundamental sleeper coach (one thing’s bought to provide for £11) for per week with greater than 800 devotees with whom I may not have the ability to talk. And I had no thought how I used to be going to clean. My girlfriend had given me two packs of moist wipes, solely half in jest. In Hyderabad I had purchased a small bucket (hopefully only for showering), plus a sheet, pillowcase and fleecy blanket.
I had anticipated a scrum when the prepare arrived however just a few individuals boarded. I had the carriage to myself, I believe, as a result of there was no energy and I stumbled to my assigned berth in darkness. Half an hour later, with the prepare on its means and me cosy below my blanket, I used to be asleep.
I woke to shouts, laughter and vivid lights at 4am and peered blearily out from my covers. The coach was full of individuals and baggage, so many baggage. My neighbours had joined south of Hyderabad and have been visibly startled to see my pasty white face. We nodded hellos and I rolled over and dozed as they noisily devoured snacks.
There can be loads of time to develop into finest pals as a result of the primary cease on our itinerary was Tiruchirapalli, practically 1,000km away. A chai boy woke me at six and thrust a scalding sizzling plastic cup into my fingers. The coach was loosely divided into sections of eight bunks and I had one of many higher ones, my favorite, since you might sit on a decrease seat in the course of the day, watch the surroundings and chat, or climb as much as your home to learn or snooze.
Indian breakfast. Photograph: Alamy
Introductions have been remodeled a breakfast of chapatis, rice and dhal ladled onto steel plates from big vats dragged down the aisle. I hadn’t introduced a plate, a schoolboy error, so was given a flimsy paper one which made the entire business of balancing it on my knees whereas consuming a sloppy meal with my proper hand (I’m left-handed) on a bouncy prepare simply that little bit harder. I additionally had an viewers. My neighbours, a boisterous 13-strong prolonged household, watched my each clumsy mouthful with horror and hilarity.
Head of the household was MV Koteswara, a lawyer who spoke good English and rapidly determined I used to be hopeless. “Keep close to us, do what I tell you and it’ll be OK,” he mentioned. But he couldn’t do something about delays and we arrived the subsequent morning at Tiruchirapalli many hours late, dangerously late to have the ability to full the primary darshan of the journey.
I’d bought the impression that we have been on a little bit of a holiday jaunt, a coach tour of the Lake District, however I used to be unsuitable. Darshan was taken very critically. To full darshan the believer should behold a deity (typically within the type of a statue), holy particular person or sacred object and obtain a blessing. Darshan is barely doable at sure instances of the day and other people typically queue for hours to get only a few seconds in entrance of the deity, so a late prepare was dangerous news.
Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple. Photograph: Getty Images
A fleet of very drained buses took us just a few miles to the river island of Srirangam and its huge temple advanced dedicated to Ranganatha, a type of Vishnu. My neighbours raced to hitch the darshan queue however as a non-Hindu I used to be not allowed within the interior sanctum (some temples enable non-Hindus, some don’t) so explored the advanced’s many courtyards, towers and shrines. A few hours later the pilgrims emerged profitable, chatting excitedly and again on the buses girls led light devotional chanting.
Meeting an earnest younger scholar, Yakanna, forcefully illustrated the significance of darshan. His dad and mom have been farmers and had taken out a financial institution mortgage so he might go on this journey. “It’s a lot of money for them,” he defined, “but they know it’s something that means so much to me and are happy for me.”
On day 6 … a go to to Kamakshi Amman Temple Photograph: Alamy
The sample was set for the subsequent few days: fairly snug nights, meals cooked within the “pantry car” and pepped up with home made pickles produced by my neighbours, washing in buckets of chilly water within the surprisingly clear loos (though many males took benefit of prolonged stops to strip to their underwear on the tracks and wash) and a few superb temples.
The most extraordinary was an additional 230km south at Ramanathaswamy on Rameswaram island the place darshan began with a bathe within the sea, then continued into the temple itself for pilgrims to go to 22 separate theerthams (tanks and wells) the place buckets of water have been thrown over them. Thousands of individuals crowded, dripping moist, babies shivering, via the darkish advanced. It was an extremely moving scene. The temper on the prepare that night time was significantly excessive, at the very least as soon as garments frolicked of carriage home windows had lastly dried.
Pilgrims ready to wash on the Ramanathaswamy temple. Photograph: Alamy
I used to be the one westerner on the prepare and my presence was met with every part from indifference to incredulity however all the time friendliness. I by no means bought very far wandering via the prepare as a result of I might be invited to sit down for a chat (Google Translate made a very good stab at Telugu, most passengers’ first language) each few metres. Life on tour did have its challenges. There was no private area, bodily or emotional, however that’s India and I confess I did sneak off a few times for a quiet beer and a hen masala.
I had a good time, met some fantastic individuals, realized about Hinduism and got here away with a bit extra understanding of Indian life – and two unopened packs of moist wipes.
• Flights from Heathrow to Delhi have been offered by Virgin Atlantic (return from £439). Bharat Darshan excursions may be booked at irctctourism.com. Accommodation at Tree of Life guesthouse in Delhi (doubles from £48) was offered by India Someday, which organises personalised itineraries for all budgets