Day 5: Kolhapur and PuneWe sleep deeply and awaken refreshed at Kolhapur, a vivid and historic city once ruled by a dynasty of powerful maharajahs.
After breakfast, for fun, Harish wraps our heads in yards of bright orange fabric to form turbans in Kolhapur’s signature color. (Sensual India is a delight to the eye. As Diana Vreeland quipped, “Pink is the navy blue of India.”)
The Maharajah’s Family Manse
Our first stop is the dynasty’s rambling palace, now a museum. The Deccan Odyssey wives seem entranced by the maharanee’s jewels, saris and English-style dresses, while the husbands focus on the maharajahs’ swords, guns, and wrestling trophies. (Kolhapur is an Indian capital of this sport.)
In a theater beside the palace, we are treated to local performance art: male and female dancers reenact folkloric stories that are told by a singer accompanied by a sitar and flute.
Outside the palace, vendors are lined up to sell us their wares, and several of us buy inexpensive items.
Richard sees me trying on a necklace of garnets strung in a floral pattern, and ponies up the five bucks for it. Such a maharajah.
Have Sword, Will Perform
Our group then takes a sunny walk to the town square, where hundreds of Kolhapurans have gathered to watch a performance that has been arranged for us.
We are transfixed by a troupe of barefooted Kolhapur sword dancers, men and women clad in orange and white. They leap about gracefully, sparring with jewel-encrusted swords.
Afterwards, we have a moment to shop at a temple souvenir stand. Here, I buy a handful of dozen temple bracelets: black, red, and pink lengths of yard strung with tiny bells: Hindu custom has it that when you enter a temple, you ring a bell to let Lord Shiva know you are there.
I know I am given the tourist price for the bracelets, three rupees each. I don’t mind, because a rupee equals three and a half cents.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Back on the train, we lunch in the dining car as the train ambles toward our next stop, Pune. Once a backwater, Pune has become a teeming center of India’s information technology industry, and now numbers several million. We arrive in late afternoon, but Pune’s polluted air makes it seem dark.
The city’s film noir appearance—smoky haze and blinking neon—renders it a fitting backdrop for our next adventure with Harish, a three-wheeled taxi ride to an indoor shopping arcade.
The trip is hair-raising; there are no lanes and few traffic lights on Indian roads. Everyone just rushes forward en masse. At one point we nearly collide with a motorbike on which an unbelted toddler, wedged back-to-back with the driver, clutches the seat for dear life.
Take Two, They’re Cheap
The market, thronged with bargain-hunters, yields amazing deals such as silk-and-wool pashminas for three or four bucks and hammered metal bracelets and chokers for one dollar.
Back near the railway station, I dart into a shop selling Indian fudge made from nuts and condensed milk, whose taste is the antithesis of its name: barfi.
Having primped for dinner on the train, all the wives show up in the bijoux and pashminas they purchased that day. And all the husbands are asked to take photos.
Day 6: Aurangabad and Ellora CavesAt breakfast, we are served long-steeped rose-scented tea. It is appropriate, because today we will be steeped in Indian history.
We are visiting Aurgangabad, an ancient region resplendent with temples, forts, monuments, and religious statues and altars hand-hewn into rock.
First we take in Daulatabad Fort perched high on the Deccan Plateau, which protected Aurangabad from Mughal invaders from the north.
Then we marvel at Ellora Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a series of temples and sculptures—a temple city—carved into the ground out of sheer rock. The degree of manpower required to accomplish this feat is mind-boggling. The caves—which are consecrated to Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain gods—took 350 years to complete, from the 6th to 10th centuries.
The results are exquisite; the sculptures are spectactular works of art. Many show couples amorously entwined, though I am more seduced by a pack of stone elephants.
But the “wow” factor peaks with the Kailasa, which appears to be a giant temple the size of the Parthenon. Incredibly, it was carved out of a single, gigantic rock.
The Realtor Described it as “Palatial”
The group is divided on the worthiness of our next stop: a replica of the Taj Mahal, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara. It was built about 50 years after the original Taj Mahal by a Mughal prince to honor his mother.
That’s not quite as romantic a story as the Taj Mahal, and some of us feel that visiting the knockoff Taj is a lot like seeing the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. But it’s a beautiful day.
We are abruptly aware that we are exhausted by all the climbing, the walking, and the oohing and aahing. And like every other day, we’re hot, sweaty, and in need of a shower. So we’re grateful to get back onto the train for some beauty duty and pre-dinner leisure.
I opt for a good aromatherapy massage in the spa car while Richard has a beer with the husbands in the library car. I’ve finally perfected the art of eyeliner aboard a moving train, and I take my time dressing for dinner.