Bengal to the Punjab by Rail
14 days visiting India
Land only tours from A$1475
On this tour we focus on the Indian Railway system, one of the World’s largest railway networks, travelling right across the north of India. We experience India’s trains at ground level, travelling with local people using the railway to visit relatives or as part of their everyday business; travelling by rail in India is like taking part in a moving village. Starting in the east by the Bay Of Bengal, we’ll encounter the spiritual side of India at Bodhgaya, by the holy River Ganges in Varanasi and at the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Along the way we’ll see the symbol of love that is the Taj Mahal; and ride a toy train up into the Himalayas, before we arrive in Delhi, India’s capital city.
Highlights of the tour
Full day guided tour of Kolkata, the former capital of India.
Half day guided walking tour of Bodhgaya, sacred site of Buddhism.
Boat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi.
Guided tour of Lucknow; visiting the City of Nawaab.
Guided tour of the Taj Mahal at Agra.
Ride the World Heritage recognised narrow gauge toy train to Shimla Hill Station.
Visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the spiritual centre of the Sikh faith.
Half day guided tour of Delhi by metro and rickshaw.
14 days Kolkata to Delhi.
What is included in the Itinerary
- 11 nights accommodation in standard comfortable hotels.
- 2 nights sleeper on overnight train.
- Other transport as detailed below.
- Services of a Totally India Tour Leader throughout your journey in India.
Single room option – available at all night-stops at hotels; no single cabin option on overnight trains.
Included meals – 13 Breakfasts and 1 dinner on board a train.
Transport - Coach; Trains; Auto rickshaw; Local boats and Cycle rickshaw ride.
Group size – approximately 16.
Tour Leader/Staff – Local Totally India Tour Leader from Kolkata to Delhi; local guides on sightseeing tours; boat crew on the Ganges and coach drivers.
Accommodation standard - Hotels on this tour are mid-range in standard. Whilst not luxurious, they are clean and comfortable and all have facilities such as a bar and/or restaurant. Overnight sleeper accommodation on trains is basic.
Energy Levels – This tour sees us moving on nearly every day, and has several early starts, long days and an overnight train journey involving an early morning arrival. You will see a lot but you must be prepared for crowded days as well as some relaxation time.
Day By Day Itinerary Duration - 14 days Kolkata to Delhi.
Day One, Sunday: Arrive Kolkata.
Today we arrive in Kolkata, check into our hotel and meet our Tour Leader. The day is then left free for you to recover from any jet lag and to spend a few hours just exploring the city at your own pace and adjusting to the bustle, the colour, the chaos and the assault on the senses that is an Indian city.
Day Two, Monday: Full day tour of Kolkata.
After breakfast today we meet our guide and start a full day tour of the city .Kolkata was once India’s capital, and even today it is the country’s second city. Our tour will visit Dalhousie Square, with its architectural reminders of the days of the Raj and we’ll visit St John’s Church. Another reminder of colonial times is the impressive white marble Victoria Memorial, a blend of Mughal and British architecture. The city has a wealth of temples and we’ll visit a Jain and a Kali temple. There’s also the Flower market and the village of Kumartuli, with its clay modellers, to visit. A tour of contrasts as befits a city of contrasts.
Day Three, Tuesday: At leisure in Kolkata; afternoon train to Bodhgaya.
Today there are a number of optional excursions available which your Tour Leader can arrange, to give us a last taste of Bengal’s largest city .Mother Teresa’s Home and Orphanage are well worth a visit; a memorial to the Serbian-born nun who was beatified in 2003 after over half a century of helping the poor of this vast city. The Dakshieswar Kali Temple is another of the city’s many temples. In the late afternoon we head for the railway station and board our first Indian train. We expect to use the Kolkata Radjdhani Express, and will be travelling in an air-conditioned 3 tier carriage (see notes on Indian trains below), but it’s worth taking a wander through the usually quite lengthy train to see the various standards of seating on board. Our journey takes us to Gaya, in the state of Bihar; a journey of about five and a half hours, and we disembark in the late evening, for the drive of about an hour to Bodhgaya.
Meals: Breakfast and Dinner.
Day Four, Wednesday: Morning visit to Bodhgaya; afternoon train to Varanasi.
After breakfast we have a guided visit to Bodhgaya. The place is an important pilgrimage site for followers of the Buddhist faith as it is here that Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment over 2600 years ago, under the Bodhi tree. We’ll visit the descendant of the original tree, before seeing the Mahbodhi Temple. The original temple on this site was built over 1800 years ago at the behest of the Mughal ruler Ashoka, the current temple is one of the oldest brick temples in India and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002. We’ll also see the Great Buddha statue, before leaving this pilgrimage site. In the early afternoon we drive back to Gaya to catch the train to Varanasi, a journey of some three and a half hours. We expect to travel on the Poorva Express, in AC3 class. As with any rail journey in India it’s a good idea to spend some time just looking out of the window at the unfolding landscape, but it’s equally interesting to wander through the train and see who we meet; our fellow travellers are usually extraordinarily friendly and often eager to chat as the miles roll by. In the early evening we roll into the railway station at Varanasi and drive the short distance to our hotel.
Day Five, Thursday: Full day in Varanasi.
Varanasi is a large and sprawling place, and a pilgrimage centre for adherents of the Hindu faith. Said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, the city sprawls along the banks of the sacred River Ganges; indeed the heart of the city is down at the Ghats along the river bank where pilgrims come from all over the world to cleanse themselves in the holy river. Fittingly then, we start our day with a transfer by coach or jeeps, to the Ganges, where we take a boat ride at dawn along part of the river, rowing slowly past the Ghats, giving a chance to observe life along the river, when pilgrims are usually performing the puja ceremony, and to watch life at some of the over 80 Ghats. Dashashwamedh Ghat is Varanasi’s most popular and accessible Ghat with rows of pandas sitting on wooden platforms under bamboo umbrellas, masseurs plying their trade and boatmen jostling for custom. We may see cremations taking place at some of the Ghats; such ceremonies are of course not suitable for photographs. In the afternoon we take a guided walking tour through the twisting narrow streets of the old part of the city, full of colour and noise, markets and temples. In the evening we take a trip by cycle rickshaw through the narrow streets and back to the Ganges to see the evening ‘aarti’ ceremonies, then return to the hotel, again by cycle rickshaw.
Day Six, Friday: Morning visit to Sarnath; afternoon train to Lucknow.
A short distance from Varanasi lies Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment; this is one of the four holiest Buddhist sites in the world. As well as visiting the main shrine we will also see the Dharmarajka and the Dhamakh stupas, and the nearby Ashok pillar; key structures in this major collection of Buddhist temples. Time then for a last wander around Varanasi, before in mid-afternoon we head for the station to start our third train journey. We expect to travel on the Lucknow Intercity Express, travelling in AC chair class. We roll across the plains for about five hours before pulling into the station at Lucknow, where we transfer to our hotel.
Day Seven, Saturday: Morning in Lucknow; afternoon train to Agra.
Lucknow, of course, is remembered by most visitors to India as the scene of what they refer to as the Indian Mutiny, although Indian historians see it in a slightly different light. After breakfast we have a half day guided tour of Lucknow, visiting the Bada Imbara, dating from 1784; with the Asfi Mosque and the Bhul-Bhulayah labyrinth. We’ll also visit the Chota Imambara, located close to the bazaar, and see the Rumi Darwaza Gate, one of the most impressive in India. Then we take the mid-afternoon train, our fourth train journey, as we head for one of India’s most iconic cities. We expect to travel on the Agra Intercity Express, in AC chair class. After some five or six hours we roll into the station at to Agra and transfer the short distance to our hotel.
Day Eight, Sunday: In Agra; overnight train to Kalka.
An early start this morning, before breakfast, as we drive the short distance to the Taj Mahal, in time to see the place at sunrise. Built some 300 years ago, the Taj never fails to stun the viewer; its symmetry and elegance, its perfect proportions making it, in the views of many, the world’s perfect building. The Taj took 22 years to build, using the labour of 20,000 men, on the orders of Shah Jahan who wanted a monument to his love for his wife Mumtaz; the Emperor joined her under the white marble dome of the Taj after his death. After that incomparable first view of the building we will have a guided tour before returning to our hotel for breakfast. Later we will visit the Red Fort, the other major Mughal structure in Agra, built at the behest of Akbar the Great, before spending the rest of the day exploring the streets and markets of present-day Agra, or perhaps visiting the Itimad-ud-Daulah, built in the 1600s for one of Jehangir’s ministers and often known, since it is stylistically similar to the Tah Mahal, as the Baby Taj. Lying across the river from the Taj; it is of interest in its own right, but also offers another view of the Taj Mahal itself. Alternatively there is time for an optional visit to Fatehpur Sikri. Once the site of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court, this city is now deserted, having been inhabited for just some 16 years after its construction in 1569, before being abandoned. Still standing virtually intact, just as it did in the sixteenth century, the place is a treasure house of royal buildings. In the centre of the main courtyard is the Pachisi Board, once used by the Emperor for games similar to chess, but using live slave girls as pieces. We’ll see also the Panch Mahal, towering five stories high, and the remarkable Diwan-i-Khas, with its lotus shaped central pillar. Back in Agra, in the late afternoon, we head for the train station and the train to Kalka. We expect to be travelling on the Kalka Mail in AC2 class.
Day Nine, Monday: Morning train to Shimla; then day at leisure.
A very early start to our day this morning, as we disembark at Kalka station, just to the north of Chandigarh, before five in the morning. Waiting for us on the adjacent narrow gauge track is the ‘toy train’ to the hill station of Shimla, steam hissing in the early morning. The grandly named Shivalik Deluxe Mountain Toy Train Express leaves at around 5.30am; the tiny train winding its way slowly up into the hills, through over 100 tunnels and taking some five hours to complete a journey of some 96 kilometres. Breakfast is served on the train. The train is a UNESCO World Heritage entity, and our journey is like travelling back in time. We pass through 20 railway stations, 102 tunnels, 800 bridges and around some 900 curves. We travel in Chair class, with very little space for luggage, which travels up to Shimla in our coach. Around mid-morning, having climbed somewhat over 1600 meters, we slowly roll into the station at Shimla. Once checked in at our hotel the rest of the day is left free for us to explore what is arguably one of India’s most famous hill stations at our own pace, given that such a leisurely day might be well advisable after such an early start.
Day Ten, Tuesday: Full day in Shimla.
Shimla was perhaps the pre-eminent hill station of colonial days. With the opening of the Kalka-Shimla railway in 1903 it was possible for colonial families to escape the summer heat of the plains by spending a few months in Shimla. The town is notable for it’s colonial buildings; Christ Church, and the mock-Tudor architecture at Scandal point. There’s also the Vice-Regal Lodge, where Indian Independence negotiations took place. There are huge hallways panelled with teak, and an imposing facade. We’ll see these reminders of the days of the Raj on our guided walking tour of the town. There is also Christ Church, an 18th century Gothic style structure with beautifully adorned windows. In the afternoon there is the opportunity to take a walk out of town, perhaps up to the Jakhoo, or monkey, temple, dedicated to the Monkey God Hanuman, a steep 45 minute trek up from the Mall, Shimla’s main street. The temple is worth walking to just for the views of the Himalayas, but beware of the monkeys who inhabit the temple; they have a tendency to steal whatever they can. Or an alternative is to walk to Summer Hill, or even head for Chadwick Falls, some 7 kilometres from Shimla.
Day Eleven, Wednesday: Morning in Shimla, afternoon train to Amritsar.
On our second morning in Shimla there is time for a last stroll around the bazaar, before we join our coach and head downhill, following the toy train tracks. We drive to the railway station at Ambala, from where, in the early afternoon, we depart on a rail journey of some 5 hours, to Amritsar. We expect to travel on the Paschim Express, in AC3 class, and should arrive in the early evening at Amritsar to make the short transfer to our hotel.
Day Twelve, Thursday: In Amritsar; visit Wagha Border; overnight train to Delhi.
Amritsar was founded in the 16th century, and is the holiest city of the Sikh faith. Our morning starts with a visit to the Golden Temple, home to the holy Texts of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, from which a continuous recital takes place. The building, which is rather small, is covered with over 700 kilograms of pure gold, and is surrounded by the waters of the surrounding pool, or tank, in which Sikhs can bathe. This peaceful setting was the scene for the massacre of several hundred Sikh protestors in 1984, an act which led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi that same year. Amritsar is no stranger to acts of violence, and after visiting the Golden Temple we will visit the Jallianwala Bagh, site of another infamous massacre of Sikhs, this time at the behest of the British General Dyer in 1919, which led to the development of civil disobedience as a political weapon by Ghandi, and so to the growth of the Indian independence movement. From here we take a drive west along the Great Trunk Road. This highway originally ran across much of the Indian sub-continent, but with Partition the highway was bisected by the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagha. Our late afternoon visit to the border allows us to witness the Changing of the Guard, when both Indian and Pakistani Border Guards lower their respective flags at sunset, with appropriate ceremony. We return to Amritsar and head for the railways station, from where we take our last rail journey of the tour, as we board the overnight Golden Temple Mail, travelling in AC2 class, to Delhi.
Day Thirteen, Friday: In Delhi.
Our train is scheduled to roll into Delhi around seven o’clock in the morning. We transfer to the hotel, freshen up and have breakfast. After breakfast we spend the morning on a guided tour of the city. India’s capital is effectively divided into two cities: New Delhi and Old Delhi. New Delhi dates from the days of the British Raj; it was designed by Lutyens in the 1930s and still retains the feel of colonial India. We’ll see the Parliament buildings, India Gate, the Rajpath, and the 13th century Qutb Minar, as well as visiting the sixteenth century Humayan’s Tomb, a precursor of the Taj in Agra. Then we head for the narrow streets of Old Delhi. Once capital of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, Old Delhi is a maelstrom of colour, noise and chaos, and using a mixture of the old and the new – the metro and a cycle rickshaw ride- we reach the Chadni Chowk Bazaar, at the heart of the Old City. A highlight of Old Delhi is the Jami Masjid mosque. Built of Red-stone the Jama Masjid, also known as Masjid –e-Jahanuma, is the largest mosque in India. The courtyard of the mosque measures around 1000 square meters and has a capacity of 100,000 people. In the center of the courtyard is a tank and Hauz. This was built for the purpose of Wazu, compulsory ambulation done before Namaaz. In front of it is a raised platform called the Dikka. The mosque is so big that the Muatllawi (the second cleric), used to stand on the Dikka and repeat the Ayats said by the Imam (the chief cleric) to the devotees who were unable to hear him. The mosque took some 14 years to construct. From the top of the southern minaret there is a view of New Delhi, where we will explore tomorrow. Nearby is the imposing Red Fort. Built in the 1600 it’s imposing red sandstone walls stand over 30 meters above the heart of the Old City which swirls around it. We’ll take a rickshaw ride through Chadni Chowk and have a wander through the Spice Bazaar. Be sure to have a camera ready to capture all the wonderful sights including the chaotic electrical wiring, monkeys, traders on bikes with massive loads, and the traffic in general which by some kind of sixth sense and tolerance means drivers and pedestrians seems to just miss each other. After our orientation tour of the city the rest of the day is left free for us to explore whichever areas of the city draw us back. Our rail journey has brought us from a former capital of India to the capital of today and we spend a last evening amidst the sounds, the chaos, the colours and the contrasts that are India.
During your tour various optional activities and excursions are possible, arranged locally, usually by your Tour Leader. We can give some guidance as to likely costs, but since the cost often depends on the number of people who decide to participate, our quoted costs are for guidance only.
Varanasi – Sunset ‘Arti’ ceremony by boat - 720 Rupees
Please note that the itinerary detailed above may be amended from time to time, for operational reasons or due to force majeure, and night stops may be different to those detailed here. Where possible we will notify you of any changes prior to the commencement of your tour, but this may not always be possible.