There is simply no better way to see Rajasthan than by rail. Each destination is conveniently connected with the other, there overnighters as well as day trains, and because these are not busy, commercial routes, there is little chance of being delayed. That is the sheer practical side of the arrangements, but on the other, there is chaos, colour and confusion on the trains that is so amazingly interesting. Women sit in groups, their faces veiled, as they bring railway carriages to bloom with bursts of colour; mendicants move up and down aisles; men puff at biris, the leaf-wrapped smokes they enjoy, while gazing out at the scenery outside.
The countryside outside offers a glimpse of the Rajasthan most visitors never get to experience, because they are usually being rushed from sightseeing trip to the next. But the railways bring back the romance of travel, allowing you to experience the people who actually make up the land. A railway journey is no sterile account of a voyage undertaken devoid of the living colours and sounds and tastes in an enchanted land because it places the visitors firmly in touch with his environment.
The railways, in Rajasthan, were privately owned by the maharajas. For people cut off from the rest of their own state, the railways became a link to a life that they could not even begin to imagine. So far, the camel had truly been the ship of the desert, but now they had an iron monster that wheezed and puffed but carried them across in increasing comfort at a small price. The princess, on their part, attempted to build as many railways stations as they could, so that the hinterlands of the desert were no longer neglected. Which is why, when you sit in your carriage and look out at the dunes, the spread of fields, the silhouettes of camels as they plough furrows through the sand, at children playing a rudimentary game of cricket by the tracks, and at women gathered at village wells, you cannot miss the number of tiny, immaculately maintained stations which the trains whiz through.
How much have been these railways benefited Rajasthan? There is no easy answer to that, especially in the context where, of course, the practicality is already understood.
But seat yourself at an isolated station, if you will, perhaps with an earthen pot of hot, sweet tea in your hand, and gaze out into a horizon that dips over a few low sand dunes far in the distance. As you wait for a train to come in, you will hear the vibrations first, the initial stir of excitement. Then, in the distance, shimmering through the haze of heat, the diesel engine will come into view – till a few years ago it would have been steam – tooting a whistle to clear the tracks before it bustle importantly up to the platform. As the entire train winds into view, it brings with it an unexpected rush of adrenalin. Why this should happen is difficult to explain – trains, after all, are common place all over the world. But here, in this isolated pocket, it still carries the pioneering spirit that must have first surfaced in the 19th century. In the rush of people as they stretch they limbs at the platform, fill water bottles, bargain with the vendors, or embark and disembark, the railways as one of the great achievements of mankind is firmly established. In Rajasthan, the railways are part of the great romance of the land.