As the train staggers out of the platform, Ramakant Agarwal lays his palms on his chest in an act of devotion, as speakers fixed above ceiling fans in the sleeper-class coach plays on loop a holy muzik: “Ram Siya Ram, Ram Siya Ram….” The stars and the planets favour the retired banker, now an astrologer. Sitting next to the 70-year-old man in thick spectacles—sparkling gems on his beringed fingers, a marigold garland around his neck, a smattering of rose petals in his hair and a vermillion mark on his forehead from the ceremonial welcome—is wife Uma, a retired college principal, who carries a home-stitched purple handbag.
The couple is among nearly 800 people on the maiden run of the Shri Ramayana Express, Indian Railways’ special pilgrimage train covering places associated with god Ram over 16 days. The epic voyage begins at Delhi’s Safdarjung railway station, where a red welcome mat is spread out for the pilgrims. Artistes in costumes—Ramayana characters—stomp around. Stoles and tiny flags in a bright shade of orange-yellow, bearing images of the god and emblazoned with ‘Jai Shri Ram’, are handed to passengers. Cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ rent the air. A posse of policemen keeps watch.
Next stop is Ayodhya, the god’s birthplace, after which the train, on the spoor of the Ramayana’s geographical map, is scheduled to do a long north-south hop spanning the entire country—Sitamarhi, Janakpur in Nepal, Varanasi, Prayag, Chitrakoot, Hampi, Nasik, and Rameshwaram. The tour includes a Sri Lanka leg, but that is for later.
The passengers take their seats, and at the quartermaster’s wave of the green flag, the journey begins. Removed from the bhakti-soaked welcome, reality sinks in. It seems the Railways hurriedly pulled some junked coaches out of a yard and strung them together into a special train. But for banners declaring ‘Shri Ramayana Express’ pasted on its exterior and strings of marigold tied to the frames, there’s nothing ‘special’ about this. Stained, dirty berths, windows encrusted with dirt and toilets without seat covers announce the unchanged experience of an Indian train. Almost everyone on board is in their sixties, some in their seventies. But devotion prevails over the discomfort. Someone says how lucky she is to be on the train’s first run. Another agrees; visiting all these places at one go is a wish come true.
Artistes prance through coaches of the train before it sets off on its 16-day journey
Mukesh Arora from Delhi, who is with the real estate sector, says the train will run in the name of Ram. Narendra Kumar, who has a motor parts business in Delhi’s Model Town, chips in: “The entire country runs in the name of Ram. Some fools think it’s the government that runs the country.” Kumar’s wife, Kanta Devi, leads a gaggle of women singing hymns in the next compartment. “Duniya chale na Ram ke bina … Ramji chalein na Hanuman ke bina …” Kumar, struggling with his phone charger a while ago, is now on a call with his daughter. “Your mother is having a great time. Listen.” He raises the phone.
A few hours on, the ragged old beast of a train asserts itself, faith takes a backseat and complaints pour out freely: “There is no water in the toilet”; “the tap is not working”; “the government gave a 60-plus train to the 60-plus”; “the very first trip is so third class”; “they should rename it Ram Bharose Express (at the mercy of Ram)”. The coach in-charge, Ashok Rajput, tries to placate: “Don’t worry, god Ram is taking care of the train.” The riposte is mercilessly quick. “What is the IRCTC doing then?”
Spurts of discontent bespatter the night, finding voice in imaginative ways. “It’s not the government, but the officers of IRCTC who are at fault. They are Congress loyalists bent upon bringing disrepute to Modi,” says Rajiv Kumar Goyal of Noida. Next to him, Laxmi Prasad Dwivedi from Chhattarpur, MP, says merely making attendants wear saffron clothes won’t please Ram.
The passengers are a motley group—a group of men from Karnataka; an elderly couple from Barmer, the remote border district in Rajasthan; a bunch of Himachalis, the women have ruddy cheeks and wear gold earrings. Every now and then they chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Faith keeps up, for now, with discomfort.
On Day 2, the train, delayed by a few hours, reaches Faizabad. Drummers await the pilgrims, and flower petals are showered on them. Some women start dancing to the drumbeats. The stay in Ayodhya is for two days and pilgrims are told to carry items for the stopover and leave the rest in the train. Some pack too much; some don’t have a second bag; some struggle with their bags, panting at every landing on the platform staircase. “The train is full of senior citizens. Why couldn’t they get it on platform one?” fumes one. But the pull of Ayodhya, hallowed ground for Ram bhakts, assuages the anger.
Hustled into 20 buses, the devotees head towards Ayodhya, 10km from Faizabad. Kanta, a constant, beatific smile playing on her lips, turns towards other women breaks into song, “Likh do mhaare rom rom mein Ram Ram O Ramapati ….” The chorus then shifts to “Kayi dino se bula rahe ho…koi to naata hoga”. The singing continues until buses reach the dharamshala where they will stay.
What they get is a large hall with a white-and-black tiled floor, mattresses and quilts stacked along the sides. Devotees scurry to mark their spot and grab beddings; within minutes the floor is a patchwork of red quilts. Outside, in the open, men bathe in their boxers and women with their clothes on under a couple of taps. The toilets, unsurprisingly, stink; some choked by gutka and pan masala packets.
Saffron flags with a Hanuman icon, and ‘Jai Shri Ram’ on it, was part of the welcome kit
Ayodhya is anachronistic, frozen and cast in ancient faith. Sadhus walk in khadauns (wooden clogs); hymns praising god Ram engulf every street; a seemingly endless row of shops sell rosaries, sindoor and paraphernalia for rituals; sweetshops creak under pyramids of laddoos; threading through all this is a swarm of devotees—some walking barefoot, some carrying bags on their heads, some walking with crutches. Monkeys watch the scene from atop their perches on walls, parapets and rooftops, waiting for an opportune moment.
Multiple layers of security wrap the god’s birthplace. The queue before the first checkpoint has over 100 people. Not even a pen or a comb is allowed. After two security checks, the queue enters a maze of steel grills. A woman shrieks—a monkey has snatched her packet of prasad. “Keep your hands empty,” warns a cop. CRPF commandos replace policemen as the queue snakes closer to the sanctum sanctorum. After an hour and four sessions of frisking, our devotees reach the spot. Before them stand the epicentre of the country’s most fractious political-religious issue, covered in a tarpaulin held up with bamboo sticks. They get a moment to bow their heads in obeisance to what’s inside—a small statue of Ram sitting on a bright yellow platform—before they are whisked away.
In the evening, bursting firecrackers lit up the Sarayu, courtesy the train staff. A giant statue of Ram, with Hanuman genuflecting next to him, looks over the expanse where devotees sleep over plastic sheets marked with the Hershey’s logo. People touch the statue’s feet, utter prayers. Floating oil lamps bob around on the placid Sarayu, creating pools of warm light.
Pilgrims prepare to rest at the dharamshala in Ayodhya
At the end of Day 3, the pilgrims return to the train. Ropes are strung across iron bars to hang wet clothes, including men’s underpants, some with holes. Devi cuts an apple and feeds the monkeys. Narendra is upset. His trouser, with Rs 15,000 in its pockets, was stolen. “Hum to bhool bhi gaye. Hum to Ramji ko de ke aaye hain (I’ve forgotten about it, consider it giving it to Ram),” says Kanta. Kumar googles on his phone for an Axis Bank branch in Sitamarhi, the next stop.
Uma complains about the train’s toilets, more specifically, about the missing seat cover on the commode. “Bhabhiji, aap standing waale mein mat jaya karo, sitting waale mein jaya karo (You should use the Indian-style toilet here),” Narendra suggests. The pilgrims also rail at the train’s pantry, the slow service and long delays. An angry man paces through the aisle, shouting: “No tea, no water, what is the staff doing?” After an unsatisfactory interaction with the coach in-charge, he proclaims: “Now you watch. You’ll get orders from Delhi to serve food.”
Kanta remains the eternal optimist. “Why are they getting worked up? Delays in preparing food happen at home too.” Uma cuts her short, saying they have paid for the trip (over Rs 15,000 per person). Kanta is silent for a while until she joins a group singing bhajans. She returns to ask Narendra for a writing pad. “Let me note down the bhajans. All you find these days are the filmy ones.”
Food is served finally and darkness drops like a curtain on the landscape outside. The elderly take a cue—they pop their pills and prepare for bed. Astrologer Ramakant dusts his sandals with his socks and slides them into the bunk below his berth. “Goodnight,” he mutters.
The conversation in the morning takes a political turn. There is general agreement that a temple should be built without delay at the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid stood before Hindu right-wingers demolished it in 1992. “The BJP at least talks about it. Other parties are scared to take Ram’s name,” says Narendra. The party will never build a temple, he adds, as it’s loathe to let go of a fundamental poll issue. Mukesh argues that Muslims might retaliate, but Narendra replies that most Muslims are in favour of a temple: “Aadhe Mohammedan to Ram Ram kar ke milte hain (Half of the Muslims greet you with Ram Ram).”
A TV reporter who got on board at Faizabad, seizes the opportunity for sound bites. But the camera and microphone are intimidating. Arora mumbles, “Bohot hi avishvasneey, avismaraneey yatra hai (It is an incredible, unforgettable journey).”
In Sitamarhi, the birthplace of Sita, pilgrims visit the Janki Mata Mandir, an open space with several smaller temples inside. The streets, with its unruly traffic, is everyone’s small town—from hand pumps to rabbits being sold on carts, from animal feed to seed stores, from posters of sleazy Bhojpuri films plastered on the walls of lanes to autorickshaws with plastic flowers on windshields.
The passengers are again hustled into rickety buses to Janakpur, across the border in Nepal. The road is bumpy and dusty and tough on, dare one say, for aged bones. At the border at Bhittamod, a woman commando enters the bus and takes a headcount. In Nepal, the number plates turn red and signages are in Devnagari. The bus moves for another hour on muddy, uneven roads, past fields, past naked kids wrestling on haystacks, brick kilns and dust-caked trees, before reaching the Janki temple. The mandap where Ram and Sita got married is within the temple premises.
The elderly couples, squinting at the white sprawling temple lit up by the waning sun’s rays, clutch each others’ hands and rush in. Two lion figures stand on their hind legs atop the entrance. There are stalls selling brass pots and vermillion and other knick-knacks. “Indian 100 rupees, Nepalese 160 rupees,” a seller announces the exchange rate. He then recalls how the 2015 earthquake damaged parts of the temple.
Aboard the train, the devotees head towards Varanasi, oscillating, as ever, between the loftiness of devotion and the minutiae of unpleasant hardship. But faith is at hand to mollify the creeping disaffection. One of them remarks, “Ramji was exiled for 14 years. What pain have we endured?”
By Salik Ahmad, aboard Shri Ramayana Express; Photographs: Tribhuvan Tiwari