Did you know that in its journey of a little over 1,100 km, the Kashi Mahakal Express, which begins its commercial run on February 20, between Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh), packs in the spiritual essence of India? Book yourself a seat and see famous temples, mosques and churches at one go by planning a little in advance.
You may start from any of the terminal stations convenient for you.
Although tomes have been written about the city and every inch of it photographed, Varanasi still remains one of the most fascinating destinations of India. The city means different things to different people. While Hindu pilgrims seek deliverance from sin by bathing in the River Ganga and seek the blessings of Shiva and other divinities, others come for education and research, to study yoga or Ayurveda, to learn music, or simply enjoy the city’s cuisine or shop for the exclusive textiles.
Spend at least a couple of days here to soak in the many layers of the city. Kashi Viswanath (Shiva) is one of the much revered 12 Jyotirlingas. Spend half a day travelling to the Buddhist pilgrimage centre of Sarnath, where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Bodhgaya. Take an early morning boat ride along the many ghats of the river, and in the evening, watch the ‘arati’ at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
From Varanasi, the weekly train goes via Prayagraj (former name of Allahabad). You may take a boat to visit the Triveni, or the point where, according to legends, the three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati – meet. However, one cannot see the Saraswati River. Many researchers say the river is part of a myth while believers claim it flows secretly. Although the 16th century Allahabad Fort, built by Mughal emperor Akbar on the river bank looks imposing, visitors are not allowed inside except in two holy sites.
Some visitors have warned about attendants trying to fleece people.
Also, do visit the All Saints Cathedral, popularly referred to as the Pathhar Girja. Consecrated in 1887, the church was built by British architect Sir William Emerson in Gothic Reival style. Emerson also designed the Victoria Memorial of Kolkata and the Crawford Market of Mumbai.
If you have taken the train which passes through Lucknow instead of Prayagraj, then you may stop in the capital city of Uttar Pradesh to see its many imambarars and mosques. Another great attraction is the chance to sample Avadhi cuisine.
From here, the train travels to the commercial hub of Kanpur, not found on most travellers' itineraries. Although little remains of its association with the 1857 War of Independence, or its glamour as a popular centre for test cricket, you may spend a day here to visit Bithur, 24 km north of the city. According to the epic Ramayan, it is the birthplace of Ram’s sons, Luv and Kush.
Other places you should check out in this quiet town are Valmiki Ashram, Brahmavart Ghat, Patthar Ghat, Dhruva Teela, Lav Kush temple, Nana Saheb Smarak and Siddhidham Ashram. You may also visit the Kanpur Memorial Church built in 1875 in memory of the British who died in the 1857 ‘Siege of Cawnpore’.
Although the train does not pass directly through Bhopal, it does stop at Sant Hirdaram Nagar on the outskirts of Madhya Pradesh’s capital city. So you could spend a day in Bhopal to see its many attractions and sample its cuisine, from street food to royal fare. A must stop in Bhopal is the Taj ul Masajid, which means the ‘crown of all mosques’ for its grand architecture. Sprawling over 23,000 square feet, it is the biggest mosque in India and one of the biggest in Asia.
The penultimate stop of the train coming from Varanasi is Ujjain. Situated on the banks of the River Shipra, the city is said to date back to 600 BC. There are many temples in and around Ujjain. But the centre of attraction is the Mahakaleshwar Temple. This three-storeyed structure reflects mixed architecture, mainly Bhumija, Chalukya and Maratha styles. The main shrine of Mahakaleshwara Shiva (one of the 12 jyotirlingas), is surrounded by many other shrines.
You can either travel by road or by train to Indore, the terminal station on this route. Associated with the memory of the former Holkar royal family, it also serves as the gateway to Omkareshwar and Maheshwar. The present town was planned and developed by Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar.
From Indore, head for Maheshwar, about 100km away by road. The old fort (with its Rajgaddi and Rajwada) overlooks the Narmada River bank. You can descend to the ghats along the Narmada from the fort. Boating in the river can be a welcome rest. A must-see, must-buy here are the Maheshwari saris, a traditional textile popularised by Rani Ahilya Bai.
After Maheshwar, head to Omkareshwar, about 70km away by road. The temple town is rather similar to Varanasi with crowded river banks on the Narmada. To reach the temple of Omkareshwara Shiva, take a ferry ride across the river. The main deity, one of the 12 jyotirlingas, is housed in the Omkar Mandhata temple.
Before heading home from Indore, do not forget to try the evening street food market of Sarafa Bazaar.
Information: The Kashi Mahakal Express is a fully air conditioned superfast luxury train, which begins its commercial run from February 20. The route will be more or less same, with one pair of trains (82401/82402) running twice a week via Lucknow and another (82403/82404) running once a week via Prayagraj (Allahabad). Train no 82401 leaves Varanasi on Tuesdays and Thursdays to reach Indore the following day. Train no 82402 leaves Indore on Wednesday and Friday to reach Varanasi the following day. Train 82403 and 82404 leaves Varanasi on Sundays and Indore on Mondays, respectively. The train is also likely to offer package tours soon.