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Visiting India's Land of Emperors by Rail

June 21, 1987|DENNIS CAVAGNARO | Cavagnaro is a Walnut Creek, Calif., free-lance writer.

JAIPUR, India — The emperor studied the board and decided his move. He commanded: "Knight to bishop two." A thinly veiled slave girl moved gracefully up two squares and over one.

Akbar the Great was playing with his live chess set on the black-and-white squares of the Pachchsis courtyard of his palace of Fatehpur Sikri. A chill ran up my spine at the thought of the awesome and total power of the Mogul emperor in the latter 16th Century.

We had come to see the Taj Mahal, but the journey to Agra brought us to Fatehpur Sikri first. It was an unexpected delight. From the highest point on Fatehpur Sikri's main gate we could see the dome of the graceful Taj Mahal off in the distance.

India's best-recognized princely city is Jaipur, Rajasthan's (Land of Kings) classical 17th-Century Pink City and its edifice, the Hawa Mahal. Luckily, both are within a few hours by rail from New Delhi. If you are adventurous, with planning you may do both inexpensively in an independent two-day excursion.

Most major hotels have travel agencies that can book you onto Indian Railways. Insist on your plans, as they may first try to talk you into taking a more expensive group tour or hiring a car and driver for a day trip to the Taj Mahal.

'Name' Expresses

You may arrange for first-class or air-conditioned class reservations on comfortable "name" expresses for a triangular routing from Delhi to Jaipur, then overnight to Agra and return to Delhi.

The sleeping car between Jaipur and Agra serves as the "hotel on wheels." When booking, reserve a bedroll for this leg of the journey. Pack only the minimum and check the bulk of your baggage at your Delhi hotel.

Take early breakfast or ask your hotel to pack one so that you can arrive at Delhi Station (by Red Fort) in time for the 5:50 a.m. departure of the Pink City Express. The cars are pink. The train leaves from Track 16 on the meter-gauge Western Railway. Your name will appear on a list posted on the side of your assigned car (the list is an inexpensive souvenir).

If you are hungry, buy some fruitcake (it's really pound cake embedded with bits of citron) and the ever-present cha (tea). Pick up an English-language newspaper, perhaps the Times of India or the Hindustan Times (the Sunday matrimonial ads are entertaining).

Browse through a wide selection of what appears to be comic books. They are Amar Chitra Katha ("Immortal, Illustrated Stories"), with more than 250 titles, most of them in English. The stories of Indian history, heroes, religion and mythology are an easy and enjoyable way to better understand India and the Indians.

The railways offer a comfortable way to enjoy India's beauty, its countryside and its villages with life styles little changed over the centuries. Even in the cities the trains give glimpses of life in the teeming bazaars and quieter neighborhoods. There's little of the gray, dull, heavy industry so common trackside in the United States and Europe.

During the five-hour journey the urbanization of Delhi gives way to the slow, pastoral countryside, where farming is still unmechanized.

Rajasthan's scenery is "big sky," with wide horizons and few clouds. The softly rolling plains are dotted with palm trees and warm-brown, mud-walled villages. The "tractor" and beast of burden is more often than not the camel. The camel, pulling a goods-laden cart, is the "Rajasthan pickup truck."

After an 11 a.m. arrival in Jaipur, book the Jaipur/Amber tour from the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corp. office at the railway station. You will have time before the 1:30 p.m. departure to stroll into Jaipur and take lunch at one of the hotels.

Look Out on City Life

The tour's highlights include the Hawa Mahal (palace of the winds), whose well-photographed pink sandstone facade graces many a travel poster. The facade was designed to allow the maharajah's cloistered ladies to look out at city life without being seen. Behind, the Jantar Mantar observatory rivals the one in Delhi.

Amber, seven miles from Jaipur, is an abandoned but classical and well-preserved palace. Behind its high ramparts on a hilltop it commanded, the Rajasthan desert spread out before it for six centuries until Jai Singh II built Jaipur to replace it in 1728.

Here's an opportunity to ride in the howdah of a colorfully caparisoned elephant up the steep path to the palace while being serenaded by India's answer to a fiddler. If Amber looks familiar, it might be because of its stardom in "Far Pavilions."

Returning to Jaipur, our tour bus was slowed by a colorful and loud bridal procession. We had the driver let us out on the spot, and we joined in the happy madness for a few blocks before browsing through the teeming, early evening bazaar.

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