An Itinerary for Travel to World Heritage Sites in India in Trains – Heritage on Rails

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Republished from UNESCO Power of Creativity Magazine Vol 3 with permission from and the courtesy of UNESCO New Delhi.

Other articles published in this series –

If you decide to visit all 27 sites in India that are inscribed on the World Heritage list by UNESCO, the best means of doing it is by rail. So, let’s do just that – visit all World Heritage sites in India ensconced in the comfort of a railway compartment.

…India is a vast and complex place. The phones seldom work, the mail is unreliable, the electricity is liable to sudden stoppages. There are numerous natural disasters and there are 800 million people. It is almost inconceivable that the country is still viable…
…Towards the end of my Indian journey I decided that India runs primarily because of the railway… …It is impossible to imagine India without the railway, or to think what could possibly replace it.
– Paul Theroux writing in The Imperial Way (1983)

The phones are certainly working today, but the singular importance of the railway in keeping the country ticking as one unit continues. Written a quarter of a century back, Paul Theroux’s words are as true today as they were then, or as they were a hundred years back. That’s right, even in the colonial days of the British Raj, it was primarily the railway that held the far-flung areas of the country together.

Today, India’s rail network links over 7000 stations, making inroads into its remotest corners. Arguably, roads do link more places than the railway, but they do not do so with the efficiency, comfort or speed of the latter. Which road journey can match the romance and joy of travelling by train! Consequently, if you decide to visit all 27 sites in India that are inscribed on the World Heritage list by UNESCO, the best means of doing it is by rail. So, let’s do just that – visit all World Heritage sites in India ensconced in the comfort of a railway compartment.

Let’s commence our odyssey from India’s teeming metropolis, Mumbai. Better known as Bombay, this is a good place to begin as one of its landmarks happens to be a World Heritage site itself – the Railway’s very own Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (or CST), the city’s largest and one of the country’s busiest rail terminals.

But wait! Before you board your train for the many destinations that will take you to other heritage sites, do not miss out on another site in the city itself – the 14 centuries old Elephanta Caves. Located on Gharapuri island off Mumbai, Elephanta can be reached by regular ferries that leave from the Gateway of India harbour, not too far from CST.

After a hectic day at the caves, you are ready to board the Dadar-Amritsar Express as midnight approaches. Lulled into sleep by the soft rolling of a virtually silent coach, you wake up only in the morning in time to disembark at your destination.

As the electric locomotive gathers speed towards Mumbai’s outlying suburb of Thane, there is a feeling of exhilaration when you realize that it was on this very line over 150 years ago that the first passenger train chugged out of what was then Bori Bundur (now CST) to its destination, Thane at 3.35 p.m. on April 16, 1853. This was the line laid by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIP) (incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1849). With this first train service, the GIP had won the race for running the first trains in the country. By 1865, the GIP line had crossed the Thal Ghat between Kasara and Igatpuri and extended its reach to Jalgaon, your destination on this leg of your journey.

Within easy reach of Jalgaon are two heritage sites – the Ajanta and the Ellora Caves. Both can be approached as well from Aurangabad, lying on the line that takes a southward fork from the Mumbai- Jalgaon line at Manmad. The Ajanta complex comprises of 30 man-made caves created over the period between the 1st and 2nd century BC and the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The 34 Ellora Caves came in a little later in the 7th to 9th centuries AD and coincided with the reemergence of Hinduism in the country.

After completing a circuit of these extraordinary examples of rock-cut architecture, you board the Bangalore-Ahmedabad Express from Jalgaon, en route to Vadodara (earlier Baroda) and via Surat. Until Surat, you are on the erstwhile Tapti Valley Railway line that was opened in 1900. Meandering along the valley of the Tapti River, the line connects with the Mumbai–Vadodara main line at Surat. From Surat, you are on, what was earlier the Bombay Baroda and Central India (BB&CI) Railway line. Initially, BB&CI radiated along the coast from Surat in both directions. The line to Ahmedabad towards the North opened first in 1863 and the opposite line to Bombay a year later. Subsequently, the lines extended way beyond Baroda into the heart of Central India.

Vadodara is only 52 kms from the next heritage site – the Champaner-Pavagarh Archeological Park. Situated at the foot of the Pavagarh Hill, this is an ancient historical town from the days of the Rajput Chauhan kings. Large parts of it are in ruins today, but there are enough monuments visible that are testimony to its chequered past.

Coming back to Vadodara, we board the famed Rajdhani Express that speeds you across the country to the national capital, New Delhi. Fully air-conditioned, this train caters to all pockets, providing sleeper berths in the AC 1st, AC 2-tier and AC 3-Tier classes. For the level of comfort provided, this is perhaps the most cost effective travel by any mode anywhere in the world.

It is no surprise that Delhi boasts of 3 UNESCO heritage sites – the Qutb Minar Complex, Humayun’s Tomb, and the Red Fort. Delhi has a history going back to the days of the Tomar Rajputs and has had the distinction of being the capital of the country under a succession of kings and dynasties. It is said that standing atop the 256’ high Qutb Minar, you can see more structures more than 500 years old than at any other place, except Rome.

After Delhi’s sites, you can make comfortable train journeys to a number of heritage sites, with Delhi as the base. By far the most significant journey you undertake is to the city of Agra, where you can see the country’s best known monument, the Taj Mahal, along with Akbar’s historic city of Fatehpur Sikri and the Agra fort. To reach Agra, you take the Taj Express or the Shatabdi Express, both of which leave Delhi in the morning and return the same evening. Depending on the time at your disposal, you can return the same day or after a few days, at your convenience. The rail spur from Delhi to Agra was built only in 1904, so that even this comparatively new line goes back a full century.

After exploring Agra, you can return to Delhi or continue down the erstwhile GIP line to Jhansi and onwards to Bhopal by any of a large variety of trains, to suit your time, convenience and pocket. You make two stops – the first at Jhansi to take a detour to Khajuraho, the location of the well-known temples of erotica. With some 85 temples, built mostly between the 10th and 12th centuries, Khajuraho is on the itinerary of most tourists. The second stop is at Bhopal, about 46 kms from the Buddhist stupas at Sanchi and the same distance in a different direction from the Bhimbetka caves, where you can see paintings of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, going back to pre-history. Both, the Great Stupa at Sanchi and the Caves at Bhimbetka are now heritage sites.

Coming back to Delhi, you take the Golden Temple Mail to Bharatpur towards Mumbai. Bharatpur has a heritage site with a difference. Six kilometers from the railway station, is the Keoladeo Ghana Bird sanctuary, famous for its rich and varied bird life. Till a few years back, it was the only site in India where you could see the highly endangered Siberian Crane. Although not seen for almost a decade now, the sanctuary nonetheless is a must for any bird lover, whether a casual watcher or an avid professional.

Back to Delhi once again, you take the Kathgodam Express to Kathgodam at the foot of the Himalayas near Nainital. Kathgodam is the railhead for another heritage site, the Nanda Devi and the Valley of Flowers National Parks. At 7817 metres, Nanda Devi is the country’s second highest peak, so that the 630 sq. km. park named after it offers picturesque, though rugged, terrain. The Valley of Flowers in the summer is a treat to the eye.

Back in Delhi, you board another Rajdhani Express, this time towards Howrah, the railway station that serves the city of Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta). You are now on one of the oldest lines in the country – the line of the former East Indian Railway. The first sod of this railway was turned in 1851 by Lord Dalhousie and by 1854, the first train ran from Howrah to Hooglie, a distance of 38 kms. The line had reached Varanasi by 1862. The Yamuna bridge near Delhi opened in 1866, thus completing the first rail route from Calcutta to Delhi.

But wait, before you reach Howrah, you stop at Gaya, the station for another heritage site, Bodh Gaya. Located only 13 kilometers from the city centre, this is the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. The site includes the sacred Bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated before he saw the light.

Continuing onwards from Gaya, it is a short distance to Howrah. After arrival, your first stop is the Sunderbans. Stretching into Bangladesh, this forest of mangrove, the largest such forest in the world, is formed by the delta of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. The 2585 sq. kms. of the Sunderbans that lie in India were declared a tiger reserve in 1973 and a world heritage site in 1987.

Using Kolkata as your base, you are within reach of a number of heritage sites. First, you take the Kamrup Express to New Jalpaiguri, from where the famed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway starts its climb up the Himalayas to Darjeeling, the first of the 3 Hill Railways that are inscribed on the UNESCO heritage list. The other two include the line to Shimla and the line in the Nilgiris to Ootacamund (Ooty). You reach the former by travelling from New Delhi by the Shatabdi Express over what was primarily the erstwhile Delhi-Ambala-Kalka (DAK) Railway, a line opened in 1891. It is now part of the Northern Railway.

The 3rd of the Hill Railways, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) opened right at the end of the 19th century up to Conoor. It was extended to Fernhill by 1908 and Ooty by 1909. Its uniqueness lies in its third toothed rail in the middle of the normal rails. You get to Mettupalaiyam at the foot of the Ooty hills by the overnight Chennai- Mettupalaiyam Nilgiri Express.

Before you return to Kolkata from Darjeeling, you can continue onwards to Guwahati by the Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express. From Guwahati, you make forays into Kaziranga and Manas Wildlife Sanctuaries, both of which have UNESCO heritage status. Of course, to get to them, you will need to travel 270 and 176 kms. respectively. Both have railheads that are nearer: Furkating, 75 kms from Kaziranga and Barpeta, 40 kms from Manas. If time permits, your inclination will tempt you to take the rail route, as there is no better way to know the country and its people than to travel by train. You get to Furtaking by the Guwahati-Ledo Intercity Express and to Barpeta by any train from Guwahati towards Fakiragram.

From Kolkata, you travel by the Howrah-Chennai Central Mail along India’s East coast towards Bhubaneswar, 65 kms. from Konarak, the location of the Sun Temple, another heritage site. You could, of course, proceed by train to Puri, which is a mere 32 kms. away. Conceived as a gigantic chariot and built in the 13th century, the Temple is the best-known example of its kind in the area.

From Bhubaneswar, you proceed to Chennai by boarding the Bhubaneswar-Chennai Central Express just before mid-day and get to the Southern destination the next day morning. While the average train journey in India can be completed overnight, travelling by day has its own charm. Watching the ever-changing landscape from the train window, having a hurried cup of coffee at a wayside station, chatting with your fellow passengers or simply curling up on your berth with a good book are some of the delights of train travel in India. Sure, you don’t zip through the countryside at 400 kmph; but the slower sweep through the land certainly enriches your experience.

Heritage sites in Southern India are numerous. All can be reached by rail with Chennai as your base.

The nearest site is Mahaballipuram, that goes back to the 7th century Pallava period. Located 58 kms. from Chennai, you could go there directly by road or take the one-hour train journey by the Bhubaneswar- Puducherry Express to Chengalpattu, from where it is only 28 kms away. Now part of the Southern Railway, this line was completed to Tirruchirrpalli (Trichy) from what was then Madras in 1865 by the Great Southern Railway of India. You will note that the history of rail construction by the British is primarily that of lines radiating into the hinterland from the three main ports of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

Not far from Trichy, at Thanjavur, are the great living Chola Temples. As the name implies, the most monumental of them, Brihadishvara temple was built by Raja Raja Chola I and completed in 1010. We can travel to Thanjavur from Chennai directly by the Rockfort Express or board the same train from Trichy, which is only an hour away.

Returning to Chennai, you head for Karnataka, which boasts of two heritage sites. From Chennai you catch the overnight Chennai Central Mumbai CST Mail to Guntukul, from where there are a number of trains to take you to Hospet. This brings you to the “City of Victory”, Vijayanagar, only 13 kms. from Hospet. Built by the Vijayanagar kings in the 16th century, the city covers 20 sq. kms over a sprawling landscape, encompassing a large collection of monuments collectively called the Hampi group of monuments, encompassing about 200 years of glory when three generations of Hindu rulers held sway. The second site is at Pattadakal. From Hospet, you catch the Amravati Express to Hubli from where you change trains for Badami. A mere 29 kms from Badami, the Pattadakal complex is situated on the banks of the Malprabha river. The Chalukyas built these great temples here in the 8th century and used this site primarily for royal festivities and events such as coronations.

From Badami, you could return to Chennai but it is easier to continue to Sholapur and onwards to Madgaon in Goa, where the churches and convents of Goa are another heritage site. Constructed mostly by Portuguese colonizers in the 16th and 17th centuries, these are located mostly in Old Goa. The Basilica of Bom Jesus, which holds the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier, is by far the most well-known.

From Madgaon, you return to your starting point, CST by the Mandovi Express, that links the two stations. Since independence, there has been heavy investment in doubling of lines, gauge conversion, electrification, upgrading of amenities, and so forth. However, there has been very little addition of new routes. One exception is this line from Goa to Mumbai along the country’s west coast. Completed only a decade back, this is the newest line in the country and the only one that is not part of the Indian Railway network, being run by the Konkan Rail Corporation Ltd.

Back at CST, I am tempted to quote once again from Paul Theroux’s The Imperial Way as it reflects in a few short sentences, the essence of traveling by train in India.

…every Indian railway station accurately represented its was dirty town or city – it was just as small or large or clean or dirty or smug or desperate. Ever y airpor t in the world is practically identical…But every railway station is different and unique. When you get off a train and enter the station you know exactly where you are…

That’s right, we know exactly where we are. We are at the end of a grand tour of the heritage spots in the country using a means that is itself one of the most significant and valuable assets of our heritage – The Railway


-A mechanical engineer by qualification and a railwayman by profession, J L Singh is passionate about his interests that range from nature and natural history to heritage and railway history. After almost 40 years with the Indian Railways and RITES Ltd., he is currently a free-lance consultant, but spends the bulk of his spare time dabbling in his interests and penning his ideas and views in these areas.

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