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On the Track of Englightenment

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In physical appearance the Maha Parinirvan Express resembles a Rajdhani. Its posture and attitude, however, is that of the Palace on Wheels. Run by the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd, the train covers a 7-day circuit across the plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and even neighbouring Nepal, tracing the footsteps of Lord Buddha as he progressed from prince to ascetic and finally the Enlightened One. As the train rolls out of Delhi’s Safdar Jung station - the urban sprawl of capital city unravelling outside the train's picture windows - it becomes more than apparent that the Maha Parinirvan is a luxurious oasis where one imbibe huge gulps of local flavour, snugly cushioned from the 11 million people who travel each day on the largest railway network in the world.

The Buddha safari starts in earnest the following day when the train pulls into Gaya. From here one is ferried by coach to Bodhgaya (15 km). This is the little pilgrim town where Prince Siddhartha, after six years of penance and fasting, sat under a Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. Today a grand temple complex built around the sacred Bodhi tree celebrates his emancipation.

Aside from this temple Bodhgaya is studded with monasteries and shrines built by believers from different countries like Japan, China, Thailand, Tibet, Sri Lanka… giving it the feel of a miniature global village theme park.

The following day, one explores Raigir (the capital of the first king to embrace Buddha’s message) and the sprawling ruins of Nalanda University, once the Mecca of learning. The next stop in the bustling Hindu pilgrim town of Varanasi which serves as the base for Sarnath (11 km away) where Lord Buddha set the Wheel of Life in motion when he delivered his first sermon to the five monks who had accompanied him through his years of penance and meditation. The peace and quiet of the little town which is punctuated with ancient stupas, monasteries and a little museum which houses the three-lion crown of an Ashoka pillar is in sharp contrast to the buzz on the famous Ganga river ghats of Varanasi.

The train then chugs on to Gorakhpur from where one is driven by coach to Kushinagar where the earthly flame of the Enlightened One was snuffed out. A gilded statue of the reclining Buddha is enshrined in a temple whose sleek modern lines seemed alien in a town where time seems to stand still.

After spending a night in a hotel in Kushinagar one drives down to Lumbini, just across the border in Nepal, where the ruins of an ancient stupa rises above the spot where the Buddha was born. Saravasti, where the Buddha spent a large chunk of his time post-enlightenment, is the next and final stop on the itinerary.

With this the Buddha circuit is completed, however, the Maha Parinirvan pilgrim train now takes on the avatar of a touristy one and pulls into Agra. Yes, it is only fitting that it rounds off its truly amazing voyage at the foot of the Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World.

Fact File The seven-night Buddhist circuit of Indian Railways’ Maha Parinirvan Express starts and ends in Delhi. In addition to the main stops on the Buddha trail including Lumbini in Nepal, the itinerary includes Agra, home of the Taj Mahal and the Hindu pilgrim town of Varanasi.

The Maha Parinirvan Express is an enhanced version of a Rajdhani comprising First Class air-conditioned, two-tier air-conditioned and three-tier air-conditioned bogies (two of each), a pantry car and additional bogies to accommodate the on-board staff. Each bogie also has its own common toilets and showers. This not only makes the Maha Parinirvan more affordable than the Palace on Wheels class of trains but also allows for stratified rates.