Want to See More of India? Take the Indian Railway

A window on the world from a four-bunk sleeper car

Trains link the greatest of Indian cities to the humblest of rice-farmer hamlets. Simone Sbaraglia, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives

Railway sounds, the predawn routine. You wake to the double clicking of the wheels, tap tap, as each end of the Indian Railways wagon bangs in quick succession over the meeting of two rails. Tap tap. Two rails farther down the line, away from New Delhi, south and east, toward Bihar.

In a nation of railways, this is the Grand Chord, an electrified line that is northern India’s main vein for people and freight, which is to say a fast, only slightly eccentric run down the Ganges plain toward Kolkata (Calcutta). It’s a smooth, overnight ride in a sleeper car, a journey that I have done twice. I’ve been to India twice, and I’ve done the exact same thing twice, which is take the least Indian train in India to a place few Indians choose to go. Bihar. On this first trip, I am waking up on the train to Bihar for the first time.

It’s dark out—I wake early, worried about missing my stop. With my eyes closed, I listen to India. The train itself, tap tap. Creaking metal, aluminum pings, the muffled steps and not-so-muffled voices of people passing in the corridor. The vibration of the train is subtle but all-powerful, the tight rattle of an express train on good tracks. It’s a heavy, old-fashioned behemoth of a sleeper car, one of two that lead another six wagons of inexpensive seated travel. We have perhaps 1,500 passengers hurtling through the night, most packed into the back, but even the two sleeping cars are a world of their own, over a hundred middle-class Indians tucked into bunks, four per cabin, with a dedicated crew.

Boarding the train last night, I’d squeezed in among my three cabinmates: a high-class businessman and his wife, his cream-colored outfit as plain as her sari was brilliant, and then a corpulent Buddhist monk, some kind of Thai abbot wrapped in bright saffron and seen off by a group of skinny junior monks who bowed their way backward out of the cabin. Crowded among roughly 50 kilos (110 pounds) of luggage, a certain knee-to-knee intimacy prevails. The carriage has four red-and-black bunks, blackout curtains, netting to hold reading material, and a round-edged table that is little more than a folding shelf. In the flicker of fluorescent bulbs, I watched people squeeze past the sliding door. The monk went straight to sleep but rubbed himself all over first, and the odor of Bengay wafted up to my bunk all night—eucalyptus oil, really, in eye-watering amounts. By 5:30 a.m. I was nervously preparing my bags for a departure that could come at any moment.

It felt auspicious to begin such journeying with a monk aboard. The abbot and I seemed to share a destiny, which was to pass down this railway, through the heart of the Buddhist world, seeking knowledge. Down this track are, in quick succession, the four great centers of Lord Buddha’s life: the places where he was born, enlightened, preached, and died. They are temple sites now, pilgrimage routes, and I am starting what will be a two-month pilgrimage to Nepal, Tibet, and Central Asia.

But the monk isn’t impressed when I finally pluck up my courage and ask for a blessing for my trip. “Where are you going?” he asks.

Shambhala, I tell him. A fabled lost kingdom of Tibet. A paradise. A myth.

“This is Dalai Lama place,” he says. “Dalai Lama speaks of this.”

He is blunt. “Don’t go,” he says. My journey over the high Tibetan plateau is “lama nonsense,” he assures me. Tibetan mischief from the Mahayana school of Buddhism. He makes the elevator pitch for his own school, the Theravada teachings. It’s a simple approach, he says, and direct—it works for a lot of people. But he wishes me luck in any case, no matter how it turns out. 


It’s possible to know a lot about India from a straight line, if that line is a train. In an automobile, what would I have seen? I would mostly see myself, some poor roadside neighborhoods, a few gas stations, all with the illusion of freedom. Imprisoned on a train, I saw much more of India.  

And my destination, twice over, was Bihar, the single poorest state in India. In a nation that had once been synonymous with suffering, Bihar was notorious as the home of the country’s most impoverished people, flat and hot and poor, the realm of tenant farmers, a locus of fear and contempt in a fast-changing country obsessed with upward mobility. Immigrants from Bihar were routinely blamed for causing crowding in Mumbai and driving up prices in Delhi. When someone stole the cricket star Mohammad Azharuddin’s cap during a match in Bihar, he complained publicly that “all Biharis are thieves, no?”—a statement that aroused controversy only because so many Indians agreed.

There are other sides to Bihar. I saw the generosity of monks feeding the poor at 5 a.m., and learned patience from observing its people. When my laptop broke down at one point, I went skeptically to a small, anonymous town nearby where bright young men fixed my problem in an hour. But poverty may as well define the place, as it once did India.

Every line has its beginning and end, the rail stations for boarding and debarking. The first of those was Delhi: a thick crowd sweeping calmly toward the long dark tracks where our train waited on a hot night, the noise more of an evening mumble than a daytime roar, people already preparing for sleep as they squeezed down the narrow car corridor and self-distributed into their bunks. I needed help finding mine, but for the Indians the only challenge seemed to be fitting their possessions on board. The quantity of luggage was large, even absurd, enormous suitcases and samples of merchandise and entire stacks of cardboard boxes, topped with gaudy children’s toys in transparent plastic, plus the ceremonious briefcases and glamour purses of the middle class.

We had started with a jolt and were on our way. I wandered back at midnight, roaming the low-cost carriages, and was handed bitter tea in one carriage along with hesitant declarations of “American!” by young men surprised to find themselves in the company of one. I returned to the sleeper car just as an attendant stopped by with metal trays holding five brightly colored types of vegetarian sludge, a necessary compromise in a land of 30,000 gods, as well as holy cows and prohibited pigs. The toilets were dirty, but it was just a nine-hour ride. I would spend much of it sleeping.

The last thing I saw at night was the ceiling a few inches overhead, imprinted with INDIAN RAILWAYS. India’s national rail company employs 1.3 million people and, at 71,000 miles of track, touches every corner of the vast subcontinent, from waterlogged Kerala to the high Himalaya. But this crucial trunk line runs through the heart of the issue. The same train I was taking to Bihar also passed through Uttar Pradesh, a single Indian state that has 200 million citizens. The train linked the greatest of Indian cities to the humblest of rice-farmer hamlets.


And so with the ending. I was headed to Gorakhpur station, on my way to Lumbini. Disembarkation was frightening that first time, a rushed surprise. But there was an hour to talk, to absorb India at breakfast. And for an atheist on a pilgrimage, Indians make good company. The abbot earlier had told me to pay no attention to the Tibetans, and now the businessman, a Hindu, urges me to pay no attention to the abbot or anyone else. He’s jaded and unimpressed when he discovers what I am doing in India—messing around with Buddhists. The Hindus were here when Lord Buddha was born, and when he died, and have absorbed him without changing.

That’s it? he asks me. Just one great temple? Only one religion, and then leave?

Just Bihar?

When he woke up, the monk was ready to talk again, at least a little. “You are going to Buddha’s birthplace,” he said. “I am going to his death place.” He limned all the problems in the world—lying, eating meat, mis-sexuality, whiskey—and reminded me to meditate more. The train halted before sunrise, I think, although it was hard to tell if the gloom was really just cast by a pall of smoke overlying a continent of cook fires and agricultural scrap being burned off fields. By the time I had hoisted my backpack down, with the ever present help of an Indian Railways employee, and found my way through a dingy railway palace in red and white, it was already a different day, hot air and yellow light. I remember the consternation of the porters and other passengers as I insisted on that most un-Indian of things, carrying my own bag. (I was not proud, just too tired to haggle.)

On my second trip, I noted the debarking was carried off in much higher style by a couple dressed in flowing white, who strolled slowly down the platform, greeted by their own staff and surrounded by porters carrying their many bags. They didn’t dirty so much as the hem of their robes, and certainly weren’t drenched in sweat, as I was. Off train realities intruded: Barefoot women hunched by the side of the road, sorting gravel, and the air stank from burning embankments of trash. Two shoe-shine boys waited on the platform with ten or twelve colors of Robin brand polish, some rags and brushes, and lots of moxie.

I threw my bag down in a tea shop and waited for a bus that would take me the short distance to Buddhaland. Another journey, an internal one, was about to begin. In this doubled narrative, one fork of memory took me, on that second trip, by bus to Bodh Gaya, the scene of Buddha’s enlightenment, to interview a delightful young lama, a reincarnated God at the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, whose daring escape over the snows into India had captured the fancy of my editors back in New York. The lama’s monastic order, sometimes called the Black Hats, holds a prayer festival every January in Bihar, at the spot where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment more than five centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Ten thousand monks, nuns, and laypeople were descending on the area to hear the Karmapa offer teachings on compassion accompanied by trumpets and deep-voiced, ritualistic Tibetan chants. At moments, the streets resembled a Buddhist Woodstock, with juniper smoke and an aroma of yak-butter candles blowing over the massed ranks of monastic adepts in saffron and burgundy robes. In five days sitting on the ground I would see more of traditional Tibet than I had previously in 2,000 miles of overland travel.

The earlier fork had taken me by Ambassador taxi to Lumbini, just over the border in Nepal, and the place of Buddha’s birth. From there I had gone far onward, through Nepal to Tibet, across the roof of the world. That was the journey my sleeping-car abbot had objected to. I’d gone, I’d learned, and now I was back.

Great names can only capture a hint of the strange suffering I endured that first time, a two-month trek, passing through the vast and empty Aksai Chin at altitudes of 17,000 feet, dropping into the low deserts of western China, and from there, onward to the Altay Mountains of Central Asia. It was a fool’s errand to go on a skeptic’s pilgrimage.

Somehow those nine hours on a sleeper car, the beginning, are sharper in memory than all that followed. Sometimes the world is small, just big enough for four bunks.

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