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Alluring Rail Delights

Shri Vinod Narain Garg takes you on a journey through alluring touristic delights of the South Eastern Railway network

Straddling the seven states of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, South Eastern Railway (SER) takes you to the esoteric world of hoary traditions and fascinating cultures, kept alive in carved stones, ruins of ancient cities, temples and forts. Landscapes with majestic mountain ranges, verdant forests, picturesque vistas and bewitching beaches in the region served by it are the ultimate delights to a tourist and ideal getaways.

BNR Hotel Puri reflects British legacy and culture

For the tourist who has a penchant for beaches, the region offers a series of breathtakingly beautiful seashores along the coastline. Digha - the only beach resort of West Bengal - is easily accessible by road from either Kharaghpur or Contai-Road stations. The sprawling Golden Beach at Puri is a delightful hideaway for quiet relaxation. SER runs an excellent hotel close to the blue waters of the sea. With its old-world hospitality, the hotel is an ideal place for solitude seekers. Gopalpur-on-sea in Orissa is a lovely beach 13 kms away from Berhampur railhead. Chandipur, 10 kms from Balasore railway station, is another beach resort, which is easily accessible from Kolkata. Ramakrishna beach and Rishikonda beaches in Visakhapatnam are two enchanting beaches easily approachable from the busy Visakhapatnam terminus. If some are drawn to beaches, others would like to scale greater heights. The hilly terrains of Ranchi, Amarkantak and Anantgiri hills near Araku offer a pleasant sojourn on serpentine hill tracks. While travelling on these hilly tracks the holiday begins before one reaches the destination. Netarhat, 144 kms from Ranchi, is the Queen of Chotanagpur hills. In the midst of thick forests, barren rocks and gurgling waterfalls, it is easy to bond with nature. Tourists can get modest accommodation at the Palamau Dak Bungalow and also visit places like Magnolia Point, for a panoramic view of the misty hills. Amarkantak, an unspoilt hill resort, 3,600 feet above sea level from where the holy Narmada and Sone originate, is easily accessible from Bilaspur or Pendra Road railway stations of Madhya Pradesh.

BNR Hotel Puri reflects British legacy and culture

Lost in the heart of the woolly forestlands of the Eastern Ghats, Araku valley used to be one very closely guarded secret amongst travellers. The swarming hordes still haven’t reached here to mess its natural beauty. An equable climate, gushing rivulets, stunning waterfalls and boundless swathes of fields dotted with villages, make the entire valley a peaceful paradise. Soaked in the culture of its ancient tribes, the place is protected by the locals, who live here in the same manner for centuries now. The Dhimsa and Mayuri dances, a celebration of life, are at their colourful best during the hunting festival of Itika Panduga in April. Deep in the earth’s crust, hidden amongst the Anantgiri hills are the famous Borra caves where halogen lamps light up the surreal underworld of stalactites and stalagmite formations created over millennia by the flow of the river Gosthani through these limestone hills. The remote Araku valley, the Borra caves, and the eco-tourism camp at Tyda make an interesting excursion from Vizag. Their lush environs peppered with coffee plantations, waterfalls and orchards are a paradise of tranquility. The railway tunnels, which pop up amidst the lush verdure, are a reminder that this is the Indian Railways’ highest broad gauge railway line. Further up, if one travels upto Jagdalpur, the tourists can get a glimpse of the majestic Chitrakoot Falls, which are comparable to the famed Niagara Falls. Located in the centre of the country is Pachmarhi - a pretty hill station close to Chhindwara on the narrow gauge system of Satpura region of Madhya Pradesh. Tensa Hill, little known picnic spot of Orissa located 110 km from Rourkela, is also considered as a mini hill station located close to iron ore mining site of the Rourkela Steel Plant, which can be approached by train up to Barsua station, a few miles drive from Tensa. The view from the lookout point with its rolling hills and dense forests for as far as the eye can see, has fascinated many a visitor, and remains a lifelong memory.

BNR Hotel Ranchi

For those looking for a bit of adventure, this region offers an array of national parks and sanctuaries where one can watch rare white tigers, migratory birds and magnificent leopards. Nandan Kanan, meaning ‘garden of pleasure’, is a combination of a zoo, botanical garden and sanctuary situated 20 kms from Bhubaneswar amidst splendid environs of the Chandaka Forest, along the rippling waters of the Kanjia lake. It also has the distinction of the first captive-breeding centre for Gharial crocodiles and also houses the rare specie of the white tiger. Simlipal, situated in the northern tip of the state, offers an excellent exposure to the delights not only of its wildlife, but also its wonderful natural beauty. Its tiger reserve has over 95 Royal Bengal tigers within its lavish bounds. Leopards, elephants, mugger crocodiles and numerous reptiles abound here. Over 230 species of birds teem in the forest and waterways of the park. Bhitar Kanika, a forest and crocodile sanctuary and the second largest mangrove forest in the country, has protected the estuarine crocodiles and their habitat. Close to the Bhitar Kanika sanctuary is another of Orissa’s special sanctuaries - the Gahirmatha Turtle Sanctuary. It is very special as it attracts visitors of all together a different kind. This stretch of beach is the breeding ground for the giant Olive Ridley Turtles, who travel all the way from the Pacific Ocean to mate and lay their eggs. In the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, Kanha along with the neighbouring Bandhavgarh National Park is the heart of the tiger land. The grasslands of Kanha are teeming with a variety of deer, barasingha, cheetal, chousingha, nilgai, wild boar and wild dogs. But probably the most spectacular animal after the tiger in this reserve is the gaur or the Indian bison. The nearest railhead to both the parks is Jabalpur on broad gauge, and Mandla Fort station on the narrow gauge system. Chilika, 80 kms south of Bhubaneswar, offers bird watchers a feast for their eyes, with thousands of migratory birds taking up winter residence at the lake flying from as far away from Siberia. Driven by a deep genetic code that sings in the rhythms of the seasons, the birds know that home is where the heart is and rightly they are drawn to this largest salt-water lake.

deluxe suite at BNR Hotel Ranchi

This region has a lot to offer for pilgrim travellers too. The terracota temples of Bishnupur in West Bengal at the medieval seat of Mala kings are accessible by rail from Kolkata. Bhubaneswar, a temple town of Orissa, boasts myriad temples and shrines built in splendidly ornate style between the 10th and 12th centuries AD. The places of captivating interest are the famous Lingaraj temple, Mukteswar temple, Rajarani temple, and the Ashokan rock edicts at Dhauli as well as the Jain caves at Khandagiri and Udayagiri. Puri, an important rail passenger terminal, is another great pilgrim centre, and one of the char dhams for devout Hindus. Here the reigning deity the Lord Jagannath is housed in a temple of monumental magnitude. An hour’s drive from Puri, emerging out of the sand dunes is the majestic sun temple of Konark. The Sun Temple was designed as the chariot of the Sun God ‘Surya’. Built in the 13th century, only the large audience hall survives the ravages of time. The sun rises over the ocean and casts its first rays on the sanctum sanctorum. Drawn by seven magnificent, straining horses carved in stone, the temple chariot has 24 intricately carved giant wheels. The ancient temple at Ramtek described in Kalidasa’s epic Meghdoot is 43 kms from Nagpur railhead. It is known as the resting place of Lord Rama. The leaning Shiva temple of Huma, 32 kms from Sambalpur in western Orissa, is immensely popular because of its unique structure. Situated on the banks of river Mahanadi, it is the lone leaning temple in the country, attracting many a tourist. Simhachalam, the abode of Lord Narsingham situated close to Vishakhapatnam, the city of destiny is a popular pilgrimage centre for both.

Kailasagiri, Vishakhapatnam

For tourists who would like to dwell in the pomp and pageantry of the bygone era, this region has a few historical monuments frozen in time. The Barabati Fort in Cuttack built by the Hindu king Marakata Kesari is of 10th century AD. Chandapur Fort is another monument, which is situated on the eastern board of Maharashtra, that stands testimony to the great architectural skills of great Maratha builders. Bolangir Fort at Patnagarh, 38 kms from Bolangir, is the biggest fort of the area constructed during the rule of the Chauhan dynasty and still a popular spot for tourists visiting western Orissa.

For those who do not mind an artificial spot of scenic beauty, they can visit Hirakud Dam, which is the longest dams in Asia and popular among the tourists visiting central and western Orissa. Orissa being a land of ancient and sacred temples, and a state where three religions flourished, is thronged by pilgrims throughout the year and the special festivals celebrated are the Gopalpur Beach Festival, the Konark Dance Festival and the Puri Beach Festival. Down the coast on the northeastern tip of Andhra Pradesh, the nascent Visakha Utsav gained an unstinted popularity, with its myriad activities to satisfy the taste of any tourist who come with the purpose of enjoying a winter holiday.

South Eastern Railway train passing through Anantagiri Ghats

For tourists who have a keen temperament for collection of artifacts and souvenirs, there is plenty of opportunity to do so. The filigree work of Cuttack, the Patachitras of Raghurajpur, the applique work of Pipli near Bhubaneswar, the tribal artworks depicting the ethnic socio-cultural themes of Bastar area in Chhattisgarh state, the world-famous terracotta horses of Bankura district of West Bengal, the tribal artworks of Chotanagpur region around Ranchi, Jharkhand state, the wooden toys of Etikoppaka of Vishakhapatnam district and white stone carvings of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh state make a wonderful curio collection.

All the major tourist destinations of the region are served by fast moving trains run by South Eastern Railway having different classes of travel to suit different tastes of the tourists of all classes. All important stations have retiring rooms, dormitories and refreshment rooms to provide a limited boarding and lodging at nominal charges. During festive and holiday seasons, SER runs special trains and augments the existing services to ensure guaranteed reserved accommodation. For the premier class of tourists, Rajdhani Express trains are provided from Bilaspur, Bhubaneswar and Ranchi. Shatabdi Express provides similar class for inter-city travel between Kolkata and Rourkela connecting major towns and cities like Kharaghpur Tatanagar and Chakradharpur.

For travellers to Puri and Ranchi, SER offers an exclusive package of rail-cum-hotel booking with a special reservation quota. The two railway hotels continue a great tradition in personalised service from the era of the Legendary Bengal Nagpur Railway. Ever aware of its potential and inherent strength, SER promises to fulfill the growing needs and aspirations of its clientele, especially the railway passengers as tourists who repose immense faith in it.

(The author is general manager, South Eastern Railway)