On November 14, the Shri Ramayana Express took off from New Delhi’s small Safdarjung Station, with its first 800 passengers. Each carried a saffron stole, prayer book and beads, and the “blessings” of characters from Ramlila — both arranged by the Railways. Also on board the 15 coaches were three railway staff members, 15 coach managers, 14 security guards, six cleaners, 30 food servers, and 20 cooks and pantry boys.
Over the next 16 days, they are to cover 8,080 km on the Indian Railways’s ‘Ramayana circuit’, from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, covering major destinations associated with Lord Ram. The Rs 15,120-tour package covers travel, food and accommodation. The yatra will take them across seven states — over 7,500 km of it by rail and 500-plus km by bus — and pack in sightseeing at the halts, plus night stays at seven dharamshalas. Those who want can carry on, to Sri Lanka, for an additional charge. Forty are booked for that leg this time, for an additional Rs 47,600 per person.
The ‘Ramayana circuit’ has been started under the ‘Swadesh Darshan Scheme’ launched by the Ministry of Tourism in 2014-15 for “integrated development of theme-based tourist circuits”. Along with this was launched PRASAD, or ‘Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive’, for development of pilgrimage destinations. The Railways plans more such “curated special tourist train journeys”, including Buddhist, Coastal, Himalayan, Krishna etc. Since November 14, one more Ramayana Express has taken off, from Jaipur, on November 22, while another will start from Rajkot on December 7.
Achyut Singh, Deputy General Manager, Tourism, IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation), says they started with the Ramayana circuit as it is the “most popular”. In July, when the IRCTC put out advertisements for the Shri Ramayana Express, the 800 seats offered were snapped up quickly. “We knew the tickets would sell out in no time. According to government rules (regarding the Swadesh Darshan Scheme), we cannot charge passengers above Rs 900 per day. So, for the 16-day Ramayana trip, including 5 per cent GST, the cost came to Rs 15,120. The rates are the same for all the circuits,” Singh says.
The subsidised rates also mean the Shri Ramayana Express is a passenger train, stripped to the basics of Indian Railway travel. The menu on board is also simple and unvarying: an estimated 4,000 paranthas from 100 kg of wheat flour, 50 kg of rice, 30 kg of daal and 15 kg of curry, every meal; plus tea, coffee and biscuits through the day. No meal served would have onion or garlic, in line with this being a religious pilgrimage.
AYODHYA, DAY 2
Sixty-two trains halt at Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad Junction railway station, 10 km from Ayodhya, each day. The Ramayana Express is to have a 36-hour halt here, to allow the passengers a chance to visit the Ram Janmabhoomi. After four rounds of intrusive security checks, long queues and a struggle against prasad-snatching monkeys, the passengers get a rushed glance at the tiny Ram idol placed under a tent at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Any questions about the demolition are not entertained. “Yahan koi masjid nahin tha (There was no mosque here),” snaps the priest.
Apart from the disputed site, shops with ‘Ram’ affixed to their name selling religious paraphernalia, and astrologers using parrots to predict the future, Ayodhya has little to show for it. Jay Prakash, 55, who owns the ‘Shri Ram Mishthan Bhandar’ known for its besan laddoos, says the name matters. “In 2005, we decided to keep this name, so that people remember us. Since we added ‘Ram’, there has been a continuous rush of customers.”
Back at Platform No. 5 at the station, still half an hour to go for the train’s departure, slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ are competing with Ram aartis on speakers. Local BJP MP Lallu Singh arrives, to a shower of marigold petals. Most of the passengers of the Shri Ramayana Express are in their 60s and 70s, many of them retired pensioners, and after taking a leisurely stroll around town the whole day, they admit they are glad to stretch their legs. In Coach No. BD-9, Vinod Kumar Rawat, 68, is chatting with a small group about the 2019 elections. All have saffron stoles around their necks, gifted by the Railways. “Even if we complain about the government, we will all vote for PM Modi,” asserts Rawat, whose US-settled son booked him on this trip. “Modiji is cleaning the dirt of 60 years of Congress rule. It will take time,” nods Radhesham Garg, 64, a retired professional.
Ram Krishna Verma, 75, a retired professor from Jhansi, adds, “I will decide who to vote for in 2019 after completing this yatra.”
One of the passengers pulls out his phone to read aloud a Rahul Gandhi joke on WhatsApp. The group chortles. Apart from elections, the other shared interest is determining each other’s caste, with curious passengers quickly getting down to asking about “jaati”.
Soon, more mundane problems dampen the high-pitched festivity. The passengers complain about the dirty and old sleeper coaches, jammed windows that let in the cold draft from outside, and the wet floors left behind by spilling water cans. With most passengers constantly on YouTube and WhatsApp, charging phones is a top priority, but most charging points are not working, leading to crowding around those that are. Quarrels break out over the functional points.
One of the passengers recalls how at Delhi’s Safdarjung station, many passengers mistook an air-conditioned train standing on the platform for the Shri Ramayana Express. “But that train soon left, and we were told to board this sleeper train,” says a woman in her 50s.
However, the complaints are soon drowned by a loud shout of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from a corner, which is repeated in chorus. Moments later, Ram Siya Ram bhajan starts playing on speakers installed in all coaches.
As the wind from outside gets colder with nightfall, passengers give one more shot at shutting the windows, then give up. In Coach BD-9, Kamlesh, 66, who is travelling alone from Delhi, joins a conversation on “the plight of the aged”. “I was my parents’ only child, and I too just had one daughter. She is married now. My husband is no more and I live alone. It is tough, but I am self-sufficient,” says the retired para-medical worker, dressed in salwar-kameez and sneakers.
Rawat, who is among those listening, interrupts, “It’s like old people are always the last priority. Na bachche hume chahte hain, na sarkaar, na ye train (Neither our kids want us, nor this government, nor this train).” But Kamlesh isn’t convinced: “Do something for yourself. Why depend on others?” Shashi Nemji, a 60-year-old housewife from Bhandara in Maharashtra, says her sons booked her on the trip so that “I could get a break from household chores”.
Among the few youths on the train is 27-year-old Puneet Awasthi from Gujarat, who says he gave his parents a surprise and accompanied them on the tour. In Coach BD-1, Vijay Kumar, 57, from Chennai, and his co-passengers, who have just been interviewed by some TV crews, lament the state of the media. “Polimer TV (in the South) is the only one favouring Hindus madam, all other channels are doing politics,” says Kumar, a businessman. As the discussion gets heated, Kumar’s wife, counting prayer beads, urges her husband to “concentrate on God”. He obliges. “We love Ram, we believe in Ram, we have faith in Ram, and so we are here,” he says, folding his hands. The others follow, with ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
Later in the evening, several passengers make their way to Coach BD-7, where two berths have been turned into a praying area, with pictures of Ram, Durga and Hanuman, bells and incense sticks. A group of women sing aartis into microphones, and passengers hum along. The all-women aarti crew includes Rajmala Ahlawati (69) from Dehradun, Usha Dubey (59) from Chhatarpur in Delhi, Maya Devi (55) from Ghazipur in Delhi and Shruti Lal (55) from Hisar in Haryana.
The women who don’t know each other from before have quickly come together to sing the aartis, and will continue to do so in the days to come. Brushing aside the small tussle to grab the mic, Rajmala, breaking into the bhajan ‘Aarti Kije Shri Raghuvar Ji Ki’, smiles, “There is little to do here and the train is late (by about four hours now). Hum toh bhakti mein leen hai (We are immersed in worship).” Around 8 pm, servers, dressed in saffron, bring out the meal in buckets full of rice, daal and subzi. Most passengers approve of the fact that there is no garlic or onion. In the days to follow, the meals, served five times a day, on the dot, would be the one thing the passengers would remain happy about.
As dinner wraps up, Rawat and a few others complain about the garbage now piled up near the sink, to coach manager Devender Sharma. “Use phenyl to clean,” insists Rawat. Sharma lets out a soft groan, and calls the cleaners. With the coaches settling down for the night, some passengers look for open windows to hang out wet clothes that they have washed at the dharamshala earlier in the day, including underwear, from the grills. Others make calls home, or play Ram hymns on YouTube. No one complains.
The passengers have spread out own beddings and snuggle into blankets. Some also wear sweaters and socks to guard against the cold. A few ask for hot water from the pantry. As Sharma prepares to go to bed too, a 68-year-old woman walks up. “Do you have Limca? Mujhe gas ban gayi hai (I have indigestion),” she says.
He promises to get it for her at the next station.
Sitamarhi; DAY 4
Mornings on the train begin early, at 4 am, with long queues already at the sink and toilets. About seven people are in line for the toilet. A woman, in her late 70s, protests to a man, “Bhaisahab, I was in the line before you”. He doesn’t protest and quietly gets off the train.
The Shri Ramayana Express is currently standing in the middle of fields, next to what once must have been a platform. The passenger, who does not wish to be identified, starts stretching and skipping, ignoring that it is still dark outside. As others watch impressed, Rawat wonders, “You do intense exercise, why do you still have a potbelly?” The man continues jumping, adding, “It will go soon.” Returning to his seat, Rawat advises, “It is best to do (yoga guru) Ramdev’s exercises.”
The train chugs in at Sitamarhi around 9 am. Unlike the rousing welcome at Faizabad station, a few members of a local right-wing group comprise the receiving party. As an IRCTC media team that is also on board takes out its cameras, the group climbs onto the train engine and shouts ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
At Sitamarhi the passengers head for the Janaki Temple, at what is considered the site of Sita’s birth. Attending to the devotees, one of the five priests, Jay Chandra Das, says they want the Ram temple. “If Modi doesn’t build the temple before 2019, he will lose. Rajgaddi phir Congress ki hogi (the reins of power will pass on to the Congress),” says the 63-year-old, as some nod.
An hour later, the passengers are herded onto 20 rickety buses for the 60-km bumpy journey to Janakpur in Nepal, where Sita and Ram are said to have got married. But not all can be accommodated. Told they would have to wait two hours for more buses to arrive, some troop to Suraj Deb’s paan shop. As they ask him about the “significance of Sitamarhi”, the “Class 11-fail” Deb says, “Ram, Sita mein nahin, naukri mein vishwas hai (Not in Ram or Sita, I believe in jobs).”
Deb, who is an OBC, says six months ago he travelled out of Sitamarhi for the first time to find a job in the Capital, like scores of other youths in the town. “There are no jobs here. I assisted a tailor at Gandhi Nagar in East Delhi and earned Rs 300 for a day’s work, not enough to sustain myself. However, I want to go back.”
Varanasi, DAYS 5, 6
The train was scheduled to arrive at 6 am, it is 12 hours late and tempers are running high. Around 3 pm, as a halt at a station before Gorakhpur drags beyond two hours, the passengers start protesting. Chants of Jai Shri Ram are replaced by ‘Railways murdabad’.
Finally, when the train arrives at Gorakhpur, over 200 km from Varanasi, around 3 pm, a group of 30 march to the station master’s office. Kamlesh says she is fed up of the delays, and will return to Delhi; she has booked a bus online. Rawat urges her to stay, finally saying, “Number toh share kijiye (give at least your phone number).” “I have yours, I will call you,” Kamlesh retorts, as Rawat carries her suitcase out.
Some local photographers at Gorakhpur tweet to Railways Minister Piyush Goyal about the delay. From there on, the train speeds up, reaching Varanasi at 6 pm. With plans of sightseeing at the holy city washed away, the passengers head straight to the three dharamshalas where they are to stay for the night. Here they sleep on tattered mattresses, use common toilets and bathe under taps.
The next morning, at the ghat, the journey’s fatigue is beginning to show. The rough ride to Janakpur a day earlier has also left many with pain in their backs and knees. Yet, they brave the cold to take a dip in the Ganga. “Kartik maas mein Ganga nahaye, punya milega (It will bring us good fortune to bathe in the Ganga in the Kartik month),” a passenger tells another.
Around 6 am, with a cloud of mist still hanging over the Sant Ravidas Ghat in Varanasi, Pushpa Devi, 30, sets up her tea stall serving adrak chai to devotees. A mother of three, including two sons of ages 15 and 11, Pushpa says her children are her biggest concern. They had to drop out of school to support the family, and now sell drinking water on the ghats. “The government schools are no good and we can’t afford the private ones,” she says, handing out packets of biscuits to visitors. She earns Rs 300 a day and her husband, who works at a cable shop, makes Rs 1,500 per month.
Like several other vendors at the ghat, Pushpa asserts that the Prime Minister is doing a lot for Varanasi, his constituency. “Toilets are being built, the ghats are much cleaner… Whenever he gets the time, I am sure he will look into our other problems as well,” she says, adding, “Pathar ko maniye toh bhagwan hai, warna murti (If you believe a stone to be God, it is, or else it is just a rock). For us, in Varanasi, Modi is God.”
Prayagraj: DAYS 6, 7
The passengers cover the 40-km journey from Varanasi to Prayagraj in buses, arriving late in the night. At 4 am the next day, standing outside one of the dharamshalas in Prayagraj, several passengers are coughing and wheezing. Ahead of the Kumbh Mela in January, the city is undergoing a massive makeover and the construction work has left it covered in thick smog. The other makeover, of the name change from Allahabad to Prayagraj, has taken lesser time. Most signboards in the city now say Prayagraj.
Later, on way to the Triveni Sangam in a bus, the mood is much lighter. Rawat has found a friend in a retired school principal, and other passengers begin teasing the two. As the 68-year-old giggles, Rawat quips, “Madam, you are a bold lady, I like that.” The group of 60- and 70-somethings laugh like teenagers.
At the Sangam, the religious revelry of Faizabad station returns. Men strip to their boxers and women pull their petticoats to above their chests before wading into the knee-deep waters. After submerging themselves for a few seconds, they return shivering, and change in the open. Rowing the passengers back to the ghat, Mohammed Ahmed, known only as ‘Golu’, says he voted for the BJP in 2014, because “that is what everyone in Allahabad did”. “Yogiji ne Allahabad badla, Modiji ne Bharat badla, aur 2019 mein sarkar badlegi (UP CM Yogi Adityanath changed the name of Allahabad, PM Modi changed the country, in 2019 the government will change),” he says softly, ensuring that the passengers on the boat can’t overhear him.
The 30-year-old father of three, who was married at 16, divides his time between working as a boatman for four months here, and on a parasailing stall in Goa for the rest of the year. There he makes around Rs 8,000 per month. “I just want my children to get good jobs, and not become boatmen,” he says, anchoring the boat at the ghat.
Chitrakoot, M P; DAY 7
Ram is said to have spent 11 years of his 14-year-long exile in Chitrakoot. The passengers make their way here from Prayagraj on buses again, but these are much sturdier than the vehicles that took them to Janakpur. The town is divided between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, with the Mandakini river flowing through the middle.
With just days to go for elections to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, the conversations here are largely political. While the Shri Ramayana Express passengers are convinced of CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s return, the locals have mixed views. Referring to Rahul Gandhi’s pitch for ‘Made in Chitrakoot’ smartphones during an election rally in September, Prema, 50, who sells handmade wooden toys, says, “These toys are made in Chitrakoot, not smartphones.” “Politicians should help us revive this business. There are Chinese toys everywhere,” adds Mahendra Kumar (35), another toy vendor.
After visiting the Janaki Kund on the Madhya Pradesh side of Chitrakoot, the passengers return to Ram Ghat in Uttar Pradesh. After attending the aarti, most of them say they are tired and urge the IRCTC staff to take them to the train. Flopped on a bench outside a souvenir shop, Rawat and Garg share their grouses — the delays, the long walks carrying luggage, the mosquitoes on the train and the dharamshalas, and the queues, have all taken a toll. “Bas ho gaya hamara (We have had enough). We will file a complaint at the consumer court upon return,” hisses a grumpy Garg. Rawat has an offer, “I told my son to cancel my Sri Lanka journey. I am now going to Thailand. Aap bhi chaliye (You join me too).”
It’s another 6,000 km to Rameswaram.