Experiencing India: Sounds and Sights from an Indian Train Journey

It’s surprising how train journeys closely mimic the cycle of life. We meet people, make friends, only to let them go and find new ones- thereby knitting an endless chain of emotions- only to be felt but never to be broken. But again, what is life, but a collection of such journeys.

The following passage is an ‘as-it-happened’ description of a journey with the Indian Railways (the 12.30 Passenger train from Madurai to Rameshwaram, both of which lie in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu). Try not to find for a story in here, rather, seek to experience the billion personalities that make India Incredible. Here it goes.

Chug, Chug, Chug! The 12:30 passenger train from Madurai has just started to sing its rhythmic song, a melody it will sing for the next few hours till it reaches a mystical island called Rameshwaram. It is an overcast day of November 2015, the rain clouds looming over the horizon as I attempt to traverse, and hopefully document, the lush green landscape of Tamil Nadu, India.

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Tamil Nadu country side with the looming rain clouds

I yearn for the rain, as I am aware of the power of the raindrops to elate even the most dolorous environs.

As I try to get comfortable in my cozy window side seat, I am greeted by a distinct sound. ‘Wooooooo…’– a loud cheer, emanating from the far corner of my train bogie, surprises all the five occupants of the compartment I am in. The train had just passed over a small river causing a group of seven children, sitting at a corner of the bogie along with their parents, to let out a loud “Woooooo..” sound in a seemingly pre-planned unison. From that moment onward, the children failed to hide their excitement towards any river, tunnel, or even an old bridge that our passenger train crossed.

Ah, the perks of the young age. When the whole world is an adventure, where everything you see is new. When even the sight of an old corrugated bridge is a spectacle to behold. When even the gentle stream of water galvanizes your “Wooooos” of excitement. All this, without being judged by the the mean world. Time of your life, indeed!

The dawn of technology brought forward a new contender for the most heard sound of a train journey. The sound of people talking (or at least trying to talk) on the phone. A co-passenger sitting diagonally across my seat has been trying to talk on his phone for a while now. Unfortunately, all his efforts are being drowned in the cacophonous symphony of the exhilarated kids. No matter how far he pushes his vocal chords, a sight of an impending bridge, or river, or tunnel, and sometimes even nothing, washes away his attempts at modern day communication; just like the rain that has just started outside.

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The first sight of the rains!

Within seconds the landscape has become saturated with an intense hue of green. As if god took out his shade card and presented us with the most delightful shade he could find. The smell of the rain, the Petrichor, treats my olfactory senses with nostalgia, while the cold droplets gently caress my outstretched hand. Eternal bliss. Who said happiness cannot be found in small things?

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We have crossed a few stations now, the train is losing speed to halt at another one. Tiruppuvanam, I read the station name aloud, and why not, it is the first railway station on this route whose name has been mentioned in English (all the previous ones on the route had names written in Tamil, a language I have no knowledge of). One of the little benefits of travelling in a passenger train is that they halt for a short duration – usually a minute or two. But such small halts are no hindrance for locals intending to board the train, for they have mastered the art of hopping on to the train at lightning speeds. They throw in their luggage in one swift motion and climb in through the door of the bogie with minimal efforts. Practice maketh perfect! The train moves on from Tiruppuvanam and I gleefully go back to the cinema of nature showcased through my window.

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The number of people in the passenger train has been increasing with each passing station. My compartment is evidently more crowded now, but is far from being uncomfortable. Good- I say to myself, more sounds to hear, people to observe and personalities to uncover.

I have always been amazed by the Indian ability to adjust and find comfort even the most constricted spaces. Take for instance, the uncle sitting in the adjacent compartment. The plump man, due to an unexpected influx of passengers, is being forced to sleep in what seems to be a highly uncomfortable position. With one hand dangling above his shoulder, the other wedged between the grills of the window; his legs curled in a peculiar shape resembling the alphabet ‘S’. Yet, he shows no signs of discomfort, his lips curled into a satisfactory smile as he enjoys his siesta.  I bow to you, Indian spirit.

I try to guess the various facets of our unperturbed sleeper, his age, his life, the work he does, or how he acquired his superhuman contortional abilities. But I fail miserably, not because of my weak hand at the science of deduction, but because the passenger train just sailed past another river. The volcanic army of children (who had been quiet for a while now) erupts to destroy the silence of our Pompeii. I shift my focus to my window again, peace ensues.

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The Manamadurai Junction

Manamadurai junction station is here. The industrious coffee sellers of the station, who must have been patiently awaiting the arrival of Madurai-Rameshwaram passenger train spring into action.They raid each bogie of the passenger train with cries of ‘Kaapi, Kaapi, Kaapi’, a colloquial term for the world’s most famous beverage. The windows facing the station platform act as their makeshift shops, as they hinge their coffee bins against the horizontal window bars with a smartly designed lever. They need to sell as many cups of coffee as they possibly can with one eye, for their other eye is affixed to the distant railway traffic signal, hoping it doesn’t turn green soon. Somehow, the sales pitch of the coffee sellers manages to calm the noises within the passenger train. The children are quiet, not a soul seems to be talking on the phone, the contortionist sleeper is wide awake. Everyone’s attention is reserved for the coffee sellers, handing out the eagerly awaited coffee cups to the parched passengers. But the coffee seller’s moment in the sun doesn’t last long- the signal has turned green. And once again, I inch closer to my window sill, with a cup of coffee in my hands, eager to see what this journey has in store for me next. 

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The ‘Kaapi’ Seller

The compartment is surprisingly quiet now, which makes the outside scenery even more delectable. Outside, I catch a glimpse of a flock of white doves flying in a backdrop of the green earthly blanket intersected by the passage of the blood red engine, all with the saturated clouds marking the horizon. How does one not fall in love with the Indian country-side, where such sights are ubiquitous?

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While the children haven’t spoken much for a while, the silence is occasionally broken by train vendors which frequent the bogies attempting to sell home-made goods to the passengers. The cycle of their visits was initiated by Mr. Chick-pea seller, trying to sell his self-proclaimed ‘best chick-peas in India‘ with tactful slogans. A few minutes later, the entire bogie is filled with exotic aroma of sandalwood, leaving everyone confused about the source. Enter the incense stick seller, making his grand aromatic entry into our compartment. He, just like his predecessor, claims that his hand rolled incense sticks are the best in the region.To my surprise, his sales ploy seems to be working as he has already managed to sell a dozen packets within a span of few minutes.

Next in line is the Murukku lady. Draped in a bright yellow sari, she offers the passengers an assortment of her special murukkus (a South Indian snack) that co-incidently match the colour of her sari. For some reason, she makes me the target of her sales pitch and almost forces me into buying her murukkus (By the way, those crunchy and flavorful murukkus were one of the best snacks that I had in 2015. I regret not buying another packet from her!).

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The Murrukku

We have arrived at Paramakkudi, one of the last stations before we cross the legendary Pamban Rail Bridge and reach Rameshwaram. Sadly, most of the passengers who had started their journey with me have risen up and have started collecting their belongings to deboard the train at Paramakkudi. The contortionist sleeper just left, so did the noisy choir of children (thankfully). The old woman who had been who had slept her way through the entire length of the journey also rises to take leave. And like always, I have already started to miss their company.

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But all is not lost, for the compartment is almost immediately refilled with a plethora of passengers who had boarded the train at Paramakkudi. One of them is a drowsy uncle, who I am sure will immediately doze off in an awkward/uncomfortable position. Also, two more families with six noisy children have taken refuge in the adjacent compartment. Life coming full circle again?

It’s surprising how train journeys closely mimic the cycle of life. We meet people, make friends, only to let them go and find new ones- thereby knitting an endless chain of emotions- only to be felt but never to be broken. But again, what is life, but a collection of such journeys.

The passenger train is finally crossing the mighty Pamban railway bridge, the moment around which I had planned my trip. The Pamban bridge, built during the colonial time, is an engineering marvel spanning over a distance of 2.3 kms over the Palk strait.

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A sight of the adjacent Pamban Road Bridge from the passenger train

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The visuals of of this rusty cantilever bridge is nothing short of overwhelming. But sadly, it also marks the end of my journey with this passenger train and its people, for the island of Rameshwaram lies at the other end of the bridge. My eyes scouts the distant island in hope of finding more stories to tell.

And finding my self through those stories.

 -Vibhav Bisht


The author loves to sail paper boats during the monsoon rains.
Feel free to join him on his Twitter and Facebook.

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© Copyright for all the images owned by SlowRover and Vibhav Bisht. 

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49 thoughts on “Experiencing India: Sounds and Sights from an Indian Train Journey

  1. Pingback: Experiencing India: Sounds and Sights from an Indian Train Journey — SlowRover | Inspire Tips

  2. These shots are incredible and you’ve got a lovely way of telling a story. And I must agree with one of the previous commenters, I love train travel stories. They just seem so romantic and they offer a great insight into the passengers as well as the passing countryside. I particularly enjoyed the photo of the elderly ladies dozing in her hand. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely set of pictures, as Indians, all of us can relate to all of these so well. I think over the decades, train journeys in India haven’t changed much, despite the superficial changes…the essence remains the same. Unhurried, relaxing and sociable.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have taken quite a few trains in India and I had different experiences, never a bad one. It is indeed wonderful to observe all the things happening around you and simply enjoy the views. I have done the Transiberian railway and that was exactly as you described it here, the cycle of life. When you live with the same people in the same place, for several days, you can observe it much better.

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  5. What a great train ride and told so beautifully! That snack looks so neat I think I would have just kept it to look at rather than eat! Also I always wondered how people sleep on the train and then somehow wake up just at the right time to catch their stop! How do they do that!??!?!

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    • Thank you so much! I believe this has been the most common observation amongst my readers. How similar train journeys are across the world, despite being so incredibly different from one another.
      Beautiful!

      Like

  6. Train journeys have always been our favorite and memorable part of childhood, but the busy life and lack of time (Slant approved vacations) have ruled out train journeys with options of flight which I find the most boring. Your description of the journey refreshed the memories. Glad that you shared it with us.

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  7. I prefer catching trains to flying. I find them relaxing and you are right entertaining. I have also wanted to catch a train through India just for the experience. Lovely post and nice pictures. I

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  8. I like your writing and the emotions you evoke!
    Regarding the train, I’ve always been a little bit worried about taking a train in India, probably because I could be too spoiled to enjoy the people or the delays of the trains (I always thought they’re perpetually late!) but it’s fascinating anyway, I’d like to try as well.

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  9. Trains and train journeys always have special and romantic aura about the, Train journeys in India are literally like a journey into a wonderland. As the train chugs along the landscape, language, weather everything seems to change with mind boggling regularity.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Whenever I travel, I always try to go by train. I don’t know why, but the experience is always better, and usually the landscape is amazing as well! Travelling across India has always been one of my dreams. It must be amazing to discover such a diverse country with so many different peoples! Can’t wait to make it to India one day and experience something like this!

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  11. India on a different perspective – beautiful. Its buce to see locals on their daily routines. And that train is something. Thanks for sharing this trip very lovely

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  12. Absolutely incredible! You have to narrate this story to me in person whenever we meet!!!

    Sharing a story myself : Last year in the monsoon, I found that there was a train that ran from Jaipur to Cochin (Ernakulam); without thinking much – I was on it in a sleeper class coach and what a memorable time it turned out to be. First the train ride and then monsoon in Goa for two odd weeks! Came back the same way and loved the landscapes even more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you share my love for monsoons, Shubham! And trains that run from north to south are my favourite! (i took the delhi-cochin
      a few year back, observing the changing landscape and the soil colour was like watching my geography books come to life! :p)

      Let me know when you’re in Delhi Shubham, we should definitely meet! We’re already connected on facebook 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: SlowRover Snapshots #23 | SlowRover

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