July 20, 2008

Through Karjat by the Udyan Express

This time last year the rains had settled down in Mumbai, having traveled up the West Coast early in the season.

So when we left for Bangalore we did so under a sky that had changed from a salubrious mischief monger to one of subdued obedience. The light had turned mellow, and birds were few and far between. Copper Pod and Gulmohar blooms were history, and not a trace remained on the streets of the colour the blooms had lent barely a month before.

I might have enjoyed the subtle nuances to the light if not for the threat the skies held out. If we did not have to travel some distance before boarding the Udyan Express I might have actually preferred to sit by the window and look into the distance and watch the skies open up on the Yeoor hills nudging the Mumbai horizon. It is difficult to delight in the mellow light when rains threaten a wet experience.

The Udayan Express pulled into Kalyan Junction shortly after quarter past nine. We made the platform early in the morning, preferring to wait for the train in the morning din on a busy railway station than run the risk of missing the train. Nobody takes a chance in the Mumbai rains, more so if they’re transferring to a connecting train. I settled down in the hard comfort of the stiff seating the railway junction provides travelers.

Milkmen got off suburban locals and balancing the large aluminum vessels on the head made for the exit. It was early morning rush hour, the time of day when the city of Bombay lifts itself up from the slumber of the night before and braces itself for the million embraces the local trains deliver into its weary lap. To stand there and watch the rush hour traffic without being a part of it for once warmed my cockles no end.

The Udyan Express runs over 1200 kilometres between Mumbai and Bangalore, the journey lasting twenty-four hours as the train passes through Pune, Solapur, Gulbarga, Yadgir, Raichur, and Guntakal before pulling into Bangalore City Junction at nine the next morning. Beyond Raichur it enters Andhra Pradesh, passing Adoni, Guntakal Junction, Gooty, Anantapur, Dharmavaram Junction, Penukonda and Hindupur before entering Karnataka again. From Hindupur, Bangalore lies three hours away.

Along the way scores of stations flash by, small outposts in the hinterland of Maharashtra and Karnataka, and a small stretch of Andhra Pradesh, passing villages and towns, crossing rutted roads at railway crossings and chugging along vast fields of standing crop, and elsewhere freshly plowed fields.

Ploughing deeper into India the terrain would change to a dusty brown, sometimes a rocky grey.

I was looking forward to the run across the country. The window was to be my companion for the length of the long journey.

I looked out the window as the train left Kalyan before walking down the aisle to the door. Wedging myself against it, with camera at the ready, I watched the Western Ghats mountain ranges slide away in slow motion in the far distance.

In the foreground rice fields shimmered in the latent glow of the monsoon morning. Large electricity transmission towers rose from the fields and every once in a while children, walking on mud bunds separating squares of rice fields, reflected in the water, making for a doppelganger effect in the reverse, images that were reminiscent of rural scenes from black and white pictures of years ago.

All along, farmers, ankle deep in the slush of the paddy fields laboured behind pairs of bullocks, ploughing their fields in slow motion.

Every once in a while scenes of village folk bent at the waist, planting rice crops, flashed past. Plastic tied around the head they rarely straightened up to watch the train go past. However the children did, waving to passing trains. Watching farmers at work invariably makes me wonder how it must be to be connected so elementally with the earth, smelling its fragrances, and working it for sustenance. India is among the largest consumers of rice in the world.

As the train made its way toward Karjat, the earth yielded patch after patch of peaceful scenes of rice fields getting ready for the Kharif crop, also known as the monsoon crop since it is sown in the monsoons. Sugarcane, Maize, Cotton are among the other Kharif crops. Beyond Kalyan it wasn’t until we crossed Badlapur that rice fields made an appearance in significant stretches, the scene repeating itself as we passed Vangani, Shelu, Neral, and Bhivpuri Road. Beyond Bhivpuri Road lies Karjat at the end of the coastal plains of the Konkan. Located on Bhor Ghat, Karjat is known for the largest concentration of farm houses in India, and lately it’s been in the news for the film studios located on its outskirts.

A little over an hour separates Kalyan from Karjat. All along the route the Western Ghats mountain ranges, also known as the Sahyadris, stretched in the far distance, unfolding like a curtain as the train covered ground on its onward run even while hiding from view the terrain on the other side, in the rain shadow of the Sahyadris.

Beyond Karjat the rice fields would make way for the mountain ranges, bringing them much closer than at any other point in the journey. However there was still time before they would rear mightily within view, staying with the train as it made up the incline, helped by the extra engine hooked to the first, before turning south-east in the direction of Pune.

I prepared to photograph rice fields on the run to Karjat and the mountain ranges thereafter. A polythene cover was at hand to wrap the camera with when the wind brought in the rain through the door.

It is difficult to make out faces of Oxen tilling the fields except through the zoom. Usually there isn’t much to separate the two bullocks by size so there’s not much one can deduce in terms of their temperament. It’s a little game I play with myself when I stand at the door as the train slices farmland in the sowing season.

I imagine a little white star on the forehead of an Ox to indicate a blessed soul who wears his blessing with little pomp as if it were his right and he is fine with displaying it to the world. But I was stumped by a pair of bullocks I saw in the field one of which had a white face. It might not have jarred as much if there was some continuity on the rest of its torso. There was not a hint of white elsewhere except for the face; the rest of its torso was a mix of brown and black. There could not have been a greater contrast in colours. This was a first for me. It was as if the head and torso from two different Oxen were joined together. I wondered if it had a split personality.

The cattle were oblivious to the train as it thundered past more rice fields.

Between Kalyan and Lonavala the train would make a stop at Karjat. I looked forward to seeing the khaki-shirted Diwadkar Vada Pav wallahs complete with red sashes running across the front of their shirts. They wear the red sash with Diwadkar printed in the Devanagari script on the front, to the back the brand name is printed in English. The Diwadkar Vada Pav vendors are unique to Karjat and are not to be found elsewhere on the Mumbai Suburban Railway Network.

On railways stations elsewhere in Mumbai and adjoining suburbs Vada Pav stalls are run from railway platforms. Typically a tender process identifies the most favourable bids and depending on the number of stalls allocated for each station the eateries commence business, turning profits quickly as office goers and other travelers make a beeline for the snack. Vada Pav is arguably the most favoured snack on railway stations on the Mumbai Suburban Railway Network. Vada is a potato-based patty savoury made from mashed potato that is rolled into balls before before being dipped into spice-seasoned batter of gram flour and deep fried. Eaten with Pav, a type of bread, it is filling. It is garnished with chutney that can alternate from moderately spicy to very spicy.

As passing trains pull into Karjat the khaki clad Diwadkar Vada Pav vendors take their positions with practiced ease, two to a bogie. Placing metal stands on the platform they rest their stock of Vada Pav and a packet of chutney, carrying the brand name Diwadkar Foods, in a rectangular metal tray with straps.

At other times they carry the metal stand on their back and dispense Vada Pav from the metal tray that is slung from their necks.

Preparing Vada Pav is a skill that comes with practice. Usually it is the garnishing that distinguishes Vada Pav preparations. Diwadkar’s chutney is red but not as spicy as the red suggests.

It had rained a short while ago, leaving a fresh feel to the trees and the road that runs parallel to the tracks. Vegetable vendors sat by the edge of the road with baskets of fresh looking vegetables. Vegetable vendors bring the streets alive. Baskets of fresh vegetables lend a hint of fertility to what might otherwise be a stretch of dull, unyielding asphalt. Moreover it makes for a reason to walk the roads checking each basket for vegetable varieties sourced from diverse farms, bargaining over prices. In time regular customers develop nodding familiarity with the vendors, exchanging smiles all around. It is an experience actually.

On leaving Karjat, where extra power was added in the form of a second engine, I had little less than two hours to photograph portions of the Western Ghats mountain ranges for, the train after crossing Palasdari makes its way past Thakurwadi, then up Monkey Hill before passing Khandala and then Lonavala. From here it’s not long before it leaves the Western Ghats behind, entering the Deccan Plateau on its way to Pune.

At Thakurwadi a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman appeared in the middle of nowhere. Painted pink it stood out in the greenery. The paint was running loose in the downpour. An elderly villager clad in a wrap-on and a blouse made her way up an incline that ran parallel to the track.

The villagers usually build their homes in clusters, the sloping roofs merging in the backdrop of the mountains. Occasionally homesteads will emerge from isolated patches of farmland, fenced with stems sourced from surrounding vegetation. In the rains it’s not unusual to find fences sprouting life.

A light rain fell outside. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with mountain air. I was joined by another passenger at the door. He simply stood there and gazed at the mountains that seemed to stretch, and stretch, and stretch all the way. Waterfalls cascaded down the mountains, striking white against the deep green of the foliage, indicating they fell violently.

The western edge of the Deccan plateau ends in the Western Ghats (also known as the Sahyadri mountain ranges) that run north to south along the edge of the plateau, stretching all the way from the Gujarat – Maharashtra border, through Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, about 1,600 kilometres in all. Sahyadri means benevolent. At 1,200 metres on the average the Western Ghats are not among the tallest but what they lack in height they more than make up with their rich bio-diversity.

But from where I stood at the door of the train, watching the ranges up-close through my lens, tracing waterfalls that fell from great heights down sheer rock faces, and elsewhere emerging from dense foliage covering the near vertical drops, I was reminded of the ferocity of river Mahdei from a trekking camp in Goa years ago. I had only just escaped drowning by the thinnest of whiskers. Nobody had expected me to get out alive.

The train trudged up the incline. It had only a short distance to go before it would veer off into the plateau in the direction of Pune, leaving the core of the mountain ranges behind. I tried counting the streams cascading down the mountains for no particular reason. I could not hear them. They were too far for that. I wished I had carried my field glasses. A 10x50 might've brought them upclose. I wonder if these outcrops have been sufficiently explored, for if my experience trekking the Western Ghats is anything to go by I wouldn't be surprised if explorations were to reveal ancient temples lost to time.

It had stopped raining on the route but in the distance I knew from experience that come monsoon it rarely stops raining in the mountain ranges, swelling rivers that eventually feed peninsular India, among them are the Godavari, the Mandovi, the Krishna, the Cauvery, and the Zuari. At their source the numerous streams descend quickly from the heights before they roil in the violence of the monsoon.

Rice fields were now few and far between. As the gradient steepened we left the plains behind. Even as dense vegetation blurred features of mountains in the distance I rewound to images of paddy fields I had seen earlier in the journey. Other images from long ago of children playing in the fields, pausing to wave at the train as it roared past them came to my mind, leaving a warm feel behind.

For some reason each time I’m on a train passing through vast fields in the Indian hinterland I’m reminded of the unforgettable train scene from Satyajit Ray’s classic Pather Panchali when Apu and his sister Durga ‘discover’ a train in a field of Kaash flowers.

Born into an accomplished Brahmin family himself, second to none in their achievements in the Arts, Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) is a story of a poor Brahmin family from rural Bengal in the early twentieth century and charts the story of Harihar Ray’s impoverished family struggling to make ends meet. In a backdrop as grim as this the film belies the seeming futility of their existence with its portrayal of Harihar Ray’s children, Durga and Apu, as alive to possibilities of life, and ever ready to imbue meaning into the simplest of things that simply being alive had to offer.

Riding on their unaffected childhood innocence that manifests in their discovery of the world beyond their immediate circle of life the film unravels time to the pace of Durga and Apu’s life, and nowhere more so when Durga and Apu find themselves in a field of Kaash flowers, possibly drawn to the humming of high tension electricity wires, only to hear an unfamiliar sound carried their way on the breeze. Never having heard a train before Durga stills herself, her eyes having averted to a non existent visual frame before her, only the occasional jerk of her face in the direction of the sound indicating she was seized of the unfamiliar, and Apu having gone quiet, looking for cues in Durga’s absent gaze presses his face to the high tension electric metal pole even as the Kaash flowers sway gently to the breeze now bringing the mystery to the fore.

Seconds turn to minutes and as Durga breaks into a run to meet the mystery, Appu follows her. There among the head high flowers they pause unsure of the direction the sound was coming from, their heads still, the sound grows louder, and in the split passage of a moment on the threshold of unfolding the unknown, realization dawns, and their heads jerk to their right just in time to catch sight of thick black smoke in the distance gusting back above the heads of Kaash flowers, the engine and coaches hidden from view. Pushed back by the force of air yielding to the train’s momentum as it hurtles across the plains, the swirling black smoke might as well have been a demon snorting rage. Appu breaks into a run to meet his defining moment as he comes face to face with a steam locomotive for the first time in his life.

In that one moment of sprinting innocence I understood the Indian hinterland from a different perspective and my travels by Indian Railways were never to be the same again.


Coffee Messiah said...

I enjoyed this post and will have to read all your past ones also.

Very interesting and beautiful pictures.

I recently re watched Siddhartha by Conrad Rooks and in his interview, he mentioned that many of the temples etc that were photographed then are now gone and many a sign built in many places showing consumerism having sprouted up since then also.

An amazing journey, this world, past and present.

Cheers from the usa!

kenju said...

Another excellent post, Anil. You write so beautifully. I was on that train with you.

bobbie said...

Your stories of your travels are so vivid as to allow the reader to feel a part of the journey. I have enjoyed this so much.

Thank you, also, for your review of Pather Panchali. The book obviously meant a great deal to you, and I believe that I would enjoy it as much as you did.

Kelly said...

It sounds and looks like you have been very busy! What wonderful pictures and stories.

I was wondering about the "ticket" or "stamp" picture above. First off, which one is it and secondly, it looks like there is someone holding an "oscar" award. Anyway, if you told us about it, I overlooked it, so my apologies. I hope you won't mind telling me that was about.

Glad you had fun!


Sarah Laurence said...

What an amazing journey! How much fun to first hear about train stations and now the train ride. I hadn't realized you could see such wild areas from a train in India. I'll have to tell my son who has been obsessed with trains since he was two.

Anonymous said...

You are on the way to becoming every rainfan's favourite blogger!


Love the pics.

You should take the Mandvi Express to Goa from Dadar. Starts early in the morning and it's the best of Konkan all teh way to Goa.

Anil P said...

Coffee Messiah: Thank you. It's a coincidence actually for, Siddhartha, like Harihar Ray's character, is a brahmin, and like him on a search of his own. A trail that would invariably lead to Rishikesh, affording a visual treat not easily possible elsewhere.

I believe Conrad Rooks might be correct about his observation about the temples, for, many temples and certain archaeological sites have been over-run by real estate developers, which I believe is more for greed than mere consumerism though it translates to the latter.

Usually it is a case of people who've no cultural, traditional, nor symbolic stake vis-a-vis these sites, and nor have most of them grown up in a social and/or community milieu that's learnt to appreciate this heritage, neither for its historical importance nor for its aesthetics.

In a few other instances they might have been moved to make way for infrastructure, most likely moved as in removed.

Kenju: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have the piece communicate the experience you shared when reading it.

Bobbie: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have you read it. Do visit again.

Kelly: Thank you. It is a stamp showing a graphic of Satyajit Ray, and a scene from his film Pather Panchali adjoining the graphic. True, it's an Oscar. He received the Oscar award for Lifetime Achievement.

You might want to read about him here, and check the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. Several India train journeys pass through wilderness, and from the window it is a treat to pass through such places. I'm sure he would relish these journeys.

Which Main? What Cross?: Thank you, though I'm not sure how many would want to read my long posts :)

I've traveled by that route not less than 25 times at least :)

Anonymous said...

I love train journeys and it's nearly 15 years since I've travelled by the Udyan Express. Your narrative brought back beautiful memories and a sense of nostalgia that is so refreshing. Thank you for writing with so much passion and humility. I'll probably read your blog to my kids and share a part of my childhood. Keep up the good work. Love and light to you. SS

Anil P said...

SS: Thank you for your comment. 15 years is a long time. It's a pleasure to know the post revived memories from long ago. It's heartening to know of the difference it can sometimes make, to be able to reach out to another with your own memories.

I do hope your kids will enjoy the feel as well. Thank you.

Marvin said...

I have never traveled by train, but enjoyed tagging along on your railway journey. Thank you.

bluemountainmama said...

gorgeous countryside and narrative, anil. those sights out the window would make the 24 hours not so tedious.

pRiyA said...

this is a fantastic blog. i never get to travel within india and i shall do so through your writing and pictures.

Minnesotablue said...

I absolutely love your blog. You make your adventures come alive for me and your photography is amazing. I look forward to your posts. Keep them coming my friend!

mountainear said...

Fantastic blog Anil - ecvocative despcriptions of the passing landscape and really atmospheric photographs too. I breathed the wetness through your words. I especially like your journey through the rice fields - mainly I guess because it is such unfamiliar terrain and here it is passing before my eyes.

I shall come back and re-read this blog.

Lakshmi said...

wonderful post anil and the writing is so poignant in a way..i enjoy train journeys as well, but lack the ability to express it so well as you do..did go to Karjat though from Mumbai by train during the monsoons..that was I guess 8 years ago ..but the memory is rather fresh :)

Anil P said...

Marvin: Thank you.

Bluemountainmama: Thanks. True, a train journey can make the 24 hours duration seem easy. Often if it's a new route I prefer to take the day train just so I can look out the window. Train timings matter.

Priya: Thank you. Nice to have you read my posts. Sure you can get aboard for the India Journeys featured here :)

Minnesotablue: Thank you :) It's nice to have you read my posts and enjoy the experience, you're most welcome.

Mountainear: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you enjoyed the narrative.

Rice fields are usually to be found along the Indian coastline, and they're quite a sight against the backdrop of the mountains.

Lakshmi: Thank you for your kind comment.

It's surprising how some memories tend to induce a certain longing, hence making them poignant. Train journeys usually do.

I wonder if, among other things, it is the distance they traverse that contributes to it. I wouldn't know for sure. I relish train journeys.

It may not entirely matter, the words that is, so long as the heart retains the impressions.

Rain journeys are special in their own way :)

Anonymous said...

"...braces itself for the million embraces the local trains deliver..." how beautifully written.

Loved your post. Especially how you weave story with your thoughts, no matter where they take you. from mumbai, to vada pav sellers to pather panchali.

may your journeys continue unbound.

Lucy said...

'The window was to be my companion for the length of the long journey.' Wonderful line, and what a treat for us!

I think one of the things I love about your writing is that you seem to have an insider's cultural knowledge, but to write with the wonder and freshness of a traveller from elsewhere. Don't ever apologise for writing long posts; they are so rich and heady, and beautifully crafted and observed, you clearly put them together very carefully, and you digress and reflect just the right amount.

As Kenju said, I was on that train with you! Thank you for taking us along, and for a wonderful read.

Bayjb said...

Your pictures are absolutely amazing. I need to catch up on past posts but your writing is really great.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I am enjoying this series based around experiences on the Indian Railways. I haven't travelled by train much since the early 90s. Looks like things have remained pretty much the same (from the pictures) which is good! Trains have been an important part of Indian movies: From Ray's Pather Panchali to the more commercial Dharam hit Yaadon Ki Baraat. The most recent one I remember noticing being Johnny Gaddaar.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anil -

What fantastic photos and writing.

Well done. Keep up the good work!

Anil P said...

Sonal J: Thank you. Indian journeys do promise a lot between point A to point B.

Lucy: Thank you. It's very encouraging to read your comment. It's always a pleasure to be able to take the reader on a journey. On an Indian train

Nope, I won't apologise for the long posts :)

Bayjb: Thank you.

Shantanu: Yes, nothing like traveling on India trains for the varied experiences they offer. With flight prices increasing I believe Indian Railways will see more passengers queuing up outside stations. Thank you.

Nuttycow: Thank you :)

Kelly said...


I sure enjoy reading your blog! I am doing this award thing, where I pick 5 blogs that I really enjoy reading and give them an award (not a real award) but just recognition for their blog. I hope that you will then pick 5 blogs that you really enjoy and give them the award and link to them, so we can all read their blogs.

Hope that you are doing well.


Kelly said...


Be sure and check out my blog, there is something special there for you!!!


Anil P said...

Kelly: Thanks for the initiative. It's a pleasure indeed to have you select me for special mention, more so to know you enjoy reading my India stories.

Thank you for the write-up, it captured the essence of what I try to communicate about India. It was touching to read it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the compliment :)
Your pictures are beautiful! You're very talented.

Merisi said...

thank you for taking us along on this wonderful journey, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Yours is one of my favorite Indian blogs, it's always an immense pleasure coming back here.
Best wishes from Vienna,

megha puNAter" said...

wow anil this post really touched me,
i spend quite some time in karjat and eaten those wadapavs years back.your post brought it all back.i miss my travels in the indian trains.thank you for such a beautiful blog.

Anil P said...

Sandy: Thank you.

Merisi: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to have you read my posts over the years. Thanks :)

Megha Punater: Thank you. It's nice to know the Diwadkar's Vada Pav was a fixture even on those days. In having the vendors don uniforms they've marketed their Vada Pav as a brand. This is a departure from the conventional.

Anonymous said...

First time on your blog.Very very very interesting post. You have made the train journey from Pune to Bombay alive. Brought back so many memories. Will keep reading it over and over again. You have captured so many small details so effectively . Its like talking to a friend .(not just a boring descriptive naaration of a travel). Very interesting.


Anil P said...

Vinita: You must have traveled by the Udyan Express many times, and I can well imagine the train memories. The Mumbai-Pune stretch is particularly pretty. Thick vegetation and ample natural beauty abounds in the mountains.

Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you liked reading the train journey post.

Creative Rumblings said...

Hi Anil, awesome description of train travel. You write beautifully, capturing small details and making it all seem so charming. I'd love to go up the Western Ghats myself; your post has strengthened my resolve.

Thanks for visiting my blog(s).

Anil P said...

Dreammaker: Thanks. The Western Ghats are among the most ecologically diverse mountain ranges anywhere.

You must explore them someday.

Unknown said...

Western ghats look fabulous in monsoon. Your post reminds me of travelling tales of Ruskin Bond.

Pictures are really very beautiful.