‘Don’t worry, she’s lighter than a feather,” said the man as he tried to pass his aged mother to me – in the train – up from the tracks. She eyed me suspiciously, decided I wasn’t a safe pair of hands and vaulted up the last couple of steps, pushed past me and hobbled down the carriage.The son shrugged and gestured down the line where swarms of people, bored of waiting for the train to pull into a platform, were clambering across the tracks to reach it. A resourceful, determined character your average Indian pilgrim. And I was one of them, sort of.
Journey highlights: at a glance
Day 1: On train south
Day 2: Tiruchirapalli: Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, India’s biggest temple complex with 50 shrines and 21 towers, and the extraordinary Unesco-listed Brihadeeswarar temple built in the 11th century by the Chola dynasty.
Day 3: Morning in Rameswaram: Ramanathaswamy temple, where Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, came to worship Shiva and is now visited by millions of Hindus a year. Afternoon in Madurai: Meenakshi Amman temple dedicated to the triple-breasted goddess Meenakshi. Thousands of carvings of gods, goddesses and demons and a stunning array of colourful ceiling and wall paintings.
Day 4: Kanyakumari: Kumari Amman temple lies at the tip of the subcontinent where the waves of the Laccadive Sea crash outside this intimate, atmospheric temple dedicated to the virgin goddess.
Day 5: Thiruvananthapuram: a quick detour into Kerala state for a dip in the sea at beautiful Kovalam beach then back to the serious stuff at Padmanabhaswamy temple which is only open to Hindus.
Day 6: Kanchipuram: in a town famous for its many temples Kamakshi Amman stands out for its sheer size but much is off-limits to non-Hindus so I spent more time at Kailasanathar temple which was built in the 8th century and non-Hindus can get a glimpse into the inner sanctum.
Day 7: Tirupati: The temple of Venkateshwara in the hills above Tirupati attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a day at certain times and the wait for darshan can take a whole day. Many devotees donate their hair to the deity so Tirupati is full of shaved heads.
Day 8: Return north
Indian Railways’ tourism arm runs dozens of Bharat Darshan tours across India each year – lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks – aimed at the country’s hundreds of millions of devout Hindus, taking them to the most important religious sites.
Transport, accommodation on the train or in basic hostels, vegetarian food and endless cups of chai are all included. And the cost? About 1,000 rupees a day, around £11. A bargain for a westerner, just-about-affordable for a retired Indian teacher and a once-in-a-lifetime act of devotion for a farmer.
Writer Richard Eilers and fellow train travellers. Photograph: Richard Eilers
My seven-day trip started near Hyderabad and would take me south to Tamil Nadu and its famously colourful temples. Hopefully I would also get a glimpse of India and Hinduism through locals’ eyes.
But I was slightly nervous as I waited on the platform at midnight. I’ve done a few Indian overnight train journeys but in air-conditioned carriages and only for a night at a time. Here I would be in the most basic sleeper coach (something’s got to give for £11) for a week with more than 800 devotees with whom I might not be able to communicate. And I had no idea how I was going to wash. My girlfriend had given me two packs of wet wipes, only half in jest. In Hyderabad I had bought a small bucket (hopefully just for showering), plus a sheet, pillowcase and fleecy blanket.
I had expected a scrum when the train arrived but only a few people boarded. I had the carriage to myself, I think, because there was no power and I stumbled to my assigned berth in darkness. Half an hour later, with the train on its way and me cosy under my blanket, I was asleep.
I woke to shouts, laughter and bright lights at 4am and peered blearily out from my covers. The coach was packed with people and bags, so many bags. My neighbours had joined south of Hyderabad and were visibly startled to see my pasty white face. We nodded hellos and I rolled over and dozed as they noisily devoured snacks.
There would be plenty of time to become best friends because the first stop on our itinerary was Tiruchirapalli, nearly 1,000km away. A chai boy woke me at six and thrust a scalding hot plastic cup into my hands. The coach was loosely divided into sections of eight bunks and I had one of the upper ones, my favourite, because you could sit on a lower seat during the day, watch the scenery and chat, or climb up to your place to read or snooze.
Indian breakfast. Photograph: Alamy
Introductions were made over a breakfast of chapatis, rice and dhal ladled onto metal plates from giant vats dragged down the aisle. I hadn’t brought a plate, a schoolboy error, so was given a flimsy paper one which made the whole business of balancing it on my knees while eating a sloppy meal with my right hand (I’m left-handed) on a bouncy train just that little bit more difficult. I also had an audience. My neighbours, a boisterous 13-strong extended family, watched my every clumsy mouthful with horror and hilarity.
Head of the family was MV Koteswara, a lawyer who spoke good English and quickly decided I was hopeless. “Keep close to us, do what I tell you and it’ll be OK,” he said. But he couldn’t do anything about delays and we arrived the next morning at Tiruchirapalli many hours late, dangerously late to be able to complete the first darshan of the trip.
I’d got the impression that we were on a bit of a holiday jaunt, a coach tour of the Lake District, but I was wrong. Darshan was taken very seriously. To complete darshan the believer must behold a deity (often in the form of a statue), holy person or sacred object and receive a blessing. Darshan is only possible at certain times of the day and people often queue for hours to get just a few seconds in front of the deity, so a late train was bad news.
Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple. Photograph: Getty Images
A fleet of very tired buses took us a few miles to the river island of Srirangam and its vast temple complex devoted to Ranganatha, a form of Vishnu. My neighbours raced to join the darshan queue but as a non-Hindu I was not allowed in the inner sanctum (some temples allow non-Hindus, some don’t) so explored the complex’s many courtyards, towers and shrines. A couple of hours later the pilgrims emerged successful, chatting excitedly and back on the buses women led gentle devotional chanting.
Meeting an earnest young student, Yakanna, forcefully illustrated the importance of darshan. His parents were farmers and had taken out a bank loan so he could go on this trip. “It’s a lot of money for them,” he explained, “but they know it’s something that means so much to me and are happy for me.”
On day 6 … a visit to Kamakshi Amman Temple Photograph: Alamy
The pattern was set for the next few days: pretty comfortable nights, food cooked in the “pantry car” and pepped up with homemade pickles produced by my neighbours, washing in buckets of cold water in the surprisingly clean bathrooms (although many men took advantage of lengthy stops to strip to their undies on the tracks and wash) and some amazing temples.
The most extraordinary was a further 230km south at Ramanathaswamy on Rameswaram island where darshan started with a bathe in the sea, then continued into the temple itself for pilgrims to visit 22 separate theerthams (tanks and wells) where buckets of water were thrown over them. Thousands of people crowded, dripping wet, small children shivering, through the dark complex. It was an incredibly moving scene. The mood on the train that night was particularly high, at least once clothes hung out of carriage windows had finally dried.
Pilgrims waiting to bathe at the Ramanathaswamy temple. Photograph: Alamy
I was the only westerner on the train and my presence was met with everything from indifference to incredulity but always friendliness. I never got very far wandering through the train because I would be invited to sit for a chat (Google Translate made a good stab at Telugu, most passengers’ first language) every few metres. Life on tour did have its challenges. There was no personal space, physical or emotional, but that’s India and I confess I did sneak off once or twice for a quiet beer and a chicken masala.
I had a great time, met some wonderful people, learned about Hinduism and came away with a bit more understanding of Indian life – and two unopened packs of wet wipes.
• Flights from Heathrow to Delhi were provided by Virgin Atlantic (return from £439). Bharat Darshan tours can be booked at irctctourism.com. Accommodation at Tree of Life guesthouse in Delhi (doubles from £48) was provided by India Someday, which organises personalised itineraries for all budgets