I Spent 15 days on One Train, Exploring Incredible India

Traveler & photographer Divya Ramachandran documents her journey of digging deeper into the 'Land of Everything'

Divya was part of the Jagriti Yatra, which is an exciting train journey taking 450 youngsters to 12 locations across India over 15 days

I have always been a fan of travelling and exploring new places. Being an avid reader, a few words in a book can get me to book a ticket to the location I’m reading about. It’s a mix of curiosity and intrigue that leads you to a great place or pure wanderlust. One of the best parts of it is not just the new places you see and the experiences you have, but the feeling of purpose you come back home with.

I recently went for a trip around India called ‘Jagriti Yatra’. It was all about travelling around India to look at many rural areas and finding out how sustainable schools or villages have been constructed in those areas, eventually leading to us trying to emulating those ideas in our own cities.

Most of us who went on the trip went without any anticipation about how the places were going to be. Many looked at it as a tour around India for a very low price and others were curious to know what ‘Jagriti Yatra’ was all about.

When I thought of villages, the first thing that came into my mind was mud huts, many children running around and facilities which were not as good as cities.

The journey encompassed a round tour of twelve places, each having a speciality of its own. You can have a look at the map below to see the route.

Stop 1: Mumbai
We started from Mumbai. The very word ‘Mumbai’ brings to us sights and sounds of hawkers on the street and the scintillating scent of vada paav and fresh ginger tea. Well, that is Mumbai for you!

Read: 10 Awesome Things To Do in South Mumbai

After a beginning in this vibrant city and various introductions to everyone else who was part of the trip, we set off on our adventure across the country aboard our train.

Stop 2: Hubli-Dharwad
Our second stop on the journey was Hubli-Dharwad. We got off the train to board a bus that took us down beautiful meadows and rusty dirt roads to reach a place of ultimate peace. It was a School of Art and Music called ‘Kalkeri’. The School was built entirely of bamboo and mud. As we entered the space we heard the chirping voices of children singing. We were drawn to it as never before.

After a long stay at the house of Carnatic Music, we moved on to have lunch with the children, who were more than curious to know where we had come from. These children were very different from the children we saw at Schools in the cities. The city children have it all and nothing intrigues them much. But the children here were very sharp and took the time to converse with us and absorb what we had to say as this was an opportunity they didn’t want to miss, to be connected to the world outside which they lived.

After a short walk around the campus, we came across a small centre where some of the children were learning to play the Veena. This was one of the most thrilling sights we saw. Although we had seen Veena performances before, the sight of the kids playing together and sometimes even messing up was more of a performance than we could ever get enough of!

Stop 3: Bangalore

Our third stop was Bangalore. As always Bangalore has an air of positivity around it and it never ceases to give you that extra energy you’re looking for; whether it’s the range of artists you find there, the graffiti art around the city or the pure start up culture that makes people want to try new things; a market existing for almost anything new!

Read: 21 Awesome Things That Happen Only In Bangalore

We went down to Mount Carmel college to meet a few start up gurus and ended the visit by having a look at a start up fair that had everything from organic food to colourful sanitary pads made of cloth to stay more eco-friendly. It was an eye opener as to how such simple ideas could be creative, colourful, alluring and make a difference in a large way at the same time.

Stop 4: Madhurai

The next stop was Madurai, the city of temples. It was interesting to know that the largest Eye Clinic – Arvind Eye Care, was set up right there. And this was not just any ordinary eye clinic, but one that provided free treatment to all patients. All the contributions for surgeries were given as generous donations. The business model was very unique. The price per surgery was very nominal. So those who could afford it were asked to pay double the amount, and half of that would be used to help another patient who couldn’t afford it.  Now why didn’t anyone else think of that before? If all our hospitals ran like that, everyone would be cured in a jiffy!

Apart from the pitstop at the hospital, we obviously couldn’t miss the temple of Madurai, the amazing Madurai Meenakshi, before we headed back.

This was the second time I was at the temple, each visit bringing more peace and excitement that the last. I’m not much of a temple visitor, but this temple always brings to me a feeling of openness and spiritedness that makes me feel rather more free than protected. The temple also had a new stone sculpture gallery added to it that had a thousand sculptures for guests to see.

Stop 5: Chennai

Our next destination was Chennai. The city is well known for its Tamil culture, beautiful temples and silk sarees. But the space we visited came to us as a surprise. We headed to a mini city called Sri City; a city within a city, 50 km from Chennai. It was a 9000 acre space built to be a mini version of Japan, consisting of factories, housing and schooling. The land was initially a farm land, but was taken from the farmers to construct corporate buildings and then employ them in the companies. Their children were given the benefits of 18 years of education in Schools constructed within the city.

Stop 6: Vishakapatnam

Vishakapatnam was next. I had never been to Andhra so it was interesting to see how much of hill cover the state had. Everywhere we looked there were mountains far beyond in the distance. We visited an interesting place called “Akshaya Patra” there. Akshaya Patra is an NGO that provides mid day meals to students across the country. They provide about 1.6 milliom meals a day across the country.

Every meal is given to the students at Schools at around 12.30 pm. A  feedback form is given to them post the meal, to find out if they are liking the food and also to get more ideas on how to make the food cater to their taste buds.

At Akshaya Patra, we went into a room where there were giant cooking machines (basically giant cookers) which about 8 feet high, where 400 tons of rice was cooked every day, not to mention the amount of vegetables cut and the lentil soups made.

There were moments during our trip here that we wanted to escape, enough was enough. We were tired of moving around so much and all we wanted was a nice cup of tea from a chai walla nearby or the taste of some delicious Andhra dosa and pickle on our tongues.

Sometimes the brunt of travel gets to you. It’s great if the locations are luxurious and you have a lot of time to relax, but a trip that takes you to the interiors of the country is bound to make you tired. But nevertheless the people and inspirational ideas kept us going.

Stop 7: Bhuvaneshwar

Our locations over the next two days were Bhuvaneshwar and Patna where we went to Gram Vikas, a 40 year old village that was spruced up by constructing clean toilets, a School and housing facilities. A space called ‘Kalpana Dham’ was started at the School there, a creative room, something of a small maker’s space for the children where they would pool in their ideas and make items from recyclable material.

That night was New Years Eve. All of us got out into the School ground. We had a DJ playing music and we danced with the children all night long, not to mention the dancing we did after we got back to the train, right on the station. ‘DJ wale babu mera gaana chaladho gaana chalado…”. We even got a treat of pani puri and shahi tukda for dinner right at the station platform that night; crazy moves, good food and some wonderful bonding with the children and each other. What more could we ask for?

Stop 8: Patna

Patna was a treat. We visited Nalanda Univerity at Rajgir, one of the oldest Universities which was responsible for cultivating the Art scene in Northern India. This University consisted of serene structures made of brick that resembled the constructions sites of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. We found many monks coming into this space to meditate.

The street markets resembled a lot of Nepal and Bhutan and had a plethora of intricately carved items made of stone for very affordable prices.

Stop 9: Deoria, a village of weavers

Our next destination was Deoria, a village in U.P where we were introduced to magnificent weavers. Deoria was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. There was so much of tranquillity there; I had never seen greener pastures in my life, inspite of having travelled across the terrains of U.S and Europe. Nothing could match what I felt here. It was the welcoming hearts of the villagers and the natural, untarnished beauty of the place that made our day.

This village comprised a group of exceptional weavers whose talent was recognised and outsourced to Fab India. They now make earrings and necklaces for Fab India, from which they get a large share of money. That night was a night of singing, dancing and drinking of malai dhoodh, to keep us warm in the 3 degree weather.

Stop 10: Delhi

We reached Delhi the next morning, where we interacted with Goonj, a company that makes products out of recycled goods.

No one can get out of Delhi without heading to the best eat-streets there, and so we did. To Chandini Chowk we went. From the street side balla papdis to the paratha wala gully, we were floored at the variety of food. We doused ourselves in the fresh aroma of jelabis and basked in the scent of matka kulfis around us.

We also visited the Jama Masjid, the largest Masjid in India. We went to the top of the tower to get a view of a large section of Delhi. The houses looked like tiny match boxes of different colors. We headed back to the train that evening.

Stops 11 & 12: Ahmedabad via Tilonia

Our final exploratory journey ended at Ahmedabad where we went to the Sabarmati Ashram. We were all in a meditative state of mind by then, yet a bit forlorn that the trip was coming to an end.

The Ashram was the starting point of the Dhandi March lead by Mahatma  Gandhi. The government of India constructed the monument as a tribute to the ‘Salt Satyagraha’.

Read: 10 Interesting Things to do in Ahmedabad

Our final stop was back in Mumbai, all of us with heavy hearts but our minds on fire with all our experiences within us. And with heartfelt tears in our eyes, stronger hearts and wiser minds, we bid our fellow travellers good bye, knowing we will always stay connected.

All photographs (c) Divya Ramachandran

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A journalist, intrepid traveler and occasional doodler, I love wandering off the beaten path. Is it any wonder then that my favourite place in the world is the window seat of an airplane?


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