Michael Portillo rides the rails in India: “For once I felt quite understated in my attire”

In Great Indian Railway Journeys, the former politician explores the foothills of the Himalayas and the Ganges' fertile plains - and enjoys a rose petal bath

Great Indian Railway Journeys - Ep 2

India is one of the few places where Michael Portillo’s penchant for canary-yellow jackets and fuchsia chinos didn’t raise eyebrows.


“India is very colourful, particularly Rajasthan – women wear the brightest reds, yellows and pinks,” he says. “And in Amritsar, the range of colours of turbans is extraordinary. So for once I felt quite understated in my attire.”

He even had a lime-green kurta made for him (pictured below) so that he could look the part. “It’s a knee-length, lightweight jacket, with a pair of white trousers underneath, called a paijama.

“They have fabulous fabrics and wonderful colours. There’s a natural elegance to Indian tailoring and they run things up very quickly. I came home wishing I’d had longer so I could have looked for some jackets.”

At the Taj Mahal
At the Taj Mahal; main picture above: Michael standing on Mehrangah Fort Jodhpur

The former Conservative MP was in India to film his new BBC2 series, Great Indian Railway Journeys. His four trips took him through the foothills of the Himalayas, the Thar Desert and the fertile plains watered by the Ganges, and looked at the crucial historic role railways have played.

“British-built railways in India helped the British to make money and maintain order; and as a by-product served to unite the country, ripe for independence. They’re what stitched the country together and they have a romanticism.”

As usual, he consulted his much-loved guide book – the 1913 Bradshaw’s Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel – although at times it made uncomfortable reading.

“One of the things you have to come to terms with is how racist the British Raj was, and Bradshaw’s reflects that colonial superiority because it talks about how you haggle with the local people and their curious customs. It has pages of phrases in Hindustani [the language promoted by the British] like, ‘Put the food on the table in the twinkling of an eye’ or ‘Bring the punkah’ – a fan operated by a servant.”

In 1913, the guide’s readers would never have dreamt of travelling in the unreserved carriages, but Portillo recommends it.

“There are something like ten different classes on a single train. At the top end they’re air-conditioned and you have a very comfortable seat – more comfortable than on a British train. And then you go down to unreserved, where there’s no air-conditioning, no glass in the windows, and there are limbs drooping  all around you – legs, arms and heads tumbling down from the luggage racks where people are sleeping.

“Many of these trains are travelling for thousands of kilometres, from one end of India to the other, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be in unreserved class on a very long journey. But on a short journey, I think unreserved would be my choice – that’s where you experience a gritty India, but also an India that’s full of life.”

Being sprayed by an elephant at a sanctuary outside Jaipur
Being sprayed by an elephant at a sanctuary outside Jaipur

In the opening episode of the series, he travels from Amritsar to Shimla. One of the most beautiful stretches, he says, was the Kalka to Shimla railway, opened in 1903 to serve this northern “hill station”.

“It’s a magnificent, narrow-gauge railway in the foothills of the Himalayas and it takes five hours to climb up to nearly 7,000ft. Shimla was the summer capital of the British Raj, so every year all the paraphernalia of the British government in India was transferred from Calcutta – 1,200 miles to the south east – up into the mountains by elephant, oxen and by river.

“The architecture is European, so you are suddenly surrounded by churches and buildings that could be from Surrey. Kipling spent time in Shimla and became a great satirist of all the love affairs and scandals that went on there.”

The railway journey across the vast, western state of Rajasthan was a stark but spectacular contrast. “It’s arid desert and you wonder how people survive there at all. This is a land of camels, elephants and stepwells – enormous wells dug into the ground and approached by a series of steps. They’re wonderful pieces of architecture and the whole community congregates on the steps.”

That trip took him to the city of Agra – home of the Taj Mahal. “It’s very crowded, but it has an extraordinary beauty – the colour of its marbles and its perfect symmetry are superb. It’s huge and seems somehow to float, with an incredible light to it.

“It’s a tomb built from grief by [Mughal emperor] Shah Jahan, who was mourning his wife, and it became his mausoleum, too, so they were reunited in death. The Mughals were a tribe from the Afghanistan/Persia region that for 250 years dominated much of India, so the Taj Mahal is a symbol of passion but also of their power and wealth.”

In tribute to Shah Jahan’s ardour, Portillo bathed in rose petals in a bathroom with a view of the Taj Mahal. Is that a traditional thing to do? “I don’t know, but I hope it will become one. It was an  experience, quite visual – the rose petals more than me!”

Enjoying a rose petal bath in the The Oberoi Amarvilas hotel in Agra
Enjoying a rose petal bath in the The Oberoi Amarvilas hotel in Agra

Great Indian Railway Journeys begins on Tuesday 20 March on BBC2, 8pm

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