Comic books and movies depict India as an exotic land of snake charmers, elephants, colorful palaces and princes, and this is the image that springs to the mind when people think of this country. But today’s India is completely different from this portrayal. Elephants are not a mode of transport and most people haven’t even seen a snake charmer; the country is on a fast track route to the future. Yet, if you want a peek into the India you read of in literature, visit Rajasthan. This princely state is modern, yet has its roots firmly in history and culture; so get all the colors and drama you expect from India in this charming state.
The largest state in India, Rajasthan lies in the north-west of the subcontinent bordering Pakistan. Home to the vast Thar Desert and the Aravalis, India’s oldest mountain range, this state is a nature-lover’s paradise with lush forests, sand dunes, wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands. When this natural abundance is combined with a rich history of Kings and brave warriors protecting their territory from outsiders, a past well preserved with splendid monuments and palaces and the enchantingly colorful culture and heritage of the people here, you get Rajasthan, one of the best places to visit in India.
Of course, its proximity to Delhi and Agra makes the state all the more attractive, with Jaipur forming a part of the Golden Triangle, India’s most popular tourist circuit. Another interesting aspect about visiting Rajasthan as a tourist is the number of accommodation options available here. From tents that emulate traveling tents of Mughal royals to mud houses, homestays with local hosts and finally a luxurious stay in a Palace hotel or a Fort hotel, your stay in Rajasthan could be versatile as well as completely different from what you’re accustomed to.
Places and Sights
The capital of Rajasthan has one foot in the future and another in the past. This city has all the conveniences a modern traveler would need, yet, its sights and monuments are well preserved memories of the past. Jaipur is also called the Pink City because of the pink hues of the sandstone structures that adorn the city.
The City Palace is an important landmark of Jaipur and is a fascinating structure to visit; the Hawa Mahal, with its natural air-conditioners is another interesting place with its unique design that enabled women royalty to have their privacy, yet watch what was happening around them. Other places to see in Jaipur include the Jantar Mantar, an ancient astronomical observatory, the Galta Monkey Temple that’s famous for its hordes of monkeys as well as natural springs, the majestic Jaigarh Fort and the Amber Palace; ride an elephant to reach the Amber Palace which is located at the top of a small hill and savor the royal experience.
The bazaars or market place of Jaipur are an exclusive experience by themselves; shopping is excellent, especially if you’re one of those shoppers who feels a purchase is not complete if there is no bargaining involved. From textiles to Indian perfumes, handicrafts, shoes, trinklets, souvenirs, gemstones and jewelry, everything is available at Joharibazaar, Bapu Bazaar and chameliwala market. Bargain even if you feel prices are reasonable; it is expected.
If Jaipur is a dignified ruler with its stately forts and mansions; Udaipur is a charismatic prince with charm and style that makes it really lovable. The Lake Pichola forms the heart of the city and every tourist activity is centered around this lake and other lakes, making Udaipur worthy of its title, the City of Lakes.
From the middle of the glittering waters of the Lake Pichola rises a romantic palace. If you aren’t satisfied with watching this beautiful creation from the shores of the lake, cross the lake to the palace and book a room there, for this palace is now a luxury hotel owned by Taj. Definitely expensive, but the experience is worth the extra cost. While we are on the topic, you should also know that this is not the only royal accommodation option available in Udaipur; there’s Oberoi’s Udaivilas, the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace and the Leela Palace Udaipur. While Udaipur does have its share of attractions to visit, your stay here could be the highlight of your holiday if you choose to stay in any of the above mentioned palaces or heritage guest houses like the 350-year old Amet Haveli or the Fateh Garh Heritage Hotel. Hospitality is excellent and more than just business.
Places to visit in Udaipur include the grand City Palace complex with its royal buildings, the Saheliyon ki Bari, a garden built for 48 maids who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry, the Jagdish Temple and Bagore ki Haveli. If the sight of so many palaces gets overwhelming, do what the Rajput princes did to escape and climb on a horse back. The Aravalli mountain ranges offers several activities like horse riding, trekking, camel riding and jeep safaris to view wildlife.
Jaisalmer is proper Rajasthan. With its sand-colored buildings called Havelis, narrow streets around a busy fort, its proximity to the hot and arid Thar desert and the bazaar that is extra-colorful as if to make up for this sandy color theme, Jaisalmer is an icon of Rajasthan, the land of Kings. The 12th Century Jaisalmer Fort is the nucleus of this town; rising from the sands, the Golden Fort is home to some of the most important monuments in the town, several Havelis and temples.
Tourists generally have three choices of accommodation in Jaisalmer – inside the Fort in one of the many Havelis or guesthouses, outside the Fort in hotels or B&Bs or right in the desert where they can stay in luxury tents in resorts. While staying in the Fort could be a memorable experience, most people feel it’s a strain on the fort when it has to accommodate the population of locals as well as tourists. If you’re feeling adventurous, opt to stay in desert tents; get closer to nature and yet enjoy modern luxuries like air-conditioners and refrigerators in the hot Thar Desert.
The Fort, called the Sonar Quila is the first stop for all tourists; inside the Fort lies other places of interest like the Fort Palace Museum, the lovely Jain Temples constructed between the 12th and 15th century and other mansions like the Patwon Ki Haveli. The Gadsisar Tank and its surroundings are interesting places to explore outside the Fort. Of course, the Thar Desert National Park is an exclusive destination by itself, a one-hour drive from Jaisalmer.
If you feel up (and down) to it, explore the desert on a camel back, which is the best way to experience the vast surroundings and the unspoiled environment. The Sam Sand Dunes transforms you to a completely different world where there’s just sand in various shapes and absolutely no vegetation. Experience local culture here, displayed through folk dances and songs.
After the Pink City of Jaipur, the Golden hues of Jaisalmer and the picturesque Udaipur, it’s time for the “Blue City”, Jodhpur. It’s easy to understand why Jodhpur is called the Blue City if you get a bird’s eye view of the city; the best place to get this is from the Meherangarh Fort which is on a hill top. The town looks as if it has been washed with blue paint; most houses and buildings are uniformly coated with the same shade of blue. The reason for this blue tinge is simple; since the town was initially infested with termites, a chemical combination of copper sulfate with the limestone that was used to paint houses helped in keeping away these termites, but gave the wall its blue color. This idea became a trend and everyone used this paint combination to color their walls; hence the blue wave.
The Meherangarh Fort is the largest fort in Rajasthan and easily the most interesting one with its museum, superb architecture and excellent views. The fort is well maintained and made more charming by locals who’re dressed in period costumes and offer on-the-spot performances of music or dance. The Umaid Bhawan Palace Museum is part-hotel, part-royal residence and part-museum which makes its fascinating to visit or stay in. The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is another interesting place to visit and to see the flora and fauna of the desert.
If you’re looking for fun, take the zipline tour over Jodhpur from the Meherangarh Fort and watch the blue city from the top.
Ranthambhore National Park and Mt Abu
If viewing palaces and forts up and down have given you a royal pain in the neck then don’t despair; Rajasthan has alternative options of places to see for people who are overwhelmed by royalty.
The Ranthambhore National Park is one of the best places to view tigers in Asia; though tigers are the most popular and most photographed animals here, the national park is also home to other animals like the jungle cat, leopard, hyena, wild buffalo and wild boar to mention a few. A forest that has history, for this was where Rajput princes conducted hunting rallies, a crumbling fort rising from the wilds and plenty of interesting wildlife with organized safari tours; that’s Ranthambhore for you.
Mount Abu is the only hill station in Rajasthan, and considering the substantial heat that the state takes during summer, a much needed resort town. Of course, this was the summer retreat for Rajasthani royals and the hill station has its own monuments like the Achalgarh Fort built in the 14th century. The Dilwara Jain Temples built between the 11th and 13th century, are lovely to visit with their beautiful white façade. If you’re feeling spiritual, visit the headquarters of the Brahmakumari Samaj in Mount Abu and watch their demonstrations on spirituality.
Advice from real travelers while visiting Rajasthan
- Timing is crucial. Summers can be extremely hot with temperatures reaching 48 degrees Celcius and winters quite uncomfortable in the absence of room heaters. The period between October and March is considered the best time to visit Rajasthan, not just because of the weather, but also because these are the months when most Indian festivals and events take place.
- Savor the local experiences of the state. Get a henna design done on your hand by a local artist, watch folk performances and explore the cities on an autorikshaw or tuk-tuk. Also, try the local breakfast- jalebis with milk; this may be an unusual combination, but it’s delicious.
- A must-try in Rajasthan would be staying in any one of its many heritage properties, be it a castle, a palace, fort or haveli. Though it may be definitely expensive, try to fit in at least one night in a palace for a lasting memory of your holiday here.
- Expect to be taken on a ride in Rajasthan, but don’t let that hinder your shopping. Shopping in Rajasthan is excellent because of the variety of local products available here that can make wonderful souvenirs and gifts. Mirror-work handicrafts, colorful textiles, precious stones, embroidered shoes, paintings and blue pottery are some of the best buys here; vibrant markets in Jaipur and Jodhpur offer wonderful shopping experiences. Remember to take cash as well as your bargaining skills.
- The cuisine of Rajasthan is mostly vegetarian; it may be difficult to get non-vegetarian dishes everywhere. In fact, even onions and garlic are not used in preparing local dishes; since water is scarce here, suitable substitutes like milk and yogurt is used for gravy dishes and this cuisine type is called Marwari cooking. Though all this may seem scary to a seasoned non-vegetarian, the truth is, local food is delicious and rich.
- Meals are usually heavy and have several courses. When in Rajasthan, try the Thali meals, dal-baati-churma, lassi and milk sweets. If you do want non-vegetarian food, don’t despair; there are several options of non-vegetarian dishes in Rajput cuisine, with a few restaurants specializing in these dishes. Plenty of international food chains have also started cropping up throughout the state; so don’t worry, your chicken pizza is just a call away.