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This diverse state is home to the Rajputs, warrior clans who claim to originate from the sun, moon and fire, and who have controlled this part of India for more than 1000 years. While they forged marriages of convenience and temporary alliances, pride and independence were always paramount, with the result that much of their energy was spent squabbling among themselves. The resultant weakness eventually led to the Rajputs becoming vassals of the Mughal empire.

Nevertheless, the Rajputs’ bravery and sense of honour were unparalleled. Rajput warriors would fight against all odds and, when no hope was left, chivalry demanded jauhar (ritual mass suicide by immolation). It’s unsurprising that Akbar persuaded Raj­puts to lead his army, nor that subsequent Mughal emperors had such difficulty controlling this part of their empire.

With the Mughal empire declining, the Raj­puts gradually clawed back independence –at least until the British arrived. As the British Raj inexorably expanded, most Rajput states allied with the British, which allowed them to continue as independent states, subject to certain political and economic constraints.

These alliances proved to be the beginning of the end for the Rajput rulers. Consumption took over from chivalry, so that by the early 20th century many of the maharajas spent much of their time travelling the world with scores of retainers, playing polo and occupying entire floors of expensive Western hotels. While it suited the British to indulge them in this respect, the maharajas’ profligacy was economically and socially detrimental. When India gained its independence, Rajasthan had one of the subcontinent’s lowest rates of life expectancy and literacy.

At Independence, India’s ruling Congress Party was forced to make a deal with the nominally independent Rajput states to secure their agreement to join the new India. The rulers were allowed to keep their titles and their property holdings, and they were paid an annual stipend commensurate with their status. It couldn’t last forever though, and in the early 1970s Indira Gandhi abolished the titles and the stipends, and severely sequestered rulers’ property rights.

In their absence Rajasthan has made headway, but the state remains very poor. The strength of tradition here means that women have a particularly tough time in rural areas, where they’re often condemned to a life of drudgery and subject to elaborate strictures. However, literacy stood at 61% in 2001, a massive rise from 8.02% in 1951 and 38.55% in 1991 (although the gender gap remains India’s widest, and the literacy rate is still below the national average of 65.38%). In 2006, the Rajasthan Directorate of Literacy and Continuing Education was awarded a Unesco gong for its commitment to improving literacy rates.