Rajasthan, the Land of Kings, is aptly named. It is indeed a fabulous realm of maharajas and their majestic forts and lavish palaces. The remnants of a rich and romantic past, either in evocative ruins or restored to former splendour, have earned Rajasthan a place on most travellers’ wish lists. Yet there is much more to this iconic region of the subcontinent. It is a land of deserts and jungle, camel trains and tigers, glittering jewels, vivid art and vibrant culture. There are enough festivals here to fill a calendar and an artist’s palette, and the shopping and cuisine are nothing short of spectacular. It is the must-see state of India, brimming with varied, startling and incredible attractions.
While its colour-charged cities throb with the crowds and chaos of emerging India, the treasures of the past hold pride of place in mind and spirit. There’s magnificent Mehrangarh looming large over sea-blue Jodhpur, the golden sandcastle at Jaisalmer, the palaces of Udaipur, Pushkar’s reverent yet carnival charm, the storybook whimsy of Bundi and the painted havelis (ornately decorated residences) sprinkled through Shekhawati. Rajasthanis are rightly proud of their rich and turbulent history and there’s a recognisable acknowledgment of the economy’s dependency on tourism.
Jaipur, the City of Victory, has a habit of tickling travellers pink. Here you’ll find a well-preserved and living past – stunning hilltop forts, glorious palaces and humming, bargain-filled bazaars – as well as a wealth of accommodation and dining options. From the timeless bazaars of the old city to the towering malls of glass and chrome, which seem to be sprouting everywhere, there is an amazing array of items for sale – Rajasthani crafts, textiles, art and, of course, gems.
2. Sariska Tiger Reserve
This sanctuary is worth visiting with or without the lure of the tiger. The 800 sq km reserve is also home to nilgai, sambar, chital (spotted deer), wild boar and numerous species of bird. It also has some fascinating sights within and around its boundaries, including the spectacular hilltop Kankwari Fort (22km from the Forest Reception Office), and Bhangarh, a deserted, well-preserved 17th-century city that’s famously haunted.
3. Pushkar Camel Fair
Rajasthan’s famous festival is less about the eponymous camels and more about a rollickin’ good time, though the dunes outside of Pushkar are still a sight (and a smell) to behold when the cameleers come to town. Drawing in 50,000 camels and 200,000 people, the fair is ostensibly when Rajasthani farmers gather to buy and sell their camels, cattle and horses – most of the trading, however, is completed in the days leading up to the fair. When the festival proper begins, the camels go to the outer as moustache competitions and sporting events take centre stage. For the camels it’s a time of lounging about the dunes, riding visitors through the grounds and participating in races and dance competitions.
4. Ranthambore National Park
This national park is 1334 sq km of wild jungle scrub hemmed in by rocky ridges. At its centre is the 10th-century Ranthambore Fort and scattered nearby are ancient temples and mosques, crocodile-filled lakes, chhatris (cenotaphs) and hides. The park was a maharajas’ hunting ground till 1970 – a curious 15 years after it had become a sanctuary. Ranthambore is the best place to spot wild tigers in Rajasthan.
Udaipur is Rajasthan’s, maybe India’s, most romantic city, a tag that was first applied in 1829 by Colonel James Tod in his Annals & Antiquities of Rajasthan. Framed by the ancient Aravalli hills, the old city is dominated by the cupola-crowned City Palace, which rises abruptly from the glassy waters of Lake Pichola. The palace’s balconies gaze over the lake towards the city’s other famous landmark – the Lake Palace – a reflective, fairy-tale confection gleaming by day and spotlit by night.
Mighty Mehrangarh, the muscular fort that towers over the blue city of Jodhpur, is a magnificent spectacle and an architectural masterpiece. The formidable walls appear to grow organically from its rocky perch. Down below, the old town, a jumble of Brahmin-blue cubes, sprawls into the haze. The ‘blue city’ really is blue! Jodhpur proper stretches well beyond the 16th-century border, but it’s the immediacy and buzz of the old blue city and the larger-than life fort that capture travellers’ imaginations.
Still run by the descendants of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh is captivating. As you approach, the walls soar overhead in a mesmerizing demonstration of the skills of the builders. Inside the fort walls is a deep-terracotta coloured, latticed palace complex and network of courtyards, beautiful examples of the asymmetry and symmetry that mark Rajput buildings. Of the fort’s seven gates, look out for Lohapol (Iron Gate), which has numerous tragic tiny hand prints, the sati marks of Maharaja Man Singh’s widows, who threw themselves upon his funeral pyre in 1843. They still attract devotional attention and are usually covered in red powder.
8. Jaisalmer Fort
The fort of Jaisalmer is a breathtaking sight: a massive sandcastle rising from the sandy plains like a mirage from a bygone era. No place better evokes exotic camel-train trade routes and desert mystery. Ninety-nine colossal bastions encircle the still-inhabited narrow streets. Inside are shops swaddled in bright embroideries, a royal palace and numerous businesses looking for your tourist rupee. Despite the commercialism it is hard not to be enchanted by this desert citadel. Beneath the ramparts the twisting lanes of the old city conceal magnificent havelis of crumbling beauty. The havelis, the fort and its enclosed palace are all carved from the same golden honey sandstone, hence the city’s designation as the Golden City.
9. Sam Sand Dunes
The Desert National Park has been established in the Great Thar Desert, 42km from Jaisalmer. One of the most popular excursions is to the sand dunes on the edge of the park. This is Jaisalmer’s Sahara-like desert, with huge, silky, undulating folds of sand. It’s best to be here at sunrise or sunset, and many camel safaris spend a night here, but it’s still possible to frame pictures of solitary camels against lonely dunes.
Bundi is a captivating town, with narrow lanes of Brahmin-blue houses, assorted temples and a picturesque palace. This – or at least the old town beneath the palace – is the Rajasthan of the travel brochures, virtually free from noisy polluting engines and choking crowds. It still has an atmosphere of past wonders (as Kipling appreciated while he lived and wrote here), most readily felt around the cupola-clad fairy-tale palace that spills down the hillside. From January to March, delicate pink poppies fill surrounding fields. Here you will find a welcome break from the customary tourist trail. Bundi is still the place to explore laneways or just sit and soak up the history or gaze at contemporary life.