Eight great reasons why you should visit the ‘land of kings’

In early 2012, we finally did something we had wanted to do for a long time: we took a trip to Rajasthan—literally, ‘the land of kings’. Though we planned a week-long trip to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur, we found that it wasn’t nearly long enough—and not just because our holiday turned into an involuntary road trip, courtesy of cancelled flights and unconfirmed train tickets.

Rajasthan showed us that one could spend years there and still not see all there is to see.  Here, then, are eight of the hundreds of great reasons to visit the land of kings.

#1 The splendid architecture, of course

Rajasthan is famous for the intricate architectural style employed by the erstwhile rulers of its city-states, with subtle variations from one end of the state to the other. Everywhere you look are palaces, pavilions, mansions and marketplaces, all built with the same intricate embellishments in varying levels of complexity. Happily, every other hotel here is a repurposed ‘haveli’ (mansion), so tourists are spoiled for choice in the heritage hotel department. In case the authentic heritage hotels are booked out, many others mimic the old styles with varying degrees of success—like the one we stayed in in Jaipur, the slightly overdone Umaid Bhawan (not to be confused with the magnificent palace-hotel of the same name in Jodhpur). Our hotel in Jodhpur, on the other hand—the lovely Haveli Inn Pal—was a true heritage hotel, and was even managed by the original owners.

Jaipur - City Palace - Brass gate
Brass gates at Jaipur’s city palace
Jaipur - City Palace - Elephant gate
Guardian – Jaipur city palace
Jaipur - City Palace - Gateway arch
Jaipur city palace – inner gates
Jaipur - Hotel balcony
A balcony at our hotel in Jaipur
Jaipur - Hotel blacony 2
A view from another hotel balcony
Jaisalmer - Hotel room
Our room in Jaisalmer fort
Jaisalmer - Mausoleum of kings 1
Mausoleum of kings near Pokhran on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway
Jaisalmer - Mausoleum of kings 2
Long-dead kings watch over the landscape
Jodhpur - Mahrangarh filigree windows 1
Filigreed windows in Mehrangarh fort
Jodhpur - Mahrangarh filigree windows 2
More filigreed windows
Jodhpur - Mahrangarh staff
A happy staffer at Mehrangarh
Jodhpur - Mehrangarh gate
One of the gates of Mehrangarh – the spikes deter ramming by elephants
Jodhpur - Towering temple
A temple being built on a spire of rock in Jodhpur, seen at sunrise
Jodhpur - Traditional blue houses
The famous traditional blue-painted houses that give Jodhpur its nickname
Jodhpur - view of mehrangarh
The brass ‘shikhara’ or peak of a haveli dome
Udaipur - City palace on the lake
The lakeside walkways of Udaipur’s city palace
Udaipur - Stone hut
An old stone hut stands the test of time in Udaipur
Udaipur - View of lake Pichola from City palace
Lake Pichola seen from the city palace museum
Udaipur - Welcoming elephants at Jagmandir palace
Marble elephants welcome visitors to Jagmandir palace in lake Pichola

#2 The imposing hill-top forts

As some may point out, I should probably have included forts in the architecture section above. But I think the hill-top forts of Rajasthan deserve a section of their own, and not just because there are so many of them. Each fort we saw was special in its own right, but Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh—a massive, looming presence visible from anywhere in the city—is by far the most impressive (and intimidating) fort we had ever seen. Covering an entire hill from one sheer edge to another and ringed by concentric fortifications, it’s no wonder it has never been conquered—though not for any lack of trying, as the cannonball dents on its walls show. Jaisalmer fort, though much smaller, is impressive for a different reason—its sand-gold colour glows in the sunset, and it is still inhabited by a few thousand people. Unfortunately, its lack of an organized drainage system—together with a mushrooming of tourist accommodation inside its walls—is eroding its foundations. To our everlasting guilt, we contributed to that by staying a night in a homestay on the fort walls. Never again. Lastly, Udaipur’s Sajjangarh is more a palace than a fort, but its hill-top location offers magnificent views of the city far below.

Jaipur - View from Jaigarh
The lights of Jaipur from the ramparts of Jaigarh fort
Jaisalmer - early morning in the fort
Inside Jaisalmer fort at sunrise
Jaisalmer - View from the walls
A view from the golden walls of Jaisalmer fort
Mehrangarh - morning view
Mehrangarh in the morning
Mehrangarh - Portal
Through the portal into another time
Mehrangarh - Internal fortifications
Inner fortifications of Mehrangarh
Mehrangarh - Palace walls
Mehrangarh’s palace walls
Mehrangarh - Looking east
Looking over Jodhpur from Mehrangarh
Mehrangarh - Looking west
Looking over the eastern plains from Mehrangarh
Mehrangarh - Outer fortifications
Mehrangarh’s outer fortifications
Mehrangarh - Cannon and Umaid Bhawan
A cannon on the ramparts of Mehrangarh points in the direction of the Umaid Bhawan palace
Mehrangarh - Pigeons
Mehrangarh pigeons
Mehrangarh - South facing cannon
Another cannon
Udaipur - Sajjangarh hill view 1
The hills of Sajjangarh
Udaipur - Sajjangarh hill view 2
Sajjangarh hills seen though an arrow slit
Udaipur - Sajjangarh panorama
Panorama of the Sajjangarh hills
Udaipur - Sajjangarh view
Udaipur far below Sajjangarh
Udaipur - Sajjangarh doggie
Sweet old doggie in Sajjangarh’s courtyard
Udaipur - Sajjangarh sunset
Sunset in the Sajjangarh hills

#3 The magical night-time views

Considering the impressive royal heritage that is so easily visible everywhere you go, it’s not surprising that everything looks even better at night, when the lights come on. In each of the four cities we visited, we found something wonderful to see at night, with the lights giving everything a magical touch.

Jodhpur - Road Sunset
The day ends between Jaipur and Jodhpur
Jodhpur - Sardar market at night
Jodhpur’s Sardar market
Jodhpur - Umaid Bhawan at night
The Umaid Bhawan palace in Jodhpur
Udaipur - Lake at night
Reflections of lake Pichola in Udaipur
Udaipur - Souvenir shop at night
A souvenir shop in Udaipur
Jaipur - Jal Mahal
Jaipur’s Jal Mahal palace
Jaisalmer - Fire dancer
A gypsy fire dancer in the desert near Jaisalmer
Jodhpur - Mehrangarh at night
Mehrangarh watches over Jodhpur while it sleeps
Jodhpur - Mehrangarh entrance at night
The entrance to Mehrangarh

 

#4 The riot of colours

Probably because most of the Rajasthani landscape is dry and doesn’t have much variation in colour, the locals seem to want to make up for it by giving their lives as much colour as possible. Everywhere you look, bright reds, blues, greens, oranges and pinks contrast brilliantly with the dry yellows and sandy browns of the countryside. Of course, sand dunes against a deep blue sky offer an incredible contrast in their own right!

Jaisalmer - Desert camels
Camels in the desert
Jaisalmer - Fort top lounge
Lounge on the ramparts of Jaisalmer fort
Jaisalmer - Fort wall leaather shop
Leather shop
Jaisalmer - REading newspaper
The morning news
Jaisalmer - Selling peacock feathers
Selling (illegal) peacock feathers
Jaisalmer - Souvenir shop
Colourful souvenirs
Jaisalmer - Sunset camel
Sunset camel
Jodhpur - Autos
Auto rickshaws in Jodhpur
Jodhpur - Railway crossing
Petroleum tanker at railway crossing
Jodhpur - Sardar market elephant
Real elephant in Sardar market
Udaipur - Doggie in the doorway
Sleepy doggie, green doors
Jaipur - Blue pottery tiles
Traditional glazed blue pottery tiles

#5 The rich, creative cuisine

We found that Rajasthani food is rich, varied and satisfying, whether we were eating a simple dal-baati or a full thali. Traditional Rajasthani cooking supposedly involves little or no water, using milk, ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil instead, and this is because the ever-scarce water was either drunk or given to the livestock. The lack of water also probably meant there wasn’t too much livestock in the first place, which may be why Rajasthani cuisine is mainly vegetarian—though the state also has its signature meat dishes. Of course, not having much water also meant many of the vegetables we now take for granted couldn’t be grown, so cooks needed to be endlessly creative with a limited set of ingredients. Lastly, we were also told that the spiciest dishes were reserved for the summer months, both to help people cool off by sweating, and to stop food from spoiling as quickly. The combined result of all this is a cuisine that lacks nothing in flavour and complexity, and one that we would happily go back to again and again.

Udaipur - Poha
Traditional breakfast in Udaipur – Poha (steamed flattened rice)
Jodhpur - Thali
Traditional Rajasthani thali for lunch in Jodhpur

#6 The traditional graffiti around every corner

In every city we visited, but most so in Udaipur, traditional wall graffiti seemed to be a strong part of the local culture, and gave even the more modern parts of the city a lovely old-world feel. In Udaipur itself, it was hard to look in any direction without spotting an elephant or a warhorse on a wall, sometimes sketched but more often richly painted. Surprisingly, much of the graffiti we saw was recently done, which obviously meant the tradition was still very much alive.

DSCN5353
Two princes
DSCN5375
They march to war as time marches on
DSCN5405
A young noble?
DSCN5410
Ghostly old man
DSCN5444
The elephant goes about its business, just like everyone else
2012-11-15 20.12.09
Elephant in a hurry

#7 The soulful and evocative music

Whether it was single musician playing the sonorous sarangi in the echoing courtyard of Mehrangarh or a group of gypsy bards performing in the desert, we were mesmerized by the traditional Rajasthani music we heard—music that evoked visions of camel trains, endless sand dunes, and cool palace corridors echoing with soft laughter. The desert entertainers, in particular, were exquisite, with their quick rhythms and their kartal—a simple percussion instrument said to be the forerunner of the castanets, and used to imitate the sound of a horse’s canter. Some believe that a variation of this desert music found its way to Africa via ancient trade routes, and from there to America, where it combined with other styles to eventually become the blues.

Mehrangarh - Musician
Traditional musician plays the sarangi in Mehrangarh
Mehrangarh - Musician's muse
Musician’s muse in Mehrangarh
Jaisalmer - Musicians
Gypsy musicians in the desert
Jaisalmer - Pot dancer
Gypsy dancer performs impossible balancing acts
Jaisalmer - Kartal player
Gypsy musicians play percussion instruments – the kartal and dholak

#8 The endearing quirkiness that hides beneath the surface

While Rajasthanis overall seem to possess an air of quiet dignity, we found that there’s a certain quirkiness to them and their culture that sometimes pops up in amusing and wonderful ways. From worshipping an old motorcycle to ensure a safe journey, to using humorously tall claims to sell their wares, Rajasthanis are just as weird as the rest of us Indians—but in their own inimitable style.

DSCN5017 (2)
Really? Interesting!
DSCN5018
A happy state of affairs! For those not in the know, bhang is an extract of the cannabis plant
DSCN5327
Om Banna’s worshipped Royal Enfield Bullet
DSCN5332
Not a usual sight, even in India
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