Magnificent architecture, imposing fortresses, colourful locals, complex cuisine, and traditional street art… find all this, and more, in Rajasthan—literally, 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. Just 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. It was even managed by the original owners!
Brass gates at Jaipur’s city palace
Guardian – Jaipur city palace
Jaipur city palace – inner gates
A balcony at our hotel in Jaipur
A view from another hotel balcony
Our room in Jaisalmer fort
Mausoleum of kings near Pokhran on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway
Long-dead kings watch over the landscape
Filigreed windows in Mehrangarh fort
More filigreed windows
A happy staffer at Mehrangarh
One of the gates of Mehrangarh – the spikes deter ramming by elephants
A temple being built on a spire of rock in Jodhpur, seen at sunrise
The famous traditional blue-painted houses that give Jodhpur its nickname
The brass ‘shikhara’ or peak of a haveli dome
The lakeside walkways of Udaipur’s city palace
An old stone hut stands the test of time in Udaipur
Lake Pichola seen from the city palace museum
Marble elephants welcome visitors to Jagmandir palace in lake Pichola
Also read: 21 simple tips to be a responsible traveller
#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. Plenty have tried, though, as the cannonball dents in 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.
The lights of Jaipur from the ramparts of Jaigarh fort
Inside Jaisalmer fort at sunrise
A view from the golden walls of Jaisalmer fort
Mehrangarh in the morning
Through the portal into another time
Inner fortifications of Mehrangarh
Mehrangarh’s palace walls
Looking over Jodhpur from Mehrangarh
Looking over the eastern plains from Mehrangarh
Mehrangarh’s outer fortifications
A cannon on the ramparts of Mehrangarh points in the direction of the Umaid Bhawan palace
The hills of Sajjangarh
Sajjangarh hills seen though an arrow slit
Panorama of the Sajjangarh hills
Udaipur far below Sajjangarh
Sweet old doggie in Sajjangarh’s courtyard
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.
The day ends between Jaipur and Jodhpur
Jodhpur’s Sardar market
The Umaid Bhawan palace in Jodhpur
Reflections of lake Pichola in Udaipur
A souvenir shop in Udaipur
Jaipur’s Jal Mahal palace
A gypsy fire dancer in the desert near Jaisalmer
Mehrangarh watches over Jodhpur while it sleeps
The entrance to Mehrangarh
#4 The riot of colours
Probably because most of the landscape in Rajasthan 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!
Camels in the desert
Lounge on the ramparts of Jaisalmer fort
The morning news
Selling (illegal) peacock feathers
Auto rickshaws in Jodhpur
Petroleum tanker at railway crossing
Real elephant in Sardar market
Sleepy doggie, green doors
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. This is said to be because any precious 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 the cuisine in Rajasthan 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 limited 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.
Traditional breakfast in Udaipur – Poha (steamed flattened rice)
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.
They march to war as time marches on
A young noble?
Ghostly old man
The elephant goes about its business, just like everyone else
Elephant in a hurry
Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai
#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. The music 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’. They say this simple percussion instrument that imitates the sound of a cantering horse is the forerunner of the castanets. 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.
Traditional musician plays the sarangi in Mehrangarh
Musician’s muse in Mehrangarh
Gypsy musicians in the desert
Impossible balancing acts performed by a gypsy dancer
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, the people of Rajasthan are just as weird as the rest of us Indians—but in their own inimitable style.
A happy state of affairs! For those not in the know, bhang is an extract of the cannabis plant
Om Banna’s worshipped Royal Enfield Bullet
Not a usual sight, even in India