RAJASTHAN IS INDIA at its exotic and colourful best. This is the home of the Rajputs, a group of warrior clans who have ruled this part of India for over a thousand years with a code of chivalry and honour which is akin to that of the Medieval European knights.
Geographically, Rajasthan is a somewhat dry and inhospitable destination, but it’s very varied. A line drawn southwest to northeast divides the state into the hilly and rugged southeast region and the barren northeast Thar desert, which extends all the way across the border to Pakistan.
The varied tourist experiences on offer in Rajasthan range from visits to palatial havelis (mansions), forts at the rim of deserts, rugged jungle lodges in the midst of haunting wilderness and luxurious spas in royally opulent hotels. In fact, there is an endless list of avenues to pamper your sense and soul in Rajasthan.
Rajasthan is one Indian state that offers you an opportunity to go where you get all that is not ordinary, all that is exclusive, unusual in an atmosphere that is far removed from standardized sameness and hospitality that comes from the heart.
Above: The Jagmandir Island Palace is a masterpiece.
We take you on an incredible journey that passes through the fairytale cities of Jaipur, Udaipur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, with a peek into surreal Pushkar and end up with a visit to the famed Ranthambore National Park. So let’s get started:
India’s Pink City
Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan, is popularly referred to as the Pink City thanks to the pink and orange coloured sandstone used to construct the buildings in the oldest part of this walled city. The Old City is situated to the northeast of Jaipur while the new settlements have spread to the south and west. As dusk descends on Jaipur, the Old City is wrapped in a magical glow thanks to its pink-coloured buildings.
The city owes its foundation to the erstwhile royal warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II (1699-1744), who laid out the city with its quintessential walls and six rectangular blocks by adhering to the principles of town planning from ancient India.
What to see: Hawa Mahal, City Palace, Chandra Mahal, Mubarak Mahal, Diwan E-Khas, Diwan-E-Am, Jantar Mantar Observatory, Govind Dev Ji Temple, City Palace, Nahargan Fort, Jal Mahal, Albert Hall Museum, Maharaja Sawai Man Museum.
Where to stay: Jaipur, being a major tourist hub, has a wide variety of luxurious hotels. The magnificent Taj Rambagh Palace hotel, which used to be the past residence of Jaipur’s royal family, is in a class of its own. Amongst the Indian brands, the ITC Rajputana and the Oberoi Rajvilas are equally impressive. In fact, Jaipur’s hotel landscape is dotted with big players of the global hospitality industry – Hilton, Holiday Inn, Marriot, Sheraton, Le Meridien and Radisson have all set up shop here.
What to buy: Mirza Ismail Rd. (M.I. Rd.) is the main commercial street of the new part of Jaipur and the modern shopping centre. Jaipur’s bustling shops and markets are located in the neighbourhood of Hawa Mahal, Johari Bazzar (jewellery), Bapuji Market (textiles), Tripolia Market (wooden carving and brass products).
Above: Shiv Niwas Palace at sunset.
The Lake City
Udaipur is a cool oasis in the dry landscape of Rajasthan and probably the most romantic city in a state where every city has some romantic or exotic tale to boast off.
Udaipur dates back to 1567 and is enclosed by the remains of a city wall that sprawls away on the east side of Lake Pichola. Being the capital of the erstwhile Mewar dynasty (568 AD), this romantic city abounds with tales of heroism and valour of the redoubtable Rajput warriors.
The city is replete with magnificent palaces and The Lake Palace in particular, which has now been converted into a luxury hotel, is simply awesome in its regal grandeur. This one-of-its-kind palace towers over the lake and is basically a conglomeration of buildings added by various royal figures (maharajas). Despite the additions, it manages to retain a surprising uniformity of design.
Apart from royal palaces, there is a peculiar museum, Bharatiya Lok Kala Museum, which epitomizes the preservation of folk arts in Udaipur and has an interesting collection of dresses, dolls, masks, musical instruments and rare paintings. The high point of the museum is its collection of puppets.
What to see: City Palace and museum, Fateh Sagar Lake, Jagdish Temple, Monsoon Palace, Puppet Museum, Saheliyon Ki Bari, Ahar Museum.
Where to stay: Udaipur being the city of palaces, it isn’t surprising to find some of India’s most magnificent palace hotels in this charming city. The city’s top hotel is also one of the most delightful hotels in India — the opulent Taj Lake Palace hotel located in the middle of Lake Pichola. Other luxurious and royally appointed hotels are Shiv Niwas Palace, Ramada Udaipur, The Oberoi Udaivilas, The Leela Palace, The Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace to name just a few.
What to buy: Udaipur has a bustling market zone consisting of the commercial neighbourhoods like Chetak Circle, Bapu Bazar, Palace Road and Shastri Circle. Udaipur is renowned for its exquisite silk block prints, Bandhini saris, wooden crafts and embroidered items.
Above: A couple is treated to a performance in the Bikaner desert.
Jewel in the Thar Desert
This surreal desert town is located to the north of Rajasthan. The quintessential feature of Bikaner is its high, battlemented fortification which is 7kms long with five entrance gates, built in the 18th century. In the days of yore, it used to be an important staging post on the great caravan trade route.
Apart from the impregnable fort, Bikaner has carved a niche for itself as a camel breeding centre. There are hundreds of camels here and rides are available.
One of Bikaner’s prized possession is the imposing red sandstone Lallgarh Palace, built by the erstwhile Maharaja Ganga Singh in the year 1902. This oriental fantasy designed by Sir Swinton Jacob, is one of the most magnificent specimen of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Today, this exemplary Rajput palace has been converted into a luxurious heritage hotel, which has played host to a number of important world dignitaries.
Another feather of Rajasthan is the Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, said to be one of the best museums of Rajasthan, which is replete with artefacts dating back to the pre-Harrapan, Gupta and Kushan periods.
What to see: Junagarh Fort, Sri Sadul Museum, Royal Cenotaph at Devi Kund Sagar, Prachina Cultural Centre and Museum, Karni Mata Temple, National Research Centre, Camel Breeding Farm and Laxmi NathTemple.
Where to stay: The regal Laxmi Niwas Palace hotel and the Heritage’s Lallgarh Palace are two exquisite royal properties. They offer a unique blend of Medieval charm with contemporary amenities.
What to buy: The best place for shopping is in the neighbourhood of K.E.M. Rd., located near the fort. Camel hide articles like shoes, purses, cushions, etc., are top draws. The pride of Bikaner is its unique range of sweets. The Haldiram outlets are simply fabulous and do brisk business.
Above: Guests are India's posh hotels are treated to some regal entertainment.
India’s most exotic city
Jaisalmer is as remote as it is splendidly isolated. This Medieval-looking place is something right out of the tales of the Arabian Nights. Centuries ago, its strategic position on the camel train routes between India and Central Asia brought great wealth to Jaisalmer. The merchants and townspeople built magnificent havelis carved out of the rarest variety of golden-yellow sandstone.
Even today, new edifices must be so designed so as to blend harmoniously with the old.
The Patwon Ki Haveli is the most elaborate and magnificent of all the havelis of Jaisalmer. It stands on a narrow lane and one of its apartments is painted with beautiful murals. There is also the Salim Singh Ki haveli, which is more than 300 years old.
The Old City is surrounded by an impregnable fort and from within this a hill rises with more fortified walls. The ancient Jain temple and an old palace are ideally located on this hilltop.
Besides being a strategic military base, Jaisalmer’s economy is pumped up to a considerable extent by tourism — courtesy the increasing number of travellers who are waking up to the fascination of this exotic place.
There are some fascinating locales around Jaisalmer which is best explored by embarking on a camel safari. The usual tours take four days and three nights in a circuit around Jaisalmer via Mool Sagar, the Sam sand dunes and back via Lodruva, passing through fascinating Rajput as well as tribal and abandoned villages. The more adventurous ones may opt for the longer duration camel safaris that stretches to seven days.
What to see: Havelis, Gadi Sagar Tank, Jaiselmer Fort, and Dilwara Temple.
Where to stay: Hotel Suryagarh on Sam Rd. and hotel Sonar garh Fort are two outstanding heritage hotels in Jaisalmer. There is also Heritage’s Mandir Palace, which is an exquisitely carved architectural marvel and its intricate stone carvings are unmatched by any other hotel.
What to buy: The Central Market located just below Trikut Hill and another bustling market near the gate of Amar Sagar are great places to go shopping while in Jaisalmer. Stone artefacts, embroidery and woollen blankets are very popular and much admired by discerning travellers.
JUST THE FACT
Reaching Rajasthan: The most convenient way to reach Rajasthan is by air to New Delhi, from where one has the option of either flying by any of India’s domestic airline or by road to Jaipur. There are also regular train services from New Delhi to various cities in Rajasthan. The distance from New Delhi to Jaipur is 260 kms, which can be covered in 5.5 hours in a car. Hired taxis and luxury buses are readily available from New Delhi Airport.
By train, two of the world’s most outstanding luxury rail journey originates from New Delhi — The Palace on Wheels (http://rtdc.rajasthan.gov.in/Pow.aspx) and The Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (http://rtdc.rajasthan.gov.in/rrow.aspx)
Department of Tourism, Government of Rajasthan : http://www.rajasthantourism.gov.in/
Rajasthan Tourism: http://rtdc.rajasthan.gov.in/
India Tourism: http://www.theashokgroup.com/
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India http://www.tourism.gov.in or http://www.incredibleindia.org/en/
Air India — http://www.airindia.in
Jet Airways — http://www.jetairways.com