India’s vibrancy, mysticism and diversity is embodied in the majestic state of Rajasthan. As the country plans for this October’s Commonwealth Games, we explore this fascinating state.
Rajasthan offers visitors to Delhi‘s Commonwealth Games the best way to escape from the coach-holiday hordes stuck in the tourist-laden ‘Golden Triangle’. It has everything a visitor to India could wish for – colourful cities, amazing scenery and the chance to enter a different world. Submerge yourself in a world of opulence, adventure, majesty and splendour with our guide to key destinations within the state.
Jaipur might be its largest city but Pushkar is the beating heart of Rajasthan. Surrounding a picturesque lake, it is one of the oldest towns in India and one of the five dhams (pilgrimages) sacred to any Hindu. The sight of thousands of pilgrims bathing in Pushkar’s lake at sunset is one of India’s most iconic images. Every November, the town attracts over 250,000 people (and 20,000 camels) for the world-famous Pushkar Camel Fair. It is a chance for visitors to witness one of the great traditions of the state with livestock, farmers and traders arriving from across Rajasthan.
Udaipur is Rajasthan’s Venice – a blisteringly white city with water at every turn. The Lake Palace is the centre point of the city and is situated in the middle of a lake. It was the site of Bond’s Octopussy adventures and if you are feeling flush you can stay there – but if that is slightly out of your budget, afternoon tea is a more realistic way to enter the world of the Maharajah, one of the last vestiges of a more opulent age.
Grab a moment’s serenity atop the dramatic Mehrangarh Fort and you will realise why Jodhpur is known as the Blue City. Looking down as falcons sweep over an unending patchwork of blue houses, it is hard to imagine the chaos below. A wander through the winding backstreets of Jodhpur’s Old City is more like a visit to a Middle Eastern souk than a great royal city. But the Umaid Bhawan Palace on the edge of town confirms visitors are still in the land of the princes. Built in the 1930s, it is the world’s largest private residence, its vast swathes of marble a testament to the excesses of those who ruled here once.
Because of its isolation deep in the Great Thar Desert, Jaisalmer is Rajasthan’s least visited city but it is probably its most rewarding. Approaching Jaisalmer by road, the fortress city reveals itself like a mirage flickering in the heats of the sand dunes. Visitors can happily spend days getting lost in the 800-year-old back alleys of the walled city – and there is little reason to leave as some of the most interesting guest houses in Rajasthan are built into the city’s walls.
For travellers looking for Rajasthan’s greatest adventure, Jaisalmer is the starting point for a nomadic camel safari deep into the desert. After three nights of sleeping under the stars, visiting isolated villages unchanged in centuries and riding camelback, the perfect way to relax is back in Jaisalmer with a baang laasi – a yoghurt-based drink, purportedly the best in Rajasthan. Beware however bang is a liquid derivative of cannabis (marijuana), which has similar effects to other eaten forms of the drug.
Sariska Tiger Reserve
If Rajasthan’s seemingly endless collection of palaces, temples and cities leaves you feeling cultured-out, then escape to the Sariska Tiger Reserve which offers India’s best opportunity to spot one of nature’s most majestic beasts. It was once the hunting preserve of Indian Maharajas. Thankfully, no hunting goes on today. As well as the chance to see tigers, visitors can also spot leopards, hyenas and antelope.
Getting around Rajasthan is not only straightforward but one of the region’s true pleasures. Local buses connect the main towns and are the quickest way to get around but for the true Indian experience, travellers should use the trains. They are not the fastest, they are often crowded and the beds can be uncomfortable but these trains are more than just in India, they are India.
Around 20 million people travel on the railways every day and they offer as much as any trip to a market, are soaked in as much history as a trip to a palace and seeped in as much spirituality as a stay at an ashram.
Book a third-class seat to capture a snapshot of Indian life go by, but for any overnight trips, first class is recommended to all but the most hard-core, or cash strapped, of visitors – there are only so many wooden benches most westerners can handle.