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—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.
#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.
#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.
#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!
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.