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We’ve been to Rajasthan a few times now, and have had our fair share of experiences. The latest was a three-week motorcycle tour across south Rajasthan, during which we had a great time doing some things that most tourists don’t get to do.
So, distilled from our travels, here are seven off-beat Rajasthan experiences that you should try when you visit.
1. Climb the outer wall of Amer Fort in Jaipur
Like most visitors to Jaipur, we made plans to see its famous Amer Fort. We also wanted to see the hill forts of Jaigarh and Nahargarh next door. What we didn’t realize was that the first two forts are actually part of Amer Fort’s western defences. And that the ring of hills with walls and forts on top, and with the town of Amer and the Amber Palace in the center, the whole thing, is Amer Fort.
And only when we drove up the hill to Jaigarh did we realize the scale of the fort’s defences. From up there, we could see the defensive walls on the crests of the hills across the valley from us. That’s when the idea of climbing them first came to us. And after much discussion and seeking of advice, we decided to try it that evening. But it was hard!
Worth it for the view
A series of steep stone steps led up the hill from road level at the inner gate to the fort. It took us an hour of huffing and puffing (with plenty of breaks thrown in) to get to the top. But the view (and the sunset) from up there was glorious! The best part was that there were only a few people up there with us. The stairs had obviously scared the others off. And rightly so, because getting down those stairs was harder than climbing up, and my knees ached for a week. But it was all worth it, and definitely an off-beat Rajasthan experience to remember.
Also read: Jaipur: Our motorcycle tour kicks off
2. Learn about wildlife conservation over coffee and sandwiches in Sawai Madhopur
There aren’t too many reasons to visit Sawai Madhopur, except to get to the Ranthambhore National Park next door. And visitors to Ranthambhore usually have only one thing on their mind: catching a glimpse of the park’s famous tigers.
But most don’t realize that it takes unrelenting hard work and dedication to keep the park’s wildlife (tigers included) from being wiped out. Poaching, pressure from human settlements and general disinterest constantly threaten the tigers, bears, nilgai, deer and all the other countless animals of the park.
Tiger Watch works with local villagers to reduce poaching and track wildlife movement outside the park.
Fighting the good fight is Tiger Watch, an organization that works with the government to safeguard Ranthambhore’s wildlife. Among other things, they try to reduce poaching and to track wildlife movement outside the park by involving local villagers to champion the cause. Tiger Watch was founded by Fateh Singh Rathore, who was also responsible for designating Ranthambhore a wildlife reserve.
A glimpse behind the scenes at the Dhonk Café
If you want to know more about what keeps Ranthambhore and Tiger Watch going, the Dhonk Café (dhonk is a kind of local tree) is a great place. Just off the main road to the park, the café is run by Divya Khandal and has a wall full of books on wildlife, Ranthambhore and its history. The café is staffed by local village women, whom Divya has personally trained, to help local communities benefit from the local tourism industry.
And if you’re lucky, you might just bump into Divya’s husband Dharmendra while you’re there. Dharmendra Khandal is a field biologist with Tiger Watch, and is involved in the organization’s anti-poaching and village outreach efforts. He was even featured in an article in National Geographic. So if you do meet him, sit back with your coffee and sandwiches and let him tell you what goes on behind the scenes to keep Ranthambhore’s wildlife protected. An off-beat Rajasthan experience to add to your memories of the ‘land of kings’
3. Discover stone-age cave paintings in Bundi
One of our favourite off-beat Rajasthan experiences was seeing stone-age cave paintings during our visit to Bundi. We hadn’t even heard of Bundi (pronounced ‘boondhee’) before we started planning our motorcycle trip. It was only by chance that a friend recommended it. And we were so glad she did! The sleepy little town itself was a treasure trove of heritage and architecture, with old mansions and monuments strewn all over, and the massive palace looming over everything. But we discovered that Bundi had even older treasures!
Again, on our friend’s recommendation, we got in touch with Om Prakash Sharma, AKA ‘Kukki’. A self-styled explorer and archaeologist, Kukki (pronounced like ‘cookie’) turned out to be a somewhat eccentric old gent with boundless energy and enthusiasm. He whisked us off on a two-hour drive out of town, to the lovely Bhimlat waterfall. From there, we walked along the rocky gorge of the river for another half-hour.
Back in time, to the dawn of mankind
Suddenly, Kukki dragged aside some thorny branches near the edge, revealing a narrow path between the rocks that led to a rocky overhang right on the edge. And there, on the rock wall, were marks left by our Stone Age ancestors, between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago. Made using haematite (a kind of red stone), the marks had seeped into the rock, and had only faded a little over the millennia.
What was even more amazing was that the series of cave paintings had been made at different times over thousands of years. This meant that quite a few stone-age travellers took shelter here, separated by the millennia. The local tribespeople still consider the place sacred today, and use it for religious ceremonies.
Also read: Bundi, a town lost in time
4. Stroll through the massive Chittorgarh Fort by night
They say Chittorgarh Fort is the biggest of all the hill forts of Rajasthan. It’s definitely one of the most impressive, as we saw when we spent a few days there on our motorcycle tour. It was big enough to hold an entire town, and there’s still a small village inside the walls.
The fort usually closes at sunset, and no one’s allowed inside the walls after that, except for the residents of the village. Luckily for us, we were staying in the village itself. Our homestay, the lovely Padmini Haveli, was the only accommodation inside the fort itself. So we could explore the village and the fort after dark, if we wanted to.
What life is really like inside the fort
Sadly, because we weren’t there long, we only managed a short stroll back to our homestay from the Kumbha Palace after the sound-and-light show. That walk was still special, though, because we saw what life was really like inside the fort, and without all the visitors. We even saw some locals playing a volleyball game under floodlights, on the grounds of the illuminated museum building.
I wish we had had the time for longer walks, especially because lots of the buildings and monuments were still illuminated into the night. Still, we experienced Chittorgarh Fort by night, an off-beat Rajasthan experience very few visitors have.
5. Do a street food trail in Udaipur
With all its lakes and palaces, Udaipur is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in Rajasthan, if not in the whole of India. But that also makes it one of the most popular. Even at the quietest of times, you’ll see lots of tourists making the rounds of the popular sights. And that’s made the main sights of Udaipur a little touristy, with everyone trying to make the most of the throngs of visitors.
But if you want to see the other side of Udaipur, the side that only the locals see, then all you have to do is step off the beaten path and into one of the by-lanes. And trying the local street food is great way to do that.
The call of jalebis
During our last trip to Udaipur, we were struck by a craving for jalebis, and so we spoke to some locals at the Jagdish Temple who pointed us towards Jai Bhole Mishthan Bhandar. We made our way there along narrow streets full of people, and that had snack shops every few metres. If we had stopped at even half of them, we would’ve been full long before we got to our destination. But we kept our sights firmly fixed on our goal, and were rewarded with fresh, crisp jalebis.
Still, if you want to do something different in Udaipur, you should definitely try eating your way from the Jagdish Temple to Delhi Gate. That would definitely be an off-beat Rajasthan experience to remember!
6. Pray for a safe journey at the motorcycle temple of Om Banna on the Jodhpur-Udaipur highway
If you’re travelling between Jodhpur and Udaipur, chances are you’re taking either a flight or a train. But if you happen to be driving (or riding) like we were, you might want to stop at the temple of Om Banna near Pali to pray for a safe journey. At a shrine built around a motorcycle!
The ‘miracle motorcycle’
The story goes that, some 30 years ago, Om Banna was riding his trusty Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle along that highway, when he hit a tree and died. When the police took the bike to the police station, it mysteriously disappeared and turned up at the spot of the accident. They tried again, and the same thing happened. After a while they gave up and left the bike there.
Over time, word of the miracle motorcycle spread, and locals built a shrine around it. Today, hundreds of travellers on the highway stop there and pray to ‘Bullet Baba’ Om Banna and his motorcycle for a safe journey. If you’ve got a driver, chances are they’ll stop here anyway, even without you asking, just like ours did.
Stopping at Om Banna’s temple was definitely a special off-beat Rajasthan experience for us. Though why people would pray for a safe journey to a motorcycle that killed its owner is a confusing to me.
7. Spend time at the royal cenotaphs outside Pokhran
Pokhran isn’t a place most people have heard of. Even if they have, it’s probably only because India conducted its first underground nuclear test in the desert somewhere near there. But if you’re driving between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer (as we were, because we couldn’t get a train ticket), you’ll pass through this little desert town. And if you do, keep an eye out for the royal cenotaphs (also called the Shakti Mata Chatriyan) off to the side of the highway.
The cenotaphs (royal memorials) are about half a kilometre off the highway on the side opposite the town. They’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and you have to cross a set of train tracks to get there. But once you get there, they’re very impressive.
We didn’t realize how tall and elaborate they were until we got there.
When we checked the cenotaphs out on the way back from Jailsalmer, we didn’t realize how tall and elaborate they were until we got there. Sadly, they’re not very well maintained. When we visited, it seemed like it was a popular place among evening drinkers, and there were bottles and other remains in corners. Still, visiting the beautiful royal cenotaphs at Pokhran is an off-beat Rajasthan experience that not many have had, I’ll bet.