The state of RAJASTHAN emerged after Partition from a mosaic of twenty-two feudal kingdoms, known in the British era as Rajputana, “Land of Kings”. Running northeast from Mount Abu, near the border with Gujarat, to within a stone’s throw of the ruins of ancient Delhi, its backbone is formed by the bare brown hills of the Aravalli Range, which divide the fertile Dhundar basin from the shifting sands of the mighty Thar Desert, one of the driest places on earth.
Rajasthan’s extravagant palaces, forts and finely carved temples comprise one of the country’s richest crop of architectural monuments. But these exotic buildings are not the only legacy of the region’s prosperous and militaristic history. Rajasthan’s strong adherence to tradition is precisely what makes it a compelling place to travel. Swaggering moustaches, heavy silver anklets, bulky red, yellow or orange turbans, pleated veils and mirror-inlaid saris may be part of the complex language of caste, but to most outsiders they epitomize India at its most exotic.
Colour also distinguishes Rajasthan’s most important tourist cities. Jaipur, the vibrant state capital, is known as the “Pink City” thanks to the reddish paint applied to its ornate facades and palaces. Jodhpur, the “Blue City”, is centred on a labyrinthine old walled town, whose sky-blue mass of cubic houses is overlooked by India’s most imposing hilltop fort. Further west, the magical desert city of Jaisalmer, built from local sandstone, is termed the “Golden City”. In the far south of the state, Udaipur hasn’t gained a colour tag yet, but it could be called the “White City”: coated in decaying limewash, its waterside palaces and havelis are framed by a distant vista of sawtooth hills.
The route stringing together these four cities has become one of the most heavily trodden tourist trails in India. But it’s easy to escape into more remote areas. Northwest of Jaipur, the desert region of Shekhawati is dotted with atmospheric market towns and innumerable richly painted havelis, while the desert city of Bikaner is also well worth a stopover for its fine fort, havelis and the unique “rat temple” at nearby Deshnok. The same is true of Bundi, in the far south of the state, with its magnificent, muralled fort, as well as the superb fort at Chittaurgarh nearby, not to mention the engaging hill station and remarkable Jain temples of Mount Abu.
Another attraction is Rajasthan’s wonderful wildlife sanctuaries. Of these, the popular tiger-sanctuary at Ranthambore is deservedly the most popular, while the Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur, on the eastern border of Rajasthan near Agra, is unmatched in South Asia for its incredible avian population, offering a welcome respite from the frenetic cities that inevitably dominate most visitors’ itineraries.
The turbulent history of Rajasthan only really begins in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, with the emergence of warrior clans such as the Sisodias, Chauhans, Kachchwahas and Rathores – the Rajputs (“sons of princes”). Never exceeding eight percent of the population, they were to rule the separate states of Rajputana for centuries. Their code of honour set them apart from the rest of society – as did the myth that they descended from the sun and moon.
The Rajput codes of chivalry that lay behind endless clashes between clans and family feuds found their most savage expression in battles with Muslims. Muhammad of Ghor was the first to march his troops through Rajasthan, eventually gaining a foothold that enabled him to establish the Sultanate in Delhi. During the 350 years that followed, much of central, eastern and western India came under the control of the sultans, but, despite all their efforts, Rajput resistance prevented them from ever taking over Rajputana.
Ghor’s successors were pushed out of Delhi in 1483 by the Mughal Babur, whose grandson Akbar came to power in 1556. Aware of the futility of using force against the Rajputs, Akbar chose instead to negotiate in friendship, and married Rani Jodha Bai, a princess from the Kachchwaha family of Amber. As a result, Rajputs entered the Mughal courts, and the influence of Mughal ideas on art and architecture remains evident in palaces, mosques, pleasure gardens and temples throughout the state.
When the Mughal empire began to decline after the accession of Aurangzeb in 1658, so too did the power of the Rajputs. Aurangzeb sided with a new force, the Marathas, who plundered Rajput lands and extorted huge sums of protection money. The Rajputs eventually turned for help to the Marathas’ chief rivals, the British, and signed formal treaties as to mutual allies and enemies. Despite growing British power, the Rajputs were never denied their royal status, and relations remained largely amicable.
The nationwide clamour for Independence in the years up to 1947 eventually proved stronger in Rajasthan than Rajput loyalty; when British rule ended, the Rajputs were left out on a limb. With persuasion from the new Indian government they agreed one by one to join the Indian Union, and in 1949 the 22 states of Rajputana finally merged to form the state of Rajasthan.
Modern Rajasthan remains among the poorest and most staunchly traditional regions of India, although attempts to raise educational and living standards are gradually bearing fruit. Since 1991 Rajasthan has tripled its literacy rate, a feat unmatched by any other state, while several universities have been established and new industries have benefited from an electricity supply that now reaches most villages. Irrigation schemes have also improved crop production in this arid region, although ongoing drought remains an acute problem, and the greatest single threat to Rajasthan’s future prosperity.Read More
Festivals and fairs in Rajasthan
Festivals and fairs in Rajasthan
Rajasthan’s vibrant local costumes are at their most dazzling during the state’s festivals. For dates of specific events, ask at tourist offices; most festivals fall on days determined by the lunar calendar.
(Feb). Two-day event in Jaisalmer.
(March). Parades of brightly painted elephants march through the streets of Jaipur, concluding with an extraordinary elephant-versus-mahout tug of war.
(March & April). The ranas of Udaipur celebrate Holi with traditional dances, the lighting of a sacred fire, and music by the city’s famous bagpipe orchestra.
(April). Women pray for their husbands, and unmarried girls wish for good ones. At its best in Jaisalmer and Mount Abu.
Nagaur Cattle Fair
(late Jan/early Feb). Thousands of farmers and around seventy thousand steers, cows and bullocks descend on Nagaur, south of Bikaner.
Pushkar Camel Fair
(Nov). The world’s largest livestock market and Rajasthan’s most colourful festival.
Rani Sati Mela
(Aug). Vast crowds gather in Jhunjhunu for a day of prayers and dances in memory of a merchant’s widow who committed sati in 1595.
Tilwara Cattle Fair
(held over a fortnight in March or April). One of Rajasthan’s biggest livestock markets, held at Tilwara, 93km southwest of Jodhpur.
(Oct). India’s largest Islamic festival, held in Ajmer.
Kartika Purnima and Pushkar camel fair
Kartika Purnima and Pushkar camel fair
Hindus visit Pushkar year-round to take a dip in the redemptory waters of the lake, but there’s one particular day when bathing here is believed to relieve devotees of all their sins. That day is the full moon (purnima) of the Kartika month (usually Nov). During the five days leading up to and including the full moon, Pushkar hosts thousands of celebrating devotees, following prescribed rituals on the lakeside and in the Brahma Temple.
At the same time, a huge, week-long camel fair is held west of the town, with hordes of herders from all over Rajasthan gathering to parade, race and trade over forty thousand animals. With the harvest safely in the bag and the surplus livestock sold, the villagers, for this brief week or so, have a little money to spend enjoying themselves, which creates a lighthearted atmosphere that’s generally absent from most other Rajasthani livestock fairs, backed up with entertainments including camel races, moustache competitions and a popular funfair, complete with an eye-catching sequence of enormous big wheels.
The popularity of Pushkar’s fair has – inevitably – had an effect on the event, with camera-toting package tourists now bumping elbows with the event’s traditional pilgrims and camel traders. But while the commercialism can be off-putting, the festive environment and coming together of cultures does produce some spontaneous mirth: in 2004, the second prize in the moustache contest was won by a Mancunian.
Legend of the Thar
Legend of the Thar
Legend ascribes the creation of the Thar to Rama, hero of the Ramayana. In it, Rama, an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu, has to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana, who is holding her on the island of Sri Lanka. To cross to the island, Rama loads his bow with a magical arrow that will dry up the ocean, but the sea god Sagara begs him not to shoot, offering him free passage instead. Well, says Rama, my bow is now drawn and must be shot, where shall I aim it? There is a sea to the north, replies Sagara, where evil-doers drink my water and hurt me; shoot your arrow there, and you’ll be doing me a favour. So Rama takes aim and shoots, drying up the sea that Sagara has described, and creating the desert of Marwar (“Land of the Dead”). By Rama’s special boon, this new land, though desert, is blessed, full of sweet herbs and fit for grazing cattle.
In fact, the legend would seem to be based on some degree of truth, for the fossil record shows that back in the Jurassic period (206–144 million years ago), the Thar was indeed covered by sea. Indeed, you may notice that slabs of sandstone often bear tell-tale ripple marks showing that they once formed part of the seabed.
- Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti and the Urs Mela