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 crops 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 around. 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 and blue-washed old town, as well as the superbly prominent 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 tiger sanctuary at Ranthambore is deservedly the most popular, while Keoladeo National Park, 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 Kings”) 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 the severe threat of drought remains an acute problem, and the greatest single threat to Rajasthan’s future prosperity.