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.
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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. Wit
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.
Best time to visit Rajasthan
Rajasthan’s climate reaches the extremes associated with desert regions, with temperatures topping 45°C during the hottest months of May and June. The monsoon breaks over central and eastern Rajasthan in July and usually continues until September, although in recent years rainfall has become increasingly unpredictable and sporadic. The fierce summer heat lingers until mid-September or October, when night temperatures drop considerably. The best time to visit is between November and February, when daytime temperatures rarely exceed 30°C; in midwinter, you’ll need a shawl or thick jumper if you’re outdoors at night.
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.
Nagaur Cattle Fair (late Jan/early Feb). Thousands of farmers and around seventy thousand steers, cows and bullocks descend on Nagaur, south of Bikaner.
Desert Festival (Feb). Three-day event in Sam, near Jaisalmer.
Elephant Festival (Feb/March). Parades of brightly painted elephants march through the streets of Jaipur, concluding with an extraordinary elephant-versus-mahout tug of war.
Mewar Festival (March/April). The ranas of Udaipur welcome the onset of spring with three days of traditional dances, the lighting of a sacred fire, and music by the city’s famous bagpipe orchestra. Women play a prominent role.
Gangaur (March/April). In homage to Gauri, the consort of Lord Shiva, wives pray for their husbands, and unmarried girls wish for good suitors. At its best in Jaisalmer and Mount Abu.
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.
Urs Ajmer Sharif (April/May). India’s largest Islamic 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.
Pushkar Camel Fair (Nov). More than three hundred thousand visitors converge on the world’s largest livestock market and Rajasthan’s most colourful festival.
Rajasthan’s ethnic minorities
Like most Indian states, Rajasthan has a number of “tribal” peoples who live outside the social mainstream. Many are nomadic, and often called “Gypsies” – indeed the Romanies of Europe are thought to have originated among these Rajasthani Gypsy tribes. The most prominent are the Kalbeliyas, found largely in Pushkar. The Kalbeliyas discovered how to charm snakes, and they used to sing and dance for royalty, as they now do for tourists, but living on the margins of society, they suffer similar discriminations as their brethren in Europe.
The Bhopas are a green-eyed tribe of nomads who used to work as entertainers to the maharajas, and to this day they make a living as itinerant poets and storytellers. They are asked to perform particularly where someone is sick, as their songs are believed to aid recovery.
In the Jodhpur region, many tourists take an excursion into the countryside to visit the Bishnoi, a religious rather than strictly ethnic group, whose tree-hugging beliefs chime with those of hippies in the West. Living in close proximity to them, though with a very different lifestyle, are the Bhils, great hunters who used to hire themselves out as soldiers in the armies of the Rajput kingdoms. They have their own language and religion, and their dances have become very popular, especially at Holi.
Northwest of Jaipur, the land becomes increasingly arid and inhospitable, with farms and fields gradually giving way to wind-blown expanses of undulating semidesert dotted with endless khejri trees and isolated houses enclosed in stockades of thorn. Although now something of a backwater, this region, known as Shekhawati, once lay on an important caravan route connecting Delhi and Sind (now in Pakistan) with the Gujarati coast, before the rise of Bombay and Calcutta diverted the trans-Thar trade south and eastwards. Having grown rich on trade and taxes, Shekhawati’s Marwari merchants and landowning thakurs spent their fortunes competing with one another to build the grand, ostentatiously decorated havelis that still line the streets of the region’s dusty little towns – an incredible concentration of mansions, palaces and cenotaphs plastered inside and out with elaborate and colourful murals. Considering the wealth of traditional art here, and the region’s proximity to Jaipur, however, most of Shekhawati still feels surprisingly far off the tourist trail.
Stretching east of the Khetri Mahal is Jhunjhunu’s main bazaar, centred around Futala Market, a fascinating and hopelessly confusing tangle of narrow streets crammed with dozens of tiny, charmingly old-fashioned shops. On the northern edge of the bazaar, facing each other across the small square of Chabutra Chowk, lie the two so-called Modi havelis, boasting the usual range of murals – the one on the eastern side of the chowk is the most impressive, entered via a grand, 3m-high ramp.
Jhunjhunu’s finest havelis are spread out along Nehru Bazaar, immediately east of the main bazaar. Heading east, you’ll first reach the striking Kaniram Narsinghdas Tibrewala Haveli of 1883, perched on a platform above the surrounding vegetable stalls and sporting a fine selection of paintings inside (the entrance is around the back).
Further east down Nehru Bazaar, the Mohanlal Ishwardas Modi Haveli has a good selection of entertainingly naive portraits. Unusual oval miniatures of various Indian bigwigs frame the entrance to the zenana (women’s) courtyard, while in the zenana itself a long frieze of miniature portraits runs around the top of the arches showing assorted European and Indian personages sporting a range of flouncy costumes, silly hats and magnificent moustaches.
Bihari Ji Temple
To the northeast of Nehru Bazaar, the striking little Bihari Ji Temple features some of the oldest murals in Shekhawati, painted in 1776 in black and brown vegetable pigments, including a dramatic depiction inside the central dome of Hanuman’s monkey army taking on the forces of the many-headed demon king Ravana.
Dargah of Kamaruddin Shah
West of the Khetri Mahal at the foot of the craggy Nehara Pahar lies the Dargah of Kamaruddin Shah, an atmospheric complex comprising a mosque and madrasa arranged around a pretty courtyard (still retaining some of its original murals), with the ornate dargah (tomb) of the Sufi saint Kamaruddin Shah in the centre. Women must wear headscarves.
North of the town centre lies the Mertani Baori, one of the region’s most impressive step-wells. Constructed in 1783 by Mertani, the widow of Sardul Singh, this step-well is thought to be a staggering 30m deep.
Rani Sati Mandir
To the northeast of town is the extraordinary Rani Sati Mandir, dedicated to a merchant’s wife who committed sati in 1595. The shrine, with its enormous yet intricate facade, is reputedly the richest temple in the country after Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh – although similar claims are made for the Nathdwara temple – receiving hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year and millions of rupees in donations. Its immense popularity bears witness to the enduring awe with which satis are regarded in the state.
Tours usually begin with the Naveti Haveli (now the State Bank of Bikaner & Jaipur), on the main bazaar. Duck through the metal gate to the right of the bank (no charge) for a look at Mandawa’s most entertaining murals, including well-preserved images of a bird-man attempting to take flight, the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane, a man using a telephone and a strongman pulling a car.
A ten-minute walk west from here brings you to an interesting cluster of buildings centred around the Nand Lal Murmuria Haveli. The murals here are relatively modern, dating from the 1930s and executed in a decidedly flowery and sentimental style, perhaps influenced by contemporary European magazines, with images of various Venetian scenes, George V, Nehru riding a horse and the legendary Maratha warrior Shivaji. Next door, the sun-faded Goenka Double Haveli (not to be confused with either of the other Goenka havelis nearby) is one of the largest and grandest in Mandawa, with two separate entrances and striking elephants and horses on the facade.
South of the main bazaar, the Gulab Rai Wadia Haveli is one of the finest in town. The south-facing exterior wall is particularly interesting, with unusually racy (albeit modestly small) murals depicting, among other things, a Kama Sutra-like scene in a railway carriage. The interior of the haveli is entered via a grand ramp, with Belgian-glass mirrorwork over the finely carved door leading into the zenana (women’s) courtyard.
Immediately south of here lies the almost equally fine Laxmi Narain Ladia Haveli. The zenana courtyard boasts naive paintings of a plane and a steamship, along with a cannon being pulled by horses and a tiger attacking a centaur. Some 100m further south, the unusually large Chokhani Double Haveli consists of two separate wings built for two brothers; look for the miserable British soldiers and chillum-smoking sadhu facing one another in the recess at the centre of the facade.
Dr Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum
The logical place to start a tour of Nawalgarh is on the east side of town at the magnificent Anandi Lal Podar Haveli, which now houses the Dr Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum. Built in 1920, this is one of the few havelis in Shekhawati to have been restored to its original glory, and boasts the most vivid murals in town, including steam trains, soldiers drilling with rifles, and a clever 3D-like panel of a bull’s head that transmogrifies into that of an elephant as you move from left to right. There’s also a mildly diverting series of exhibits showcasing aspects of Rajasthani life, including musical instruments and traditional costumes.
Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum
A short walk to the north of the Dr Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum lies the fine Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum, decorated with murals of Shiva, Parvati, Krishna and Jesus, plus a baithak complete with a fine old hand-pulled fan (punkah). Directly opposite the Morarka Haveli lies the eye-catching Krishna (Gher Ka) Mandir, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, a florid mass of delicate chhatris.
Bhagton ki Choti Haveli
About 200m east of the Morarka Haveli, the unrestored, 150-year-old Bhagton ki Choti Haveli has an unusually varied selection of murals including a European-style angel and Queen Victoria (over the arches by the right of the main door). On the left, a trompe-l’oeil picture shows seven women in the shape of an elephant, while other pictures show Europeans riding bicycles, along with a steamboat and a train.
At the heart of town, the fort (Bala Qila) has more or less vanished under a clutch of modern buildings huddled around a central courtyard that now hosts the town’s colourful vegetable market. The dilapidated building on the far left-hand side of the courtyard (by the Bank of Baroda) boasts a magnificent, eerily echoing Sheesh Mahal, covered in mirrorwork, which once served as the dressing room of the maharani of Nawalgarh, its ceiling decorated with pictorial maps of Nawalgarh and Jaipur. You’ll have to pay Rs20–30 to see the room; if no one’s around, ask at the sweet factory on the opposite side of the courtyard.
Aath and Moraka Uattara havelis
Heading west from the fort through the Nansa Gate (signed, confusingly, as the “Rambilas Podar Memorial Gate”) and following the road around brings you to the so-called Aath Haveli (“Eight Havelis”, built by eight brothers, although only six were actually completed), a complex of heavily decorated mansions featuring murals – some of which are in a poor condition – in a range of styles depicting the usual mishmash of subjects both ancient and modern. The nearby Moraka Uattara Haveli also has a richly painted exterior and mardana (men’s) courtyard, with elephants and horses framed in a mass of florid decoration.
Moraka Uattara Haveli
The newly restored Moraka Uattara Haveli, opposite the Aath Haveli, also has a richly painted exterior and mardana (men’s) courtyard, with elephants and horses framed in a mass of florid decoration.
Surajmal Chhauchharia Haveli
Havelis dot the streets south and southeast of the Nansa Gate, one of the quietest and most atmospheric parts of town. These include the Surajmal Chhauchharia Haveli, whose murals feature two small pictures of Europeans floating past in a hot-air balloon. The painter took some playful licence as to the mechanics involved, with the passengers keeping their balloons aloft by blowing into them through small pipes.
Visiting Shekhawati’s havelis
A number of Shekhawati’s havelis, traditional townhouses common to the region, have now been restored and opened as museums. Most, however, remain in a state of picturesque dilapidation and are still occupied by local families, while others have been abandoned, and are now empty apart from a solitary chowkidar (caretaker-cum-guard). Visitors are welcome to look around inside some havelis in return for a small tip, while others remain closed to outsiders. If in doubt just stick your head in the front door and ask, but remember that you’re effectively entering someone’s private home, so never go inside without permission. Visiting times are usually between sunrise and sunset. Be aware of “guide touts”, who accost you on the street with offers of haveli tours. They might take you to a haveli or two, but they are not licensed guides, and their sole objective is to get you to a shop that pays them commission.
Hidden away in the alleyways west of Nehru Bazaar is Jhunjhunu’s most striking building, the magnificent Khetri Mahal of 1770, a superb, open-sided sandstone palace with cusped Islamic-style arches that wouldn’t look out of place amid the great Indo-Islamic monuments of Fatehpur Sikri. The whole edifice seems incongruously grand amid the modest streets of central Jhunjhunu and is largely abandoned, save for the upper terraces that serve as impromptu open-air classrooms for local schoolchildren. A covered ramp, wide enough for horses, winds up to the roof, from where there are sweeping views over the town and across to the massive ramparts of the sturdy Badalgarh Fort (currently closed to the public) on a nearby hilltop.
East of Jaipur
The area east of Jaipur, interspersed with the forested slopes of the Aravalli Hills, holds an inviting mixture of historic towns and wildlife sanctuaries. To the northeast is the fortified town of Alwar, convenient for the Sariska Tiger Reserve and National Park. Further east are the former princely capitals of Deeg and Bharatpur, and India’s finest bird sanctuary, Keoladeo National Park. The wildlife sanctuary at Ranthambore, in idyllic scenery southeast of Jaipur, offers the best chance in India of spotting wild tigers.
Keoladeo National Park
Keoladeo National Park is India’s premier birdwatching sanctuary – an avian wonderland that attracts vast numbers of feathered creatures thanks to its strategic location, protected status and extensive wetlands. Some 385 species have been recorded here, including around two hundred year-round residents along with 190-odd migratory species from as far afield as Tibet, China, Siberia and even Europe, who fly south to escape the northern winter. Keoladeo is probably best known for its stupendous array of aquatic birds, which descend en masse on the park’s wetlands following the dramatic arrival of the monsoon in July. These include the majestic Saras crane and a staggering two thousand painted storks, as well as snake-necked darters, spoonbills, white ibis and grey pelicans. There are also various mammals in the park, including wild boar, mongoose, antelope, jackal, jungle cat, chital, nilgai and sambar. Keoladeo National Park is the proud owner of a UNESCO World Heritage Site title.
Visiting Keoladeo National Park
The best time to visit is following the monsoon (roughly Oct-March) when the weather is dry but the lakes are still full and the migratory birds in residence (although mists in December and January can hinder serious birdwatching). Rajasthan’s decade of drought finally came to an end in 2012 with an unusually long monsoon. Consistent rainfall combined with a series of three new permanent irrigation channels – designed to keep the water level in the lakes consistent – replenished Keoladeo’s waterways which had all but dried up during the drought. During the winter months, the park can be quite cold, with temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius. The desert climate means that temperatures reach highs and lows depending on the months. If you visit in winter, be sure to look out for the Indian Pythons bathing out in the sun.
Getting around the park is fairly easy, although vehicles are prohibited 2km into the park. Well-defined footpaths making walking easy, and bicycles can be hired to cycle around quite pleasantly. The most advised form of seeing the park is to hire a rickshaw, the drivers are trained by the park and are very knowledgeable about the birds - so ask your questions!
The park is open all year round, from sunrise to sunset. During monsoon season when the waters are high, it is possible to hire a boat with a well-clued up oarsman who will educate you on the birds and provide a relaxed way to travel around the park and see the wildlife up close and personal.
Places to Visit Near Keoladeo National Park
The park itself is quite spectacular, but you will be happy to know the surrounding area also holds some gems that are worth seeing. Nearby is the Government Museum, Bharatpur Palace and Lohagarh Fort. About 35km away is the impressive Deeg Palace, made up of multiple palaces and gardens.
Ranthambore National Park
No Indian nature reserve can guarantee a tiger sighting, but at Ranthambore National Park the odds are probably better than anywhere else: the park is relatively small and the resident tigers are famously unperturbed by humans, hunting in broad daylight and rarely shying away from cameras or jeep-loads of tourists. Combine the big cats’ bravado with the park’s proximity to the Delhi–Agra–Jaipur “Golden Triangle”, and you’ll understand why Ranthambore attracts the number of visitors it does.
With more than ninety thousand visitors a year, Ranthambore is one of India’s most popular national parks and can get ridiculously busy throughout the cool winter months, especially around Diwali and New Year. The summer months from April to June are a lot quieter, but obviously very hot. There are currently around forty adult tigers in the park, plus healthy populations of chital, nilgai, jackals, leopards, jungle cats and a wide array of birds. The original core section of the national park is flanked by three buffer zones, designed to provide space for the park’s ever-expanding number of young territory-seeking tigers.
Alwar’s principal attraction is its rambling and atmospheric City Palace, or Vinai Vilas Mahal, a sprawling complex of ornate but slightly dilapidated buildings, covered in crumbling ochre plaster and studded with endless canopied balconies. Most of the palace’s innumerable rooms are now put to more mundane use as government offices, while the courtyard in front provides open-air office space for dozens of typists, lined up behind clanking old antique metal machines, and lawyers, who prosecute their business under the trees.
The palace’s time-warped museum, on the top floor, has extensive collections of weapons and miniature paintings, alongside a medley of objects belonging to former maharajas ranging from musical instruments to stuffed animals.
Steps at the left-hand end of the main facade lead up to a large tank, flanked by symmetrical ghats, pavilions and a terrace on which stands the delicate Moosi Maharani Chhatri, built in memory of Bhaktawar Singh’s mistress, who immolated herself on his funeral pyre.
Perched high above Alwar is Bala Qila fort, whose well-preserved walls climb dramatically up and down the thickly wooded hillsides that rise above the town. There’s not much actually to see inside the fort – besides a temple and a few old cannons – but it’s a pleasant walk up from town, with fine views and fresh hill breezes. It takes about two hours to make the return trip on foot up to the fort’s outermost gate, or about twice that to reach the topmost point of the fortifications. If you don’t want to walk, you’ll have to arrange for a taxi through your hotel or the tourist office – the road up is too steep for cycle rickshaws.
Bharatpur was founded by the Jat king Surajmal, who constructed the virtually impregnable Lohagarh (Iron Fort) at the heart of town in 1732; time and modern development have had little effect on its magnificent 11km-long bastions and immense moat. You’re most likely to enter the fort from the south, though it’s worth having a look at the impressive Ashtdhatu (or Eight-Metal) Gate, named on account of the number of different metals that apparently went into the making of its extremely solid-looking doors.
The small but impressive fort is home to no fewer than three large royal palaces in various stages of dereliction, all built by the Jats between 1730 and 1850. The best preserved is the large orange Kamra Khas Mahal, on the west side of the fort, which now serves as the town’s recently upgraded museum, home to a large collection of finely carved sculptures, weapons and a superb little marble hammam (baths), plus the usual ragtag collection of miniature paintings and other regal memorabilia.
Immediately south of the fort lies the unusual Ganga Mandir, a large Hindu temple dedicated to the proprietary goddess of India’s most sacred river, though the elaborately carved sandstone building itself looks more like a Neoclassical French chateau than a Subcontinental temple.
Beyond the Ganga Mandir, narrow roads snake southwest through Bharatpur’s characterful bazaar district to reach the imposing Jama Masjid, set high on a raised platform above the busy surrounding streets.
A short distance east of the Jama Masjid lies the finely embellished Laxman Mandir, dedicated to the family deity of the maharajas of Bharatpur. Laxman, was one of the brothers of Lord Rama, after whose other brother, Bharat, the town itself was named.
Ajmer and around
The Nag Pahar (“Snake Mountain”), a steeply shelving spur of the Aravallis west of Jaipur, forms an appropriately epic backdrop for Ajmer, home of the great Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti, who founded the Chishtiya Sufi order. His tomb, the Dargah Khwaja Sahib, remains one of the most important Islamic shrines in the world. The streams of pilgrims and dervishes (it is believed that seven visits here are the equivalent of one to Mecca) especially pick up during Muharram (Muslim New Year) and Eid, and for the saint’s anniversary day, or Urs Mela.
Although Ajmer’s dusty modern roads are choked with traffic, the narrow lanes of the bazaars around the Dargah Khwaja Sahib retain an almost medieval character, with lines of rose-petal stalls and shops selling prayer mats, beads and lengths of gold-edged green silk offerings. Finely arched Mughal gateways still stand at the main entrances to the old city, whose skyscape of mosque minarets and domes is overlooked from on high by the crumbling Taragarh – for centuries India’s most strategically important fortress. While most of Rajasthan consisted of princely states, Ajmer was under British rule, and colonial-era relics can be found scattered across the city, among them the Jubilee clock tower opposite the railway station. The famous Mayo College, originally built as a school for princes and now a leading educational institution, is known in society circles as the “Eton of the East”.
Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti and the Urs Mela
Born in Afghanistan in 1156, Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti, India’s most revered Muslim saint began his religious career at the age of 13, when he distributed his inheritance among the poor and adopted the simple life of an itinerant Sufi fakir (the equivalent of the Hindu sadhu). On his travels, he soaked up the teachings of the great Central Asian Sufis, whose emphasis on mysticism, ecstatic states and pure devotion as a path to God were revolutionizing Islam during this period. Khwaja Sahib and his disciples settled in Ajmer at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Withdrawing into a life of meditation and fasting, he preached a message of renunciation, affirming that personal experience of God was attainable to anyone who relinquished their ties to the world. More radically, he also insisted on the fundamental unity of all religions: mosques and temples, he asserted, were merely material manifestations of a single divinity. Khwaja Sahib thus became one of the first religious figures to bridge the gap between India’s two great faiths. After he died at the age of 97, his followers lauded the Bhagavad Gita as a sacred text, and even encouraged Hindu devotees to pray using names of God familiar to them, equating Ram with “Rahman”, the Merciful Aspect of Allah – a spirit of acceptance which explains why Khwaja Sahib’s shrine in Ajmer continues to be loved by adherents of all faiths.
The anniversary of Khwaja Sahib’s death is celebrated with the Urs Mela, one of Rajasthan’s most important religious festivals, held on the sixth day of the Islamic month of Rajab (around April). Pilgrims flock to the town to honour the saint with qawwali (Sufi devotional) chanting, while kheer (rice pudding) is cooked in huge vats at the dargah and distributed to visitors. At night religious gatherings called mehfils are held. It isn’t really an affair for non-religious tourists, but the city does take on a festive air, with devotees from across the Subcontinent and beyond converging on Ajmer for the week leading up to it.
According to legend, Pushkar, 15km northwest of Ajmer, came into existence when Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped a lotus flower (pushpa) to earth from his hand (kar). At the three spots where the petals landed, water magically appeared in the midst of the desert to form three small blue lakes, and it was on the banks of the largest of these that Brahma subsequently convened a gathering of some 900,000 celestial beings – the entire Hindu pantheon. Surrounded by whitewashed temples and bathing ghats, the lake is today revered as one of India’s most sacred sites: Pushkaraj Maharaj, literally “Pushkar King of Kings”. During the auspicious full-moon phase of October/November (the anniversary of the gods’ mass meeting, or yagya), its waters are believed to cleanse the soul of all impurities, drawing pilgrims from all over the country. Alongside this annual religious festival, Rajasthani villagers also buy and sell livestock at what has become the largest camel market (unt mela) in the world, when more than 150,000 dealers, tourists and traders fill the dunes west of the lake.
There are more than five hundred temples in and around Pushkar, although some, like the splendid Vishnu Temple, are out of bounds to non-Hindus. Pushkar’s most important shrine, the Brahma Temple, houses a four-headed image of Brahma in its main sanctuary, and is one of the few temples in India devoted to him. Raised on a stepped platform in the centre of a courtyard, the inevitably crowded chamber is surrounded on three sides by smaller subsidiary shrines topped with flat roofs providing views across the desert to Savitri Temple on the summit of a nearby hill. The one-hour climb to the top of that hill is rewarded by matchless vistas over the town, surrounded on all sides by desert, and is best done before dawn, to reach the summit for sunrise, though it’s also a great spot to watch the sun set. The temple itself is modern, but the image of Savitri is thought to date back to the seventh century.
Brahma, Savitri and Gayitri
Although Brahma, the Creator, is one of the trinity of top Hindu gods, along with Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer), his importance has dwindled since Vedic times and he has nothing like the following of the other two. The story behind his temple here in Pushkar serves to explain why this is so, and also reveals the significance of the temples here named after Brahma’s wives, Savitri and Gayitri.
The story goes that Lord Brahma was to marry Savitri, a river goddess, at a sacrificial ritual called a yagna, which had to be performed at a specific, astrologically auspicious moment. But Savitri, busy dressing for the ceremony, failed to show up on time. Without a wife, the Creator could not perform the yagna at the right moment, so he had to find another consort quickly. The only unmarried woman available was a shepherdess of the untouchable Gujar caste named Gayitri, whom the gods hastily purified by passing her through the mouth of a cow (gaya means “cow”, and tri, “passed through”). When Savitri finally arrived, she was furious that Brahma had married someone else and cursed him, saying that henceforth he would be worshipped only at Pushkar. She also proclaimed that the Gujar caste would gain liberation after death only if their ashes were scattered on Pushkar lake – a belief that has persisted to this day. After casting her curses, disgruntled Savitri flew off to the highest hill above the town. To placate her, it was agreed that she should have her temple on that hilltop, while Gayitri occupied the lower hill on the opposite, eastern side of the lake, and that Savitri would always be worshipped before Gayitri, which is exactly how pilgrims do it, visiting Savitri’s temple first, and Gayitri’s temple afterwards.
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 more than 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 and nowadays the winning ‘taches are so long that it is not uncommon for competitors to arrive with their moustaches rolled up into buns and fixed to the side of their faces before unleashing them and whipping them around in the air like a lasso.
Bikaner and around
The bustling city of Bikaner has little of the aesthetic magic of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur or Jaipur, but is worth a visit thanks to the impressive Junagarh Fort and the brilliant museum inside, as well as for the chance to explore its atmospheric old city, dotted with a rich array of quirky, early twentieth-century havelis. Near to town are a government camel-breeding farm and the bizarrely fascinating, world-famous rat temple at Deshnok.
The Deshnok devi
Members of the Charan caste of musicians believe that incarnations of the goddess Durga periodically appear among them, one of whom was Karni Mata, born at a village near Phalodi in 1387, who went on to perform miracles such as water divination and bringing the dead back to life, eventually becoming the region’s most powerful cult leader. According to legend, one of Karni Mata’s followers came to her because her son was grievously ill, but by the time they got to him, he had died. Karni Mata went to Yama, the god of the underworld, to ask for him back, but Yama refused. Knowing that of all the creatures upon the earth, only rats were outside Yama’s dominion, Karni Mata decreed that all Charans would henceforth be reincarnated as rats, thus escaping Yama’s power. It is these sacred rats (kabas) that inhabit the Deshnok temple.
Junagarh Fort and Prachina Museum
Built at ground level and defended only by high walls and a wide moat, Junagarh Fort isn’t as immediately imposing as the mighty hill forts elsewhere in Rajasthan, though its richly decorated interiors are as magnificent as any in the state. The fort was built between 1587 and 1593, and progressively enlarged and embellished by later rulers. Within the fort complex, the Prachina Museum houses a pretty collection of objects (glassware, crockery, cutlery and walking sticks) demonstrating the growing influence of Europe on Rajasthani style in the early twentieth century. A whole circa-1900 salon has been recreated, and there’s also an interesting collection of Rajasthani textiles and clothing.
The Rampuriya havelis
Entering the old city through Kote Gate, bear left (south) down Old Jail Road. After 300m, turn right just past the florid pink gateway to a Hindu temple to reach the City Kotwali (the old city’s central police station). Follow the road past here to reach the three striking Rampuriya havelis, commissioned in the 1920s by three brothers from a Jain trading family and faced with reliefs of a mixture of personages, including Maharaja Ganga Singh, Britain’s George V and Queen Mary, and Krishna and Radha.
Rangari Chowk, Kothrion ka Chowk and Daga Sitya Chowk
Turn left just before the third Rampuriya Haveli, walking past the boarded-up 1918 Golchha Haveli, and continue roughly straight ahead, following the road as it makes two dog-legs to the right, to emerge after 100m onto a street full of ironmongers. Turn right here and continue for 300m to reach the small square called Rangari Chowk, centred on a neat white Hindu temple. Walk along the right-hand side of the temple and straight ahead you will see the small, triangular square called Kothrion ka Chowk, lined by handsome havelis. Follow the road as it swings round to the left, past the Kothari Building (on your right), with five wonderfully extravagant Art Nouveau balconies, to reach the small Daga Sitya Chowk. A house on the left still has fading murals of steam trains, while Diamond House, on the right, gets wider as it goes up, each storey overhanging the one below it. Retrace your steps back to just before Kothrion ka Chowk, then turn left to reach the Punan Chand Haveli boasting an amazingly carved floral facade. Turn round again and head back towards Kothrion ka Chowk, then take the first left to reach the large Daddho ka Chowk, surrounded by fine havelis.
Bhandreshwar (Bhandasar) Temple
Cross the Daddho ka Chowk to where the street ends at a T-junction, then turn right and continue for around 400m to reach Barah Bazaar, centred on a large pillar painted in the colours of the Indian flag. Follow the street round to the left and you’ll eventually reach the Bhandreshwar (Bhandasar) Temple, unusual among Jain temples in being covered in a rich, almost gaudy, array of paintings. Porcelain tiles imported from Victorian England decorate the main altar, and steps lead up the unusually large tower, where you get a great view over the old city. You’ll have to take your shoes off at the entrance of the temple and the steps up go outside, so watch out for pigeon mess.
Rajasthan’s only bona fide hill station, Mount Abu (1220m) is a major Indian resort, popular above all with honeymooners who flock here during the winter wedding season (Nov to March) and with visiting holiday-makers from nearby Gujarat. Mount Abu’s hokey commercialism is aimed squarely at these local vacationers rather than foreign tourists, but the sight of lovestruck honeymooners shyly holding hands and jolly parties of Gujarati tourists on the loose lends the whole place a charmingly idiosyncratic holiday atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else in Rajasthan – and the fresh air is exhilarating after the heat of the desert plains. The town also occupies an important place in Rajput history, being the site of the famous yagna agnikund fire ceremony, conducted in the eighth century AD, from which all Rajputs claim mythological descent.
Note that during the peak months and at almost any major festival time (especially Diwali in Nov), and even during weekends, the town’s population of thirty thousand mushrooms, room rates skyrocket, and peace and quiet are at a premium.
The Dilwara temples, 3km northeast of Mount Abu, are some of the most beautiful Jain shrines in India. All five are made purely from marble, and the carving is breathtakingly intricate. Entrance to the temples is by guided tour only – you’ll have to wait until sufficient people have arrived to make up a group – though once inside it’s easy enough to break away and look around on your own.
The oldest temple, the Vimala Vasahi, named after the Gujarati minister who funded its construction in 1031, is dedicated to Adinath, the first tirthankara. Although the exterior is simple – as, indeed, are the exteriors of all the temples here – inside not one wall, column or ceiling is unadorned, a prodigious feat of artistry that took almost two thousand labourers and sculptors fourteen years to complete. There are 48 intricately carved pillars inside, eight of them supporting a domed ceiling arranged in eleven concentric circles alive with dancers, musicians, elephants and horses, while a sequence of 57 subsidiary shrines run around the edge of the enclosure. In front of the entrance to the temple the so-called “Elephant Cell” (added after the construction of the temple itself in 1147) contains ten impressively large stone pachyderms. A more modest pair of painted elephants, along with an unusual carving showing stacked-up tiers of tirthankaras, flanks the entrance to the diminutive Mahaveerswami Temple, built in 1582, which sits by the entrance to the Vimala Vasahi.
The Luna Vasahi Temple, second of Dilwara’s two great temples, was built in 1231, and is dedicated to Neminath, the 22nd tirthankara. It follows a similar plan to the Vimala Vasahi, with a central shrine fronted by a minutely carved dome and surrounded by a long sequence of shrines (a mere 48 this time). The carvings, however, are even more precise and detailed, especially so in the magnificently intricate dome covering the entrance hall.
The remaining two temples, both fifteenth-century, are less spectacular. The Bhimasah Pittalhar Temple houses a huge gilded image of the first tirthankara, Adinath, installed in 1468, which measures more than 2.5m high and weighs in at around 4.5 tons. The large three-storey Khartar Vasahi Temple (near the entrance to the temples) was built in 1458 and is consecrated to Parshvanath. The temple is topped by a high grey stone tower and boasts some intricate carving in places, though overall it’s only a pale shadow of the earlier temples.
Hiking in Mount Abu
Down in Mount Abu’s market area, you gain little sense of the wonderfully wild landscape enfolding the town, but head for a few minutes up one of the many trails threading around the sides of the plateau, and it’s easy to see why the area has inspired sages, saints and pilgrims for centuries. Unfortunately hiking alone is not recommended, as there have been robberies and even murders of unaccompanied visitors, and police will turn back anyone spotted heading out alone. There’s also a chance of running into bears and leopards – bears, in particular, can be dangerous if surprised, or when with their young.
Two good local guides are Lalit Kanojia at the Shri Ganesh hotel, who leads 3–4hr treks every morning; or the experienced Mahendra Dan, better known as “Charles”, who runs a range of half-day and full-day walking tours focusing on village life, wildlife spotting and local Ayurvedic plants, as well as overnight camping expeditions. Details of his tours can be found at mount-abu-treks.blogspot.com and he can be contacted via the Lake Palace hotel.
The belt of hilly land east of Udaipur is the most fertile in Rajasthan, watered by several perennial rivers and guarded by a sequence of imposing forts perched atop the craggy ridges that crisscross the region.
The first major settlement you’ll come across is the historic town of Chittaurgarh (or Chittor), 115km northeast of Udaipur. Of all the former Rajput capitals, Chittaurgarh – former capital of the kingdom of Merwar before Udaipur – was the strongest bastion of Hindu resistance against the Muslim invaders and it is home to one of Rajasthan’s most spectacular and historic forts, rising majestically above a verdant tapestry of plains. No less than three mass suicides (johars) were committed over the centuries by the female inhabitants of this honey-coloured fort. As a symbol of Rajput chivalry and militarism only Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort compares.
Some visitors squeeze a tour of Chittaurgarh into a day-trip, or en route between Bundi and Udaipur, but it’s well worth stopping overnight to give yourself plenty of time to explore the fort properly.
The Vijay Stambh
The main road within the fort continues south to its focal point, Vijay Stambh, the soaring “tower of victory” erected by Rana Kumbha to commemorate his 1440 victory over the Muslim sultan Mehmud Khilji of Malwa. This magnificent sand-coloured tower, whose nine storeys rise 36m, took a decade to build; its walls are lavishly carved with mythological scenes and images from all Indian religions, including Arabic inscriptions in praise of Allah. You can climb the dark narrow stairs to the very summit for free by showing your fort entry ticket.
The walled town of Bundi, 37km north of Kota, lies in the north of the former Hadoti state, shielded by jagged outcrops of the Vindhya Range. The site was the capital of the Hadachauhans, but although settled in 1241, 25 years before neighbouring Kota, Bundi never amounted to more than a modest market centre, and remains relatively untouched by modern development. The palace alone justifies a visit thanks to its superb collection of murals, while the well-preserved old town, crammed with crumbling havelis, picturesque old bazaars and a surprising number of flamboyant baoris or “step-wells” (giant water tanks designed to collect the precious monsoon rains), makes this one of southern Rajasthan’s most appealing destinations – a fact recognized by the ever-increasing numbers of foreign tourists who are now visiting the place.
There are further outstanding murals in the Chittra Sala, just above the palace. At the rear left-hand corner of the garden inside, steps lead up to a small courtyard embellished with an outstanding sequence of paintings in an unusual muted palette of turquoises, blues and blacks, the majority devoted to magical depictions of scenes from the life of Krishna.
Kota, 230km south of Jaipur on a fertile plain fed by Rajasthan’s largest river, the Chambal, is one of the state’s dirtier and less appealing cities. With a population nudging 700,000, it is one of Rajasthan’s major commercial and industrial hubs, with hydro, atomic and thermal power stations lining the banks of the Chambal, alongside Asia’s largest fertilizer plant, whose enormous chimneys provide a not-very-scenic backdrop to many views of the town. Kota is worth a visit if only for its fine city palace, which houses one of the better museums in Rajasthan, while the old town has a commercial hustle and bustle, which makes a nice contrast to somnolent Bundi, a 45-minute drive away.