Whenever anyone asks me where they should go on their first trip to India, I always have the same answer: Rajasthan. It is the state that conforms to our exotic preconceptions of India: turbans, lakes, palaces, forts, snake charmers, mahouts, and maharajas.
A lot of the images of India we see abroad are of Rajasthan, in the way that many images of Britain are of thatched Gloucestershire cottages, Italy of Tuscan towns, or France of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. One travels to Rajasthan to witness the India one was hoping for.
For me, visiting Rajasthan was love at first sight. I fell head-over-heels for the sunshine and lights (Rajasthan has the best light in the world – you cannot take a bad photograph there), later with the architecture and miniature paintings, the neem and banyan trees and particular serenity that infuses the place, especially around sunset.
I adore the smaller places is Rajasthan the most: Dungarpur with its untouched palace hotel on Gaibsagar lake, its gloomy dining room and glass eyed tiger trophies. Deogarh with its market town bustle; Kumbhalgarh’s majestic fort and 36 kilometer wall, which I once circumnavigated over two days of hard walking, eagles hovering overhead. Nimaj and the charm of the surrounding rural villages, and the tents at Chhatra Sagar along the dam.
It was my grandiose fantasy to buy the old castle in Ghanerao one day, repair it and make it my home – not that the Thakur of Ghanero was ever thinking of selling. These days my tastes are simpler: I’d love a cottage deep in the Kumbhalgarh hills.
Physically, Rajasthan is the loveliest of states. My favorite way to travel is by road when you can zone out on long journeys (all journeys in Rajasthan are long), staring out at the Aravalli hills at little crag-top shrines flying red pennants, at the endless empty scrubland and khejri trees. If you pull off the road and take almost any small path into the countryside, you pass village after village where only the occasional satellite dish reminds you it is the 21st century. And sometimes in the middle of nowhere you come across temples or shrines of such history and beauty that they’re like engravings by William Daniel.
I love the smells of Rajasthan: wood smoke and sandalwood, cow dung fires and jasmine, diesel and hibiscus. I love the colour of the houses (Jodhpur blue, Jaipur pink) and the colours of the turbans (the scarlet of the shepherds, saffron for the warrior castes, white turbans of the Bishnois, red and white patterned ones worn at Holi, and the light pink safa worn in October during sharad poornima, the full moon). I love the brasseries and oil lamps they put out at nightfall, and the sight of dozens of sari-clad women toiling in the fields or carrying baskets of stones on their heads. I love the elaborate moustaches of the Rajput men, and the medieval steps in so many towns (invariably clogged with litter).
When I first explored Rajasthan, it was possible to stay in quirky palace hotels for 800 Rupees a night. Maybe it still is possible, but Rajasthan also has become the luxury hotel capital of India – Taj, Leela, and Oberoi properties compete to be the most comfortable and glorious, with their large swimming pools, spas, sushi bars, and Wi-Fi. I love the new wave of boutique hotels though, like Devigarh at Delware and RAAS at Jodhpur, with their sleek Armani-like vibe.
You can characterize Rajasthan as one of the most traditional Indian states, with its heritage hotels and high profile maharajas, but there’s a district funkiness about the place too. Architecturally, it is the land of the greatest hits: Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal and Amber Fort, Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, the Lake Palace in Udaipur, the walls of Chittorgarh, the havelis of Jaisalmer and the temples of Ranakpur and Osian. There are other treasures that, though barely get a mention in the guidebooks, I regard as every bit as good, such as cenotaphs of the maharajas on the outskirts of Jodhpur and those at the Bikaner’s city limits. If you’ve ever read CS Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, you know the kind of thing. And the macabre palm prints of the rains who threw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, which you can see at Bikaner Fort and on the gateway to Jodhpur.
I love the extremes of Rajasthani weather: the harsh, burning heat of the Thar Desert, the cool evenings when the sun finally dips behind a hill and (astonishingly) you feel the need for a jersey. And I love the way that, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of this populous state, you quite suddenly find yourself all alone in some remarkable temple or on the shores of a deserted lake, and experience an instant of pure beauty that is almost spiritual.
Words by Prashi Mridul