Towering temples and ornate palaces, set in the middle of vast and arid desert; it’s not the latest million-dollar film location, it’s Rajasthan.
For many of us, when we think of quintessential India we think of Rajasthan: buzzing chaotic cities, alive with colour, and remote villages where ancient traditions continue to thrive. This north west Indian state has some of the country’s most impressive palaces, delicious food and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Make sure you don’t miss out and tick these thigns off your ultimate adventure in Rajasthan.
The state capital of Jaipur is probably how most travellers imagine India: a frenzied city where people, traffic and cattle interweave on dusty roads, lined with colourful shops selling everything from jewellery to spices. Visit the City Palace for a stunning introduction to Rajasthani architecture, and marvel at the nearby Hawa Mahal – an ornate wall built for royal ladies to sit atop of so that they could watch street festivities while remaining hidden. At the end of the day head to the huge Amber Fort, northeast of the city centre. High on a hilltop, the views over the city are magnificent as the sun sets in an orange sky on the horizon.
Arguably the most romantic city in India, Udaipur is set on the shores of Lake Pichola, and you could easily spend a week here exploring its huge white palace, boating on the waters or just wandering through the city’s labyrinth of streets. Meet local artists who specialise in miniature painting, or cook up the flavours of Rajasthan for yourself and take part in a cooking class. Let friendly Shashi guide you through a number of traditional recipes, including vegetable pakoras and mouth-watering aubergine masala, at the Below Sunrise Restaurant.
This small town, 160km from Jaipur, might not seem the most obvious stellar stop-off, but Mandawa rewards those weary with big city chaos with a slower pace of life. It also offers the opportunity to stay in some stunning heritage properties: the Hotel Mandawa Haveli is a traditional Rajasthani mansion dating from 1890, with stunning mosaics and murals inside and out, as well as gorgeous traditionally decorated rooms.
Nicknamed the ‘Golden City’ Jaisalmer is a charming sandstone metropolis. Its streets are lined with beautifully carved havelis, which were once the luxury homes of local silk and spice merchants, and it’s overlooked by one of the largest fortifications in the world. Jaisalmer is also the perfect jumping off point for a desert safari: ride on camels into the depths of the Thar and spend the night at the top of a dune, dining on Rajasthani cuisine, before sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag. On a clear night, the views of the Milky Way are spellbinding.
While Bikaner itself isn’t the most attractive of Rajasthani cities, it’s the Junagarh Fort that brings most visitors to its bustling streets. Its red sandstone walls give the building a menacing façade, but within lies a warren of ornately decorated rooms, filled with mosaics, murals, carpets and curtains, kept as they would have been during its heyday. When you’ve explored the fort, head just 30km south to Desknok where one of India’s most curious temples delights and disgusts travellers: the Karni Mata temple is dedicated to the thousands of rats who scuttle through its halls.
The second-largest city in Rajasthan, Jodhpur is a blue jewel in the middle of the desert. The enormous and impressive Mehrangarh Fort looms over hundreds of tightly packed, indigo houses which give the city its nickname, ‘the Blue City’. Jodhpur is an excellent base for visiting some local villages. Join a tour heading out to Khejadli and drink opium tea and scoff traditional food with the Bishnoi – a religious sect who have been fighting to protect the environment for over 500 years.
Ranakpur, a small village half way between Udaipur and Jodhpur, makes it on to the list because of its immense, entirely marble, Jain temple. Built using a strict measurement system relating to the age at which the founder of Jainism reached nirvana, it’s set on a pedestal measuring 72 square yards, there are 72 shrines inside and 1440 (72 x 20) carved marble pillars holding up the domed ceilings. Built in 1449, its prepossessing symmetry and ornate carvings are simply astonishing.
Okay, so it’s not strictly in Rajasthan. Around 30km over the border in Uttar Pradesh, you simply can’t come this far wihtout popping across to Agra to see one of the world’s most famous buildings, the Taj Mahal. An arresting sight at dawn, dusk and under the midday sun, this enormous white marble palace, built by Shah Jahan for his late wife Mumtaz Mahal, is a symbol of love that will move even the coldest of hearts.
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