Travel in Rajasthan includes a whole lot of superlatives. Rajasthan—which means the land of kings—is the subcontinent’s largest state. It’s often called the most colorful, and even the “most Indian” state. To help wrap your head around all the “mosts” associated with one of India’s most visited states, here’s your A-Z guide to travel in Rajasthan.
The ABCs of Travel in Rajasthan
9 times out of 10, the phrase, “I’m going to India!” means, “I’m going to Rajasthan”. Along with the Taj Mahal and Delhi, Rajasthan is on almost all first-time India travelers’ itineraries. And for good reason.
From camels and turbans to monkeys and Brahmans, Rajasthan is a microcosm of so many of the sites, smells, and tastes considered classic India.
If the name Jodhpur doesn’t ring a bell, its ” Blue City” nickname surely does. The moniker comes from the blue paint on the homes of Jodhpur’s ruling Brahman class. Once reserved for high caste homes, the blue paint trend spread to engulf the entire old town neighbourhood. The little blue houses are uniform and square, but you couldn’t find a straight line through the roads that connect them to save your life. Climbing up to and looking down from the Mehrangarh Fort is the best way to see the Blue City in all its glory.
For those with a little more time to travel in Rajasthan, the adorable city of Bundi has another blue city worth a visit.
The first time we saw them in Delhi, I couldn’t believe there were camels in the middle of a city. The second time we saw them near the Taj Mahal in Agra, I couldn’t get over how big they were. By the end of our three weeks in Rajasthan, I could have passed a camel spinning double-dutch without batting an eyelid.
The good, the fat, and the ugly (fine, there’s no such thing as a fat camel), these lumbering giants are all over Rajasthan. They were once the power behind Rajasthan’s workforce, but as the price of trucks continues to fall, camels are seen on the roads less and less.
The Pushkar Camel Festival was the very first event on our India itinerary, and a bit of a travel dream come true. (Don’t worry a full post and full roster of camels is in the works.)
As the song goes, Rajasthan without the desert would be like monsoon season without the rain. Rajasthan’s nomadic tribes rose from the Thar desert, like camel traders rise for the Camel Fair today. The desert remains a huge part of the myth, legend, and magic behind Rajasthan’s identity.
We’ve made no secret that visiting the Elefantastic elephant farm near Jaipur was our favourite day of Rajasthan. Elephants have a long history in India, especially in Rajasthan. Male elephants were ridden into battle. Females were decorated for weddings and religious ceremonies, and used for all manner of manual—often grueling—labour. Today strict laws govern how riders are and aren’t allowed to work their elephants. This year Jaipur’s wildly popular elephant festival was shut down by the work of activist groups including PETA.
The land of kings doesn’t remain the king’s land without the necessary precautions. Those boys fortified every possible hilltop to secure their land and titles. Their efforts have left their mark. Wikipedia lists 36 forts in Rajasthan. UNESCO has named six World Heritage sites.
Rajasthan’s forts range from wonderfully dilapidated and overgrown in Bundi and Ranthambore National Park, to a perfectly preserved museum in Jodhpur, and a fully functional and lived-in city fort in Jaisalmer. For beautiful details on Rajasthan’s individual forts, check out Mumbai blogger Sudha G’s five-part Forts of Rajasthan Series.
Gemstones, Gold, and the Import-Export Gap
Jaipur is a global centers for hand-cut gems, making Rajasthan India’s gemstone capital. Precious and semi-precious stones are everywhere from City Palaces walls to rural brides’ necks. Along with the gold and silver they’re set in, gems are India’s nest egg. Gold is the currency of the controversial dowry system (outlawed 50 years ago, but still widely practiced across the country and, shockingly, across all castes and classes).
In the face of a cooling economy, Indian economists continue to plead with the country to ease off its addiction to imported gold. Those requests repeatedly fall of deaf (pierced and sparkly) ears. But the government has committed to sky-high import taxes until jewelry exports fall into healthier alignment with gold imports. Rajasthan’s gem trade will play a big roll in balancing that scale.
Rajasthan is flush with the sprawling, splintering, mural-covered remains of the haveli homes of its former ruling class. The northwest Shekhawati region has entire towns full of deserted havelis financed by merchants dispatched to Kolkota who sent all their earnings home. Shekhawati haveli murals combine traditional religious iconography with blind interpretations of the modern technology the merchants described in letters home. My favourite is a mural of two Europeans inflating a hot air balloon by mouth.
In Rajasthan’s favourite tourist cities, havelis have been converted into fantastic guest homes. Often by descendants of their original owners. They range from 200-500 years old, and from gutted and stuffed with rooms to museum quality works of preservation. Staying in havelis while you travel in Rajasthan is the most calming and aesthetically pleasing way to step into Rajasthan’s grand past.
In exchange for their political support, the British stripped the maharajas of their powers, but continued to bankroll their indulgent lifestyle. While the Viceroy turned a blind eye, the playboy princes partied and squandered the remnants of their state’s royal wealth, instead of investing in their people and basics like education. As a result, at independence Rajasthan had one of India’s lowest literacy rate.
Despite the steady flow of tourist dollars from of travel in Rajasthan, widespread illiteracy remains. As of the 2011 census, Rajasthan had a literacy rate of 67.06%. Broken down by gender (80.51% male and 52.66% female), Rajasthan has India’s lowest literacy rate among women, and the county’s widest gender gap.
Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer
If Rajasthan were a Sesame Street production, the letter J would have a serious monopoly. Jaipur. Jodhpur. Jaisalmer. All Rajasthan’s big cities seem to start with J. Starting with the capital, Jaipur, and running west through the Blue City of Jodhpur, all the way to deserts of the fort-city, Jaisalmer, the line through the three Js gives a pretty good overview of travel in Rajasthan. They’re a bitch to keep straight when you first start planning, but that line is a helpful axis to build a Rajasthan trip around.
“Rajasthan” means “land of kings”. Although Rajasthan’s kings were systematically striped of their land and government-issued income under Indira Gandhi’s rule, many keep their titles, some wealth, and some property. The city palaces of Jaipur and Udaipur remain under royal trust. And Rajasthan royal weddings remain the stuff of Bollywood dreams.
Lassi & Lal Maas
Lassis are the go-to drink across India. But Rajasthan takes lassis, and the lassi stand, to new heights. In Jaipur, the legendary Lassiwala is so popular that imitators flank its storefront for blocks in both directions. Lassiwala makes a plain yogurt lassi freshly whipped to perfection and served in a single-use earthen cup. It makes very tasty and (this is possibly the only time I’ll say this in India) very eco-friendly breakfast on the go.
In Bundi, the signature lassi has no fewer than a bajillion ingredients, including saffron, honey, and pistachio. It’s also very tasty, but makes a better post-hike-to-the-fort treat than daily breakfast.
Las Maas is a seriously spicy lamb dish served on the bone. Lamb—or mutton as it’s always called in India—was the only red meat we ate in India. Lal Maas was our favourite Rajasthani dish for its super heat that kept us sweating and coming back for more (if you stop, you only feel the burn more).
Monkeys, Murals, Miniatures & Mustaches
Next to J, M might be the most important letter in the Rajasthan alphabet. These four have nothing in common, but a piece on travel in Rajasthan wouldn’t be complete without any of the following.
Monkeys in Rajasthan are fearless, boundary-less, and voraciously hungry. And they’re everywhere. Near temples they’re considered holy, and pilgrims feed them by hand. Elsewhere we’ve seen locals take kicks,sticks, and even slingshots to them. Of the two most common species in Rajasthan, we were quite fond of the small and seemingly sweet black-faced Grey Langur monkeys, but kept our distance from the larger, more aggressive pink-faced Rhesus Macaques.
The maharajas were big patrons of the arts. In particular (although at opposite ends of the painting spectrum) murals and miniatures define Rajasthani art. Frescoed murals adorn Rajasthan’s forts, city palaces, and haveli. It was the height of haveli fashion to have the family portrait (including the family elephant) beside the front door. Miniatures take on the same subject matters—often animals, flora, and scenes and characters from Hindu mythology—but at (you guessed it) miniature scale. We loved the bright and playful watercolours, and commissioned our own family portrait from Yug, a friendly street side artist in Bundi.
And what can we say about the Rajasthani mustaches that hasn’t been said before? They’ve broken hearts and mended them; started wars and won them. Some of the mustaches that emerge from the desert for the Pushkar Camel Fair were more impressive than the camels. And the Fair’s mustache contest garners as much fanfare as the camel races. If you dream of a year full of Movembers, Rajasthan is the place where dreams come true.
Travel in Rajasthan is loud. Nay, life in Rajasthan is loud. Auto rickshaws horns blare. Touts and shopkeepers scream for your attention. Children demand rupees and “chocolate”. Noise is the only constant. It’s so omnipresent that in her North India overview, Legal Nomads points out that the first thing her mother noticed returning from their trip was the absence of noise.
Rajasthan is not a place for quite contemplation.It’s not a place for quite anything.
The Rajputs were warriors. Successful warrior societies rely on strategic alliances. The most diplomatic and least bloody way to form alliances is through marriage. But how to get a group of warmongers relaxed enough to celebrate the joyful union of former rivals? Opium.
The Rajasthan opium ceremony is called Riyan. Before the ceremony, opium is dissolved in water and strained, ground and mixed with jaggery (concentrated date, cane juice, or palm sap), sugar, saffron and milk. During the Riyan ceremony, the host offers his guests a small dose to be licked from the palm of his hand.
Notice I’m writing in present tense, not past. Riyan is still practiced in parts of western Rajasthan to mark any celebration or coming together: births, marriages, and even on the campaign trail. Riyan is, of course, illegal, but Rajasthanis are adamant that their tradition isn’t going anywhere.
The peacock is the national bird of India, and right at home in Rajasthan. Wild peacocks were one of the highlights of our safari in Ranthambore National Park. Painted peacock murals and jewel-crusted peacock inlays grace all Rajasthan palaces and havelis.
As you’ve no doubt picked up, women have never had it easy in Rajasthan. Obviously queens lived better than most, but they lived—like all subjects—under the Raj.
Every Rajasthan palace was built with designated living quarters for the Queen and her attendants. The most famous of these is the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur. The “Palace of the Winds” or “Honeycomb Palace” is a five-story hive of 953 tiny, lattice-covered windows called jharokhas. The Hawa Mahal is an allegory for how Rajasthan’s queens lived: with access to a bird’s-eye view of life in world below, but always behind the protective face cover of her “purdah“.
Hawa Mahal | Jaipur, Rajasthan
Rail was our preferred way to travel in Rajasthan. Despite being India’s largest state, most of its cities are only a few hours ride from one another. This proximity let us buy last-minute tickets and not worry about booking sleeper trains. We had some of our best chats with Rajasthan locals on its local trains.
If we return to Rajasthan when we’re old and rich, it will be via the state awfully romantic Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.
Sati is a dark stain on Rajasthan’s colorful history. Sati is the practice of a new widow burning herself alive on the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre. Women—from queens to commoners—dipped their palms in red henna, and left a mark beside the door when they made their last exit from the home. The suicide ceremony has long been romanticized, even fetishized. Red hand print shrines adorn the entranceways of Rajasthan’s palaces and havelis. The nonchalance India tourists pass them with is chilling.
Sati wasn’t outlawed until 1987, and it ‘s still thought of as a cultural quirk more than a historic tragedy. To illustrate how convoluted the notion of sati is in the Rajasthan psyche, sati is sometimes interpreted as “chaste woman”. Both Hindi and Sanskrit texts use sati as a synonym for “good wife”.
Unlike sati, the turban culture is something we can get behind. Turbans, called pagari in Rajasthan, are the most colorful and impressive male accessory in India. Those fluent in turban can tell a Hindu man’s class, caste, home and even the occasion he’s dressed for just by looking at the folds, twists, and tucks of his turban.
And thanks to our travel in Rajasthan, I’ve discovered that my man can rock a turban.
Jodhpur is the Blue City. Jaipur is reputedly the Pink City (I call it salmon, at best), and beautiful Udaipur rounds out Rajasthan’s colour block city planning scheme as the White City. We saved “India’s most romantic city” for the end of our travel in Rajasthan, and are so pleased we did. We didn’t think any Rajasthan city could be so pretty, or so *clean*, but Udaipur really delighted. There’s no better place to scrub off the desert grime and relax in relative tranquility for a few days.
Forget Northern and Southern, the two styles of Indian food are veg and non veg. Some “restaurants” don’t bother with a name more creative that “Pure Veg Restaurant”. Other than the occasional lal maas and the tandoori chicken hawkers that line MI road in Jaipur, we’ve been pretty committed vegetarians during our travel in Rajasthan.
This faux vegetarianism wasn’t a stretch for me, but it was a new kind of culinary exploration for Cliff. Going veg wasn’t a conscious choice (although the camel mutton we had in Delhi was almost enough to turn us off meat). It was a joint reaction to menu offerings at most guesthouses and the way animals are treated, and the garbage the graze on.
Chicken wallah. Chia wallah. Lassi wallah. A wallahs is simple a street food vendor, India’s answer to South East Asia’s hawkers. Wherever we travel in Rajasthan, (make that anywhere) wallahs, are our kind of people. For a more complete list of NorthIndia street foods, check out Cliff’s street eats posts, here. But,our single favourite Rajasthan wallah is the samosa and matar kachori stand on the main road leading from the old town to the market in Bundi. Find it.
We’re all familiar with xenophobia, but let’s take this awkward moment (brought to you by the letter x) to learn a new word. Xenophilia is the love of foreigners. The people of Rajasthan love foreigners. Despite hosting the Brits for two centuries and having been a tourist hub for decades, Indians can’t seem to get enough of foreigners. Wherever we travel in Rajasthan, people want to know where we’re from and what our names are. And they definitely want to take a picture with us. At the very least, they want a photo of them with the back of our heads somewhere in the shot. Unless we’re with blonder, more blue-eyed friends, then we’re in the clear.
Yes is the answer to every question asked in Rajasthan. Even if the answer is really no. Especially if the answer is no. “Is the fort this way?” Yes. “Are these samosas fresh?” Yes. “Do you have wifi?” Yes.
Add in the nonverbal answer—the ubiquitous Indian head bobble, and you quickly realize that in Rajasthan, it’s best to view all questions as rhetorical questions.
“EUROPEAN-OWNED” and “EUROPEAN SAFETY STANDARDS” shout the very serious signs next to Flying Fox Zipline at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. The six-zip course takes you out from the fort and across the Blue City. Much like those European safety instructors, Cliff gives it all two thumbs up.