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.