20 essential experiences from the annals and antiquities of India's most princely state
Alwar is not the most tourist-friendly destination, which is likely a good thing for those seeking classic Rajasthani attractions without the classic Rajasthani tourist hordes. Once the northern entryway to the region, Alwar’s strategic location meant that it saw plenty of warfare in its time, until the 17th century when the Rajputs seized it from the Jats. Today, Alwar’s many palaces and forts reveal its Mughal and Rajput history, and its cuisine and hospitality characterise the best of Rajasthan. The main attraction is Bal Quila, a towering fort that affords a 300m-high view of its surrounds. Just below lies Sagar tank and the City Palace, worth visiting particularly for its museum, which contains a fine array of courtly memorabilia, weaponry and Arabic and Sanskrit manuscripts. For a dose of Mughal culture, the gold-leaf decorations and elegant balconies of Vinay Vilas Palace are nice. Alwar is also the access point to Sariska National Park. Alwar is 2hr 30min from Delhi; Tourist Reception Centre: 0144-2347348. Stay at The Bagh, 2km from town
2. Desert National Park
If you thought deserts were dry and therefore boring, try walking through the Desert National Park near Jaisalmer. It covers over 3,162km and is one of the best examples of desert habitat in the country. The animal and bird life here ranges from the endangered Great Indian Bustard to herds of chinkara, desert cat, desert fox, birds like sand grouses, buzzards, owls and reptiles like the monitor lizard, saw-scaled viper and the spiny-tailed lizard. A few areas of the park, like Sudashri, are enclosed with barbed wire to prevent grazing by cattle. The forest department has demarcated a few trails in this area — which make for a good 3-4 hour walk. To see the rest of the sanctuary, walk through, from Khuri towards Miajalar, Girab, Gadra and back towards Munabao. You can stay at these villages. Contact Deputy Director, Desert NP (02922-252498) for permissions. Gangaur Guest House (Rs 600-1,500; 9414271035) in Khuri can organise 3-4 day safaris.
3. Devi Bhawan
At this serene retreat, don’t expect the ancient trappings of your classic heritage hotel. Jodhpur’s Devi Bhawan melds the amenities of a modern hotel with an intimate sense of being a Rajput family’s guest. The cottages are threaded amidst lush gardens; divided into garden rooms, bungalows and suites, each emphasises the peaceful surrounds. No fussiness and ornate fittings here: each room is cleanly designed, its simple period furniture creating a minimal, spacious atmosphere. TVs, Internet, room service and massages — what more do you need? Lay out by the pool, lounge in the gazebo and take your meals out in the gardens; the beautiful lawns are the true highlight of this peaceful sanctuary. Best of all, a stay at this oasis comes at super rates.
At first sight Khichan looks like any small Rajasthani village. But if you were to walk around, you’d see hundreds of stately black-and-grey demoiselle cranes flying over the village and foraging in its fields. And if you were to come to Khichan at the crack of dawn, you’d find the sky obscured by thousands of these birds, as they wing their way to specially-constructed enclosures in the village. These birds, which migrate every winter from Central Asia, have been congregating in the village for as long as the villagers can remember. They come to this area attracted by the vast open scrublands around the village. The villagers lay out grain for the birds twice a day (500kg everyday!) — and protect the birds from any disturbance. The birds are part of every aspect of village life, including their harvest songs. Located 140km northwest of Jodhpur. The WelcomHeritage Lalniwas located in Phalodi (5km from Khichan), organises birding trips.
5. Trek along Kumbhalgarh
Much of Rajasthan is pretty, almost ephemeral in its dependence on light and hue for its attraction. The massive 600-year-old ramparts of Kumbhalgarh Fort offer altogether more immense substance. The sheer size of it makes one want to believe the local legend that the fortress was impregnable, though it was actually taken once, by a powerful army of Emperor Akbar’s Mughal-Rajput alliance. Its walls snake over the rolling Aravalli hills for 36km, like some gargantuan stone python. It’s one of the longest walls anywhere on earth outside China’s Great Wall, and if you’re feeling adventurous, try hiking along the periphery. It’s a two-day trek, and the only places you can stay the night are in some of the many temples (1,008, say locals) along your route. You won’t need a guide, but the men selling entry tickets at the fort entrance will find you someone who can cook and lug your load for you, at about Rs 300-400 a day. You’ll need to haggle, of course. But what price the awesome beauty of that rugged landscape? Kumbhalgarh is 84km north of Udaipur.
The seventh-century Chandramouli Mahadev temple, with its heart-breakingly beautiful stone sculptures and set on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river, is only one of the treasures to be found in Jhalawar. There’s also the Chandravati ruins, Gagron Fort, a Sun Temple that’s known as the ‘Konarak of Rajasthan’, the old city of Jhalrapatan... Incidentally, Jhalawar is also known as the ‘Cherrapunji of Rajasthan’, for its green hillock-dotted terrain that spontaneously bursts into huge ponds and lakes every few minutes in the monsoon. The constituency of Vasundhara Raje Scindia gets few visitors now, but that’s set to change with her help. Get there before the hordes discover just how lovely it is to book yourself into one of the five suites at the Prithvi Vilas Palace and luxuriate in the hospitality of the royal family. The suites cost Rs 5,000 each (including meals) but the royals offer a more affordable alternative: rooms in the adjacent guesthouse go for Rs 1,500 a pop (also including meals). Jhalawar is 2hrs south of Kota; Prithvi Vilas Palace: 07432-231347/231091
7. Ahichhatragarh Fort, Nagaur
A walk through Ahhichatragarh (‘fort of the hooded cobra’) in Nagaur is like a stroll through history with its various power struggles and intrigues. Built between 1119 and 1121, the fort was a much-coveted prize for rulers as Nagaur was a strategic trade centre. Successive maharajas and sultans battled for control and each king made additions to the fort. Lucky for the visitor, who can see the Rajput- and Mughal-influenced palaces and buildings, temples and mosques along with carved baoris, gardens and a much admired water system, which used to recycle every drop of water. And it is in the shadow of this impressive fort that the annual Nagaur Cattle Fair is held. Reputed to be second largest cattle fair in India, the Nagaur Fair sees camel races, cock fights, tug-of-war and folk music and dance, apart from the main business of cattle trade. Nagaur is 135km north of Jodhpur. The fort is open 9am-1pm, 2-5pm; entry Rs 15.
8. Crafts in Barmer
This arid desert town in western Rajasthan, with just a handful of ruins, does not seem to have anything that will interest a visitor. But there is beauty even in this wasteland. Beautiful block-printed fabrics, delicate handcrafted wood furniture, pottery, carpets and fine embroidery add colour to this otherwise monochromatic town. Even the houses here are decorated with pictures and motifs. These crafts are the lifeline in a region where almost nothing grows. And it’s not just crafts that draw people to this town; the songs of the Bhopas or priest singers and the music of the Muslim dholis are also famous. Visitors can start craft-hunting in the tiny shops that crowd Sadar Bazaar. But don’t restrict yourself to the bazaar — there are artisans at work in almost every bylane in the town. Barmer is 153km south of Jaisalmer and 224km west of Jodhpur.
This isn’t where you go if you want a grand fort-hotel with folk musicians warbling while you eat your fettucine delicately. It’s another kind of Rajasthan — pilgrims visit the town and not tourists, you stay at a dharamshala not a palace, and there’s absolutely nothing to do other than sit by the temple tank and watch vignettes of serenity. Sadhus will wander around, the devout will bustle about, the sun will retire behind the desert. Spend a tranquil few days here or carve some hours out for a quiet day-trip from Bikaner. Located 54km from Bikaner.
10. Metre-gauge trainride
Between the British and sundry maharajas, India arguably built and used more railway gauges (the standard measure for the gap between parallel rails on a track) than the rest of the world put together. Disuse and a colossal government project to convert metre-gauge lines to broad gauge have killed off most, but there are still a few places, like Rajasthan and India’s northeast, where you can find metre-gauge trains. They are considerably smaller than the big broad-gauge rigs that thunder between India’s metros but the smaller scale lends an intimacy that’s almost cosy. Rajasthan has several options, but many are night trains, so the best way to experience it is the Bikaner Express from Rewari in Haryana (90km from Delhi), which takes you through progressively drier — and more starkly beautiful — country. Camels, sand dunes, an astonishing variety of birdlife and the odd antelope all come for free in your visual package. Gauge conversion should be complete within two years and metre-gauge trains will be limited to memories and museums, so this one’s on the last-chance-to-see list. The Bikaner Express leaves Rewari at 10.50am, arrives Bikaner at 7.15pm; the return train leaves Bikaner at 8.35am and reaches Rewari at 5pm; Rs 681 one-way on 2A.
11. Kot Kaladwas
Rajput landlords traditionally maintained a rawla (small fortified palace) and a few kots (rest houses) in the further reaches of their domains. Kot Kaladwas is one such rest house nestled in the low ranges of the Aravallis, around 10km from Udaipur. The 15-acre grounds of the Kot have fields, temples, and hill ranges. The original kot has been preserved, and like a number of traditional Rajasthani buildings, consists of a series of courtyards and rooftop terraces. Accommodation is in Swiss tents on the grounds of the Kot — each tent has its own covered verandah, the food is traditional Rajasthani, and painters from Udaipur who come across to the Kot will be more than happy to tell you about Rajasthani painting. Also possible: horse- and walking-safaris, and bird-watching trips in the nearby hills. Located 10km from Udaipur. From Rs 1,750 per person (including meals); 0294-2650075, 9414168075
12. Hot air ballooning
One of the most exciting ways of seeing the landscape of Rajasthan is from a free-flying hot air balloon. The balloons fly at altitudes ranging between 2,000ft and 4,000ft, high enough to give you some idea of terrain, and yet low enough for you to discern features on the ground. Imagine flying over Jaisalmer Fort, over the desert, and then landing on the dunes at Sam for tea and snacks two hours later. If the thought of flying suspended from a large balloon for two hours induces queasiness, you can opt for a shorter tethered flight, which takes you to a height of 200ft. It’s also possible to combine flights with camel and jeep safaris — fly for a few hours, then take a camel or a jeep.
Rs 32,000 for three people for a two-hour trip. Tethered flights are cheaper — prices depend on the size of the group. Contact Wanderlust Travels.
Picture a moonlit pleasure garden with flowers strewn on pathways and canopied stone pavilions. And amidst this, luxurious tents accessorised for royalty. This is Moolsagar. Comprising a garden, a Raj Mahal and step-wells, Moolsagar sits oasis-like in the desert. Moolsagar was once the summer retreat for the royal family of Jaisalmer. And like the kings and queens of yore, you can also stay in the Royal Camp that has been set up in the garden. With just the desert surrounding the camp, you are assured of complete privacy. Enjoy a meal in one of the stone pavilions or at the stepwell in the desert. After days spent fort-hopping and riding camel-back, relax in the isolation of the Moolsagar camp while local artists regale you with exuberant folk songs and dances. Located 9km from Jaisalmer
At Castle Bijaipur, it’s all about the views. Going the way of many ancient properties in Rajasthan, this 16th-century castle is now a hotel and offers a deliciously secluded retreat into history. The castle was once used to defend the Mewar empire against the invading Marathas and Mughals, and its imposing exterior is testament to its military past. Set along the Vindhyachal range, the property offers fabulous views of the valley, lake and surrounding village. And despite the castle’s size, it only contains 22 bedrooms, each quite charmingly simple in design and amenities. You won’t find televisions or phones in any — this is a place that encourages peace and quiet. But although the castle’s location and limited number of rooms give the impression of utter remoteness, it’s actually quite close to Chittaurgarh, the former capital of Mewar. A range of activities are available from here, including horse safaris, jeep safaris, trekking and bird-watching. Located 40km from Chittaurgarh.
15. Fort Pokaran
It’s very well-known, of course, as being the site of India’s 1998 nuclear tests. So, very few people choose to holiday here. Perhaps they don’t know that this little town is a quiet gem. It’s got all the requisites for a proper Rajasthan holiday — a fort, an old bazaar, jeep safaris to wildlife environments, bird-watching... Also special in Pokaran is the town’s potters’ collective: about 300 families make terracotta pottery in traditional style, as well as artefacts and home accessories (such as tiles). The 14th-century fort is where you should stay — traditionally known as Balagarh, it’s now a lavish heritage hotel called Fort Pokaran. Located 171km west of Jodhpur.
16. Ajabgarh & Bhangarh
One is a dusty village and the other a ruined city; both are less than 10km from the super-luxury resort Amanbagh, hidden deep in Alwar district. Book yourself into the delicious resort and then go tramping around these beautiful but dusty relics of princely Rajasthan. Ajabgarh, meaning ‘place of mysteries’, is an appropriately ghostly village, dotted with abandoned old houses where you’ll find the odd, stunningly carved window-frame or picturesquely decorated doorstep. Prepare to be startled by the scale and beauty of Bhangarh — the abandoned city’s marketplace areas, temples and gardens are in surprisingly good repair as well. Legend goes that the city was abandoned after it was cursed by a holy man. It’s perfectly serene; you’ll have only stray dogs and ancient temple-keepers for company.
Located 4hrs from Delhi on NH8 (turn off towards Pratapgarh).
17. Kite festival, Jaipur
Kite flying is a much-loved pastime in North India, but the residents of Jaipur have transformed it into an art form. On Makar Sankranti every year, kites of various sizes, shapes and colours take over the skies of Jaipur. Preparations begin days and sometimes even months in advance. Kites in the most innovative and outrageous designs are crafted — recent years have seen kites in the shape of birds and dragons, one over a kilometre wide, and even one resembling a stained glass window. The festival includes a ‘kite fight’, at which competitors try to cut each other’s strings with glass-coated lines. Apart from this there is an extravagant ceremony, with Air Force helicopters releasing hundreds of kites and schoolkids releasing coloured balloons. And, like at any other Rajasthani festival, there is plenty of music and folk dance.
18. Mount Abu walks
The hilly plateau on which Mount Abu is located makes for interesting walks. The plateau is dotted with temples, forts, small lakes, and paths that lead through dense patches of forest. Some of the more popular walks are to Nakki lake, where you can stroll around the perimeter of the lake and admire the strange rock formations; and to the beautiful Jain temples at Dilwara, about an hour away. If you’re up to venturing further, visit Achalgarh, which is11km north of town. There are a few temples and a small village atop this hill, which offers spectacular views of the countryside. The Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary is a 3km walk from Dilwara and is home to bears, fox, wild boar and a number of species of birds.
19. Chand Baoli, Abhaneri
Whatever you do, don’t look down. The ancient stepwell at Abhaneri, known as Chand Baoli, is approximately 65 feet deep, with 3,500 steep steps making up 13 levels — much like an inverted pyramid. The isolated and historic location of Abhaneri village, about 100km from Jaipur, was probably once a great centre of arts, as suggested by its sculpture and architecture. Most of the area’s monuments have fallen victim to the ravages of time, but just across the stepwell lies the 7th-century Harshat Mata temple, its elaborate carvings evocative of the temples at Kajuraho. However, Abhaneri is worth visiting for Chand Baoli alone. The many baolis of Rajasthan once functioned as community centres, and are all impressive architectural structures. Abhaneri’s stepwell is no exception: it’s a huge, awesome construction inset with fine decorative panels and carved pillars. Several balconies at various levels are set around the stepwell, and you can almost hear the long-gone echoes of villagers gathered around the pool of water at the base. At this dramatic site, you can’t help but marvel at our past. From Jaipur, take a bus to Sikandra (10km away) or a bus to Gulhar (5km away).
We have all met Dholpur. Or so we think. Turns out there’s more to this crusty Rajasthani gem than the ubiquitous red sandstone to which it has lent its name. Named for the Tomar chieftain who established it in the 11th century, Dhawalpuri was plundered by Sikandar Lodi in 1501. It then passed on to the Mughals. The oldest Mughal garden in India was established by Babur in nearby Jhor. It’s just a grand ruin now, but other sights abound — the tomb of Bibi Zarina; Mach Kund, a lake littered with temples and a popular annual pilgrimage; Shah Jahan’s pleasure palace, the Khanpur Mahal; the fort that Sher Shah Suri built. Forty kilometres away is the picturesque Talab Shahi lake and palace, once princely hunting lodge, now host to migratory birds. Only 18km away is Van Vihar Wildlife Sanctuary, an erstwhile reserve of the Dholpur royals. But the jewel in the crown has to be the stunning Raj Niwas Palace, recently turned into a heritage hotel. The quirky, highly nostalgic hotel makes Dholpur a perfect weekend getaway. Located 240km/5hr south of Delhi. Rooms at Raj Niwas Palace cost Rs 9,000.