TRIP PLANNER Fairytale palaces. Tiger-dense forests. Traditional villages. There’s a reason why Rajasthan is popular, but it’s easy – and rewarding – to get off the beaten track. Here’s how to do it…
From tiger-filled forests and fairytale palaces to ancient Silk Road stops, our comprehensive Trip Planner dives into the northern Indian state of Rajasthan
The sun was low in the sky when the Manganiyar arrived. I could hear the tinkling of the women’s ankle jewellery and smell the smoke trailing from the men’s bidi cigarettes as they climbed up to the roof terrace outside the window of my Rajasthan hotel room. By the time I’d joined them on the roof, nursing a cup of tea laced with cardamom, the family were in full flow, instrumentalists cross-legged in the front row playing harmonium, tabla and flute; behind them, wives and sisters sat with veils pulled low over their faces, underscoring the rhythm on camel-bone castanets and finger bells. Topped by a scarlet turban, the lead singer raised his palms skywards now and again, or touched the tips of his fingers with his thumbs to emphasise the cycle of beats.
The song rose in cadences as the colours on the carved sandstone balconies next to us grew more intense. Beyond the musicians stretched an ocean of darkening desert, inky blue and ochre. The cooking fires of distant camel camps shone like trawler lights in the gloom.
Moments like this are commonplace in Rajasthan. With its sublime scenery, ubiquitous traditional dress and exuberant architecture, it’s no surprise this north-western state – boasting a hefty chunk of India’s Pakistan border – attracts the lion’s share of first-time visitors to India. But the area is also big enough to ensure that you don’t have to venture all that far off the beaten track to discover bucolic corners where the 21st century has made little discernible impact. Whether fairytale palaces, hidden tigers or Manganiyar music are what you’re hoping to experience in Rajasthan, the following itineraries will offer plenty of pointers.
Top tip Enjoy an early morning balloon over the Amber Fort. Run to UK CAA safety standards, the flights end deep in the nearby countryside, where you can visit local villages. For more, see skywaltz.com
Best for: Pilgrimage sites, desert forts, walled cities, markets
ROUTE: Jaipur • Pushkar • Ajmer • Nagaur • Jaisalmer • Jodhpur • Udaipur WHY GO? Tick off the classics in one focussed fortnight – or longer – of varied travel. Perfect for first-timers to the state. WHEN TO GO: Oct–mar, when the skies are blue, nights (often very) cool and daytime temperatures pleasant.
No one goes on holiday to Rajasthan for just a week – unless they live in Delhi. To tick off the state’s must-see sights, you’ll need at least two (or ideally, three) weeks. Slotting together seamlessly on the end of a ‘Golden Triangle’ tour through Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), this itinerary traces a loop around the highlights, passing a handful of lesser-known sights along the way. Extend it with any of the shorter routes featured later in this article.
Starting point is the Rajasthani capital, Japiur – the ‘Pink City’. The name derives from the regulation salmon colour of its historic walled core, whose bazaars (great for gemstones and block-printed textiles), havelis (courtyard mansions) and royal palaces offer endless scope for exploration. Visit Amber Fort, on the northern outskirts, first thing in the morning, when the ochre walls and richly decorated apartments look at their most resplendent.
Next up is Pushkar, where a belt of whitewashed Hindu temples enfold the shores of Pushkar Lake, on the fringes of the Thar Desert. Join pilgrims for a pre-dawn puja prayer ritual on the ghats (the sacred steps leading to the water), then climb to the hilltop shrines overlooking the town for views across Nag Pahar mountain. Lots of people skip nearby Ajmer, but that would be a mistake: the Dargah (Sufi tomb) at the city’s heart is the most sacred site in Islamic India and a particularly atmospheric spot on Thursdays, when qawwali music is performed live. From Pushkar, continue north-west to Nagaur – another often-bypassed jewel and the site of one of India’s most beautiful fortress-palaces as well as a scattering of ancient Sufi shrines. Then press on to Jaisalmer, the honey-hued citadel in the far west of the state, near the Indo-pak border, where you can savour the distinctive atmosphere of the desert through camel treks and rooftop music recitals.
A long day’s journey takes you south-east from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City’ famed for its cobalt old town ( pictured left) and fort, Mehrangarh. Be sure to visit the Bishnoi minority villages in this area, where local people worship a species of antelope known as the ‘black buck’, before continuing south to the Aravalli Mountains. There, you might wish to pause for a night at Kumbalgarh Fort, so as to tackle a dawn trek around India’s most extensive set of medieval ramparts – a hike into a forgotten world of ruined shrines and astonishing vistas across the plains.
Your final destination on this trip is Udaipur, Rajasthan’s serene lake city. Boat cruises, palace tours, souvenir shopping and sessions exploring the rooftops as the sun sets over Lake Pichola bring the trip to a suitably chimeric conclusion.
Top tip Staged jointly by Jodhpur and Nagaur forts every February, the World Sacred Spirit Festival (worldsacredspiritfestival.org) gathers together top Sufi musicans to perform in superbly evocative settings.