In­dia

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…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS DAVID ABRAM

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.

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