INDIA! The mere mention of the name conjures up conflicting opinions and experiences; noisy, dirty, over crowded, traffic chaos and more. While opinion is divided, India, like most emerging economies has problems that require attention, but to the discerning traveller it is mystical, magical, culturally invigorating and most of all a blaze of colour!
“These days you can travel between most of the cities by air but I strongly suggest if you want to experience the true colours and flavours of India, you buckle up and take the bus!”
This fascinating country has always held my interest but no area more so than the desert state of Rajasthan and, more particularly, the four fabulous and colourful (there’s that word again!) cities.
Rajasthan is primarily desert but within the desert are some of the world’s greatest and most distinctive cities – built by the ruling Rajput Kings of their time and largely still controlled by their descendents even today.
Firstly, let me hones, travel in India is tiring at any time and no more so that in the far outer reaches of Rajasthan. These days you can travel between most of the cities by air but I strongly suggest if you want to experience the true colours and flavours of India, you buckle up and take the bus! They are long days and very bumpy roads at times but you will come back exhilarated and fascinated by the moving canvas of life you will see along the highways and back roads of India.
The desert scenery is beautiful in a stark and at times harsh way but it was these four major cities of Rajasthan I was keen to visit. Each is blessed with a unique feature or element of cultural significance to make a visit essential.
A ‘stepping off’ city on my tour of Rajasthan was Jaipur, the largest and most progressive in the state; a city growing quickly with many development projects underway and it is fair to say the vision of the city’s planners is well above the mark of other Indian cities.
Jaipur is known as the Pink City and is so named because of the distinctly coloured buildings throughout the central district. They were originally painted so as to imitate the red stone architecture synonymous with the Mughal cities of ancient times. For a humorous, but no less accurate interpretation of life in Jaipur, maybe view the recent film, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as a prelude to visiting the area.
Jaipur forms part of the iconic Golden Triangle – the other cities being Delhi and Agra (Taj Mahal) and features some outstanding examples of Rajput and Mughal architecture. Principal among these are the Amber Fort and the sprawling City Palace. The Amber Fort, named after the goddess Amba (and not its colouring) is a massive fort/palace complex built in a hybrid Hindu/ Muslim style. Within the fort is the Sheesh Mahal, an area adorned with thousands of mirror tiles on the walls and ceilings.
The elephant ride up the winding track to the entry courtyard of Amber Fort has become very ‘touristy’ these days but still should be done, and while there try and imagine the pomp and ceremony in older times as the rulers entered the fort in such a fashion.
A further 1km walk uphill from Amber Fort is the less visited Jaigarh Fort which I strongly suggest you include in any itinerary. Walk amongst the scenic gardens and take in the spectacular views over Amber Fort and the surrounding hills. It’s truly breathtaking.
My next city was Jodhpur, commonly known as the Blue City and you need do no more than visit the stunning Mehranghar Fort and look over this sprawling city to understand why. Much of the city’s dwellings are painted in a colourful blue which when mixed with the white of other buildings creates a beautiful spectacle.
The fort of course is an experience all of its own and one of the best examples of wealth and opulence enjoyed by the rulers over the years. A massive complex, Mehranghar Fort houses the Maharajah’s Palace (still occupied), several temples and because of its position atop a hill overlooking the city, provides spectacular views from every angle.
Jodhpur is a city full of attractions – forts, palaces, temples, havelis (homes), culture and tradition. You can walk down from the fort into the heart of the city, through its bustling markets scented with spices in the air. For something truly memorable I’d suggest you try (and it’s not easy) to book a dinner in the magnificent Umaid Bhawan Palace, the permanent residence of the current Maharaja of Jodhpur and home to one of the most stunning five-star hotels and restaurants in India.
Jodhpur (and yes, the riding breeches were named after this Indian city) sits on the edge of the Thar Desert and is also known as the Gateway to Thar, which is where we head next.
Jaiselmer is a destination for the truly adventurous, located on the westernmost frontier of India and close to the Pakistan border. It’s a very long bus ride to The Golden City and not on most tour group itineraries, but well worth the time taken to get there. Located in the vastness of the aforementioned Thar Desert, this city is very old and life goes on within the city’s golden walls and people go about their daily duties much as they did in earlier days. Jaisalmer is far less commercialised than other parts of India and well worth the time and effort to get there.
Dominated by Sonar Qila (Golden Fort), the area is isolated but no less fascinating because of that. Take in a sunset with the sun shedding shades of golden hues across the walls for a wonderful and almost fairy tale like experience. A camel ride over the dunes of the Thar Desert should be on your ‘to do’ list.
And finally, there is Udaipur or The Lake City. Known also as the City of Palaces this is one of my favourite places to visit and to stay – you must experience the Lake Palace Hotel located on Lake Pichola, a true floating palace like hotel with stunning evening views across the lake to the sprawling palace and city of Udaipur.
Known as the ‘Venice of the East’ Udaipur is a magical place and will satisfy anyone’s travel palate. The splendid City Palace, which looms over Lake Pichola is one of the most beautiful palatial structures in Rajasthan, if not all of India. It is in fact not one structure but a complex of small and big palaces, museums and gardens constructed over centuries with a blend of cultures (Rajasthani, Mughal, Medieval, European and even Chinese). City Palace is indeed an eye-catching and awesome spectacle, particularly from the Lake at sunset. Take a cruise and sit back and enjoy the sight.
Rajasthan is truly something special and time must be spent there to truly appreciate its worth as a tourist destination. Each of these cities could justify a story piece of their own and I have covered only a very small part of what you must do and see to truly say you have seen Rajasthan.
India is alive, it’s colourful and a lasting experience….why not go see it!
“Rajasthan is primarily desert but within the desert are some of the world’s greatest and most distinctive cities…”
Greg Clayton has for 40+ years managed retail travel outlets, established a wholesale tour operation in Hawaii, escorted tours to exotic locations, writes travel journalism and even co-hosts his own Cruise & Travel Show on the Gold Coast.