A Royal Welcome

Chittorgarh

Rajasthan… land of kings… is just about the most overused phrase to describe the state, but I couldn’t start this piece without it. The thing about Rajasthan is that there’s so much royal grandeur on display that you generally overlook everything else, and the loss is yours. At the same time, it is impossible to take in the whole of Rajasthan on a single trip, so it is up to you to choose between royal grandeur and everything else. And then go back for more.

The single biggest advantage of a holiday in Rajasthan is its tourist friendliness, not surprising for a state that earns huge revenues from tourism, but the Rajasthanis (not to be confused with Rajputs) are genuinely happy to welcome you to their state, and their homes too, as we found out.

Our trip was slightly unconventional in that, since Rajasthan has an excellent road network, we chose that unusual (and very expensive) mode of travel: a rented car that was ours for ten days. This was partly because we had our year-old son with us, and partly because we were able to hire a car at a decent discount from Delhi thanks to friends. But I would not recommend this for everyone, because apart from everything else, the tourist transport system in Rajasthan is quite adequate.

The conventional starting point of a holiday in Rajasthan has always been Jaipur (mainly because it has the state’s most important airport and railhead), which is where we began, too. Since any guidebook will tell you what to see in Jaipur (don’t miss Amer fort on the way from Delhi), I will simply tell you that Jaipur is the best place to shop for all those Rajasthani artifacts because of the sheer variety and price ranges. The other good thing about Jaipur is that it can be your base for road trips to Ranthambhor and Sariska tiger reserves (about four and two hours away, respectively), and the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur (about four hours again).

Jaipur is also teeming with quality hotels (which was a problem for us because we had to choose relatively modest accommodation to make up for the car!) but the same does not hold true for Ajmer, our next stop. While the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) bungalow is a good option (as was the case in most of the destinations we visited), it is quite often full. However, Ajmer is more famous for its other specialties, such as the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the Brahma temple at nearby Pushkar, which also hosts the renowned annual camel fair, and the museum, which used to be Emperor Akbar’s residence.

From Ajmer, we travelled to Chittorgarh, which for me was the highpoint of our trip. The place is just steeped in so many ancient memories – of Meerabai, Rani Padmini and her jauhar, Pannabai and her incredible sacrifice (the government circuit house here is named after her), the goddess Chittoreswari – that it was tough tearing ourselves away from the town.

Before we left, we made sure we visited Nathdwara and Haldighati, one famous for its temple, the other for being the Waterloo of Rana Pratap. The usual practice is to go on to Mount Abu from Udaipur, but we gave it a miss owing to time constraints. And it really is a miss, because the sheer beauty of the temples defies belief.

Instead, we went on to Udaipur, the city of lakes, one of which was the setting for the Bond film Octopussy, which any guide will proudly tell you. The lakes here are indeed astonishing, and even more astonishing is the Lake Palace hotel (where we didn’t stay). Sadly, we remember Udaipur more as the place where my son fell ill, and where we were welcomed into the home of a doctor who lived next door to our hotel, who treated my son and refused to charge a penny for it.

Next stop: Jodhpur, which is the busiest city in Rajasthan after Jaipur, and where we didn’t spend too much time, but only visited the fort. Our target was Jaisalmer, which, we were told, was best approached by the overnight train from Jodhpur, because if we went by road, we would have to travel through miles of scrub desert with scant human habitation, which was not a very wise thing to do for several reasons.

So the train it was, and a numbingly cold journey through a January desert night. Indeed, it was so cold that when we got off the train at Jaisalmer next morning, we had trouble gripping the handle of the Jeep in which we travelled to the circuit house. As the sun rose higher, the day warmed up, and we set off for Sam, 45 km away, very near the border with Pakistan. Sam is a sort of picnic spot amid endless sand dunes (a large part of the Thar desert is scrubland, and Sam is one of the few places where you can see the more conventional and camera-friendly dunes), where you can also take a camel ride. We did, on a dyspeptic specimen which broke wind constantly and moved with utmost reluctance, so we got off before time!

Back to Jodhpur by train, from where we drove back to Jaipur for an overnight stay, and then back to Delhi. Before I leave you for good, though, I have to agree with your accusation that I haven’t described all the fortresses and temples and palaces of Rajasthan. But that would take up a book, so I hope you’ve got the drift. As for the book, you’ll know when it comes!

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