In Rajasthan, or The Land of Kings, you can avoid lousy public transportation and still see the more traditional side of India. Twirling mustachioed men don bright turbans and flowing white robes, while inexhaustible camels lug grueling loads across the endless desert. Among all the filth and dust, women dress in saris shimmering with gold and bursting with brilliant violets, yellows and oranges, while every palace and fort is a masterpiece built for royalty. The Land of Kings fulfills your more classical expectations of India and at the same time throws in many welcome surprises along the way.
In Delhi we booked a three-person, two-week private car tour for US$700. Though our package didn’t include accommodation, our kind driver, Mr Harish, delivered us to hotels we requested and all the top tourist sites. His wealth of knowledge and advice on how to avoid the hassles of India was the perfect introduction we needed as first-timers to the country.
We eased ourselves out of the suffocation of Delhi’s traffic and spent the first night in Mandawa — an unremarkable place visited by tourists only as a stopping point. Though small, the town’s chaos was still a little intimidating as we made our way past motorbikes, bicycles, cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, camels, horses, and, of course, revered cows.
From Mandawa to Bikaner we entered the forlorn desert. Gnarled and uninviting Joshua-like trees extended across the horizon. Cows dug through mounds of trash looking for food, but usually settled for cardboard snacks instead. Colourful buses teemed with people and cargo hogged the road forcing us onto the shoulder. As is the norm in India, trash dominated the landscape.
Outside of Bikaner rests one of the world’s more bizarre attractions, the Deshnok Karni Mata Temple, better known as the Rat Temple. The experience was special, different, filthy, vile, sacred and a whole lot more. The rotting stench coming from inside assaulted us immediately.
“They don’t bite,” Mr Hashi said of the rats. “Look for a white rat. It’s good luck to see one. And if a rat runs over your feet it is also good luck.” With that in mind, we exchanged our shoes for slippers, took a deep breath, plugged our noses and headed through the gates.
Rats completely overran the temple, sharing living quarters with flies and pigeons, who defecated everywhere including onto us from above. The most destitute looking rats sipped milk out of a large bowl while their siblings climbed the walls, scurried through the drainage system or scaled the gates. Some had missing fur, ears or chewed off tails, and there were plenty of dead ones, too.
The odour was physically painful. We wandered the temple’s halls cautiously, aware that anything could be lurking around the next corner, ready to jump on us. We finally emerged with our luck none the better, having neither spotted the white rat nor had any run over our feet.
Million Star Accommodation
Though extremely touristy, a highlight of our Rajasthan tour was the camel safari. 40km south of Jaisalmer in Khuri we were transported back to a bygone era when the Silk Road was the only route that existed. However, my romantic notions of riding a camel across the endless desert like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia were quickly quashed. I felt like an inflexible bobble head having his spine jostled by an unforgiving beast. My groin muscles were screaming the next day.
Sunset on the sand dunes was a magical experience, as was camping out in the desert. Music blared across the sea of sand, dogs howled and the camels’ bells chimed as we slowly lost ourselves to sleep taking in the millions of stars above us.
While it was one of the more unique experiences I’ve had, the night wasn’t the most restful. It was chilly and a couple of camels had attempted to break away during the night, causing a small ruckus nearby. And despite the pillow of sand our friend made, my bed was extremely hard. I was happy to see the sunrise.
What’s in a Name?
In Jaisalmer we began our stretch of nicknamed cities. The Golden City is often described as a giant sand castle, and rising out of the Great Thar Desert is the city’s fort, built in 1156. Its walls mirror that of Jerusalem and it is like a living museum, but sadly, is in danger of disappearing because of the poor drainage within the city’s walls that put huge stress on the sandstone structures. Don’t miss the fort’s Jain Temples — seven interconnected temples carved out of sandstone dating from the 12th to the 16th century.
Next stop was The Blue City — Jodhpur. Though we’d already visited plenty of forts and palaces, Mr Hashi declared that Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur was the “best in all of Rajasthan”. With its sheer walls towering over Jodhpur, Mehrangarh is an impressive and imposing architectural tour de force. It’s easy to see why the fort was never successfully invaded.
Like other Indian forts and palaces, Mehrangarh was constructed with brilliant detail, every arc, gate, carving, column and window built according to geometry and astrology. And in time, maharajas added to the fort during their reigns to commemorate battles won or to reflect their own lavish styles at the time. The cannonball scars marring its beautiful facade are evidence of the fort’s violent history.
From The Blue City we reached The Lake City (Udaipur). Now overly promoted as the setting for parts of the James Bond movie Octopussy, it is considered the ‘Venice of the East.’ Udaipur, like its name suggests, boasts several majestic lakes.
Everything we’d experienced during our first 10 days in India seemed packaged and concentrated into Pushkar, a small town between Udaipur and Jaipur, which seemed much larger than its 14,000 people because of the large number of pilgrims and tourists flocking to its holy waters. The rate of dreadlocks per capita was the highest I’ve ever witnessed. Several of the hippies looked like they’d been in Pushkar for some time, high on God or maybe something else.
However, the India we’d witnessed so far was best summed up with the time we spent during sundown at Gandhi Ghat, one of the lake’s 52 ghats (steps). A drum cluster of white-turbaned men and multi-coloured women in saris took part in a religious ceremony with kids chasing pigeons, an escapade that sent hundreds of the birds fleeing over the lake. Cows occasionally wandered to the cluster, hoping to get in on the prayer. Rats scurried, dogs searched for a bite to eat, and monkeys observed from awnings and building roofs. Ho Chi Minh City can feel overly stimulating, but this was on a whole different level.
Though Jaipur is Rajasthan’s capital, it’s the wasteland that the Indian people warned us about. Burning heaps of rubbish were as ubiquitous there as the potent stench of urine. Child beggars knocked on windows at every intersection while wild rabid dogs gave chase to anyone, looking for their next bite. The dust and smog was as bad as anywhere in the country.
But Jaipur wasn’t without its highlights. The Amber Fort is another palatial wonder and the old city’s pink facades are alluring at sunset. It’s also a great place to catch a Bollywood flick at the upscale Raj Mandir cinema (B-16 Panch Batti Bhagwan Das Rd C Scheme, Jaipur).
Though the Taj Mahal is technically in the state of Uttar Pradesh, it’s a part of every Rajasthan tour. To avoid a letdown, I was anticipating an anticlimactic experience, but that wasn’t the case. At first sight I was infatuated. Gazing at the marble marvel over the pools of reflecting water like we’ve all seen in countless images, it still seemed a far-off, fairytale castle. It was as if the splendid palace had been cropped and pasted into our view.
Everyone jostled for their photo with the Taj and we slowly made our way through the sheep, closer and closer to the palace, constantly snapping pictures, all the while becoming convinced it really did exist and wasn’t some fantastical product of our mind.
I finally crossed the Taj Mahal off my ‘life to do’ list. Rajasthan is a must-see for any trip to India and the perfect introduction to its culture.
Rajasthan, What To Know:
When to go: October to early March
Time needed: Minimum of 10 days
Population: Approximately 60 million
How to get there: There are no direct flights to Delhi and the return flights including tax cost around US$750 to US$850. Air Asia is the cheapest option, costing approx. US$560 for a round-trip via Kuala Lumpur to Delhi.
Exchange rate: US$1 = INR45
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