Rajasthan, the royal state of India is perhaps the most popular travel destination in the subcontinent. Literally meaning the “Land of Kings”, Rajasthan is breathtakingly photogenic. Diagonally divided into the hilly southeast and endless desert tracts of Thar Desert in the northwest, Rajasthan shares border with Pakistan. It is rich in wildlife, natural beauty, food and a turbulent royal past which has bestowed upon it countless extravagant and opulent palaces, forts and private houses called havelis. Add to that, colour burst of one of the most photogenic and exotic cultures in the world, mind blowing shopping, exquisite handicrafts, unique tribal life and amazing festivals, and you have a destination of a lifetime. From shifting sands of Thar to the cool peaks of Mount Abu, Rajasthan encompasses a huge land mass and is so crammed with interesting places and things to do, that it literally takes a lifetime to explore its treasures.
Created post Partition out of a delightful mosaic of 22 feudal princely states, Rajasthan is a sun kissed, colour charged, spectacular fairy tale of kings, queens, codes of honour, warriors and legacy. I have lived in Jaipur (it’s capital city) for nearly a decade, but even after experiencing its cultural richness on a daily basis, Rajasthan had never failed to mesmerize me. So after a lifetime of marital bliss in Rajasthan, experiencing its festivals and cultures through strangely familiar, yet alien eyes, I decided to list down my top 10 places to visit in the “Land of Kings”.
1. Jaipur – Known as the fabled “Pink City”, Jaipur is the state capital of Rajasthan and is the most popular jumping off base. A quirky, enchanting blend of a fast paced modern city pulsating within the ancient walls of a ghost princely state, Jaipur is a quintessential urban India. Filled with holy cows, palaces, turbans, jewel coloured veils, intricate havelis, traffic filled streets, elephants, camels and scamsters the iconic state capital is known for its vibrant urban life, ornate pink facades and palaces, bustling markets and great shopping. It is also a popular wedding destination and is 2nd home to many famous globe trotters like Liz Hurley, Naomi Campbell etc. Hawa Mahal, Amer Fort, City Palace, Nahargarh Fort, Jaigarh Fort, Galta Ji and Jal Mahal are the most popular places to visit in Jaipur, apart from the lacework of tiny lanes of Johri Bazaar and day trip to the stunning Abhaneri Baoli or stepwell.
2. Ajmer – A quirky highly revered pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Muslims, Pushkar means lotus and is famous for a lake, a Brahma temple, various ghats around the lake and the very holy Ajmer Sharif shrine. It is a comfortable quick getaway from Jaipur and is popular for its laidback charm, legalized sale of cannabis, the mega Pushkar Fair (large cattle and camel market held sometime between Oct-Nov) and lovely little resorts.
3. Siriska, Keoladeo and Ranthambore – Apart from the Bengal Tiger, Siriska Tiger Reserve is rich in leopard, jungle cat, caracal, striped hyena, golden jackal, various species of deer, birds and reptiles. A dry scrubland, this national park is a part of Aravalli Range and is accessible from Alwar (famous for milk cake). While Siriska is facing a major decline in wildlife population due to relentless marble mining, Ranthambore National Park on the other hand bears the pride of being one of the best places for tiger spotting in India. Accessible from Sawai Madhopur, Ranthambore is home to tigers, leopards, neelgais, wild boars, sloth bears, birds, reptiles and one of the largest banyan trees in India. A former duck hunting reserve of the maharajas, Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur falls in UNESCO World Heritage List. A popular wintering area for a large number of migratory aquatic birds from Siberia, China, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan nearly 364 species of avifauna frequent Keoladeo including the rare Siberian Crane. Accessible from Jaipur, Keoladeo National Park is a popular weekend getaway. The best time to visit these parks are during winter and all 3 of them are easily accessible by public transport, hence are easy DIY trips. Due to their popularity, prior booking of accommodations at Ranthambore and Siriska is suggested. These can be done through their official websites.
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4. Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh – The capital of the former princely state of Mewar, Udaipur is what romantic dreams are made of. Known as the city of lakes, Udaipur is popular for being featured in many Hollywood and Indian movies (James Bond flick Octopussy for example), some of the finest hotels in the world. While the Oberoi Udaivilas is hands down the four times winner of the best resort in Asia title, it is the dream like floating white marble Taj Lake Palace which is the penultimate name in luxurious experiences. Framed by the jagged Aravalli Range and home to the beautiful Pichola and Fateh Sagar lakes, Udaipur is a delightful blend of lush hills, mirror like pools and exquisite palaces. The splendid City Palace is perhaps the most beautiful palatial structure in Rajasthan and apart from it, Udaipur has a host of exquisite temples, havelis, chatris or cenotaphs and walks. There are a lot of exciting activities to do in Udaipur, the most popular being the horse riding tours offered by Princess Trails and Krishna Ranch, camel rides, puppet and cultural shows. Around Udaipur, Ranakpur (famous for magnificent Jain temple), Haldighati, Delwara, Nathdwara (famous for gold coloured pichwai paintings) and Bhilwara (for beautiful temple and tribal culture) make perfect day trips.
Famous for a massive ancient citadel and wildlife sanctuary, Kumbhalgarh makes an excellent day trip from Udaipur. The bulbous Kumbhalgarh Fort was built by the legendary Rana Kumbha in 1443 A.D and has a domed palace along with 36 kilometers of defense walls. Situated on the banks of Banas River, it took Rana Kumbha 15 years to complete the citadel and has host of interesting myths surrounding it. The Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary surrounds the fort and is famous for large population of wolves. It also has leopards, antelopes, chinkaras, neelgais along with an impressive variety of birds and reptiles. Known for boutique resorts and peaceful lush surroundings, Kumbhalgarh is most beautiful during the monsoon, when everything is green and glistening wet. The Kumbhalgarh Fort holds a very interesting festival (January/February) every year which showcases finest talents in Indian folk and classical dances.
5. Jodhpur – Officially known as the “Blue City”, Jodhpur’s beauty is legendary. The state capital of the erstwhile princely state of Marwar, Jodhpur is famous for Mehrangarh Fort, palaces, exquisite marble cenotaph called Jaswant Thada, colourful markets and fiery cuisine. The huge fort looms over the city, part of which called Brahmapuri is painted in different shades of rich blue. Shopping is a popular activity in Jodhpur and mojris (embroidered slippers), spices and fabric (especially traditional Bandhej) are must buys items of Blue City. The nearby Bishnoi villages and countryside make excellent day excursions and the highways around Jodhpur are a riot of colours and textures.
6. Bikaner – Bikaner is perhaps the most atmospheric city of Rajasthan and is definitely worth a stopover. Known for the impressive Junagarh Fort, Lalgarh and Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner is most famous for its food markets. The Bhujiya Bazaar and Chai Patti tops every food lovers list and Indians through length and breadth of the country swear by the city’s Bikaneri Bhujiya (crispies). The nearby Karnimata Temple, popularly known as the famous Rat Temple of India makes an interesting day trip and so does the quirky camel breeding farm.
7. Chittorgarh – The capital city of the Sisodia clan, Chittorgarh perhaps has the bloodiest and intriguing royal history in Rajasthan. A magnificent royal city, the massive Chittorgarh Fort is undoubtedly its star attraction and its link with the self immolation with the legendary queen Rani Padmini is absolutely numbing. In fact Chittorgarh till today celebrates the biggest Rajput (warriors of Rajasthan) festival called Jauharmela (Feb-Mar) which upholds the gruesome tradition of self immolation. Jauhar was done by Rajput ladies who preferred death over surrendering themselves to the mercy of their captors. Chittorgarh is still a Rajput stronghold city and is steeped in traditions. It also makes an exciting shopping destinations and has markets dedicated to fabric, metalwork, handmade toys and famous Thewa jewelry. A trip to the nearby Bassi Wildlife Sanctuary makes an excellent day trip from Chittorgarh.
8. Jaisalmer – The Golden City of Jaisalmer is located in the remote westernmost corner of Rajasthan and is a fairy tale desert town. Desert, sand dunes, elaborate havelis, dazzling colours of turbans and veils and the living Golden Fort of Jaisalmer make this place truly magical. Accessible by train from Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi, the railway journey through the arid desert is one of the breathtaking ones in whole of India. Desert safaris and camps, abandoned village tours, gypsy encampment visits and temple tours, Jaisalmer offers a host of fun activities for all ages, budgets and styles. This old Silk Route city is famous for havelis, Gadisar Lake and stunning shopping along with the awesome Jaisalmer Desert Festival (February) which includes camel polo, longest mustache competitions etc and the super funky, upbeat music festival called Ragasthan (February).
9. Bundi -Protected by the jagged Vindhya Range, Bundi is a well preserved charming walled town. Easily accessible from Jaipur, Agra and Kota, Bundi is famous for a lost world feel, blue houses, lovely stepwells or baolis, crumbling havelis and colourful markets. It is not crowded and noisy like the other popular cities of Rajasthan and provides a quiet, peaceful break. It is famous for the beautiful Bundi school of painting and its Taragarh Fort and Bundi Palace house the best examples of this style. In November Bundi Festival livens up the quiet town with cultural programs, turban tying competition etc and the monsoon festival of Kajli Teej (August-September) is best celebrated here. It is surrounded by government approved poppy fields which bloom from January-March and draws photographers and nature lovers in hordes.
10. Shekhawati Region – Last but not the least is the semi arid Shekhawati region of Rajasthan which is perhaps its best kept secret. Once an important trading region, Shekhawati merchants and landowning thakurs had pots of money which they lavished on their large, intricate and ostentatious havelis. These havelis along with exquisite cenotaphs, stepwells and palaces dot the entire dusty region and create a well marked Shekhawati haveli trail. Most famous for their colourful and elaborate murals, Shekhawati region of Rajasthan is like an open air museum. The Shekhawati region consists of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur and although has scores of hidden jewel of havelis, Khetri Mahal, Morarka Haveli, Bhagton ki Choti Haveli and Dr Ramnath A. Poddar Haveli are the most famous ones.
Unparalleled in architectural beauty, colourful culture and shopping Rajasthan epitomizes exotic India in truest sense. Although it is not possible to explore the region in weeks or even a month, the most beautiful places in Rajasthan can be easily connected in a loop. Mixing train journeys with road trips and a few taxi drives will help going deeper into the region’s obscure and intrepid jewels and experience its much tainted hospitality in its true innocent form. Rajasthan has some very interesting accommodation options and they range from palaces and fort heritage hotels to stunning traditional private havelis/homes to rural farmstays, sleeping under the stars in the desert and forest camps. Hiring a private car and driver is perhaps the most flexible way to travel and to experience the princely state in royal style, splurge on the Palace on Wheels train. The oppulent, restored heritage train comes with luxurious private saloons, liveried staff and service fit for a king. A beautiful explosion of colours, sounds, smells and taste, Rajasthan is a complete sensual delight.
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Some photos have been taken from internet.
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