The treasure trove of sights in India can be as surprising and numerous as the bowel movements it induces. One of the most spectacular places to find a wide variety of both is in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Literally translated as “the Land of Kings,” Rajasthan has more beauty, power, and randomness than any other Indian state. The cities, forts, and palaces are just as colorful as a cloth line with drying saris, and the people are as spicy and full of kick as the dishes, and traveling through Rajasthan means a trip straight through an Indian rainbow.
My rainbow began with Rajasthan’s Golden City of Jaisalmer. Located at the end of the Thar Desert along the border with Pakistan, Jaisalmer is an oasis desert community that lives up to its nickname. The roads are dry and dusty, and each building is made of intricately carved sandstone with an architectural style that reminds one of an Arabian night. The spectacular golden fort of Jaisalmer surrounds Trikuta hill, its strong walls and lookout points covering the hill’s entire base like the crown of a king. Unfortunately, years of use have made staying and living in the fort an unsustainable practice, with water and electricity hard to maintain, and the fort has been sinking over the past several years. Due to this, visitors are encouraged to travel ethically and stay at the base of the fort instead of within. The many hotels and guesthouses surrounding the base are comfy and clean and offer spectacular views. They are also considerably quieter than the narrow roads within the fort, where honking motorists and cattle make it a difficult place for a peaceful stroll. But once inside don’t miss the Jain temples located within the walls, wedged in between the various restaurants and souvenir stalls. A slice of lemon cake from the German bakery on the way out is highly recommended.
Also, don’t leave Jaisalmer without a trip to the Jaisalmer Lake, across the street from the base of the fort. Sure, the lake is green and grimy and full of catfish, but the sandstone temple ruins surrounding the lake’s banks and jutting out of the middle make it a wonderful place for a boat ride. Paddle boats are available for rent, or for the extremely lazy, a boatman can be hired. Near the entrance to the lake is the best photo spot of the fort. Don’t worry about missing it, plenty of signs with point you there.
Another popular (and well worth it) Jaisalmer experience is the camel treks into the Thar Desert. Any hotel or travel agent will be able to book a trek for you, ranging from 1 night to 10 day journeys to surrounding cities. For the overeager, be aware that camels are not a comfortable mode of transportation, and sleeping under the stars, while romantic, can be very cold. Most travelers opt for two day, one night excursions, myself included, and it was just enough. Don’t panic if all you see are bushes and dust for a while, the dunes are usually a day or two trek away, unless you opt to have a jeep drive you out to a further starting point (which I recommend, as the dunes are beautiful at sunset.) Guides with unheard of camel capabilities will accompany you and do the cooking, and, if you are lucky, tell jokes and sing songs around a homemade camp fire.
After Jaisalmer, the blue city of Jodhpur is well worth a visit on your way to Udaipur or Jaipur. Don’t panic when you get off the bus or train, you are not in the wrong place. Only the Old City of Jodhpur is actually blue. The color and mystical feel of the city is better appreciated from above. From below, the narrow winding cobblestone street are congested and chaotic, with motorists, pedestrians, rickshaws, street vendors, and cows all going different directions at once on a road that is not wide enough for a car. Open sewers flow freely on both sides of the street. After a ten minute walk you will see how they are used. Despite the noise and smell, I highly suggest staying in the crumbling structures of the Old City. The buildings are tall and narrow and the majority of guesthouses have rooftop restaurants or rooms with views of the fort. From the old city you can walk to the fort entrance, which differs from the Jaisalmer fort as it is not a city inside, but a castle. The fort is also protected by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and is therefore well preserved and the entrance fee comes with a handy audio guide that will put others to shame. Also take advantage of the viewpoints; the rolling blue homes scrambling up the hillside to the dark brown fort give Jodhpur a fairy- tale type feel. The Jaswant Thada Memorial, with marble so fine it’s translucent, is also worth a visit.
Next stop on the rainbow would be Udaipur, unofficially dubbed (by myself) the white city. Udaipur surrounds Lake Pichola, with tall white and beige buildings, pretty white arched bridges, and waterfront temples and stairways. It is the cleanest and quaintest city in Rajasthan, with actual garbage collectors and street cleaners. There are also plenty of German bakeries, Italian restaurants, and real coffee, if you need a break from Indian food. Be aware, because of this Udaipur is also pricier than other surrounding cities, but still worth a visit. From the city palace on the waterfront edge, you can take boats out to the Lake Palace and enjoy the pretty garden, expensive drinks, and views of the city and lake. The most striking building in Udaipur is the Lake Palace Hotel (not to be confused with the Lake Palace.) The Lake Palace Hotel takes up the entire Jag Niwas Island where it is located in the middle of Lake Pichola. Only guests are allowed on the actual island, but the boat ride will give you plenty of photo opts. The remaining parts of Lake Pichola are shadowed by rolling green hills, whose tips are occasionally crowned with a small palace. Leave some time to explore the Jain temples of Ranakpur, the best in Rajathan, which are a few hours away. The milky white, intricately carved pillars and walls change from a golden to a pale blue with the setting and rising of the sun. Consider hiring a taxi, as public buses do not come often, and it’s a long, crowded, and scary drive through the narrow, windy hill roads.
Last, but not least, is Rajasthan’s busy and bustling capital city of Jaipur. It is significantly larger than any of the other cities in Rajathan, so determine where you would like to stay ahead of time. The old city is where the main attractions are, and it is also the area that is pink! The small Tiger Fort (officially called Nahargarh Fort) overlooks the Old City, but it is the Amer Fort, a few kilometers out of town, that is really impressive. (Although, if you are pinching pennies, you can skip out on the entrance fee and stay in the courtyard, there is not much inside). There is a lake on the way to the fort, with another lake palace whose first floor is half way below the water! Other worthwhile sights are the large sundials and huge masonry instruments used to track the stars and constellations of Jantar Mantar (the sundial actually gives the correct time!), the Hawa Mahal, the city’s pink palace, and the Gaitore Memorial is a pretty off-the-beaten-path destination. You can shop your heart out in Old City’s different bazaars, one for everything you could imagine: Marble Bazaar, Bangle Bazaar, Textile, Stonework, Saris, and Tea. Afterwards, sing along to the most recent and popular Bollywood film playing at the historic Raj Mandir Cinema Hall.
Jaipur is a good place to have your last Rajasthan stop, as it is a five hour bus ride from both Delhi and Agra and a good jump off point to other parts of the country. Be aware, trains are often a more comfortable and faster means of transportation, but they book up incredibly fast, so reserve your seats far in advance. Otherwise, there are always plenty of deluxe buses, and of course, taxis. Jaipur also has an active airport with flights to Varanasi, Delhi, and South India. Also, keep in mind the persistence of touts, who can be particularly aggressive, often trying to drag you to shops and hotels because they receive a commission if you buy anything. It’s a good idea to negotiate prices before hand, or use the prepaid stand at the bus station near the Old City so you are not overcharged. Also be careful of booking your trip during the summer months, as Rajasthan has no coast and can reach over 110 degrees during their summer months of March through June. Depending on how fast you are willing to travel, a trip through the Rajasthan Rainbow can be done in two to three weeks comfortably, and well worth it. The incredible majesty of the Land of Kings is an Indian must-see, and I hope that everyone in their lifetime gets the chance to experience the rainbow.