I chose my Indian baptism to happen in Rajasthan, a state in northern India very well known as the land of the Maharajas. Traveling in Rajasthan DIY was really very simple. There are several ways and means with which to move, as there is a wide choice of hotels, guesthouses, and hostels for all price ranges and above I never felt alone because wherever we arrive we meet people who were extremely helpful and give me a hand.
It is a magical place made by its charisma that gives it unique features in the world. Tradition and history come together to the point that, at times, one has the impression of having made a space-time travel. This place has strong impregnable smells, the majestic Havelis, and rich palaces that have made it a destination for many travelers.
Precisely for this reason, we must resign ourselves to the fact that, whatever time you choose to visit, you will always find many other tourists from all over the world. Even in this state, there are still the lesser known places or are there still ways to establish contact with the local population and try to understand more deeply the essence.
After arrival in the morning, in Delhi, we stroll through the shopping areas of Janpath and Connaught Place for the whole day. We return to our hotel, have dinner and bid adieu to the night.
We drive to Nawalgarh, in the Shekhawati region, which is 270 km from Delhi and takes 7 hours. This technical step enables us to visit Bikaner and Jaisalmer without too much road travel in one day that turned out to be actually a worthwhile stop regardless because here we could admire the beautiful Havelis and finely painted houses that belonged to wealthy merchants in the area.
The name comes from Shekhawati Rao Shekha, who in the fifteenth century conquered some areas of this region in the north of Rajasthan, that came under the jurisdiction of Jaipur in 1738 and later the British. The area is particularly renowned for the richness of the paintings presenting both inside and outside the mansion belonging to the rich Marwaris, who are skilled traders of fabrics, spices, and opium.
With mythological scenes, family portraits, anecdotes related to history are the recurrent motifs of these frescoes in the eighteenth and early twentieth century. The development of railways was a hard blow for merchants and caravans for Marwari, who have long moved to the port cities of Calcutta and Bombay, leaving their precious homes. After arrival at the hotel, we visit the town and the Havelis, rich in pictorial evidence.
NAWALGARH - DUNDLOD - MANDAWA - ALSISAR
We begin the morning with an excursion to the village of Dundlod, the jewel in the heart of the Shekhawati, founded in 1750 and is characterized by strong and beautifully decorated Havelis. Some of its paintings date back to over 200 years ago. In the afternoon we depart to Alsisar and on the route, we visit the town of Mandawa, built in the mid-eighteenth century at the threshold of the Thar Desert.
Mandawa is a small town that developed along a single dusty main road, but hidden treasures abound in every corner, as stores of old trinkets and fine fabrics and already mentioned Havelis. In its heyday, Mandawa was along the Silk Road and that's why the houses are still silent witnesses of a glorious past.
KARNI MATA TEMPLE
On the way to Bikaner, we made a stop in Deshnoke, where there is a very unique temple dedicated to the worship of the mice! It is called the Karni Mata Temple and is a place of deep faith and devotion. A half hour's drive from Bikaner here is one of the oddities or rather one of the follies that can be found in India. A temple entirely inhabited by mice in which one can enter only barefoot. And that's why compared to other places of Rajasthan, this is a bit less frequented by the masses!
The mice of the temple are sacred and protected and the devotees constantly share food like milk, cereal, and coconut with thousands of rats. All in the hope of being blessed with good fortune with the sighting of a white mouse, which is a very rare occurrence among the thousands of gray mice. Needless to say, I was not so lucky even after the intervention of a friendly guy who accompanied me exactly at the point where he has seen a few minutes earlier. Luck does not kiss anyone and does not accept tips!
Bikaner is located in a desert area and boasts some notable attractions such as Junagarh, an imposing fort built in the late 1500s and sumptuous surroundings once belonged to the Maharaja of the area. Here, as in Mandawa, they lie numerous Havelis in the old city streets surrounded by walls.
TEA IN THE DESERT THAR
We just had enough time for a brief stop in Ramdevra to visit the temple of Baba Ramdevji, reached by many devotees to worship the saint and pay homage to him, and I arrived in Jaisalmer, also called the Golden City, where the heat of the desert began to be felt strongly. Even from a distance, Jaisalmer takes on the appearance of an apparition, a kind of oasis in the desert. To welcome the traveler is the decadent charm of 99 bastions and a city densely populated.
Jaisalmer Fort is one that so far I have called a sand castle in the desert and is the raised complex which is accessed through a succession of four-door that climbs on a road zigzagging until you reach a large courtyard from which unfold convoluted alleys. It is on this level that we find a large number of private homes interspersed with guest house, temples, shops, and restaurants.
It stands on a hill and is surrounded by massive ramparts that look like, thanks to their yellow color, a sandcastle.
There are many treasures to visit inside the citadel, for example, the Jain temples with extraordinary carved reliefs and pierced with magnificent Havelis and portals, but watch out for the bats! There are 7 Jain temples and are made of yellow sandstone finely decorated inside but not outside. Getting inside these temples is to take a journey in between pillars carved with mastery, statues, sculptures and sometimes you can even run into some religious celebrations.
Fort Palace is the palace spread over the Hawa Pol, the last portal of access to the fortified city, and was the residence of the Maharajas. What's striking is not so much the building itself, as the Sati on the exterior walls of the building, or the red paint handprints of widows of the Maharajas, who immolated on the funeral pyre of their husband as required by tradition. About six kilometers from the center of Jaisalmer is the site Bada Bagh, where were cremated and then buried the Maharaja.
About an hour's drive from Jaisalmer lies the Thar desert that looks like a vast expanse of sand dunes stretching to the border with Pakistan. Here, more than the classic camel ride that is offered by many guides at absolutely bargain prices, I recommend taking a little relaxation savoring the hot tea in one of the stalls on the roadside. Besides the magnificent landscape, we stand to watch the local men who engage in what for them is a real ritual!
At Khuri, about fifty kilometers from Jaisalmer we have the experience of the desert by camel. Here the houses are rudimentary and the main means of livelihood is tourism. Unlike what you might imagine, the Great Indian Desert is not completely made of sand. After the camel safari passed the sunset time, and we have a dinner of vegetarian food and experience typical dances sitting around a fire. We spend the night here.
FARMERS OF OPIUM
After a brief stop in Osiyan to visit the Hindu temple of Mata Sachiya and Mahavira Jain shrine I arrived in Jodhpur, also known as the Blue City for the characteristic color of the houses. Jodhpur is considered as the gateway to the wonderland, made up of sand dunes, rocky terrain and majestic forts from the era of the Maharajas.
Jodhpur is the second largest city of Rajasthan and boasts temples and palaces of historical and artistic interest, in addition to the view from the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, a fortified citadel which guards inside palaces, temples, and gardens, built in 1459, and stands out from afar in all its grandeur. We get on with walking calmly and enjoy the road, and then when we look down from the walls, what I see will be remembered forever.
Mehrangarh Fort has always resisted attempts to conquer and has never been violated in its five hundred years of history. Set on a steep hill about 130 meters high, the Mehrangarh Fort is the most beautiful fortress in Rajasthan, with its high walls that rise sheer up to 36 meters high and dominate the city below. For the construction of the fort they were used the materials of the underlying rock and today we can no longer make out where the rock ends and where began the construction.
We also visit the Jaswant Thada, and Umaid Bhawan Palace. Jaswant Thada is an imposing white marble monument built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. It is not too far from the Mehrangarh Fort, and we decide to go with a tuk-tuk. This beautiful mausoleum of the late nineteenth century dazzles us with its snow-white marble, which seems to be the same one used to build the Taj Mahal in Agra. The gardens around the mausoleum then, are filled with frangipani trees and other flowers. It is a place of peace, which is in complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city.
We have a tour of the downtown streets between shopping spices and blue walls and of the surrounding countryside in Jodhpur, where we were accompanied by a local to visit the homes of opium farmers. In fact, although the use of opium in India is illegal, in this area are allowed to grow it because it is used for therapeutic purposes. Entire families are dedicated to this activity, which is handed down from father to son. I was lucky enough to be hosted by one of these families who has shown me the opium-based drink distillation process and ritual of its share.
In Jodhpur, for a stroke of luck I came across the train of a wedding, and for a while, I followed it and yes that was the taste of India that I wanted.
VENICE OF THE EAST
I also broke the journey towards Udaipur stopping at Ranakpur to visit the beautiful Jain temple considered a masterpiece of architecture. The marble with which it was constructed changes color throughout the day depending on the light is a must see! The small town of Pali houses one of the 77 wonders of the world.
Built in the fifteenth century entirely of white marble, it will leave you in awe for the refinement of the inlays and workmanship. The temple consists of a central temple and two secondary temples. The middle one, the Chaumukha Mandir, consists of 29 halls supported by 1444 well-carved columns, all different. The careful processing and the complex architecture of this place will strike and will linger longer, also because of the feeling of peace and harmony that reigns.
Udaipur is known as the city of lakes and the Venice of the East. It was in fact built on the shores of six lakes, the main one being, the Lake Pichola, is the reference point for exploring the city. Known above all for the wonderful buildings that in some cases took up whole islands, we travel across the fervent city center in local markets and various shops. We also visit the City Palace.
City Palace is a huge building, the largest of Rajasthan, made up of several adjoining buildings constructed in later times. The result is amazing and while noting the differences between buildings built in different periods, the whole is harmonious and very unique. We do not miss the Saheliyon ki Bari, the garden of the bridesmaids. In the late afternoon in a boat trip on Lake Pichola, we see the beautiful city of Udaipur that stand on the lake in the middle of the enigmatic desert of Rajasthan.
We also take a detour and enjoy a few relaxing days on Mount Abu as also visit the delightful Bundi. We stop for lunch at the wonderful Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur. This hotel was built in the mid-nineteenth century, when Maharawal Udai Singhji-II, great art and architecture lover, decided to give shape to the stone and create a building that overlooks the lake. The carved pillars and panels, ornate balconies, inlaid windows, arches and marble sculptures, make it a true marvel of Rajput architecture.
THE KITE FESTIVAL OF JAIPUR
We have another brief stop in Chittorgarh to visit the Fort of Chittor, an acropolis with built palaces and temples on a hill and then straight to Pushkar, which I have devoted only half a day. Pushkar is a holy city for Hindus as Varanasi, who go on the shores of the lake to soak in water and purify and to bring offerings to the Brahma temple.
Surrounded by hills and sand dunes, Pushkar is a fascinating place, loved by all the pilgrims who go there with its 400 temples and 52 ghats, the only temple dedicated to Brahma in the country and sacred lake. We enjoy a walk in the town and in the magical atmosphere that surrounds it.
It is a place with a lively city center and frequented by backpackers from around the world. The holy city of Pushkar every year in November is home to the famous trade fair, where over 50,000 camels are put on display, giving life to a unique spectacle in the world. The sunset over the lake is beautiful, and is one of the best seen in India, I confess!
The real surprise of the trip, however, was waiting for me a little later and bore the name of Ajmer. I have a vivid memory of the Dargah of Khwaja Moin-Ud-din Chishti, the Sufi shrine, where I came across a colorful ceremony. It's a no frill, but it's bloated atmosphere, that has no deviation.
The journey continues to Jaipur, also known as the Pink City for the typical color of the buildings. Out of town, about ten kilometers from the center, we visit the Amber Fort, the magnificent and imposing strong honey-colored fort dating back to the late 1500s. It is very touristy and very crowded, but it is also worth seeing. We arrive by elephant up over the hill to the Palace of Amber Fort, like the Maharajas.
The Amber Fort is known for its unique and stunning artistic style, blending Indian and Persian elements masterfully. We visit the rooms and corridors of the building, famous for the excellence of its design. Inside the complex, there is Ganesh Pol, the imposing entrance entirely painted with images of the elephant-headed Ganesh. The fully perforated windows offer views from different points and shards of glittering mirrors are embedded within the walls of Sheesh Mahal.
We have a photo stop at the Hawa Mahal or the palace of winds, which resembles a beehive. Its facade is probably the most photographed in Jaipur, with its ornately carved windows. The numerous windows were opened to allow the women of the house to see the world outside without being seen in turn.
Afterward, we have the opportunity to experience first hand the experience of Indian cuisine in the Ikaki Niwas, where we were greeted by a local family. The best advice I can give you about Jaipur is to discover it on foot. It's not too big, and around every corner hides a market or a building that really you would not expect to see.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and is characterized by chaotic streets and remains of ancient glories as the City Palace. City Palace boasts of the valuable collection of antiques, costumes, and armor of the Mughals and Rajputs, including swords of different shapes and sizes with precious chiseled handles. Inside, an art gallery exhibits a collection of miniature paintings, carpets, royal accessories and rare astronomical works in Arabic, Persian, Latin, and Sanskrit.
Our next visit is Jantar Mantar, an astronomical and astrological observatory stone built by Maharaja Jai Singh in the 18th century, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the late afternoon, we see the procession of the Teej festival, a festival by women that celebrate the arrival of the monsoon. In my opinion, if you go to Jaipur, it is a must do during the kite festival. Just raising our eyes from the terrace of any haveli, we see thousands of colorful kites circling in the sky.
I was told that all the children of Jaipur await with great excitement this festival and spend much of their time to prepare for this important day. For me, it is one of the images that still appear in the eyes when I think of this extravagant land.
From here I moved in the state of Uttar Pradesh to visit Agra. The place that is never expected from the classic tour but if you are moving in the car, I would recommend it because it is sufficient to take a little detour on the road that leads from Jaipur to Agra. This visit far exceeded my expectations because I did not think that a well could be so beautiful. It is an immense and complex structure, 20 meters deep, the walls of which are composed of steps which descend in a zigzag. A delight for the eyes and definitely something that you can hardly see elsewhere.
Getting around Rajasthan
The best way to travel in Rajasthan especially if your time is limited is with a driver. Traveling with a driver is quite cheap for our pockets and allows a freedom that public transport does not give. You can take your time, ask to make small detours from, traveling comfortably seated in the car instead of on some crowded bus to capacity. You can also ask to take you to some reliable restaurant or some place where they make a special tea.
To find a reliable driver, please contact the agencies directly or when you arrive in Delhi and in any case do not worry if you cannot find it, as you will find them thanks to the touts present virtually everywhere, or look for them on the internet, or you can ask in the forums or directly on the travel blogs like ours.
When contracted, it is essential to explicitly ask the route that is included in the set price including kilometers and fuel costs. Another tip. If you contract with the agency, pay half at the beginning of the tour and the other half at the end. The implicit threat of not paying in case if you are not satisfied is pretty much a guarantee.
The driver will try to take you to the hotel in which he gets a commission. Personally, on this, I have no problem, indeed. In my experience, I have learned that often the driver knows the hotel, definitely better than you who have seen them only on the internet and it also happened to me at the end to pay for the same hotel less than what it would cost me to book it and pay for it with booking. Only remember when the driver will take you in the hotel ask, before agreeing to let you see the room and agreed price. If you are not satisfied ask him to take you away.
If you do not want to know them to get the driver where he says, simply point it out firmly, but be always polite.
Buses and trains
Traveling in Rajasthan by bus is really exhausting. Which means that in Rajasthan to move from one place to another you will have to travel for ten, twelve hours each time. The bus is one of my favorite means when I travel, but here I recommend you only do this if you have so much time available and therefore can afford to lose a few days and relax for a couple of days before resuming the road.
Traveling by train in Rajasthan
A trip to Rajasthan cannot be defined as such if it does not include the experience of a ride on the train. Tickets can be purchased either at the station if you have the courage to face the endless queues, or in one of the many travel agencies. The internet remains the best way since often the seats sell out days before. Slow and often late, crowded to capacity, trains are a true experience of Indian life. Not to be missed and of course, in the general class in the midst of ordinary people.
The Thar Express, renovated in February 2006 after 40 years of service, stretches from Munabao to Khokrapar in Sindh. However, this crossing is not open to foreign tourists.
Hostels, Haveli and guesthouses
The choice is really wide and there is something for all tastes and for all budgets. The price to quality ratio to our standards is really favorable, as the average price for a high-end hotel with air-conditioning in the room, private bathroom, and other facilities is around Rs. 1000-2000 a night for a double room. If you want to treat yourself to a night to Maharaja, you can do it in some beautiful haveli spending around Rs. 5000 onwards per room.
If you are like me devourers of street food, you will find in Rajasthan a lot of places to eat. In fact in the restaurants for tourists the quality standard is quite high with quite varied menus, so you'll have no trouble dine well at a cost between Rs. 100-200 per person. If you want to eat like a local, then go in non-tourist restaurants, and be prepared to find delicious dishes, although very spicy. Personally, my favorite dish was the Naan, Laal Maas, and Palak Paneer, with pieces of cheese in a spinach and tomato cream.
In Rajasthan, you can really pick any shopping. The prices are very much lower, and the offer is very wide, especially for the fabrics. They are of excellent quality. If you have chosen to travel with a driver, they will attempt like hotels, to bring you in the stores where they will get a commission. Again if the place sells good quality items but not at a great price, you can be happy and satisfied, however, because, even if you go into a store decided by you, the price will always be higher than for people instead of risking more to catch a nice catch.
Also, many travelers tend to trust most of the shops recommended on Lonely Planet or the other guides and these shopkeepers know this very well. In those stores, you will find much higher prices than elsewhere. When you buy something haggle, haggle and haggle. I know that for us after a while it really becomes a stressful thing, but here, it saves you a lot. The first price shops offer is usually pretty crazy.
In Rajasthan, everything has two different prices as in many other places in the world, one for foreigners and one for locals and foreigners often pay more.
Vaccines, precautions and remedies
Then I am not a doctor and I do not have anyone on my conscience, so the most sensible thing I can advice is to head to one of the medical centers and seek advice regarding vaccines needed. In addition, before leaving get a travel insurance.
Rajasthan is, in two words, a great life experience.