Travellers flock to Rajasthan in more numbers than any other part of India. Its fantastical palaces and huge forts stand as living monuments in an awe-inspiring desert landscape. Rajasthan literally means Land of the Kings and the story of the Rajput prices tells of feats of great heroism as well as violence, and the many fables, cultural festivals and craft fairs ensure that this history lives on. The vivid colours of Rajasthan also leave a permanent impression, with bright tribal dress, bangles and handicrafts enlivening the rugged desert landscape. You could spend an age in this romantic land and still not experience everything it has to offer. The hot, dry north-west is dominated by the Thar desert. Udaipur in the south is a gateway to a greener land studded with attractive lakes. The east offers opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts. Even at the busiest tourist times, it is possible in an imaginative itinerary to find lesser-known attractions. But underpinning all this, of course, are the three prongs of the Golden Triangle: the capital, Delhi, the pink city of Jaipur and, in Agra, the incomparable splendour of the Taj Mahal.
High Seasonfor tourism is October to March when the weather is at its best: not too hot for sightseeing by day, around 25C in many parts of the state, although can get cool at night, especially in the western desert. National parks such as Ranthambhore and Bharatpur are in full swing. Prices are at their highest and group tours abound, so it requires careful planning to get the best out of your holiday.
Shoulder Season is September and April. It’s worth considering September as an attractive and good-value time to visit if you are prepared for the last of the monsoon rains, Nights are warmer, although wildlife parks may be closed. April does not have rain issues, and wildlife excursions can be rewarding as watering holes begin to dry out at the end of peak season, but temperatures do become warmer without being unbearable for those attuned to such climates. Tourist numbers are reduced and, although main sites never lose their appeal, you can also find quieter spots.
Low Season is May to August. Summer months can be unbearably stifling for all but the most resilient traveller – 40C+ is not uncommon in the hottest areas - and sightseeing needs to be rationed, but there are some great hotel deals and you will virtually have the tourist sights to yourself. The monsoon generally arrives in July, to great relief.
The west of Rajasthan is the desert area, drier and hotter than the rest of the state.
Delhi's international airport is the traditional hub for the start of a tour of Rajasthan. There are also domestic airports at Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur and an additional domestic flight can help reduce journey times. Remember: Rajasthan is India's largest state. Red Dot's stock itineraries seek to remain realistic, but understandable seek to convey what is on offer. Do not be afraid to prioritise and build in extra rest periods if you are resistant to too much time on the road. If it is your first time in India, the sensory overload can be exhausting at times and enough rest is essential. Booking a car and chauffeur is money well spent. It will ensure you make maximum use of your time and go where you want to go. Those who like train travel might also fancy adjusting their itinerary to take the Shatabadi Express. Trains run between Delhi and Agra as well as Delhi to Jaipur (the latter is a journey of around four hours). The newer Gatimaan Express Train runs between Delhi to Agra and takes less than two hours.
- A full-moon visit to the Taj Mahal
- Historic forts clinging to rocky outcrops
- Beautiful royal palaces
- The only Living Fort – Jaisalmer
- A camel safari across the Thar desert
- The abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri
- A boat ride by the beautiful lakeside city of Udaipur
- The extraordinary rat temple at Deshnok
- Tiger spotting at Rathambhore national park
- Shopping for bargains in Rajasthan's colourful bazaars
- The capital city of Delhi
Agra and the Taj Mahal:
Agra (actually just across the border in Uttar Pradesh) was the centre of India's Mughal Empire for more than a century and, although the Taj Mahal might understandably be your priority, it is only one of three World Heritage sites, with Agra Fort and the ruined city of Fatehpur Sikri also recognised. It is possible to rush through Agra's sites on a day trip to and from Delhi but despite the formless nature of the city itself it is worthy of more attention.
Don't be put off by a feeling that visiting the Taj Mahal might be a bit of a cliche, or the recognition that you are not about to see it alone. It is simply one of the most inspiring buildings in the world, a monument to romanticism able to excite all but the stoniest of hearts. If you are staying in Agra, rise early and view the Taj Mahal at sunrise before the tour buses arrive and then return again for sunset. Rabindranath Tagore, the India poet, described it as "a teardrop on the cheek of eternity," while its creator, Emperor Shah Jehan, said it: "Made the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes." It was built as a memorial for Shah Jahan's third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in labour with their 14th child. Construction began the following year, in 1632. Not long after it was completed in 1653, Shah Jehan was over thrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort. Modern threats come from pollution. It was spruced up in 2002 using natural remedies and polluting vehicles are excluded from the immediate vicinity, but the future is a little worrying. A| small museum in the gardens is worth a look. Note: Full Moon visits are available for Full Moon Day and the two days before and after, with only a limited number of visitors allowed. The exact dates should be checked with us in advance. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays
A sandstone and marble tomb commemorating the most powerful Mughal ruler of all. Lies 10 kms north-west of Agra.
This stunning fortified ancient city 40 kms west of Agra was briefly the Mughal capital in 16C, built on the instructions of Emperor Akbar because a holy man's correct prediction that he was about to have an heir was regarded as propitious. The red sandstone walls look at their best at sunset. Akbar's royal harem extended to around 5,000 women and around 300 wives, some of the wealthiest and most beautiful women of the Empire, all of them guarded by an army of eunuchs, many forcibly castrated. Akbar's hedomism also extended to copious quantities of Persian wine, bhang and opium.
Known as Baby Taj, it lacks the same majesty, and also lacks a romantic story, but this tomb of MizraGhiyas Berg is not to be lightly dismissed.
A Garden Comples which Lies on the opposite Side of Taj Mahal across Yamuna River, and gives a great view of the Taj Mahal, and worth a visit close to Sunset times.
A lively desert town in north-west Rajasthan with a good vibe and a decent fort – Junagarh Fort, to the north-east. It is uncommon because it does not have an elevated position, but it still houses a palace and museum. Bikaner is also a potential centre for camel safaris (see desert Safaris) and holds an annual camel festival.
Rat Temple (Karni Mata Temple):
The Karni Mata Temple is surely one of the most astonishing tourist sites in India or anywhere in the world.It is more commonly as the Rat Temple, on account of the fact that rats run free in their thousands. The rats are worshipped by pilgrims and held to be reincarnations of Karni Mata, said to achieve many miracles in the 14C, and her direct descendants. Eating holy good offerings covered in rat saliva, incidentally, is said to bring a traveller good fortune, but don’t worry: it is not compulsory. The temple, which is not for the faint-hearted, lies in Deshnok, 30 kms south of Bikaner.
This charming town in south-east Rajasthan is gaining in popularity. It rarely appears on a classic two-week itinerary – there is just so much to see – and that is regrettable because its narrow streets of blue houses, lakes and hills retain much of the atmosphere of old Rajasthan. The dilapidated Bundi Palace stands on a rock above the old town and houses the famous Bundi murals as well as thousands of bats which provide quite a sight as they stream out of the palace at dusk. Rudyard Kipling called the palace: "The work of goblin rather than men." Taragarh Fort, above the palace, is also worth a trek. Garadha is about 30kms south-west of Bundi has about 30 caves with prehistoric rock paintings.
Chambal River Sanctuary:
The National Chambal Sanctuary was set up in 1979 as a riverine sanctuary along an approximately 425 km length of the Chambal River and its ravines stretching over 2-6 km wide along the river. This is one of the cleanest rivers in India and as well as providing life for the threatened freshwater croc (or gharial),you can see turtles, dolphins and more than 300 birds. Actually just over the border in Uttar Pradesh, but who cares: this is a rewarding place for a boat trip or a nature trek.
The south-east of Rajasthan, not easily reached, does not often appear on a classic two-week itinerary and Chittorgarh, like Bundi, tends to suffer. This is despite the fact the town is blessed with the finest fort in Rajasthan. A village occupies a small corner of the fort but the rest of the plateau belongs to the old palaces and temples. The fort fell under siege to Akmal in the mid 16C. Chittorgarh can be visited on a day trip from Udaipur or on a stopover between Udaipur and Bundi.
Delhi, India's capital seeks a stately atmosphere beyond that found in other Indian cities – it is the seat of government after all – and despite suffering from the usual melee it occasionally achieves it. Many visitors to Rajasthan use it as little more than an arrival and departure point, but if you like city life it deserves better. Old Delhi is a jumble of narrow streets, New Delhi, designed by the British architect Edward Lutyens, whose previous experience was in country houses, has broad avenues and these days a new metro which allows you to escape some of the traffic and knit together its museums, temples and mosques, shops and cultural life. It became India's capital in 1911, awarded the title by the British monarch, King George V, because the denizens of Kolkata (Calcutta) were becoming increasingly rebellious.
Delhi's most impressive site, Humayun's Tomb, a combination of red sandstone and white marble, was built in the Mughal period in the mid 16C. The tomb was an early influence for the Taj Mahal. Humayun was the second Mughul empire, who died stumbling down some steps as he rushed to answer the call to prayer.
A suitably simple memorial in the bungalow where Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead in 1948. The small pavilion, Martyr's Column, has an eternal flame at the spot where was assassinated and it is supported by an indoor museum depicting Gandhi's life with 11 exhibits, including his walking stick and spectacles, displayed on the wall.
India's largest mosque has a capacity of 25,000, as big as some Indian cricket stadiums. Built in the mid-17C, it towers over Old Delhi. There are great views over the city from the southern minaret.
The National Museum offers an insight into India's last 5,000 years and is a satisfying way to spend a few hours. Exhibits in the equally decent Crafts Museum include tribal masks and paintings. The National Gallery of Modern Art showcases all the great Indian modern artists. Something more quirky is the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets.
Still a powerful symbol, dating from the peak of the Mughal dynasty, but you might deem it not worth to trip when you consider the greater glories on your itinerary. Still hosts the prime minister's Independence Day address.
The attraction for most visitors to Jaisalmar and the Thar desert in the west of Rajasthan is the chance to undertake a camel safari. This unforgettable experience can extend anything from a few hours to several weeks, with most tourists opting for sunset at Sam sand dunes and a night under the stars. The one-humped camel moves it front legs, then back legs, together, giving it a smoother, more rolling gait than a horse. They are usually docile, although the male can be grumpy in mating season. Trekking across the desert is enormously rewarding, but do not expect miles and miles of rolling sand; much of the landscape is arid scrubland. Red Dot can advise on reputable companies and gauge how much you want to join the fun or get off the beaten track. Jaisalmer (see below) is the favoured centre to take a Desert Safari, but you can also use Bikaner (to the north) or even Khuri (to the south-west) as your base. You would miss out on the evocative Jaisalmer Fort (see below) if you opted for Bikaner but it is more convenient if you want to reduce travel time and less crowded in peak season than Jaisalmer.
The Pink City (actually closer to salmon) is Rajasthan's most tourist-orientated city, a staple part of the Golden Triangle route, with good shopping opportunities and not needing much excuse to hold a festival. The city was named after its founder, Jai Singh II in the early 18c. It was Northern India's first planned city, not that the habits lasted into modern times when urban sprawl and a huge increase in population has been the order of the day. It was painted pink to welcome.
Amber Fort (pronounced Amer) is a wonderful honey-coloured fort on a rocky mountainside 12 kms north-east of Jaipur. Take a short elephant ride up the hill to the Fort or if you object to that, you can go by jeep or walk for about 15 minutes. You will be spared the daily execution of a goat at the Siladevi Temple: that was banned in 1980, but the temple remains beautiful. Standing proudly on a ridge above Amber Fort is Jaigarh Fort, which was built by Jai Singh II to protect the Amber Fort and its palace complex and named after him. The chief exhibit is the world's largest wheeled cannon and there is also a puppet theatre.
The palace is open to the public as the Sawai Man Singh Museum. Check out the armoury, with its large collection of mace, daggers, shields and other implements of war. The textile collection shows off the royal wardrobe and is rather less threatening.
Galta Monkey Palace:
Galta's temples are crammed into a ravine 3 kms east of Jaipur. A freshwater Spring keeps its ponds full, and ensures its religious status, as well as providing delight for thousands of macaque monkeys.
Jantar Mantar Observatory:
This observatory, begun by Jai Singh in 1728, lies next to the Royal Palace and was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 2010. It consists of 14 major geometric devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars' location as the earth orbits around the sun, and tracking the progress of planets. Regretfully, some of the instruments were damaged in the late 18C. If that sounds overly serious, it could also be an individualistic sculpture park and has a feel all of its own.
If you want to preserve just one image to convey the world of the Rajasthan desert, the fort at Jaisalmer must be among the contenders. It rises surreally from the scrubby plains like a series of giant sandcastles. It is an appropriate image, too, because conservationist groups have had to fight continually in recent years to prevent its deterioration because of overloading of the fort's drains. Tourism in Jaisalmer can be seen as double edged as it puts the infrastructure under pressure, but it has brought vital revenue to a poor area, and done much to revive and give purpose to what was a remote and failing city. Jaisalmer has always had a precarious history: founded in the 12C, it initially relied primarily on scavenging and looting and rustling. You can learn more at http://jaisalmer-in-jeopardy.org.
Jaisalmer Desert Festival:
The Sam sand dunes stage a touristy festival over three days in January, encompassing camel racing, puppetry, turban-tying contests and even, believe it or not, a Mr Desert contest. Also see Desert Safari.
Jodhpur is a gateway to the Thar desert, a halfway house between the western desert towns of Bikaner and Jaisalmer and the less parched areas of the state. Jodhpur sits beneaththe walls of the Mehrangarh Fort, which stretch for 10 kms above the town. Inside the Blue City is a web of narrow medieval streets with all the bustle and colour that Rajasthan can provide. Jodhpurs rising breeches, incidentally, caught on in London when the Jodhpur Lancers polo team toured England at the end of the 19C.Mick Jagger is patron of an annual folk festival, normally staged in October. Timed to coincide with Sharad Purnima, the brightest full moon of the year in north India, Jodhpur RIFF features a series of spectacular concerts and events based in and around Mehrangarh Fort.
Among the finest of Rajasthan's forts, it is chiselled into a rocky outcrop above the town. The audio tour is impressive. The Fort is still run by the Jodhpur royal family.
The capital before Jodhpur, 7 kms to the north. It is worth a look for the Mandore Gardens and Balsamand Lake, a reservoir which dates back to the 12C.
This village honours the conservationist commitments of the Bishnoi, a sect founded in the 15C which holds all animal life sacred and which from the outset has had an enlightened commitment to conservation. In 1730, more than 350 Bishnois were beheaded as they tried to prevent woodcutters employed by the Maharaja of Jodhpur chopping down trees. A small temple commemorates their stand. That commitment to protecting animal life has remained to this day. A must-visit for eco warriors among you.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park:
This highly-regarded wetland – only 29 sq kms of swamp and lake - is a bird-watching delight. It is arguably at its best in December when winter migrants settle down to nest. You can also go cycling on car-free roads – and there are not too many places in India where you can do that. Birds, cranes and birds of prey abound. Avoid in May-July when the wetlands have largely dried up ahead of the monsoon rains. Increasingly unpredictable monsoon seasons have brought concerns about the wetlands' long-term survival.
Mount Abu is Rajasthan's only hill station and sits among forests in the south west. It attracts largely Indian visitors, especially honeymooners from Gujarat. Nakki Lake is the focal point of the town. Mount Abu offers respite from the heat, although it does not rival the more famous hill stations in other regions of India. While most of Rajasthan roasts, the hill station of Mount Abu holds a three-day carnival in May with fireworks and boat races on the lake. The Dilwara (Delwara) Temples, a short distance north of town, are Jain Temples which predate the town and which are treasured for their intricate marble work. Trekking in the hills around Mount Abu can be rewarding, although for your protection the services of a good local guides is essential.
Nagaur Cattle Fair:
Nagaur bustles with life during the annual cattle fair, one of the largest in the country, usually held in late January / early February. The Nagaur bulls attract buyers from all over and camels, goats and cows are also on display. There are performances from folk dancers and musicians, camel and horse races, tug of war and lots more.
Pushkar is a Hindu pilgrimage town which has long been on the hippy trail and with 500 milky-bluetemples and more than 50 sacred bathing ghats it is rarely short of chants, prayers and devotional songs. Its main street is one long bazaar and along it worshippers and travellers rub along pretty well. Riding, music and cooking lessons can also be taken here. Sadar Bazaar is chock-full with arts and crafts.More touristy than it once was, the Pushkar camel fair remains a staggering sight as thousands of camel traders descend upon the town for trade and chat in October / November.The town is packed with about 200,000 tribal camel sellers and tourists, not to forget the camels, cattle and horses. The business is conducted in the days leading up to the festival, after which time the plains give way to camel racing, rug of war, snake charmers, moustache contests and other attractions. It is crowded, noisy, a bit tourist-tacky and enormous fun. If you want accommodation in the town, you will have to book months ahead and be prepared to pay a supplement.
Ranthambhore Fort and National Park:
Ranthambhore Fort, which hails back to the 10C, stands on a ridge at the centre of this 1334 sq kms national park, which is the best place to see wild tigers in Rajasthan. Despite the efforts of Project Tiger, there are only around 30 tigers in the park, but other wildlife includes leopards, hyenas, jackals, sloth bear, deer, antelope and abundant birdlife. Traffic in the park is restricted to safari jeeps and open-top trucks (if the latter seem somewhat risky, there have been no reports of animal attacks). The park is east of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan's central-east. The park is open from October to June, closing during the rainy season. At Ranthambhore Fort, the birthday of Ganesh, the elephant God, is celebrated with particular fervour. It is September and the monsoon is on its way out.
The Shekhawati region in Northern Rajasthan holds appeal for the beauty of its old havelis (literally translated from Persian as enclosed space). Merchants and landowners in this dusty region vied in days of yore to build the grandest mansions, often decorated with murals depicting religion, mythology and day-to-day life. The colours in the paintings were once achieved from ochre-coloured urine obtained by feeding cows on mango leaves. Mandawa, an otherwise unremarkable town is the main centre to see the havelis.
Udaipur is one of India's most beautiful cities, a place for romance, with creamy-white palaces sitting alongside Lake Pichola, pretty old havelis (mansions) on winding streets, and exotic hotels. It is part of the old kingdom of Mewar, which also includes Chittorgarh. You can take a horse ride around the surrounding hills and lakes. Escape the tourist bustle and enjoy it at its best with a boat trip on the lake, a wander through the bazaar, indulge yourself in one of its finer hotels or restaurants, or by exploring the countryside beyond.
The Lake Palace:
Lonely Planet describes Udaipur's Lake Palace as "a fairy-tale confection that seems to float on the lake's waters, gleaming by day and spotlit by night".
Eklingji Temple complex is 22 kms north of Udaipur and is relatively tourist free. Other attractions north of Udaipur include the remote forts of Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur. Both forts can be visited on a drive from Udaipur to Jodhpur.
Tales of how the Hindu Rajputs resisted invasion for centuries, most notably by the Muslim Mughals, make up the central history of Rajasthan. The Rajput warriors fought under a strong code of honour and, at times of defeat, Rajput women were known to commit jauhar – flinging themselves onto a burning pyre to escape capture. Eventually the Mughul emperor, Akbar, built alliances with most Rajput princes and new influences in architecture, food, arts, crafts and crafts began. When the influence of the Mughal empire declined in the 218C, the British Empire exerted its influence in turn. Rajput prices enjoyed wealth and privilege under British rule and many defended the Raj and sought to suppress rebellions to protect their status. Upon independence, the 19 princedoms were united in the state of Rajasthan and, although initially the princes were allowed to keep their forts and palaces, with the loss of their privilege, gradual change has been inevitable. Many of these palaces are now five-star hotels.
Food in Rajasthan
Delhi and Agra is the centre of Mughlai cooking, much of which will be very recognisable to travellers because of the worldwide spread of Indian restaurants. This traditional Persian-influenced style has rich cream and curd sauces, pilau rice, naan or tandoori bread and dhal. Thanks also to the influence of the Rajput ruling class, tradition has it that it is mostly non-veg (meat based) and extremely rich. Korma, mild, is a typical example, as is Biryani, in which meat and rice are cooked together. Kebabs, especially lamb kebabs, are also commonly found. Also dominant in north Indian is tandoori cooking – although it is more strongly linked to the Punjab than Rajasthan. Rajasthan specialities which are less commonly known include sangria and kair – both of them vegetables – and dhal batichurma: lentils boiled with hard wheat rolls then fried with seasonings.