Myriad emotions course through me whenever I think of our trip to the magical Rajasthan. This trip was our first foray into this beautiful state. We had seen countless advertisements, bought handicrafts from various fairs over the years, heard about its many beauties, but nothing could prepare us for the truly amazing place that is Rajasthan. Its fabled palaces and humungous forts, the vastness of the Thar desert, the brilliantly delectable food, the riot of colours in every street, the music of the gypsies, but above all, the people – the simple, innocent, welcoming people! The people of Rajasthan lived by the epitaph “Atithi Devo Bhava” – a guest is like a God. Everywhere we went, we were met with a love so simple yet powerful, it still moves me to this day. Shopkeepers would invite us for tea without even thinking about selling anything to us, moustached uncles gave lifts and waited patiently without thinking anything about it, a puppeteer gave us a tear wrenching account of his efforts to keep his dying art alive, auto drivers doubled as tour guides, hotel owners waking till late just so that they could drop us at train stations (and not charging us for this), children leaving their games to guide us to some nearby landmark – Rajasthani people are simple folks who have not forgotten what it means to be nice. Untouched by the follies and traps of a big city, the people here remain starry-eyed and yet, content.
Towards the end of last year, my husband and my partner in crime in all my travels, and I had some leaves that were about to lapse. That was all the motivation we needed to set out on a journey. Since we had not planned for this trip, the budget was thin, and so we decided to make it a backpacker’s trip across the arid state of Rajasthan.. You know, when life gives you lemon, you better make lemonade, and have fun making it too! I did, however, insist on a separate budget for shopping. How could we go to the land of such incredible art, and come empty handed, I argued. It was difficult, but I did manage K to agree to my demands, provided I carry all that I bought myself.
And so, on a cold night, with our trusty (and thankfully not too heavy) backpacks on our backs, we boarded an overnight bus to Jodhpur from a sleepy corner of Delhi. We had booked a sleeper bus, which was much like a train compartment. It was surprisingly comfortable, and after the familiar initial excitement of embarking on an adventure settled, we were soon rocked into a gentle sleep.
Jodhpur is a small, simple city, with the main attraction, the Mehrangarh Fort, looming over the city, no matter which corner you are in. In keeping with the low budget theme of this trip, we had selected a small, unassuming hotel in the city. It was small, but immaculately clean, and in the common balcony which also served as the dining place for the rooms on that floor, was a fantastic view of the Mehrangarh Fort, and row upon row of the blue houses Jodhpur is famous for. As we went to the fort (in an auto-rickshaw meant for 5 miraculously seating at least 2 dozen people), we found out that it is one of the largest forts in India. Situated on a hillock, it had been a source of pride and safety in the past few centuries, and had played an important role in many a battle since its creation in 1460. It now housed many museums, dedicated to the opulence of its glittering past – the advanced artillery, paintings, palanquins, clothes and much else. We spent a few hours here, mesmerized by the grandeur of the place. There were some musicians sitting in
the courtyard outside, playing traditional Rajasthani music, adding to the whole ambience. Jodhpur has other magnificent palaces to boast of, like Umaid Bhawan Palace and Jaswant Thada, and on a more leisurely trip, we would have visited them all, but since time was limited in this trip, we didn’t visit those. We did, however, have time to indulge in the famous Rajasthani cuisine. We had started the with a hearty, home cooked breakfast, had a heavy lunch in a non-descript but very busy road-side restaurant, and a simpler dinner back at the hotel, the day being peppered with numerous teas and the famous Rajasthani kachoris. We also roamed around in its colourful market, shopping for knick-knacks. Here is the first time we encountered the famous
Rajasthani hospitality – shopkeepers welcoming us with genuine happiness, buying us tea when we had already told them we wouldn’t be buying anything from their shops, asking with wonderment about our lives back in Delhi, an uncle even giving me lift on his scooter to his favourite pickle shop, just so that I could take back some garlic pickle (Jodhpur’s speciality) back home, welcoming smiles everywhere we looked. People really did go out of their ways to help not just tourists, but everyone around. It was a day full of many delights, and some shopping too, and the time flew. We slept that night with our hearts smiling, overcome with the beauty of Jodhpur and its people, and in anticipation of the more delights this beautiful land had in store for us.
The next stop on our itinerary was the mystical Jaisalmer. We reached this fabled land from Jodhpur by late afternoon, after a four hour bus journey. The very air of Jaisalmer had a magical quality to it – the lure of the Thar Desert, of the banjaras serenading everyone with their wistful songs, the colourful women with their tinkling anklets, dancing with abandon. Jaisalmer, quite unexpectedly, also gave us an opportunity to make friends with some fellow travellers. In keeping with our budget, we had again selected an unpretentious hotel, which turned out to be a brilliant place. Neat, clean rooms, spell-bounding views from the common balcony, and some of the most interesting conversations over late night bonfires, our travel was enriched beyond measure because of our stay here. Our host, Aladdin, was a delightful little man who, like his namesake, was super resourceful. He would produce anything any guest needed as if by magic – tooth brushes, clean sheets, medicines, buckets of hot water, any special food not on the hotel menu, or a conversation to kill some time! About the city itself, its main and most important structure was the famous Jaisalmer fort, one of the largest fortifications in the world. Over the centuries, the fort had come to be the residence of vast majority of the population of Jaisalmer. This was owing to the fact that after one of the major ports in Gujarat became defunct; it dried up most of the trade routes through Jaisalmer. Lost in time and wrapped in the sandy hues of the desert, the city was left without a ruler. The local population claimed the fort for themselves, and has been living there ever since. When a surge in tourism put the city back on the map, the hardy people living in the fort only made the city more intriguing. The walk in the fort was surreal, with children playing in the royal corridors, clothes-lines waving colourful clothes in what once were royal passages, loud signs inviting tourists for all imaginable cuisines from around the world, hotel room hoardings jostling for our attention, shops catering to the locals and to tourists, and in the midst of all this, a few rare glimpses of the former glory. We also visited the Gadisar Lake, a beautiful lake where we went boating. The music of some local musicians performing on the banks of the lake wafted towards us, making the simple boat ride so much more special. The many shops and street vendors on the surprisingly clean banks added character and colour to the place. Another experience that stands out was a high adrenaline sport of dune-bashing. This was a fun sport which included driving out to the desert, and driving through the dunes, at pretty unnatural angles, at high speeds. This also gave us the opportunity to witness the unending Thar Desert, a sea of molten gold, in all its glory. Both our dinners in Jaisalmer were spent in our hotel, out on the terrace, with the magnificently lit up Jaisalmer Fort as the backdrop. Aladdin arranged for bonfires each night, and we spent unending hours talking to fellow travellers, exchanging titbits and tips about our travels, sharing stories, even singing together. Our two idyllic days in this magical city flew by too fast, and all too soon, we had to say goodbye to the mysterious city, lost in the sands of time, far away from the commercialism of big cities.
Our next stop was Udaipur, the city of lakes and palaces. We reached Udaipur early in the morning, well rested owing to our trusty sleeper bus. Udaipur is the quintessential palace city of Rajasthan. The opulence of his city is obvious in every nook and corner. Beautiful palaces overlooking the lustrous lakes, the Aravalli Hills in the distance spilling over their vivid greenery into city like an overflowing cup, everything in Udaipur looked serene and abundant. We had only one day in Udaipur, but we managed to fill our itinerary pretty well. We started with a cycling tour of the city, which gave us a unique vantage point to look at the city. We cycled through the two extremes of the city – the wide and luxurious roads next to the lakeside at one end and the maddening city traffic, with hawkers and fellow cyclists and autos and cars and cows jostling for space on the narrow stretches on the other end! The tour guide gave us a crash course in the history of all the landmarks that we crossed. I had some trepidation before venturing on this tour, as it had been many years since I had last ridden a bicycle, but I discovered that I got the hang of it pretty easily. We visited two of the numerous lakes of Udaipur, namely Lake Pichola, the queen of lakes here, and the Fateh Sagar Lake, on which resides the Solar Observatory of Udaipur, the best solar observatory in all of Asia. Since we were feeling indulgent and a bit like royalty ourselves in this city of excesses, we convinced ourselves that the best way to experience the beautiful lake Pichola would be by lunching like royals at the luxurious Lake Pichola Palace Hotel. The picturesque beauty of the lake was in full bloom as we entered Upre, a delectable rooftop restaurant inside the hotel. The restaurant was tastefully decorated in an understated royal style, and the gastronomical North Indian cuisine was a delight to the senses. Although this indulgence put the budget of our trip a bit off track, but the food and the excellent ambience made our little sojourn at Upre more than worthwhile. We also took in a ‘kathputli’ show, the Rajasthani version of a puppet show, at Bhartiya Lok Kala Mandir, a famous venue for folk performances. It was a simple and delightful performance, and what made it more memorable for us was the little chat we had with the puppeteer after the show. In that one short day, I even got a chance to indulge in some shopping. We bought some famous and rather beautiful Udaipuri quilts from a shop that offered to ship them to our homes at a fairly low price, and some old silver jewellery. Our tryst with this beautiful city ended the next morning, when we left for Pushkar, bidding goodbye in what was by now the familiar feeling of wanting to come back soon.
Our train to Ajmer (which is the major junction of the area and about an hour from Pushkar) was late as it pulled into the city. It was quite late by the time we stepped out of the train, and seeing no sense in going to Pushkar right away (especially since we hadn’t booked a room for ourselves yet), we found a cheap hotel room right near the station to spend the night. This was a good strategy, as we slept well, woke up refreshed, and reached Pushkar as good as new, by 8 next morning! Pushkar (or what we saw of it) was primarily one big market street (very reminiscent of Rishikesh) on the banks of its lake, Pushkarni, at the head of which is the famous Lord Brahma temple. This is especially important as this is the only temple dedicated to Lord Brahma in India, and this carries tremendous religious significance for Indian pilgrims. We quickly found a suitably clean and cheap hotel (which we had by now realised were abundant in Rajasthan), kept our bags, and set out to explore this quaint city. And what a city it turned out to be! Not nearly as untouched by commerce as Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, Pushkar and its people still retained their innocence and bashfulness. We had such vivid experiences in this place. We joined in with a drum circle on the banks of the lake, playing simple rhythms taught then and there with complete abandon. We prostrated in front of Lord Brahma. We meditated to the music of the strange, exotic Australian instrument called Didgeridoo with a simple local who ran a small auto repair shop by the day. K got a “spiritual” head massage where the famous masseuse ordered all the bad energy to leave my beloved. We even had leisurely tea with a shopkeeper, who didn’t try to sell us anything. We were invited for a celebration for Aloo baba, a saint living in the nearby hills, who hadn’t had anything but potatoes to eat for the last few decades. And we had Italian pasta in a German bakery in this spiritual Indian town. Pushkar was a lot to take in in one day. The one long market road of Pushkar had so much more to offer than just shops. It offered us a glimpse of abandon and happiness, of trust and love and simplicity. Exploring Pushkar was a sublime experience.
Our final destination in Rajasthan was Jaipur, the Pink City. Jaipur, due to its proximity to Delhi, was much more modern than all the other cities we had visited in Rajasthan, with malls and high-rises coming up here and there. Despite this, it still retained its original charm. The mishmash of old with modern, and the fact that above all, human know how to adapt, was evident in every nook and corner – centuries old shops carrying modern electronics, a sedan honking its way through a traditional chowpal, peak hour traffic crawling around a tiny temple made bang on the middle of the road, it all came together seamlessly in Jaipur! And when it got a bit much, we visited a farm right outside Jaipur, where a lovely couple served us home-grown and organic meal. We spent a few hours just roaming around in the beautiful fields, talking to the lovely hosts or just to each other, thoroughly enjoying the warm winter sun! We visited the beautiful Hawa Mahal, the iconic palace of Jaipur, latticed with innumerable windows to enable the ladies of the palace to observe the life outside in the privacy of the palace. We also visited the magnificent Amer Fort, where we were greeted by the traditional Rajasthani welcome of musicians and dancers. The fort itself was beautiful
beyond words. Flower latticed floor tiles, beautifully carved windows, walls adorned by resplendent paintings, and of course, the crowning glory – Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), it all looked right out of a fable! We delighted in this palace for a few hours, a little sad now, since this was the last landmark in our magnum opus trip to Rajasthan. All too soon, our romance with Rajasthan ended. We took a bus back to Delhi from Jaipur, which was our last stop.
Rajasthan is truly a land of love and fables. It is famous, and rightly so, for its many forts and palaces, for its colourful art and architecture, for its Aravalli Hills and Thar Desert. But its real crowning glory is its people. They are loving and innocent, and full of wonderment and awe. They gave character to this beautiful land for us!