Insider’s Guide to Rajasthan, India

Camels roam in Jaisalmer, in India’s desert state of Rajasthan. Photo/Getty

Now that our borders are open and international travel is possible, it’s time to start making that wishlist vacation a reality. Amar Grover has everything you need to know about a trip to Rajasthan, India.

India’s “land of kings” and so-called desert state, Rajasthan, has long been one of the country’s most popular destinations. The extravagant palaces and medieval forts of its pre-independence maharajahs are fine legacies of a romantic era. From ancient temples and bustling bazaars to exotic tribal groups with their camel-drawn carts, the vibrancy and color of Rajasthan remains intact.

Here, most foreign tourists are directed to the same well-trodden routes comprising a handful of towns and sights. 10-15 years ago, perhaps only the bold or the eccentric ventured beyond into ‘quirky’ Rajasthan and its largely untouched low-key destinations where local life beats at a more traditional pace.

The blue city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan.  Photo/Getty Images
The blue city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Photo/Getty Images

But these days, the restoration of half-forgotten palaces, forts and mansions continues apace, and elegant and atmospheric hotels have sprung up in unlikely corners of mostly rural Rajasthan. Collectively opening a window to a timeless India, they are an invaluable linchpin for slower, more nuanced itineraries and a great alternative to big city breaks.

Palm trees, pavilions and swimming pools

With New Delhi as the obvious gateway to Rajasthan, you will hardly find a softer introduction to the state than the famous Neemrana Fort-Palace Hotel, some 120 km southwest of the nation’s capital. Built in the 15th century, it has been extensively restored and now has several garden terraces and two swimming pools. Combining Rajput architecture – no two rooms are alike – with hints of a Tuscan hill village, it sprawls beneath a rocky ridge with picturesque walls and bastions.

Less prone to Delhi weddings and weekend getaways, sister property Tijara Fort-Palace sits atop a landscaped hill and, like the Neemrana, is a good place to harmonize your Rajasthan bearings. Abandoned since around 1845, three mahals, or royal quarters, have been virtually rebuilt using mostly traditional techniques and designs with architectural salvages from across the state. The landscaping includes seven terraced gardens, a colonnaded terrace and a swimming pool overlooking seemingly endless farmland.

Heading south past the town of Alwar and indirectly towards Jaipur, the state capital, you will pass through part of the Aravalli Range passing the Sariska Tiger Reserve. Cradled by forested hills and bordered by village fields, Amanbagh is among the most remote (and expensive) upscale properties in Rajasthan. Expansive palm-studded gardens and a gorgeous pool with an arcaded pavilion are swathed in neo-Rajput-style architecture with salmon-pink sandstone.

Amanbagh’s hinterland is a joy to explore, ideally with the property’s guided walks. Behind a low dyke, or embankment, built by Maharajah Jai Singh around 1931, stretches a shallow but vast lake. Dry in January, it is home to crops of okra and wheat grown by villagers who still own plots of the lake bed. Threadlike machans, or lookouts, used by locals to protect fields from foraging wild boars dot the countryside and you’re likely to see village elders lounging outside on traditional rope beds sipping chai and puffing on hookahs, their coarse tobacco softened with jaggery, a kind of sugar palm.

Rudyard Kipling’s “Beautifully Lazy Town”

Two essential excursions from Amanbagh – and you can pause at both en route to Jaipur – are the long-abandoned “ghost town” of Bhangarh and the enormous stepwell of Abhaneri. 16th-century Bhangarh is reputed to be India’s most haunted place, a hype that likely stems from local folklore involving sages, unrequited love and dastardly curses prophesying the walled city’s sudden demise.

Originally lined with shops and medieval houses, the main cobbled street runs through arched walkways past stone temples mounted on plinths. At its head, and partly surrounded by steep hills, rises a partly ruined three-storey palace complex. Irresistible monkeys frolic amid the masonry and chances are you’ll have most of this atmospheric place to yourself.

Women carrying water from a well near Jaipur, Rajasthan.  Photo/Getty
Women carrying water from a well near Jaipur, Rajasthan. Photo/Getty

About 40 km away, the extraordinary 9th-century Chand Baori (also known as Abhaneri) stepwell bears witness to the art and skill once used to preserve drinking water in the driest state of the world. country. It is one of the largest and deepest such wells in India. With thirteen stepped stories sunk more than 30m into the ground almost like an inverted ziggurat, the arcaded pavilions beautifully offset its angular symmetry.

South of Jaipur stands Bundi, the former capital of a small princely state and one of the prettiest small towns in Rajasthan. Visiting here on his own offbeat trip in early 1888, Rudyard Kipling called it a “beautifully lazy city” and its remarkable hillside palace “the work of goblins rather than men”. Medieval havelis, or merchant townhouses, with decoratively carved facades, add to the city’s everyday appeal while, still overlooking the tangle of alleyways of its old quarter, the enormous palace is now open to visitors.

Although the royal content is long gone, it remains a fantastic place to explore and the faded murals of the interiors depicting Hindu fables and court life are some of the finest in Rajasthan. Above, on a plateau, sprawls the brooding Taragarh Fort, its ramshackle and dilapidated courtyards and pavilions offering splendid views of Bundi and beyond. Kipling buffs could head a mile beyond town to the pretty lakeside Sukh Mahal, the Maharajah’s modest former summer retreat and now half-hearted museum, where the writer briefly stayed .

Southern Splendors

Most visitors to these parts of southeastern Rajasthan head to Ranthambore, one of India’s best-known tiger reserves with reliable sightings. Continuing further south, you might pause briefly in sprawling Kota for its worthy City Palace Museum, an attractive 16th-century stack with seemingly countless pavilions, cupolas, arched balconies and towering gates. Highlights include traditional miniature paintings, armoury, silver-gilt palanquins and howdahs, and a collection of refined but indulgent photographs depicting royal visits, tiger hunts, and polo matches.

Some residents of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan.  Photo/Getty Images
Some residents of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. Photo/Getty Images

Sixty kilometers further, at Bhainsrorgarh, you will cross the pristine Chambal River near Bhainsrorgarh Fort perched on a cliff beside the river. It’s a beautiful place with, despite the prowling crocodiles, an almost European gentleness in the landscape.

The resort is a 90-minute drive from Fort Begu. It was built in 1430, and the small-town noble family opened five suites in the ancestral property in 2010. Begu’s charming boutique accommodation leans more towards homestay than boutique luxury. Its 12ha grounds with roaming peacocks are still surrounded by an unusually wide (although largely dry) moat, which helps mask the local bustle.

Twenty-four generations of the Begu lineage have lived here and you are likely to hear lively stories of old world Rajasthan. An illustrious ancestor enjoyed a month-long wedding in the adjoining wing where dancers twirled on the tusks of patient elephants.

western wonders

Heading west towards Udaipur, the famous Lake City of Rajasthan, the remarkable 180m high plateau of Chittorgarh looms on the horizon long before the city. It is one of the most legendary fortresses in the region (and one of six comprising a Unesco World Heritage Site): 5 km from end to end, walls in circumference of 13 km and seven huge doors reinforced with parapets. The site has been fortified for over a millennium with enough crucial battles to color an encyclopedia of legends and folklore.

With the sparkling waters of Lake Pichola providing an idyllic backdrop, Udaipur is where so many visitors rest longer than its sights demand. To the west of the city rises the most muscular part of the Aravalli Hills, rugged but surprisingly green countryside dotted with time-forgotten hamlets. At 1200m, Kumbalgarh is one of the highest peaks in the range and home to the tallest fort in Rajasthan (like Chittorgarh, a World Heritage Site). Its main building, the Badal Mahal, or cloud palace, stands like a sentinel over a rolling landscape of half-forgotten temples, shrines and stepped water reservoirs.

View across Lake Pichola towards the Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan.  Photo/Getty Images
View across Lake Pichola towards the Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Photo/Getty Images

Looking towards Jodhpur, the northern slopes of the Aravalli cradle one of Rajasthan’s finest temples at Ranakpur. Built under royal patronage in the 1400s, Chaumukha Temple is a magnificent confection of intricately carved white marble bristling with tower-like domes, turrets and cupolas.

In the farm-strewn plains halfway to Jodhpur, the village of Chanoud sits well off the main roads, its mellow vibe typical of much of rural Rajasthan. But in its midst stands an imposing manor house and airy-winged gardens surrounding a cool, shady courtyard.

Chanoudgarh, now a 10-room boutique hotel, is full of peaceful yet simply elegant nooks and crannies, and excels in delicious home cooking. Personalized and informal excursions provide a fascinating window into rural life and its folklore. Guests can often visit a few temples to share tea with their priests and enjoy sunsets along shallow lakes bustling with migrating cranes.

Perhaps only in quirky Rajasthan will you find something of its beating heart.

Travel checklist:
Travelers must present an international travel vaccination certificate or Covid-19 RT-PCR report for a negative test taken within 72 hours of arrival. Check with your airline for details.