Rajasthan is the largest state in India, connecting Delhi in the centre to the Pakistani border in the west. It can be quite a daunting place, especially for a first foray into the Indian experience. Poverty is raw and widespread and unsurprisingly tourism is seen as the immediate remedy. As a result the local population are keen to show of the regions powerful colonial history, stunning landscapes, devout religion, traditional foods and a real Indian way of life.
Jaipur and The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle comprises three of India’s most coveted sights: Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra and Jaipur in Rajasthan. Jaipur’s colonial history is perhaps more visible than anywhere as the whole city was painted pink as a celebration of Prince Albert’s arrival in 1853. It has been known as ‘The Pink City’ ever since. Elephants stroll down the main streets, snake charmers entice passers-by, and the opulent governor’s mansions now act as museums, flaunting the wealth of India’s connection to the world in the time of the British Raj.
Chapatti and Chai
One of the first things you’ll notice is how much Tea is drunk here. It’s a national institution. Much sweeter than Tea in the West, Indian tea (or ‘chai’) has evolved throughout India ever since the East India Company kick-started it’s production to rival China’s in the late 1800s. A cup of chai and a cigarette makes up breakfast. For lunch, flatbreads (‘chipati’) and vegetables are popular (forget Naan, it’s an extravagance). Dinner is for sharing: family, fingers and many spiced dishes. Veg or Non Veg? Much of what is eaten is tapered in accordance with Hindi religion, where certain animals are sacred. Run over a sheep and a Hindu will face a jail sentence.
Thar Desert – Jaisalmer
A surreal moment in any tour of Rajasthan has to be riding out into the Thar Desert (surrounding the most westerly city of Jaisalmer) on camelback and sleeping under the stars. Remind yourself that you are ten miles away from the Pakistani border, often referred to as the most dangerous border on Earth. Disputes between the two sides run deep, as is fiercely played out on the cricket field. Beating Pakistan at cricket is a young Indians dream. They are totally mad for it.
What really strikes a visitor to this place is the basic lifestyles of most of the population. One night I found a unique place to stay in Rajasthan. It was with my guide’s family about 50 kilometres from the city of Jodhpur. Cows are still used to turn mills that control water levels to the fields and crush grain into flour. The family of 15+ lived in a very small space, a shed made of corrugated metal, and a single cow kept the family sustained.
I found it an extremely moving and spiritual place, full of huge dust filled sunsets, hilltop forts and forgotten glory. But, if you choose to delve into the rural, less beaten paths, be prepared for the reality of poverty on a huge scale. Having said that the people are optimistic, and the government is spending money on infrastructure. Everywhere you look motorways are being constructed and mobile phone networks are reaching out to the remotest of communities. Advice for the female traveller would be to always have a scarf handy to cover up your shoulders and face. This way you will be shielded from the foreigner spotlight which can make some feel uncomfortable.
5 things not to miss in Rajasthan
- Jaipur – ‘The Pink City’
- Jodphur – ‘The Blue City’
- Thar Desert – Jaisalmer
- Udaipur – ‘Lake City’ – often referred to as the Venice of the East.
- A cup of Chai!