By Sandra Hutchinson
This is the fourth installment on my blog about the trip I took to northern India in January, 2017. Earlier posts focused on Delhi and visiting Agra (site of the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort). I also posted about the new United Airlines Polaris class for long-haul flights. Please see the end of this post for information on the heritage tourism agency we used to book our driver and hotels.
The northern Indian state of Rajasthan — literally, meaning “land of kings” — is the country’s largest state by area. The region is a popular tourist destination, known for its palaces and forts, wildlife preserves and religious sites. On its western border, the Thar desert borders Pakistan.
This blog post will just touch on some of the highlights of our trip. Rajasthan is large, complex and diverse. We spent a week in the region, visiting four major cities, as well as driving through some remote, rural areas.
Jaipur— the “Pink City” also known for its elephants
Our week in Rajasthan began in Jaipur, the state’s capital. Jaipur is called the “Pink City” because of the large number of buildings in the commercial district that are painted a terracotta color. The pink originated with a visit by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in 1876, when the Maharaja ordered that the buildings be painted pink as a sign of hospitality to welcome the royals. Subsequently, laws were passed that required building owners to maintain the colors.
The principal tourist sites in Japiur, besides the many terracotta-hued buildings, are Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), and Jantar Mantar, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is a collection of architectural structures that are astronomical instruments, built in the early 18th century by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II.
Jaipur is also known for its elephants. We had two opportunities to ride an elephant in Jaipur — the first was at the “elephant village,” outside the city. (See my caveat at the bottom of this post, please.) We were told that the Rajasthan government set up this community to provide housing and land for elephants and their keepers. The village is made up of concrete block buildings where the keepers live with their families, and large, covered block enclosures where the elephants can be sheltered.
Visitors negotiate a price with the keepers to ride, feed and interact with the elephants. All the elephants that are used for riding are female. We rode one elephant (my husband and myself both, with the driver sitting immediately in front of us). I chose to get on the elephant by getting up to her back by climbing steps to a platform, and my husband, brave man that he is, chose to get on the old-fashioned way — going barefoot, facing the elephant and grabbing her ears, and having her lift him up above her head with her trunk. It’s a lot harder than it sounds! We rode the elephant without a platform— essentially just sitting on a blanket and hanging on for dear life to the thick rope that secures the blanket. We walked for approximately 20 minutes, through a wooded area. After the ride, we fed the elephant with balls made of sugar cane. When we offered them to her, she grabbed them with the end of her trunk and put them in her mouth.
Located high on a hilltop overlooking a lake, this imposing multi-level fort is made of sandstone and marble and was the home of the Rajput Maharajas. Most tourists make their way from the base of the hillside into the fort itself by riding one of the elephants who parade up and down the stone path each morning. The elephants are draped in colorful fabrics, and visitors sit on metal platforms with a bar that closes in front of your lap so you don’t risk falling out. It is an amazing scene.
The elephants drop the visitors off in a large courtyard. Below are some images at various places within the fort. The architecture is noted for its Hindu design elements.
Maybe it’s because I neglected to take an astronomy class in college, but the meaning and use of some of the large astronomical instruments at Jantar Mantar escaped me. The structures were built in the 1730s by the Rajput King, enabling him and others to observe astronomical positions with the naked eye. A lot of it, I’m afraid, was lost on us, but I can tell you that the structure in the photo below is said to be the world’s largest sundial.
Next stop: Udaipur
Udaipur has an interesting museum in a royal palace, temples, markets and a botanical garden. For us, the highlight of visiting the city was staying at the magical Lake Palace Hotel, located in a former “Summer Palace” of the royals, in the middle of the city’s manmade Lake Pichola. The current royal family (we were told they still have titles and wealth but no political power) lives in what is called the City Palace, on the shore of the lake. There’s also a “Monsoon Palace” on a mountaintop, to which the royals would repair during monsoon season. Guests are transported to the hotel by boat, where they are greeted by a man in formal Rajasthan dress. Women guests are showered with rose petals as they enter the hotel. The entire structure is made of marble, and there are beautiful interior courtyards. Scenes from the James Bond film Octopussy were filmed here.
Below are some photos taken inside the Lake Palace Hotel.
A stop in rural Rajasthan at an elementary school.
Our driver, Mr. Sohan Singh, told us of an Australian couple he had driven through Rajasthan, who bought school supplies and then donated them to a rural school. When we said we’d like do the same thing, he obtained for us 50 notebooks, pens and pencils. After leaving Udaipur, we drove into a rural area en route to an important Jain temple that was on our itinerary. When we came upon an elementary school in a village, and all the children were outside in the courtyard doing their morning exercises and songs (including the Indian national anthem), we stopped. Mr. Singh approached the head of school and explained what we wanted, and they agreed. We were warmly welcomed and it was a moving experience, especially as we were leaving, when each child touched my husband’s shoe. Mr. Singh explained that it was a sign of respect.
Jodhpur and the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort.
The principal heritage site in Jodhpur is the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, built in the 15th century by Rao Jodha. It rises above Jodhpur, and includes within its walls palaces and a museum that is known for its collection of palanquins, the devices that royals sat on and which were carried by porters.
Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert
Our final destination in Rajasthan was Jaisalmer, in the Thar Desert. Looming over the city is the buttressed sandstone Jaisalmer Fort. We visited the museum within the fort, but most of our time in Jaisalmer was spent walking the streets in the city below. The culmination of our visit to Jaisalmer was riding camels in the sand dunes in the desert, approximately 50 km from the Pakistan border.
Our final stop in this part of Rajasthan— we drove about 30 km outside the city of Jaisalmer into the Thar Desert, to a town where camel rides are offered. Boys and men care for the camels and lead them into the sand dunes so the riders can experience the sunset in the desert. Our driver’s company had arranged for our rides ahead of time.
Caveat regarding riding camels and elephants— we saw no obvious mistreatment of any of the animals but we learned after returning home that some people believe that some of the elephants at Amber Fort are mistreated. If I were to do it again, I would do specific research on this issue before going and try to make more informed decisions on whether to participate in riding any of the animals. I recommend that visitors research this on their own and determine whether they wish to support the practices.
Our guide company: I booked our Rajasthan journey through a company based in Jaipur, on the basis of reviews I read on TripAdvisor. It is called Heritage India Private Tours. Click here for a link to its Web site. I also obtained a reference from the company’s owner and had a long conversation with an American woman who had used their services, before I booked.
The company’s owner, Mr. Magan Singh, worked with me via email to come up with an itinerary that would enable us to see many of the important sites in Rajasthan. He offered several classes of hotel accommodations, and we split our choices between various classes (the Lake Palace in Udaipur being our luxury 5-star splurge). Mr. Singh also booked us air tickets from Jodhpur to Delhi, where we would spend our last night with our son before returning to the United States. Our driver, Mr. Sohan Singh, did an excellent job even in some tricky situations (such as major construction on roads, and having to avoid cows and dogs). (Don’t even think of renting a car in India and driving yourself, unless you are accustomed to driving there.) He is a gentleman and someone we became quite fond of during the eight days we spent with him. In terms of guides, the company arranged for local guides to escort us through each city. They were all licensed and knowledgable about their particular location, although some of the guides had better English fluency than others. Overall, though, we were satisfied with the company and I would recommend using Heritage India Private Tours.
If any readers of this blog have questions about any aspect of our trip, please post a comment or email me through the blog and I will answer. Thank you for reading about our adventure in India. Namaste.