Travelogue: Rajasthan road trip

A five-day road-trip through the north-east Indian state of Rajasthan

Rajasthan is one of the most beautiful states in the country. Lying to the south-west of the national capital of New Delhi, it is mostly made up of the Thar desert. Despite its inhospitable geography, the state possesses a rich history encompassing tradition, valor, patriotism and an unsurpassed beauty.

Our trip coincided with the Indian festivals of Diwali and Id. The long weekend off from work, allowed us to drive through the state, covering three incredible cities This is an account of that awesome journey through sands and time.

The beginning

We started early, around 1:30 am, on Thursday, November 11, 2004. The plan for the trip spanned five days, pegging our return to New Delhi on the following Monday. Starting off at 1:30 meant we would not only beat the invariable holiday rush out of Gurgaon, but would also give us a head start driving through the state early. We did pretty good time and reached Jaipur just as the sun was rising up. From there on it was new territory. A few quick queries later we were on the way towards Jodhpur, the blue city, our first destination.

We reached Jodhpur, around 330 kilometers later. In true road-trip style, we had no reservations. So it took a bit of time to pick through options and finalize place to check in. We chose a small but clean guest house, on the High Court Road. If you are in the city, a check down this street (High Court Road) would probably yield results pretty quickly. However more elaborate places to stay are also available, some as part of the inner city itself.

Jodhpur

Jodhpur is called the 'blue city'. Historically brahmins in the city were required to paint their house with indigo, as a mark of honor and clear identification. Over time other inhabitants of the city picked up this custom and a significant number of houses in the city are now painted blue. However do not expect to see blue all over the place, the best view of the blue city is from the ramparts of the Mehrangarh fort itself. Otherwise, you will see blue, but only in small isolated patches. Also remember, the blue is bluer in the photographs.

The first monument we visited was the Jaswanth Thada. We took a rickshaw for this part of the tour, but with a few enquiries, you can well take a car or even a bus to both Jaswanth Thada and the Mehrangarh fort. It is the site of the white marble royal cenotaph of Jaswant Singh II and four of his successors. The place is set beside the typical Rajasthani sandstone hills and next to a lake. The place is serene, beautiful, intricate and worth a visit. If you are not on a sight-seeing tour, this could be the place you would want to settle down for a quite time. There are a few trees in the gardens which can provide shade to one willing to hang out at this place.

The Mehrangarh fort is an awesome spectacle. If ever there was a fort built to withstand attacks this was it. The place is huge and imposing. Guides are typically available at the ticket counter. As an alternative, there are also audio guides to a most of the locations, with the various points in the audio guide marked out quite clearly in the fort. Don't miss the sight of the blue city from the windows. If you are in town for dinner, see if you can catch it right at the fort itself. Dinner is offered on the 5th floor landing overlooking the city.

Unlike other forts, the Mehrangarh fort is a large living complex, complete with temples, gardens and halls, called Mahals. In particular, the Moti Mahal (Pearl Hall), the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Hall) and the Phool Mahal (Flower Hall) are the highlights of the place.

We returned to the guest house, tired, having been up from 1:30am that morning. Turning in after a quick hot shower and dinner proved to be a pretty sweet way to end day 1.

Early next morning, we checked out the third place on our itinerary in Jodhpur - the Umaid Bhawan Palace. This is one of the country's newest palace. It was built by Maharajah Umaid Singh during the 1920's and took 13 years to complete. This was meant as a famine relief project, which was food given in exchange for working on the palace. With 347 rooms, this is one of the biggest private residences in India. The current ruler has converted part of this to a museum and a hotel under the Taj group. However if you are on a quick pass through the city, and want to give something a miss, this would probably be it.

If you are more shopping-inclined, the clock tower market is a perfect place to go. Though we had to give this a miss, the sight from the fort, showed the market bustling with people.

Jodhpur to Jaisalmer

Having checked out from the guest hour in the morning, we set for Jaisalmer from the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Jaisalmer is called the golden city, and it is undoubtedly the most beautiful city that I have seen in India. Set near the western edge of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer is right in the middle of the Thar desert. Our drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer took us through rapidly changing vegetation and increasing heat and sands. On the way we stopped at one of the first few real sand-dunes, to climb it and feel real desert sands. The steep slopes and the rather slippery sand ensured that we were quickly out of breath, fighting encroaching sand into our shoes and wishing we were camels. Tips about getting down to climb sand-dunes - do not wear shoes, drink a lot of water and wear head protection; you will not realize how quickly the desert dehydrates you.

Our drive took us through Pokhran, a generally nondescript town, but for the recent nuclear tests conducted by India here. The locals tell us that as a result of these tests the average temperatures have actually increased by at least 10 degrees centigrade.

One more item worth mentioning were the roads. Roads were pretty good all through the trip. Once past Jaipur the traffic thins down quite rapidly. And once past Jodhpur, traffic is practically non existent. We were able to maintain 120 km ph speeds continuously for pretty long stretches. One one stretch we actually covered 115 kilometers in one hour. We avoided doing any of the drives after dark - while this makes logistics difficult, it is a lot safer especially if you have girls in your group.

We reached Jaisalmer around 7 in the evening. This was, Friday, the evening of Diwali and before we could do anything about it, we had to find a place to place and settle in. Our search led us to this awesome place called the Nachna haveli, which is a heritage hotel. This was apparently the house of the owners for around 1100 years and they had converted part of that into a hotel. We spent the evening of Diwali in this absolutely quaint refuge, with fireworks and fun.

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is like a golden mirage, something out of a dream. As you are driving towards it, you will first see a quite large sandstone hillock to one side. As you drive nearer you notice that it isn't as much of a hillock, as it is a mountain holding up an enormous fort, and as you get closer you see the small town nestled right next to it, almost like the sand castle and the sand city made by a little girl sitting on the beach.

The entire city is made with the golden-brown sandstone, which all but camouflages it from the sky. Jaisalmer is the last of the princely kingdoms between India and Pakistan. Established by Rawal Jaisal, in 1196 AD, Jaisalmer earned early wealth and glory as it lay on the part of the profitable trade routes to Central Asia and Far East. With the growth of shipping and Mumbai as an alternate route, Jaisalmer started dwindling in influence. Its fortunes took a twist again with the advantages offered by the strategic location of the city in dealing with India's neighbor Pakistan. Now tourism and the army presence are two of its biggest revenue streams.

The night we reached Jaisalmer was Diwali. And Diwali, in India means lights, sweets and fire crackers. As soon as we checked into the hotel, we headed over to the local market to acquire our own arsenal of lights. The roof of the hotel, with some guests still having dinner and the lit fort dominating half the view, made that Diwali night unforgettable.

Next morning, we headed over to see the sights of the city, starting with the fort. The fort established on the Trikuta hill dominates the horizon and is visible from every part of the city. During Diwali, when we arrived there, the entire fort is lit up and forms a mesmerizing sight in the night. The fort, unlike many of the others in India, is in full use. It is actually occupied by almost 4500 people, who reside right inside the fort. And almost everyone in the fort, is selling something. Just wandering the narrow streets, having coke and miniature paintings vying for your attention is an unforgettable experience.

To enter the actual palace here you need a ticket. There are touts all over the place in Jaisalmer, and if more than one happens to catch you it can get pretty annoying. The palace itself offers some breathtaking views of the town and the other quarters of the fort. And for once, the name of a place - 'golden city' is more than justified.

In addition to the fort there are a few other sites worth seeing. There are a few Jain temples which has some of the most beautiful carvings. There is also a Hindu temple, situated away from the main city, which is worth a visit.

The Havelis are a must see. Constructed by the wealthiest of the kingdom, in recognition of their support to the king, these are masterpieces in architecture and splendor. The Pathwon ki Haveli is one of the biggest and most elaborate. There are perfectly maintained rooms of yesteryear in this place, including bedrooms, kitchens, dining places and halls.

The other must-do in Jaisalmer is the Camel Safari. We got a good deal from our host at the heritage hotel who, through our stay, had become a good friend. Generally there are a few very popular tourist(ey) destinations in the dunes, such as the Sam Sand dunes. We however took the path less traveled, if you will, to a pretty unknown sand-dune but completely outside the tourist hub dub. Rajasthan is not a sandy desert - it is a rocky one. So dunes like the ones seen in, say, the Sahara are pretty uncommon. Sand dunes in Rajasthan typically turn out to be a massive sand heap in the middle of the desert surrounded by a rocky land with a good amount of vegetation.

The camel ride is one of the most self revealing things one can ever do. It reveals that you are heavy, that you have a spinal cord, that you have a butt that can ache like crazy and that you would rather walk than stride atop a camel for a 10 kilometer ride.

The camel fiasco notwithstanding, the sheer beauty of the sunset made it all worth it. We watched the sun go down, lit a bonfire, cooked food on the fire, and sat around telling stories around the fire with a cold drink in hand. Then as the stars came out and the wind started to nip, a cozier corner within our blankets was all we needed to curl up for a nights sleep. Popping your head out in the middle of the night, and seeing just the stars, and hearing only the crunch of the camels chewing cud is an out-of-this-world experience.

Jaisalmer to Bikaner

Sunday morning, we headed back to the hotel, ready to move on. We spend some time shopping in Jaisalmer and soon set out for Bikaner. The drive, again, was excellent. The sun set, with another dramatic display of color as we reached Bikaner in the dark.

Having reached Bikaner in the evening of Sunday, we settled into a hotel and grabbed a quick dinner. The itinerary, next day was packed, so we quickly called it a night.

Bikaner

After Jaisalmer almost every place has its volume turned down. Bikaner is more of a city than a quaint town. Reaching the Junagarh fort was an exercise in maps and consultations with the locals. However once we reached the fort, the dramatic insides were worth the effort. The delicate carvings on wood and sandstone, elaborate paintings in vegetable dyes, and tall spacious halls is a hallmark of Bikaner. Bikaner provides its own guides to most of the places including the fort. The Junagarh fort is unusual in that it has been built at ground level and not on any elevated location. In spite of this it remains one of the few forts in India that have not been conquered.

Right next to the temple is a museum too. With an impressive collection of artifacts from the age of the Mughals and the Rajputs, it is worth a visit.

30 kilometers south of Bikaner is place called Deshnoke. This is the place of the Karni Mata temple. The current temple was built by Maharajah Ganga Singh in the early 20th century. It is built in marble and has lavishly worked on doorways and panels. The resident deity of this place is Karni Mata. Legend has it that once the Karni Mata tried to restore the dead child of a storey teller to life, but was unsuccessful as Yama, the god of death had reincarnated his soul in human form. Karni Mata, famed for her legendary temper, announced that all humans from her tribe would not fall into the hands of Yama. Instead, they would be formed transitorily as rats (called kabas here) and then be reincarnated as humans. Hence rats or kabas have a free reign of this place and are given divine status.

Walking the small stretch from the entrance to the main temple is an awesome experience. There are rats scuttling all over the place. Watch each step and make sure any girls with you are suitably forewarned.

The return

By around 6 we were at a place called Faterpur on the road from Bikaner to Jaipur. Then we decided to not take the main road, but chose to taken a short-cut, which would eventually save us almost a 100 kilometers. This route took us through Jhunjhunu, Narnaul, Riwadi connecting to the Jaipur highway. We finally reached Delhi at around 11:30 PM for a bout of well deserved sleep after a very satisfying trip.

These five days were a treasured time away from the hustle bustle of a city. Coincidentally, my cell phone was out of service, and ensured that the trip was all I cared about. From the forts of Jodhpur to the sand dunes of Jaisalmer and the well maintained sights of Bikaner - this was a trip to remember. If you are looking for a place to take time off, and have grown sick of yet another hill station - try Jaisalmer.

Document Changes
November 23, 2004: First published version.
April 01, 2009: Language & format edits.