Treasures of Rajasthan
Rajasthan has become one of the most popular states to visit in India, known for its bright colours and fiery food, the ‘Land of Kings’ brims with forts, palaces and spectacular remnants of the past.
Jaipur, perhaps the most famous town in Rajasthan, is the gateway into the state. The Old City, also known as the ‘Pink City’, gives visitors a first glimpse of bygone glory, but be prepared: its treasures lie at the centre of the traffic choked sprawl of an expanding greater Jaipur, which is arrestingly ugly in parts.
The lack of traffic police and traffic lights makes for stressful road crossing (to the delight of rickshaw drivers), while the sheer amount of faeces on the streets makes walking an obstacle course (flip-flops are not recommended!), but persevere and you will be rewarded by the delights of the Hawa Mahal (City Palace). Here you can take a fascinating peek into the lives of the maharajas, tour the armoury and see their well preserved collection of royal clothing.
Afterwards hours can be whiled away drinking lassi from clay cups with the locals at the ‘Lassiwala’ or haggling for textiles and jewellery in the bazaars.
While Jaipur was interesting for a day or two, we were looking for a place where we could slow down the pace a bit. Our next stop, Jaisalmer, was exactly the right choice.
Built in 1156, Jaisalmer Fort, is situated a 12 hour train ride from Jaipur in the Rajasthani desert. As the train approached the town, we got our first glimpse of the ‘giant sandcastle’; rising, seemingly out of nowhere, the construction of the ninety-nine imposing bastions made us wonder how this citadel could have been constructed in such a harsh environment more than 850 years ago.
Sadly the imposing exterior bastions, which tower above the new town that has sprouted beyond them, are a façade which hide an imperilled interior – the fortress is still inhabited, but it is uncertain how long it will remain a viable residential zone as poor drainage and overcrowding are causing alarming subsidence (since 1993 three of the bastions have collapsed).
Numerous hotels inside the fort vie for tourist dollars, but foreign visitors use much more water than the average local, increasing the strain on the drainage system. Another issue is the dumping of waste created by tourists and locals (particularly pet bottles and other plastic) within the walls. With these problems in mind, we chose to sleep outside the fortress walls.
On a positive note, Jaisalmer is a great place to explore on foot, though the harsh sunlight of the desert makes it sensible to adopt the languid pace of the locals. Wandering the alleys of the fort, shopping for embroidery, leisurely lunches, followed by siestas, and the wonderful delights of the Kanchan Shree Ice Cream shop (the makhania lassis are highly recommended!) filled our days. In Jaisalmer we could put away the guidebook and let the streets take us wherever they led.
For us this diminutive town a long way from anywhere was one of the highlights of northern India and we hope that the efforts to preserve it will be successful because it would really be a great loss if it were to turn crumble and return to the dust.