Grand Architecture, Vivid & Colorful Street Life And Holy Cows
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In April 2012 I had my first brush with India, to be precise Eastern Rajasthan: for 11 days I gazed at the most incredible Moghul architecture in Agra and Jaipur. I also threw in a bit of wildlife by visiting Ranthambhore National Park. When I returned in March 2013, I headed for the Southwest of Rajasthan for 12 days, to marvel at these impressive forts & palaces in Udaipur, Kumbhalgarh, Bundi, Chittorgarh and last but not least Pushkar & Ajmer. Delhi was my hub during both trips.
In March 2015, I went back to Rajasthan for one full month, and made an extensive loop through this area of India: Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri & Abhaneri, Jaipur, Pushkar & Ajmer, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Kumbalgarh & Ranakpur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner & Nawalgarh. I ended the trip in Amritsar (Punjab) to marvel at the Golden Temple.
Why Travel To Rajasthan?
Rajasthan is definitely an ideal place to get a first glimpse of India:
- Rajasthan is incredibly easy to travel: the level of comfort covers everything from the cheapest backpacker hostel to 5 star palaces, from luxurious tours to riding in 3rd class trains. I preferred staying in Havelis, the splendid homes of former noblemen. These have lots of cozy places to relax. Above all, they are the perfect retreat from the noise and hassle of the streets.
- Public transport and infrastructure are generally very good: modern buses crisscross all cities and Delhi’s metro is ultra modern. A longer journey is best done by train, which are not only an extremely efficient and pleasant but also a cheap way to travel long distances. Chartering a car (long distance taxi) is a good way to do day trips to places a bit off the main drag. These can be organized within minutes through the hotel and are very cheap compared to Europe.
- Last but not least, you find in Rajasthan some of the finest Mughal Architecture, and except if you have at least one full month at hand, your main concern will be to choose between places as you will not be able to cover even the main highlights!
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would I Have Wished To Know?
- Plan enough time in each city you visit, as the highlights are not only the famous Forts & Palaces & Mausoleums & Tombs & Whatever, but also the street life, the markets, numerous more remote and less visited places… Besides, street life can be vibrant & hectic and hence tiring, so keep in mind that you will want to retreat to some quite places after a few hours… Moreover, no matter when you visit Rajasthan, it will be warm or even hot during the day, so plan to start early and to rest between 11:00 and 15:00 o’clock.
- Booking ahead is advisable if you want to stay in some of the nicer Havelis (houses of former noblemen turned into guesthouses), which are extremely popular and fully booked sometimes weeks in advance.
- Booking ahead is also necessary if you want to travel in the upper classes of trains: the First AC is generally sold out weeks (sometimes months) in advance, and even the Second AC (especially 2 Tiers, but also 3 Tiers) should be booked ahead. This can be easily done online, though registering into the system can be downright frustrating… Check my post on Indian Trains.
- If you intend to visiting National Parks like Ranthambhore to spot Tigers in the wild, book the transport inside the National Park as far in advance as possible so that you secure a seat in a Jeep and not in one of those huge trucks. Keep in mind that all this is state owned, bureaucracy managed… Booking starts 3 months ahead and within days, all Jeeps are sold out. My experience of Ranthambhore was really disappointing, though!
- Chartering a car between cities is a very efficient way to travel between cities, especially if there are interesting places to visit on the way, like Fatehpur Sikri & Abhenari between Agra & Jaipur or Kumbalgarh & Ranakpur between Udaipur & Jodhpur. Avoid approaching larger cities like Delhi by car, as traffic can be maddening in India!
- Last but not least, only few ATMs give larger amounts of cash, so if you have a fix commission for each withdrawal, which most credit & debit card do, consider withdrawing larger amounts in big cities. Chase enables you for instance to withdraw 20.000 Ruppies (approx. 275 €) at a time, whereas most ATMs in smaller cities only allow 10.000.
Highlights Of The Trip
- Agra – Yes, the Taj Mahal is simply magical! And no, it is actually not in Rajasthan, but no visit there would be complete without the most perfect Mughal Architecture. But there are many other highlights in Agra…
- Jodhpur, The Blue City – Long strolls through the maze of the Old City, Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Tada… Jodhpur is one of the most fascinating cities of Rajasthan, and one where you will more easily escape the crowd.
- Jaipur, The Pink City – At first sight a chaotic, congested, hot city, but Jaipur abounds with highlights and is definitely worth spending several days to somewhat scratch below the surface. The good news, if you have enough time to explore more of the city than just the Amber Fort, the City Palace and Palace of the Winds (visited by groups in this very order), you will meet very few tourists…
- Udaipur, The City On Lake Pichola – With its stunning lake view, its magnificent temples, its Havelis and palaces turned into museums or hotels and Rajasthan’s largest palace, it made Udaipur to one of my favorite places in Rajasthan…
- Jaisalmer & Bikaner, The Fortresses Of The Thar Desert
- India’s Great Wall in Kumbhalgarh… – Just me and a few monkeys! Nearby Jain Temple in Ranakpur is also one of the finest Temples I ever visited in my life!
- The Gigantic Fort Of Chittorgarh – Thirty overwhelming kilometers of wall encircle the fort that spreads over an area of nearly 700 hectares. Only once up do you understand that this is actually a tabletop mountain…
- Relaxed Bundi – A town with narrow lanes of Brahmin-blue houses dominated by a fascinating Palace.
- The Golden Temple In Amritsar – No, the Golden Temple in Amritsar is not in Rajasthan but in Punjab. But yes, it was an incredible “final touch” to this trip through Rajasthan…
- Cheerful Holi Festival – Best enjoyed in smaller cities and early in the day
- Indian People – Friendly and curious of foreign tourists, this is how I perceived my host country. Those who speak English will use the opportunity to talk to tourists on trains, at tourist sights and whenever there is a chance. So often I was asked to pose for photos with the whole family and, most important, “questioned” how I liked their country.
- Riding those long Indian Trains
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Rajasthan abounds with stunning but extremely popular highlights, so it is extremely tempting to stay “On The Beaten Track” and focus on a very classic route, rushing from one monument to the other, especially if you have a limited amount of time at hand. This is all the more true as regular trains connect those major points of interest very efficiently and very cheaply, keeping you focused on few places.
There are nonetheless real jewels or typical aspects that do not receive as much attention as they deserve (do hardly expect to travel Off The Beaten Track in Rajasthan, though). And more often than not, this doesn’t mean that you have to add a long way… Some of these attractions are actually near major highlights or between to “hotspots”. There, a chartered taxi is a very efficient and not all too expensive alternative: count 7 to 8 Rupees per kilometer – do not forget that you have to integrate the drive back, though!
Of course it is always best to spend at least one night in each place (especially in Chittorgarh, Nawalgarh, and maybe Bikaner), to be able to enjoy the visit before or after the crowd and to use the best light for taking pictures.
Nevertheless, some highlights I truly enjoyed and met less visitors than in the major attractions of Rajasthan…
What Will I Especially Remember?
- Grand Moghul architecture influenced by three different cultures and religions
- Hazardous rides in those three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks
- Having my photos taken – either with a family or just me… Only in Iran & maybe China was I so high in demand!
- A sea of colors… Bright saris and scarves everywhere: a photographer’s dream!
- Air pollution in large cities – In Delhi, in only 48 hours I had the impression I was catching a Bronchitis!
- People leaving behind garbage everywhere
- The constant loud noise of honking vehicles, large or small
- Huge social contrast: a wealthy middle class driving around in large SUVs right next to skinny men pushing heavy, overloaded bikes, with stuff piled up high
- Holy Cows… They are simply everywhere: on the street (blocking the traffic), in markets (trying to steal food), at the door of houses (begging for food), in temples (wandering around), you name it…
- Priests and “Holy Men” asking for donation (Pushkar)
- Traffic, not only abysmal but also violent – Though I came prepared, each time my worst expectations were surpassed: trucks, buses, cars, tuktuks, motorbikes, bikes, some of which transporting unimaginable quantities of cargo, oxcarts, pedestrians, water buffaloes, cows… They all fight for the slots that allow them to move few centimeters forward. There is a clear hierarchy: the bigger the vehicle, the louder the horn, the more successful the participant is in moving ahead. As a pedestrian, you are on the lowest level of the “food chain”!
- How deep-rooted the cast system is still in India – People of higher casts will tell you first that they are Brahmins or from this or that cast, and often guides will praise this system…
- The heat – beginning of April is already too late for truly enjoying this part of the India
What Would I Do Differently?
- Spend at least 3 nights in the major cities of Rajasthan to have enough time to discover other aspects of the cities and to rest & relax between visits: Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur. In other places, I strongly recommend at least 2 nights… If you do not have enough time, try to focus on a small amount of cities rather than rush from one place to the other!
- Invest enough time to move somehow Off The Beaten Track… Which is quite difficult in Rajasthan!
- Travel during the cooler season, i.e. between December & February, which is as well the highest season in Rajasthan, but when temperatures are the most pleasant…
- Skip Ranthambhore National Park, which was truly disappointing, though seeing a tiger in the wild before they have become instinct (and that will be soon, unfortunately) should be high on anyone’s list!
Is It Safe To Travel To Rajasthan?
I have mixed feelings about safety issues in India, and this is one of the very few countries where I would recommend some caution…True, all in all, India is a safe country to travel as a man or as a couple. But…
Petty theft is an issue in many places, so leave your valuables in the hotel and avoid flashing expensive mobile phones, which are especially targeted. I got 2 mobile phones stolen from pickpockets in 3 trips, and these are the only theft I experienced so far while traveling (in more than 60 countries)!
Traveling with an (attractive) teenager in 2013 (my girlfriend’s niece, Kelly), I was suddenly and clearly remembered that relations between sexes still are… complicated in India. The recent rape issues, with female tourists also targeted, highlighted a large scale phenomenon. It was hard to manage the unwanted and extremely insistent attention Kelly was receiving from men, young and less young alike. After this experience, I would somehow feel uncomfortable if my girlfriend was to travel alone in India… Maybe this is a prejudice, but I stayed safe in years of travels because I followed my intuition.
Traffic hazards should also be taken very, very seriously. Human life has no value whatsoever, and accidents are both frequent and deadly. As a pedestrian, you are on the lowest level of the “food chain”, and people on motorbikes, tuktuks, cars, you name it… will accelerate in your direction to get you out of their ways. Never have I experienced such a violence toward pedestrians!
Best Time To Visit Rajasthan
The best time to visit Rajasthan is between November and March, that is to say in the dry & “cold” season (expect temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius). There, you can enjoy blue skies and pleasant temperatures. It is also the highest season, though… So do not expect to be alone at major sites!
Communication (Language Barrier?)
English is widely spoken in Rajasthan, so communication is extremely easy.
Getting Around In Rajasthan
- Trains are not only cheap and comfortable, they are the most efficient way to travel from one city to the other in Rajasthan. From the 13 trains I took, none had more than 15 minutes delay. Besides, trains are part of the “Indian experience” and are a great opportunity to meet locals. I learned so much just by chatting with my Indian travel companions… I must add there that I always traveled in the highest available class (First AC or Second AC 2 Tiers). These classes must be booked (far) in advance, which can be done very conveniently (the registering can be challenging, though) through an online reservation system.
- Also worth considering is chartering a car (long distance taxis) between cities if you have points of interest in between, like Fatehpur Sikri & Abhenari between Agra & Jaipur or Kumbalgarh & Ranakpur between Udaipur & Jodhpur. A long distance taxi will normally cost you 7 to 8 Ruppies per kilometer (do not forget to calculate the way back, though), including waiting time…
Indian bureaucracy is famous for its size and inflexibility, and back in 2012-2013, obtaining a Visa was a major challenge, partly because it was especially complicated (you need pictures of a specific size, for instance, several documents must be copied several times…), but also mainly because it was so bureaucratic and so inflexible that there was always a reason to refuse an application. Some fellow travelers in Vienna (Austria) had to go 3 or 4 times to the embassy before being granted the precious visa!
End of 2014, it turned out to be much easier (might it be that the rapes that made headlines worldwide and the resulting drop of tourism of more than 30% had an impact?), with the agency in charge of processing the applications eager to help and find a solution no matter what… I made three mistakes and all 3 were corrected on the spot with a smile…
Let’s hope this lasts or a Visa On Arrival system is finally implemented.
Photography – Rajasthan: Palaces, People & Street Life
- Key Factors For Taking Great Pictures?
- Wide-Angle – As always in Architecture Photography, the most important piece of equipment is a wide angle. I had just bought a new EF 16-35 L 4.0 and actually took 80% of the architecture pictures with this lens. The lack of distance inside those Forts & Palaces makes it extremely difficult to take pictures with a standard lens (like a EF 24-105 L 4.0). When using wide-angle lenses a lot and post-processing your pictures, for instance in Lightroom, the new Upright – Automatic Perspective Correction is equally helpful. It corrects the tilted perspective by cropping the picture. Think about taking a wider frame of the subject, if possible!
- Polarization Filter – Too much light & a lack of contrasts are your major challenges while photographing outdoors in India, especially during the day. Hence, you should use one pretty much all the time to improve contrasts.
- Timing – The real challenge is to be at the right place for the perfect light, like for the “Blue Hour”, shortly after sunset. Getting up early enough for the soft morning light can even be harder, and many points of interest do not open early (with the significant exception of the Taj Mahal that opens at dawn)…
- Tele-lens – Taking pictures of people is quite challenging, as most people then tend to pose. Each time I asked, the result was not what I hoped for. Now a tele-lens does the trick, enabling me to take pictures from a certain distance. Once people don’t notice, the expressions / portraits are much more genuine…
- Best Opportunities For Great Pictures
- Mughal Architecture created some of the most spectacular and delicate Mausoleums (think of the Taj Mahal), Palaces (think of the Hawa Mahal, but also dozens of other Palaces), Forts and other monuments… You can spend hours wandering around and taking some spectacular pictures.
- People – India offers a sea of colors… There are bright saris and scarves everywhere: a photographer’s dream! And the best part? Indian people love to have their picture taken with foreigners. Just smile, ask, and you will be able to make spectacular portraits!
- Street Life – Take the time to sit down at a street corner and to observe the every day life, might it be 4 people on a scooter with the driver talking into his phone, overloaded tuktuks and trucks or other things with wheels, cows stealing fruits and vegetables at markets, monkeys quietly sitting on a motorbike and looking at people around…
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Rajasthan
Conclusion About Rajasthan…
Rajasthan is popular for its many Mausoleums, Temples, Forts, Palaces, Havelis, … If you want to get a good overview of those, you will need at least one month, as there are simply so many, all of which spectacular in their way!
But what makes Rajasthan the ideal place for first timers in India as well as for people knowing the country very well is the combination of such cultural richness and with area easy to travel independently no matter what your budget is; with a place where you can also discover India’s vibrant, colorful and hectic street life in markets and bazaars, and last but not least with an area where you rapidly change from a gigantic megapolis to some remote rural areas…
Rajasthan is also very cheap to travel: for 45 Euros per person / a day on average I enjoyed a pleasant level of comfort and a great flexibility.
The only drawback was that it is extremely challenging to go Off The Beaten Track…