India's Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur is the major draw for many first-time visitors to the country, but beyond them lies a region of little-visited treasures that makes for a compelling trip for anyone wishing to get off the beaten track.
Northern Rajasthan and the Thar Desert offer all the vibrancy and colour of their better known neighbours but none of the crowds. The Shekhavati region of the north eastern Aravalli mountain range is an arid, rugged landscape home to the Marwari traders. Situated on an important trade route between Delhi and the Gujarat coast, local traders grew rich in the 18th and 19th centuries and built a series of elaborate palaces, forts and mansions to showcase their wealth.
Known as havelis after the Persian word for enclosed space, these atmospheric old houses are famous for their frescoes. Everything from images of daily life to historic events and mythological creatures adorn the walls.
Many havelis remain family-owned but visitors can explore the inner courtyards, stay in the charming bedrooms and experience what life was once like in the region’s heyday, at several that have been converted to hotels. From Shekhavati it is possible to continue by road to Bikaner, to see the impressive red sandstone Junagarh Fort. The grandiose interior of the 16th-century fort is beautifully preserved and exquisitely decorated, its numerous palaces, chapels, courtyards and balconies awash with delicate carvings, gold leaf, lacquered walls and intricate mirror and glass inlays.
Despite being a major city, Bikaner has a unique character with camel carts still weaving through the narrow alleyways and a conspicuous lack of visitors. Perhaps this could be attributed to the presence of the intriguing Karni Mata or ‘Rat Temple’ just south of the city. Home to hundreds of rats and mice, which are fed and honoured in the belief that they are reincarnated saints, it is a rather bizarre sight to say the least.
Heading west you will see Jaisalmer rising like a mirage from the flat expanses of the Thar Desert. Perhaps the most unique of all of Rajasthan’s great cities, its thick walls enclose a maze of narrow streets lined with elaborately carved havelis and temples. Life here appears little-changed in centuries, bullocks amble along the streets and the cries of hawkers selling vibrantly-coloured wall hangings echo through the alleyways.
Although overcrowded and firmly on the tourist trail, a walking tour brings Jaisalmer and its fascinating past and multi-faceted present to life. The desert surrounding the city is home to some spectacular dune scenery and a camel or jeep safari will take you out into the sands for a night under the stars at a comfortable camp.
Travelling back into the heart of Rajasthan you can visit the mighty fort city of Jodhpur. A picturesque sea of blue buildings line the old town’s narrow, winding streets where the high-caste Brahmins traditionally added indigo to their whitewash to keep their houses cool and deter insects. The custom caught on and the ‘Blue City’, as it is now known, is a vibrant and atmospheric place dominated by the vast, red sandstone Meherangarh Fort.
Situated on an outcrop of rock, the imposing fort encloses several intricately carved palaces and an extensive museum whose collection includes some of the most impressive artefacts in India. A number of enormous stone gateways breach the thickset walls, the innermost of which shows the sati marks, or handprints, of the 15 wives of Maharaja Man Singh who immolated themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre.
Climb the fort’s enormous ramparts for wonderful views of the sprawling city below and the unmissable market where an atmospheric collection of bustling stalls sell leather goods, spices and silks. A few hours wandering provides a vivid insight into the daily life of Jodhpur’s residents and may result in some interesting souvenirs.
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