Occupying the northwest corner of the subcontinent and bordered by Pakistan, Rajasthan is India's desert state. Forget the typical drab desert; Rajasthan, India, is famous for its colorful cities, brightly dyed traditional attire, and romantic history of forts, desert raids, and epic battles. If you've ever wanted to ride a camel across a desert, Rajasthan is the place!
Once very wealthy, Rajasthan was occupied by warrior clans who not only pursued art, astronomy, and science, but also lived a code of chivalry and honor. Rather than face defeat, they often chose to commit mass suicide either at their own hands or in battle. When a man perished in battle, his wife often honorably self immolated at his funeral. Needless to say, intense history and legends permeate Rajasthan.
Today, the old forts, cities, and temples still stand in the desert as testament to the Rajput people's former greatness, however, the state is one of the poorest in India and has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country.
The first stop in Rajasthan from Delhi or Agra is the capital city of Jaipur, where most travelers begin their desert tour. Sprawling and hectic, Jaipur is home to 3.2 million people, half of which seem to make their livings as fast-talking rickshaw drivers.
Most visitors stay in Jaipur only long enough to tour the Pink City, a labyrinth of bazaars with the still-occupied City Palace as the premier attraction. Near the City Palace is the Royal Observatory with highly advanced stone instruments for calculating the trajectories of heavenly bodies. The Hawa Mahal palace has scores of balconies with excellent views of Jaipur.
Another must-see remnant of the past is the Amber (pronounced 'am-er') fort located around six miles northeast of Jaipur. Construction of the massive fort with enclosed palace started in 1592; the structure is an impressive and threatening site perched on a barren mountainside.
Situated around a sacred lake and far smaller than Jaipur, Pushkar is considered the holiest town in Rajasthan, India; many pilgrims make the trek there to bathe in the lake and worship at one of the few temples in the world dedicated to Brahma.
Pushkar is a favorite stop for travelers who are worn out by Jaipur's traffic and noise. Many shops, hotels, and rooftop restaurants are centrally located along the main bazaar road which has become a lively budget travel scene. Scores of temples around town mean that you'll be constantly indulged with chanting, music, worship, and bewildering rituals.
The annual camel fair held each November draws crowds from all over India who force their way into tiny Pushkar for the festivities.
Although Jodhpur is the second-largest city in Rajasthan, the traveler's district in the old Blue City at the base of Mehrangarh Fort is a maze of narrow streets somewhat removed from the hectic modern city. A five-minute walk to the nearby clock tower in the Sadar Market is a reminder of just how hectic things could be!
The imposing fort carved from stone appears even more impressive than others in Rajasthan and bristles with cannons that defend every approach. In fact, the fort withstood a pounding by an attacking force from Jaipur -- the marks from incoming cannon balls are still visible on the walls -- and never fell.
Jodhpur is considered the gateway to the desert; arid land visibly gives way to more and more sand just outside of the city.
Standing in the Thar Desert near the border of Pakistan, the small town of Jaisalmer is typically the last stop for travelers who are heading west through Rajasthan. Jaisalmer is the place to live out your desert fantasies of mirages, camel safaris, and rolling sand dunes.
While Jaipur is the 'Pink City' and Jodhpur the 'Blue City', Jaisalmer is famous as being the 'Golden City' because the yellow sandstone used to construct the fort and structures blend with the desert.
The primary mission of most travelers who have made it all the way to Jaisalmer is to take a camel safari into the desert. Safaris vary from one-night adventures to long-distance treks covering weeks. Unfortunately, the constant sales pressure to sign up for camel trips is inescapable, both in your hotel and on the street.
Located in the south of Rajasthan, Udaipur rewards the effort to get there with beautiful lakes and a completely different vibe. Udaipur is unanimously considered the most romantic place in Rajasthan, and a top candidate for all of India. The impressive City Palace in Udaipur -- the largest in Rajasthan -- stretches out along the calm lake, making for a spectacular site at sunset.
But even with romantic hotel rooms overlooking the lake and natural features, Udaipur is still a victim of growing tourism and noisy traffic consistently clogging the narrow streets.