Travelling in India can divide opinion. Some live for the energy of its northern cities. They thrive on being lost in seas of humanity and carried along by otherworldly traditions and culture.
For others, it can prove overwhelming. They struggle with India’s fast-paced lifestyle, and find the constant assault to the senses exhausting.
At one point or another, you will be swept up in a sea of colour, culture and cows – and it really is a sink or swim experience – BUT there are corners that are much more relaxed, that offer an easier taste of this fascinating country.
Introducing Rajasthan, a state North-West of Mumbai and a stone’s throw from the famous ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. It is an historic state of lakes, forts, and deserts. A place teaming with life, yet a place that invites you to exhale, to regroup after India’s dizzying cities.
Let me take you on a short tour of three of my favourite spots.
This town Pushkar is a singular experience. In this time of division, it is reaffirming to experience a town that not only tolerates difference, but celebrates the blessings that come with myriad religious expressions.
Pushkar is most famous for its annual Camel Fair that takes place over two weeks in November. Up to half a million people join the celebrations, witnessing an extraordinary array of camel based events.
For the rest of the year, this is a humble town of around 20,000 inhabitants. A place where Gurudwaras, Mosques, as well as Brahman and Savitri Mata temples coexist harmoniously.
I experienced the latter version of Pushkar.
Like walking round an art gallery, Pushkar almost demands you saunter through its streets and experience the coexisting places of worship. Walking just five minutes outside its centre, I stumbled upon the Gurudwara Singh Sabha, an ornate temple with high white walls and intricate 18th Century Sikh architecture. I was beckoned to sit in its dark cool sanctuary and encouraged to just be.
Later in my trip, on the hunt for something slightly more strenuous, I rose early to head up the Ratnagiri Hills that surround the town. Walking through wilderness, my mini-trek culminated a stunning sunrise vista. The rest of my day was spent making my way back down the hill, then after a well-earned nap, indulging in a knock-out curry – try the Thali at the Shri Vankatesh restaurant. It’s unreal.
In spite of the fact that it has been used as the location for major movies, namely: Octopussy and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (both the first and second instalments) Udaipur remains an unspoilt gem.
There are a few absolute must-sees, including the majestic City Palace, but top of this list has to be Jagdish Temple. Built in 1651 as a dedication to Lord Lakshmi Narayan, every inch of its facade is covered in intricate stone elephants and deities. Its shrine is a welcoming place. Whilst sitting there, smelling the rising incense, marvelling at the statue of Lord Vishnu – made entirely from a single-piece of black stone – an incredible sense of calm drifted over me.
(If you are not Hindu always make certain to check whether you are allowed to enter into a temple’s inner sanctum before venturing in.)
Udaipur is, as with many places in India, best experienced from rooftops. Hotels, bars and restaurants in the town boast scenic views and also allow a removed vantage point to watch reality go by.
One of my most treasured memories is watching the sun go down over Lake Pichola, as families flew kites on the warm breeze. Utter bliss.
The town is popular with travellers and meeting new people from around the globe is easy. In the first few days of arriving here, I met up with a group working with various NGOs in the area and sharing my time with new buddies is one of the many beautiful things about travelling. Through this network, I spent time getting to grips with the various issues within Udaipur – lack of health care, the poverty in the area to name but a few – which helped to really understand the place.
A sanctuary in the desert, this is one of the few places in the world that you can experience an inhabited medieval fort. At its heart, the walls of Jaisalmer Fort contain palaces and temples, as well as views of the surrounding desert wilderness.
This is a city of vast history. Founded in the 12th Century, Jaisalmer became a bustling place of commerce, as it sat on routes that connected India with Egypt, Persia and Africa.
Nowadays, Jaisalmer boasts many an opportunity to embark on desert safaris. Possibly the best way to do this is to find a decent hotel that offers excursions, but make sure that you do your research to find the right trip for you – certain tour operators even offer up the possibility of sleeping in the desert.
And that’s exactly what I did, through Mystic Jaisalmer Hotel, which also proved to be a great way to meet other travellers. I spent a day trekking through the desert on a camel, experiencing rolling sand dunes for as far as the eye can see and immersing myself in the sense of surrounded seclusion that this endlessness inspires.
At the end of the day, after witnessing the sunset, our guides taught us the popular Indian game of ‘Kabaddi.’ The only way I can describe it is an advanced game of ‘tag’ – which certainly doesn’t do it complete justice. Once we had got to grips with the rules, we all mucked about under the moonlight, flinging ourselves off of dunes to avoid being got.
When we had exhausted ourselves, we lay back – remarkably – in beds complete with metal frames in the desert. After a full day’s journey through wilderness, there is nothing more relaxing than falling asleep under the unlimited and unpolluted night’s sky.