All travellers in India are protected by the benevolent spirit of Ganesh. The most popular Hindu deity, Ganesh is the smiling elephant-headed god of good fortune and the patron saint of scribes. Our bus driver keeps a Ganesh statue on the dashboard – as well as portraits of gurus and lucky charms dangling from the rear view mirror. He says Ganesh will help us overcome any spiritual and physical obstacles on our journey – the cows, goats, camels, elephants and ox-carts wandering the roads of India – as well as all the other drivers.
Ganesh uses his broken tusk to write – but I stick to an old-fashioned pen to record my own passage through India on an enthralling overland trip around Rajasthan – the land of kings. Intrepid travellers follow a well-trodden circuit around the golden triangle – the old maharaja states of Jaipur, Jaiselmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur – an ancient desert landscape of fabulous forts, palaces and temples on the old spice and silk route.
You can always work out where you are – all the towns are conveniently colour-coded – the pink city of Jaipur, the amber fort, the blue city of Jodhpur, the golden city of Jaiselmer and the turquoise water city of Udaipur.
I’m told colours are very auspicious in India. Symbolic colours represent people from different regions (regal red and gold in Rajasthan), towns and tribes (orange for Gujarat). Even the colours and way you knot your turban tells a story of caste and class. The regal Rajputs wear saffron and desert nomads wear black – while even the colour of saris can symbolise a woman’s marital status or how many children.
We were travelling in an escorted tour of Rajasthan with Intrepid Travel – who offer small group excursions to remote destinations around the world – and cover all of India. They really live up to their motto “real life experiences”, a global brand of authentic, ethical tourism. At every destination we are taken on urban walks through the heart of the city – to get us off the bus and meet the locals. I’ve travelled all over Asia with Intrepid Travel – to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and lately, India.
Intrepid tour leaders are always excellent – and they use great local guides from destination to destination. Best of all, we stay at friendly family run guest houses, heritage hotels and even maharajas palaces, all with great character – rather than anonymous hotel chains. Our enthusiastic young guide, Animesh Khandker was superb – introducing us to wonderful street foods and authentic local restaurants. I was soon nicknamed the maharaja of paneer (cheese) after my appetite for vegetarian curry!
Over the next fortnight, we journeyed to the three Js: Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
Our first destination was Jaipur – an ancient fortified city state we entered via one of seven giant gateways set in the town walls.
It’s been known as the pink city since the Maharaja (the ruler) painted the whole town pink – not red – to welcome Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, to Rajasthan in 1853. The old town is still painted pink.
While photographing the magnificent façade of the Hawa Mahal – palace of the winds – I was almost knocked over by a pink elephant on a road full of fast-moving camel carts and cows. Look left, right and upwards when you cross the road in India.
While in Jaipur, we visited the Jantar Mantar, one of seven massive observatories built in India by Maharaja Singh in 1728 – with some of the biggest sundials (27m high) and astronomy instruments in the world. Our tour on foot around the pink city was a feast for the senses – watching women buying rainbow fabric in the old Johari bazaar, buying tea and sesame sweets from the chai and sesame wallah.
Some of my fellow travellers who had a palm reading at the astrological institute reported the astrologer wanted their exact time of birth and made uncannily accurate predictions.
We stayed at Hotel Bissau, a historical palace, which has hosted visiting British royalty, and been the scene of historic treaties negotiated between the maharajas and the central government. All the bedrooms have old teak Raj-era furniture, four-poster beds and divans. The hotel is set in gardens where we watched a skilled puppeteer perform an amazing show with live musicians. Rajasthan is famous for its bright folklore puppets – so we bought two handmade maharaja and maharani puppets.
We also went to see a new Bollywood movie at the landmark art deco cinema of Raj Mendir in Jaipur. Apparently it’s the place to see a Bollywood movie in India. We joined the audience, cheering, dancing and applauding the action in The House of Patiala, a new release set against the background of the ICC World Cricket Cup.
The amber fort on the outskirts of Jaipur is one of India’s most famous sights – a massive fortress perched on a hillside with fortified walls that zigzag up and down the mountains. Twenty-eight maharajas ruled here for six centuries. We followed a procession of 50 brightly painted elephants carrying tourists up the hillside to the massive courtyard where musicians were drumming up a storm. Feeling like Alice passing through the looking glass, we passed through the great Ganesh gateway into a colourful kaleidoscope of the hall of mirrors, eunuchs’ chambers and harem gardens.
Jaisalmer is known as the golden city – though others call it cow town after the hundreds of cows which wander the narrow alleyways of the marketplace. For many travellers, Jaiselmer is the highlight of Rajasthan. We stayed at the Mandir Palace where the ruling maharaja still lives in a private wing with his family – and keeps his stable of Arabian stallions in the courtyard. The sandstone castle on the hill with its 99 bastions towers above the old town. Built in the 12th century, the fort encircles the main palace, seven exquisite Jain temples and many old havelis (mansions) built by wealthy merchants at this crossroads on the old caravan route through India to Asia.
Jaisalmer is the gateway to the Thar desert on the Pakistan/Indian frontier. We set off from a romantic desert caravanserai on a sundowner camel trek. I found out my camel was called Bubel and my mahout Ibu. It is an experience riding a camel. I found out that there is quite a trick to climbing out the high saddle instead of slowly sliding off into the sands.
Jodhpur, the blue city, the third Rajput city state, is an incredible sight. Built in the 16th century, it is famous for its blue quarter – painted blue to signify it is the home of upper-caste Brahmins. The highlight was tour of the red sandstone Meherangarh fort on a hill towering over the old city. Rudyard Kipling called it “the creation of angels, fairies and giants”. We explored the three palaces of pearls, pleasure and flowers – and at his shrine on the way out, thanked Ganesh for looking after us on our journey through Rajasthan, and promised never to ride an elephant.