A new journey through the old ‘badlands’ of Rajasthan

Chris Caldicott
Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

From Town & Country

Rajasthan is a photographer’s paradise – a land of fairy-tale palaces, mighty forts and buzzing bazaars. Although this procession of travel-brochure clichés could have fallen out of the pages of the Arabian Nights, these are the scenes that have made this desert state the jewel in the crown of India’s tourism industry.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

Most travellers’ itineraries of Rajasthan tend to lean towards well-trodden tourist circuits of low-hanging fruit. But now, an inaugural flight between Delhi and Bikaner, and the opening of some beguiling properties in key locations, have opened a whole new index of possibilities for anyone inclined towards a more intimate experience of Rajasthan, along roads less travelled.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

The mid-afternoon arrival and the only daily passenger flight to Bikaner’s lonely airport, (the AI 9833 from Delhi) is perfectly timed to transfer straight to Narendra Bhawan, a former townhouse residence of the last Maharaja of Bikaner, converted into this desert frontier town’s first stylish boutique hotel. Check into one of the gorgeous art deco suites, book a treatment in the serene spa and then head to the rooftop pool for a dip, order a G&T and watch the sun setting over the city.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

Cultural highlights include the city of Bikaner’s Junagarth Fort; a treasure trove of perfectly preserved stone palaces, temples, pavilions, courtyards and chhatris. Particularly striking are the Chandra Mahal, Palace of the Moon and the hand painted blue and gold Badal Mahal, Cloud Place depicting the desert dwellers favourite fantasy of rain clouds and lightning.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

The bazaars of the old walled city are a winding maze of stalls proffering plates of sizzling street food, takeaway wraps of the treasured local savoury snack Bikaneri bhujia, countless versions of country kitchenware, homemade handicrafts and a profusion of paraphernalia pandering to Bikaner’s prolific camel trade. In contrast to the white marble minimalism of most Jain temples, the modest exterior of Bhadasar at the southern end of the main souk, hides an exquisitely decorated interior, a riot of gaudy abandonthat, on hot days, weeps residue of the 40,000 kgs of ghee used instead of water in the mortar.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

From here cross-country roads lead east to the ‘open-air art gallery’ of painted haveli rich hamlets of Shekhawati. When wily Marwari merchants shifted from these lawless badlands to seek fortunes in the burgeoning cities of Bombay and Calcutta, they sent money back home to decorate their lavish mansions and caravanserais with exuberant frescos, as a lasting testament to their new wealth. Some are now formal museums, others open for browsing on payment of baksheesh passed to compliant caretakers.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott
Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

Nawalgarh, Lachmangarh and Mandawa, the big hitter painted haveli towns, are all a short drive from Deeppura Garh. This perfect blend of south Italian Puglian Masseria and Rajasthani antiquity is the home of the ultra chic Milanese jewellery designer Maria Grazia Baldan, who now offers super stylish full-board stays in eight palace and two pool suites of her own lavish mansion, in the charming unspoilt village of Sewad Bari.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

There are still hidden gems in Rajasthan’s capital and most frenetic tourist destination, Jaipur. Tucked away deep in the city’s famous Johri Bazaar jewellery district is The Johri, recently opened by the Kasliwal family behind the iconic Gem Palace, it is an intimate five suite property of relaxed splendour, with superb vegetarian cuisine and delicious cocktails. This is a jewellery junkie's paradise. Explore the city’s secrets on left field urban eco-rambles, accompanied by the women e-drivers of the fabulous Pink City Rickshaw Company, and take a jeep ride past the mirage-like Jal Mahal water place to the ethereal pink palace of Amber.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

Get out of town and head for the hills, for a ‘far from the madding crowd’ rural experience of Rajasthan, staying in the recently upgraded campaign tents of Raas Chhatrasagar. This is glamping with a capital G, complete with free-standing bath tubs and electric skylights.

The ‘tents’ are set up along the wall of a dam constructed in the 19th-century by the Thakur of Nimaj as a monsoon reservoir among the majestic calm of the Aravali Hills. The lake attracts over 200 bird species, many of which can be spotted from the elegant wooden sun loungers in your own private waterside garden, or on escorted dawn and dusk strolls past herds of grazing wild Blue Bull Nilgai antelopes and skittish wild boar. On a jeep safari to the nearest village, visit the school at break time to see milk monitors distributing the daily ration and buy hand thrown money boxes from the potter. The only sounds that disturb silent nights of stargazing are the occasional calls of peacocks or jackals on the prowl.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

Jodhpur, the historic beating heart of the Marwar kingdom, epitomises the feudal splendour of Rajasthan with its mighty hilltop Meherangarh Fort, regal Umaid Bhawan Palace, mesmerising old city of labyrinthian cobalt blue lanes lined with havelis, busy temples and lively bazaars. The secret here is to check into Rohet House, the family townhouse home of the 14th Thakur Saheb of Rohet, where guests are hosted by family members or retainers with an intimate charm and care that makes staying here feel like being house guests rather than tourists. Set in a quiet neighbourhood of the new town, the villa has been converted into an elegant ten-room boutique hotel of immaculate interior design with pretty private gardens and a generously sized swimming pool.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

The Rohet House escorted dawn walking tour of the old city, punctuated with breaks for street food treats, is an unforgettable way to start any day in Jodhpur. They can also arrange a jeep safari beyond the city to the family’s beloved homeland of rural Rohet. Enjoy lunch at their country house property Rohet Garh, then drive through a timeless landscape populated with herds of wild black buck, pointy-eared Mawari horses and scattered settlements of devout animal-loving Bishnoi farmers, where village elders still perform opium tea ceremonies to honour Lord Shiva. End with a sumptuous high tea and sundowners at the family’s desert fort of Mihir Garh, revelling in the pure essence of Rajasthan.

Photo credit: Chris Caldicott
Photo credit: Chris Caldicott

Greaves India offers a 10-night tour from £2,999 a person, including a private car and driver, all the above properties and flights.