If you have a little more time to spend during your trip to Rajasthan, or particularly if you're planning a repeat visit to this remarkable state, then time spent in small towns and slightly harder-to-reach destinations is a must.
The long and complex history of Rajasthan means that towns which were once major regional centres or strategic military posts are now remote places all but ignored by most visitors. For example, almost everyone who comes to Rajasthan visits Udaipur, but just over 60km north of the city lies Kumbhalgarh Fort - at one point among the most important fortifications in the area, now an isolated outpost seemingly frozen in time.
Such places abound in Rajasthan and while they are slowly being discovered, we are constantly uncovering new ones on our travels and via our contacts throughout the state.
Bundi is a small town (by Indian standards at least - it has a population of around 90,000) located roughly halfway between Jaipur and Udaipur. It is surrounded on three sides by rugged hills on the edge of the Aravali ranges; Bundi is a small enough town that much can be explored on foot.
A walled city, its features include the Garh Palace and Taragarh Fort which overlooks the town. Bundi has over 50 step-wells, the deepest of which, the Raniki-Baori, is nearly 50 metres deep.
While step-wells are common in neighbouring Gujarat, Bundi is one of the few places in Rajasthan where there are a large number of these remarkable structures.
Bundi's history stretches back over 700 years- the various influences from throughout this period are clearly evident in its architecture.
There are some excellent accommodation options in the town, here ranging from a newly-built colonial style hotel called Hadoti Palace through to several traditional havelis in the old town which have been converted to heritage accommodation- the pick of these being Bundi Vilas. Also in the old town (but housed in a new building) is the stylish Bundi Haveli.
The Shekhawati region, north west of Jaipur, is a collection of large villages situated on the old camel caravan trade route across the Thar Desert. The main reason for visiting Shekhawati is to explore the villages of the area (among them Mandawa, Dundlod, Nawalgarh, Lachmangarh and Fatehpur) which are famous for their painted havelis, leading them to be described as the largest open air art gallery in the world. The intricate mural paintings- many of which are several centuries old - are particularly well preserved due to the dry climate in the region and the vivid colours and expressive style are a delight.
The havelis - traditional homes built around a central courtyard and usually 3 or 4 storeys high - where mainly owned by merchants who had attained their wealth though trade in the bigger cities. While some outsides of some havelis are in rather dire need of restoration, in a way this only adds to the charm of Shekhawati. It is the interior courtyards which offer the brightest colours and most vivid murals. The themes of the frescoes reflect the lives and interests of the people that lived in the houses.
Some slightly incongruous elements - very English looking ladies and gentlemen in frock coats and top hats- add an element of the absurd, but these are only found in the later 19th century decorations - prior to the mid-1800s the themes of the frescoes had been mainly associated with religious and historical events.
To explore this area fully you need at least a couple of days. Most of the accommodation is found in Mandawa, which is the best known and most visited town in Shekhawati. Castle Mandawa has a unique atmosphere and its roof is the highest point in the town, offering great views. The rooms are large and castle-like with pillars in unexpected places! One half of the castle has been restored but the other half is in the original condition. Mandawa Haveli is a restored haveli which offers accommodation on a smaller scale. Each room is different, with beautifully decorated walls and ceilings.
Rajasthan is renowned for its forts, several of which vie for the nominal title of the 'most impressive'. Given that this is an entirely subjective title, we are going to cast our vote for the magnificent fort at Kumbhalgarh, an hour or so north of Udaipur. One of the very best things about Kumbhalgarh is its isolation - being well off the main tourist trails means that you'll be very unlikely to encounter coach parties or, if you're very lucky, any other tourists at all.
There are many statistical aspects to this fort which sound very impressive (a notable one being that its external wall at 35km in length is the 2nd longest wall in the world, and is wide enough for seven fully armoured horsemen to ride abreast) but numbers and words (and even photographs) do scant justice to the sheer size and imposing nature of the fort. It is best approached on foot to get an even better idea of just how difficult it would have been for approaching armies to even contemplate taking it. The gentle climb from the main gate to the very top of the fort takes around half an hour and the views from the top are commanding. Kumbhalgarh can be visited en route from Udaipur to Jodhpur, or even better you can opt to stay here overnight and lay siege to the fort at dawn!
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