Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Forts of Rajasthan

I've often said, and I'm probably not the first, that forts in India are a lot like cathedrals in Europe. Once you've seen a couple, they're basically all the same. While there's still some truth to that, last week's spin through Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan helped open my eyes a little wider.

Amber Fort (Jaipur)
The thing that sets Amber Fort apart, without a doubt, is the preferred mode of transport up the hill. Elephant. And while I'm sure there are any number of reasons why it's bad for the pachyderms, if you're looking for a ride on an elephant in India, this is the place to get it. I've been to the fort twice. The first time, in 2004, I saw a painted sign offering elephant rides for Rs. 450. Lindsay and I were so jazzed to take an elephant ride that we would have been willing to pay Rs. 450 per person per direction. Fast forward to 2011 and it now costs Rs. 900 for just a ride up the hill, which still seems reasonable given the experience.

Inflation or animal protection?
Most people (myself included - keep in mind that I had visited the fort before; in other words, I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed) think the fort bears its name from its color. The real reason, as our guide informed us, is that it's located in a village called Amber. On the bright side, I'm still pretty sure Delhi's Red Fort isn't located in a village called Red.
I still say it's amber.
Other than the elephant ride, the fort boasts a grand view of the surrounding mountains and kilometers of walls creating a protective barrier around the perimeter. The interior of the fort is pretty much like any other fort. In other words, the elephant ride is what separates Amber Fort from the others.

Mehrangarh Fort (Jodhpur)
It's impressive. It's massive. It hosted Elizabeth Hurley's wedding reception. It's what every great citadel should be.
Mehrangarh Fort from the royal cenotaph (cremation ground)
Jodhpur is famous for it's indigo hued houses which were first painted that to signify the home of a Brahmin (the priestly caste) and mixed with some sort of mosquito repellent for obvious reasons. These days, many of the homes directly beneath the fort are painted that same blue shade but, as we learned from the guide (yes, it was a guide-intensive trip this time) many of the homes are now just painted that color for effect.
View of the blue city from the fort
Mehrangarh Fort also offers an evening dining option of Rajasthani thali (basically amounts to tapas-sized portions of a cross section of traditional local food) on a terrace with a view of the fort and down into the city. Since we hadn't done a ton of research and didn't want to eat at the hotel, this seemed as good an option as any.
Rajasthani thali
We arrived at the fort and found a number of torches and camels lining the walkway to the main gate. I thought this was quite cool but figured it was just something they did each evening. After entering the main gate, I decided I was wrong. We were quickly whisked through the fort but not before we could see a number of traditionally dressed people getting ready for some sort of performance as well as a second set of camels standing at attention. They weren't there for us. They were there for a very lavish private party. My parents (rightfully so) didn't believe that I had arranged it all.
Camels I didn't arrange to line the fort entrance
We did, however, end up with a private dining terrace and the other two tables with reservations ended up being no-shows. Of course, they may have just ended up joining the lavish private party.

Jaisalmer Fort (Jaisalmer)
Located on the outskirts of India in the That Desert and the last major town before you get to the Pakistani border, sits Jaisalmer. Jaipur is the pink city, Jodhpur is the blue city, so it should come as no surprise that Jaisalmer also has a color. It's the gold city. The city takes its nickname from the sandstone used to build many of the structures in town, including the fort.
The world's largest sand castle, Jaisalmer Fort
Other than the brilliant gold color, what makes this place unique is that the fort is still home to nearly four thousand people. It's the only working fort in Rajasthan. The net effect is that you feel like you're wandering through a medieval European village as you tour the fort.

It's easily a place you can explore on your own, but again we had a guide. Our guide lived in the fort and his family had lived there for something like five centuries (again, I don't pay a lot of attention to the specifics that guides tell me, but I know his family lived there for a long time). Before we entered the fort walls he gave us some words of wisdom. "Prices in the fort can be very high. I tell you that now; however, when we're in the fort, I will tell you that the price is fair. I have to live with these people." I appreciated his honesty.

The other striking thing about this fort was that nearly every establishment seemed to have been recommended by Lonely Planet in one year or another. I've seen this from time to time but never so much in such a small place. I guess if one business uses it, others need to follow suit. Perhaps the Lonely Planet recommendation is a little like the familiar sight of the golden arches in restaurant terms; you're more likely to know what you're going to get.
One of many places recommended by Lonely Planet
The one thing that Lonely Planet won't recommend is that you stay in one of the 28 hotels currently located in the fort. Property rights are passed from generation to generation. There are no written contracts. Until some enterprising folk decided that tourists might want to stay in the fort, the chain seemed to pass relatively unbroken. Until someone sold out. And then another. And then another. You see, the thing about hotels is that they use a lot of water. As anyone that's ever built a sand castle likely knows, water isn't exactly sand's best friend. The net result is that there are serious erosion issues. But hey, at least people get to stay in a fort for the night.

Which fort is the best?
As with most things in life, it's a personal preference kind of thing. In my opinion, each fort I saw last week was better than the last. Maybe it's because I had been to Amber Fort before and the novelty of the elephant ride had worn off. Maybe it's because I think it's cool that people still live in the fort in Jaisalmer. Whatever the reason, I was most surprised I didn't have that "it's just another fort" attitude going by the end of the trip.


  1. Great article, plus all the pictures added to the message.. Thanks

  2. Great post on Rajasthan tourism places. Thank you very much for sharing. Rajasthan is very popular in India for visiting. Here are lot of beautiful historical palces for visiting.

  3. Get complete information on Jodhpur City that includes loan services, cinema halls, catering services and Dentist in Jodhpur.