On a mustard farm deep in the interiors of Rajasthan’s Pali district, Pannibai pulls out weeds in the hot afternoon sun. A few meters away, next to a makeshift hut of wood and twigs, her husband and son cook lunch on a small fire. The family has been here almost 6 months, and come March, when the harvest is done, they’ll take their share of the crop and move. To another village, and another makeshift house. It’s the only way of life I know, she tells me; the real nomad, of the Rabari (gypsy) community of Rajasthan.
The villages of Rajasthan are home to hundreds of years of fascinating traditions, many of which will get wiped away with the older generation. Partake of these awe-inspiring travel experiences while you still can:
1. Witness a tribal prayer ceremony.
On a late winter night, I found myself sitting in the verandah of the village headman’s house, with men and women of the Rabari community. What followed was an hour of mesmerizing music as red-turbaned men sat in a circle, playing instruments I had never seen before, chanting hypnotically. Once in a while, the lead musician would stand and slowly spin in circles, thumping the ground.
Every significant occasion in a Rabari household has this prayer ceremony; our host at the Cuture Aangan homestay in Nana village in Pali organized for us to be part of one.
2. Sleep on the sand dunes.
My most memorable “Incredible India” moment of 2013 was laying on a mattress near the Lakhmana sand dunes in the Thar Desert, watching the Geminid Meteor Shower in the dark desert sky! We tracked the trajectory of the full moon through the sky, till it set on the other end. We spotted a million shooting stars and geminids. And this was undoubtedly the best bed to wake up in at sunrise.
We went on the desert safari with Mystic Jaisalmer, possibly the best budget option at 1500 rupees per person in a group of 6-8 people. They offer transfers from and to Jaisalmer, a camel ride along the sand dunes, campfire dinner in the desert away from the touristy areas, and mattresses, blankets and tents for sleeping. Please ditch the tents and sleep in the open!
3. Discover rural Udaipur.
If the old city of Udaipur, with its open drains and explosion of “hello madam” touts, is as big a turn off for you, escape to Mountain Ridge Homestay nestled on a forested hill away from the city. Lovingly and tastefully built by Piers and his team, this is your gateway to rural Udaipur, its stunning mountain vistas, and quaint tribal villages. You won’t see the city with the same lens again.
Last I heard, Piers is leaving Udaipur for Nepal in the next few months and the management of Mountain Ridge will pass over to a Delhi-based family. So go before it’s too late!
4. Drink Opium with the Rabari tribe.
Believe it or not, villages of the Rabari people have a tradition whereby shepherds gather at the village elder’s house every morning, for an opium drinking ceremony. The drug is illegal, but everyone turns a blind eye to its consumption in these parts, where the men proudly claim they are addicted and that it makes them work faster. So if you show up at 7 am for their gathering, you’ll see bearded men in red turbans drink opium from the village elder’s hand! You know you have to try some for yourself.
I attended the opium drinking ceremony at Dhalop village, with my hosts from the Cuture Aangan homestay in Padampura.
5. Stay at a hunting lodge.
What’s Rajasthan without a true-blue royal experience? So indulge in one at Lakshman Sagar, once a hunting lodge for Rajasthan royals on the edge of the Aravali hills. A visionary thinker has transformed the resting lodges for men and women into in-house restaurants, and built stunning mud huts with traditional thatched roofs; everything used to renovate and redesign the place is naturally or locally sourced, and makes you marvel at the sheer creativity.
Lakshman Sagar is an eco-luxury getaway in Pali, and totally worth burning a hole in the pocket!
6. Explore an abandoned village at midnight.
Legend has it that 84 villages of the Paliwal community around Jaisalmer were abandoned overnight, over 500 years ago. Kuldehra is the most popular among them, its magnificent ruins strewn around the house of the protagonist in the legend of its haunting. I won’t divulge the story, because hearing your guide relate it as you journey through the village and other supposedly haunted sights in the vicinity, in the dead of the night, can be bone-chilling.
Suryagarh‘s “Haunted Trail” is the only way to visit Kuldehra after dark.
7. Ride Marwari horses on the Rajasthani countryside.
Pure-bred Marwari horses arrived in Rajasthan with the Persians, and their numbers are decreasing as fast as the wealth of the state’s royals. Land owners in small villages in the Pali district still rear these horses and pride themselves to be great riders. Horse races are rare in these parts now, but they welcome travellers for a ride on the countryside. I’ve never ridden before (except as a kid in a touristy setting), but a few minutes crash course had me wearing my leg and head gear, holding the reins, and almost trotting like a pro!
The host family at the Cuture Aangan homestay in Padampura breed Marwari horses and offer riding through the villages.
8. Catch sunset on the salt pans.
In the Phalodi district of Rajasthan, panoramic salt lakes make for stunning vistas under the evening sky. Watch salt workers expertly dig out salt from the shallow lakes, and try your own hand at it. Lounge around with a cup of chai, and marvel at the reflections in the salt lakes. A sunset on these lakes could make anyone feel like a photographer.
9. Live on an organic farm.
Far from the maddening crowds and touts of Jaipur, experience the folk culture of Rajasthan at Nirvana Organic Farm. Wake up to bird calls, volunteer with daily farming chores, soak in the afternoon sun on a khatiya, and indulge in the goodness of organic food cooked in traditional Rajasthani style on an open-air chulha.
Nirvana Organic Farm is located an hour from Jaipur, with accommodation provided in rustic thatched roof huts.
10. Lunch with a 70+ entrepreneur.
If you’re looking for an excuse to enjoy the Jaisalmer Fort despite its degradation over the years, let this be it. In her own home in the fort, Chandra Nani, aged 70+, offers world weary travellers traditional Jaisalmer food (think ker sangri aka desert plant) and conversation. It’s an encounter you’ll remember.
Don’t let touts in the Jaisalmer Fort try to convince you that she’s shut down. Look out for a sign for Vyas Meal Services and find her waiting for you upstairs.
11. Off-road into the Thar Desert.
Ditch the camel ride and go off-roading into the Thar Desert for glimpses of real desert life – young boys walking their camels, women carrying water from the well, men working on farms (yes things grow here too!). On our off-roading afternoon with Suryagarh‘s MD, close to Desert National Park, we spotted a Great Indian Bustard; only 300 of these endangered species remain in the world!
What secret / offbeat experiences have you discovered in Rajasthan?
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