Rajasthan literally means the land of Kings and Warriorsand is India at its exotic and colourful best with its palaces of breathtaking grandeur, battle scarred forts of whimsical charm, its riotous colours and even its romantic sense of pride and honour. The State is diagonally divided into the hilly and rugged south-eastern region and the barren north-western Thar Desert, which extends across the border into Pakistan.This arid and sand bown western frontier of India is strewn with forts, palaces and temples done in sandstone, marble and other materials. All of these have fine carvings on the majestic façade, the palaces and temples have intricate filigreed work and some of the palaces were originally adorned with precious and semiprecious stones.
The State is the home of the Rajputs, a group of warrior clans who have controlled this part of India for 1000 years following a code of chivalry and honour akin to that of medieval European knights. While temporary alliances and marriages of convenience were the order of the day, pride and independence were always paramount. The Rajputs were therefore, never able to present a united front against a common aggressor. Much of their energy was spent squabbling amongst themselves and the resultant weakness eventually led to their becoming vassal states of the Mughal Empire. Nevertheless, their bravery and sense of honour remains unparalleled.
With the decline of the Mughal empire, the Rajputs gradually clawed back their independence, through a series of spectacular victories, but then a new force appeared on the scene in the form of the British. As the Raj expanded, most Rajput states signed articles of alliance with the British, which allowed them to continue as independent states, each with its own Maharaja or similarly titled leader, subject to certain political and economic constraints. These alliances proved to be the beginning of the end for the Rajput rulers. At Independence, India's ruling Congress Party was forced to make a deal with the nominally independent Rajput states in order to secure their agreement to join the new India. The rulers were allowed to keep their titles, their property holdings were secured and they were paid an annual stipend commensurating with their status. But this couldn't last forever, given India's socialist persuasion. The crunch came in the early 1970's when Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of the country abolished both the titles and the stipends and severely limited their property rights. While some of the rulers have survived this by converting their palaces into luxury hotels, many have fallen by the wayside, unable to cope with the financial and managerial demands of the late 20th century.
As castle, forts and country estate are steadily being converted into hotels even Rajasthan's most romantically inaccessible outposts are opening up. From the richly painted havelis (mansions) of Shekhawati in the north to the magnificent Jain temples of Mount Abu or Ranakpur in the south, the state's wealth of history and art provides a unique opportunity to see something of a disappearing world.