Rajasthan, the ‘Land of the Rajputs’, is perhaps the most iconic of all India’s 28 states. Home to some of the country’s most unforgettable sights, this is a land of vivid colors and even more arresting contrasts. In the west of the state, harsh deserts and rugged fortresses conceal exquisitely decorated palaces, havelis and temples, while further south the sands of the Thar Desert give way to the craggy and densely forested hills and river valleys of the Aravallis, the haunt of antelopes, leopards and one of the world’s largest populations of wild. Historically, too, Rajasthan is a place of paradoxes. The region’s militaristic past is bloodstained with deeds of ferocity and frequently suicidal selfdestruction, and yet when not engaged in warfare its rulers oversaw the creation of some of India’s finest architectural and artistic achievements. Warlike Rajputs, seeking glory in feats of arms and, when necessary, heroic death, lived for centuries alongside peaceable Jain traders, for whom even the accidental killing of a single insect ranked as a sin. Meanwhile, the state’s gilded maharajas led lives of unbridled opulence and extravagance, even while most of their subjects subsisted in grinding hardship and poverty.
These cultural, social and scenic contrasts still give Rajasthan much of its unique flavor, and creeping urbanization, modern technology and a booming population have still done surprisingly little to erode the region’s traditional character – or, indeed, some of its deeply entrenched social inequalities. Spectacular palaces, adamantine fortresses and exquisite temples litter the landscape, while life in the bazaars of Jaipur, the alleyways of Jodhpur’s old Blue City, and the ancient citadel of Jaisalmer – not to mention the state’s remoter towns and villages – seems to have changed little over the centuries. Nimble-fingered artisans continue to embroider, emboss, dye, stitch, weave and paint as they have for generations, while out in the countryside itinerant performers still dramatize the legendary exploits of Rama and Krishna in story, music and dance and vibrant traditional fairs and festivals provide a direct connection to the region’s agrarian roots and religious obsessions. For the time being, Rajasthan remains the quintessential Indian experience, beautiful and savage in equal measure, but impossible to ignore.
Rajasthan is far and away the largest state in India, covering an area of 342,239 sq km (132,139 sq miles), only slightly smaller than the whole of Germany or the US state of Montana. It is separated from the basin of the River Ganges by the watershed of the Aravalli Mountains, which run from near Ahmedabad in Gujarat through Rajasthan and on to Delhi, a distance of almost 1,000km (621miles). The Aravallis form the geological and climatic axis of the Rajasthan, bisecting the entire state from the southwest to the northeast and reaching their highest point at Guru Shikhar (1,722 metres/5,650ft), just outside Mount Abu.
Some three-fifths of Rajasthan lies northwest of the Aravallis, and two-fifths to the southeast. Areas to the north are largely arid semi-desert or desert, while areas to the south are often contrastingly lush and wooded. Either side of the hills, the state divides into a series of discrete topographical regions: the thickly wooded hills around Alwar in the northeast of the state; the arid Shekhawati uplands in the northwest; the plateau surrounding the Vindhya Range and the basins of the Chambal and Banas in the southeast; and the Luni basin in the southwest. All these varied regions merge in the west into the vast Thar Desert, covering some 200,500 sq km (77,000 sq miles).
Although predominantly Hindu, Rajasthan is also home to a number of important Muslim and Jain communities and shrines. Religion in Rajasthan ranges from the worship of local deities to austere Sanskritic ritual. Most Rajasthanis are either Hindus, Jains or worship Adivasi deities, but there is also a substantial Muslim population as well as a small number of Christians. Religious tolerance has also been a striking feature of Rajasthan’s history, with Hindus, Muslims, Jains and the followers of other faiths living together in relative harmony, even during times of great national communal strife such as the 1947 Partition and the anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.
Rajasthan has a huge variety of performance traditions that continue to entertain locals and visitors alike. Rajasthan is home to a fascinating range of music and dance, which varies from region to region and is often associated with local festivals. Particularly important is the long and complex history of patronage that sustained many different groups of performers.
Other professional groups of performers include the Bhands (actors), Jogis or Saperas (snake charmers who play the murli double clarinet), and Nats (acrobats
who play the dhol, accompanied by metal thali plates, beaten with a stick). Another group were the professional female courtesan dancers and singers, known as kalavant or tawaif, who used to perform at the courts or for landowning patrons. They danced the mujra, a dance originating from the classical north Indian kathak initially danced in temples and moved into the courts by early Muslim rulers. Different styles of kathak emerged with the fusing of Hindu and Muslim dance forms. Influenced by kathak, the mujra developed into a mildly suggestive style, accompanied by the tabla, harmonium, sarangi, and
ghungru (tiny pellet-shaped bells) strapped to the dancer’s feet. It was performed by a few families exclusively for male audiences and passed down through the generations. In Jaipur the kothas (dancers’ homes) were considered a haven for music, poetry, dance and refinement, despite the fact that many tawaifs became their visitors’ mistresses. Wealthy young men were sent to kothas in order to learn to appreciate music and dance. Unfortunately, today, the kothas have
become brothels and the dance itself has a different connotation to it. The traditionally graceful mujra has transformed into a notoriously lewd dance imitating Bollywood dance routines performed by women in gaudy outfits.