Running like a spine through Rajasthan, the Aravalli Hills are some of the oldest mountains in the world. A series of jagged, heavily folded ranges, they stretch from Mount Abu in the southwest (1720 m) to Kota and Bundi in the east. In the northwest is the forbidding Thar Desert, with its shifting sand dunes and crushingly high summer temperatures. In the south the average elevation is higher (330-1150 m). In the northeast the landscape forms part of the nearly flat Yamuna drainage basin.
The natural jungle is ideal territory for tigers, leopards, sloth bear, sambhar (large deer) and chital (smaller spotted deer), now normally restricted to game reserves. Nilgai (blue bulls), blackbuck and ravine deer are fairly numerous on the plains and there’s a great variety of birds. Bharatpur and other low-lying swampy areas in the southeast are popular winter grounds for migratory birds from Siberia and Northern Europe.
Rajasthan is one of the driest regions in India. Apart from in the hills, summer temperatures are very high with a maximum of 46°C and an average from May to August of 38°C. In winter the daily maximum in most low-lying areas is 22-28°C and the minimum 8-14°C. January nights in the desert can feel very cold. Over three-quarters of the rainfall occurs between July and September.
Humans lived along the Banas River 100,000 years ago. Harappan and post- Harappan (third to second millennium BC) cultures have been discovered, as at Kalibangan where pottery has been dated to 2700 BC. The Mauryan Emperor Asoka controlled this part of the state in the third century BC, to be succeeded by the Bactrian Greeks (second century BC), the Sakas (Scythians, second to fourth centuries AD), the Guptas (fourth to sixth centuries) and the Huns (sixth century). Rajput dynasties rose from the seventh to the 11th centuries and until the end of the 12th century they controlled much of North India.
Rajputs claimed to be the original kshatriyas (warriors) of the ancient varna system, born out of the fire offering of the Gods on Mount Abu. They were probably descended from the Huns and Scythians who had entered India in the sixth century, and they modelled themselves on Rama (the hero of the Ramayana epic), seeing themselves as protectors of the Hindu dharma against invaders. The Brahmins made considerable efforts to give them royal lineages and accorded them kshatriya status. The Rajputs went to great lengths to insist on their kshatriya status – a means of demonstrating to their subjects that not only was it foolhardy, but also sacrilegious to oppose their authority. Associated with this was promotion of those qualities ascribed to the martial castes: chivalry, bravery and unquestioning loyalty.
The Mughals and the Rajputs
Rather than engage in costly campaigns to crush the Rajputs, the Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled 1556-1605) sought conciliation. Many Rajput princes were given high office in return for loyalty and Akbar sealed this important strategic alliance by marrying a Rajput princess, Jodha Bai, the daughter of the Maharaja of Amber. The relationship between the Rajput princes and the Mughals did not always remain so close, and in the later Mughal period several Rajput princes sought to secure their autonomy from Mughal rule. Such autonomy was brought to an end by the spread of British colonial power. After the quelling of the Mutiny in 1858 and establishment of the British Indian Empire, the Rajput Princely States gained in show of power, with 21-gun salutes, royal polo matches and durbars, just as they lost its reality.
Today tribals constitute 12% of the state population, nearly double the national average. The Bhils and Minas are the largest groups, but Sahariyas, Damariyas, Garasias and Gaduliya Lohars are all important. The tribes share many common traits but differ in their costumes and jewellery; their gods, fairs and festivals also set them apart from one another. The Bhils comprise nearly 40% of Rajasthan’s tribal population with their stronghold in Baneshwar. Bhil (meaning ‘bow’) describes their original skill at hunting. Physically short, stocky and dark with broad noses and thick lips, the Bhils once lived off roots, leaves and fruits of the forest and the increasingly scarce game. Most now farm land and keep cattle, goats and sheep, or work as day labourers. Thousands congregate near the confluence of the Mahi and Som rivers for the Baneshwar fair in January and February. The Minas are Rajasthan’s largest and most widely spread tribal group. Tall, with an athletic build, light brown complexion and sharp features, men wear a loincloth round the waist, a waistcoat and a brightly coloured turban while the women wear a ghaghra (long gathered skirt), a kurti-kanchali (small blouse) and a large scarf. Most Minas are cultivators who measure their wealth in cattle and other livestock. Like other tribal groups they have a tradition of giving grain, clothes, animals and jewellery to the needy.
The principal language is Rajasthani, a close relative of Hindi.
Bandhani is an ancient technique of tie-dyeing whereby the fabric is pinched together in selected places, tied round with twine or thread and then dyed. Miniature paintings on old paper or silk, use natural colours derived from minerals, rocks and vegetables and follow old techniques; their quality varies. The princely states were important patrons of medieval miniature painting and several schools developed in different areas drawing from local traditions and combining them with Mughal art. ‘Jaipur Blue Pottery’ uses a coarse grey clay that is quite brittle even when fired. It is then decorated with floral and geometric patterns along Persian lines utilizing rich ultra- marines, turquoise and lapis.
After Independence the region’s 18 princely states were ultimately absorbed into the new state of Rajasthan on 1 November 1956. The successors of royal families have lost power but retain considerable political influence. The palaces, many of them converted to hotels with varying degrees of success, maintain the memory of princely India. In its political life Rajasthan has alternated between Congress- or BJP-led state governments. Its current State assembly is dominated by the Indian National Congress Party. The state Chief Minister is Ashok Gehlot, who originally held the post between 1998 and 2003 and started his current term in December 2008. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections Congress won 20 of the 25 seats.
Rajasthan is one of the least densely populated and poorest states in India. Primarily an agricultural and pastoral economy, it does have good mineral resources. Tourism makes a large contribution to the regional economy. The main industries are textiles, the manufacture of rugs and woollen goods, vegetable oil and dyes. Heavy industry includes the construction of railway rolling stock, copper and zinc smelting. The chemical industry also produces caustic soda, calcium carbides and sulphuric acid, fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides. There is a rapidly expanding light industry which includes television assembly. Traditional handicrafts such as pottery, jewellery, marble work, embossed brass, block printing, embroidery and decorative painting are now very good foreign exchange earners.
Jaipur and around
The sandstone ‘pink city’ of Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is the heady gateway to the state. Its poetic landmarks and icons of antiquity, such as the Palace of the Winds, lie amid the overwhelming sprawl that characterizes most large Indian metropolises galloping towards modernity. Outside the city lies a tranquil agrarian landscape, in which there are many hunting lodges, palaces and forts.