When you think of a city in Rajasthan, your mind automatically conjures up images of imposing forts, magnificent palaces, sand dunes and heritage hotels with vintage cars and polo matches. Ajmer is the exact opposite. It’s a sleepy little town nestled in the Aravalis. As you enter, you notice how old the buildings are, how narrow the roads, the camel-drawn cart next to your car at a traffic signal. Our most popular market is called Naya Bazaar; it’s been called that for decades.
In theory, Ajmer (the district) is only famous for two things—the dargah and Pushkar, that place of pilgrimage 15km from Ajmer (the town). Both places largely lie ignored by the wayside, on a highway towards the curated glamour of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur. At best, most tourists stop for a few hours. But if you can, stay for a couple of days, poke around, talk to the locals and discover little-known secrets of these two towns, Ajmer and Pushkar. The people here are incredibly warm, with a robust sense of humour and great hospitality. The most famous kulfi wala will urge you to first go have pyaaz kachoris elsewhere and then return to him for dessert. The local sabzi mandi is a lovely farmers’ market in the truest sense: men and women come here daily, from nearby villages to sell the freshest fruit and vegetables, and they happily chat with their customers as they do so.
Like Ajmer’s famous miniature paintings, a lot of things here are bite-sized. From the 14th-century Taragarh Fort, built on the hilltop from where you can get a spectacular view of the town, its two beautiful lakes and the green hills around, to the museum in a tiny palace, built by Akbar. Within the city, there are no high-rises to speak of, so you can see the Aravalis from everywhere. If the centre of Ajmer is like a once-beautiful tapestry, the suburbs are all shiny new malls with glass façades, swanky multiplexes, and chains such as McDonald’s and Café Coffee Day. The most accurate indicator of Ajmer’s claim to being a ‘destination’, perhaps, is the arrival of chain hotels such as the Taj, Marriott and (soon to open) ITC.
Unlike most other places in the state, Ajmer was not ruled by any single family. It was founded by a Rajput king in the 12th century, taken over by the Mughals and lost to the British, whose army used Taragarh as a sanatorium. As a result, there are some beautiful old buildings built in the Indo–Saracenic style. The most famous of these is Mayo College, which counts a venerable list of politicians, bureaucrats, writers and actors among its alumni. Other notable landmarks are two lakes, Foy Sagar and Ana Sagar. Well-maintained gardens with gazebos lie to one end of each. Ana Sagar, though, has always been the livelier of the two, even back in the 16th century, prompting Shah Jahan to build a lovely baradari, or pavilion, in pristine white marble, which still frames the sunset perfectly each evening. A product of the central government’s Smart Cities Mission, there’s now a promenade along the lake, complete with cycling tracks and benches under the shade of trees.
Where Ajmer is more urbane, Pushkar is Rajasthan’s own version of Goa. When you begin your descent into the Pushkar valley, the road is strewn with resorts, spas and yoga retreats that fit every budget. The tiny town is also home to 52 ghats that border Pushkar Lake, and these are dotted with more than 400 temples. The most important and well known of these is the Brahma temple, the only one in the world. As a result, restaurants and hotels in Pushkar are all-vegetarian and alcohol-free. (Although both sharab and kabab are available at resorts just outside.)
Most of the buildings in the main town are painted white and serve as a great backdrop for the riot of colour on the bustling streets. It’s hard not to get swept up by the vibe. Today, the walls also feature a lot of street art and interesting graffiti. Being a heritage town, new construction is not allowed, so the old-world charm of the buildings, narrow streets and steep stone staircases is still intact. If you’re not a pilgrim, and you’re done with Ajmer, then Pushkar is where you eat and shop and chill.