Ranakpur Jain Temple Interior Ornate Marble Columns Multilevel Structure Rajasthan India

A Guide to Rajasthan’s Remarkable Architecture

In this land of color-coded cities, palaces perch on craggy citadels, while temple walls fold in and out to form intricate mandala shapes. Rooms plastered in thousands of tiny mirrors turn the world into a three-dimensional kaleidoscope. Giant water wells descend into the earth like inverted ziggurats. For fans of architecture, Rajasthan is the trip of a lifetime.

Chittorgarh Fort Rajasthan View Of Temple Wall And Reservoir On Hilltop

Rajasthan’s desert location puts physical comfort at a premium, and many architectural traditions represent innovative climate management. The harsh terrain also created a culture of chivalry and sacrifice with rival clans waging battles from epic fortresses. 

Most of Rajasthan’s major destinations form a loop, as shown on our Google map. To maximize time, we hired a driver (who quickly became a dear friend). This post follows our route; at the end, we include advice on getting around the region.

Introduction to Architecture in Rajasthan

Eastern Rajasthan: Chand Baori, Jaipur

Southern Rajasthan: Bundi, Chittorgarh Fort, Udaipur, Ranakpur Jain Temple, Kumbhalgarh Fort

Western Rajasthan: Jodhpur, Nagaur, Jaisalmer

Northern Rajasthan: Bikaner, Shekhawati

Other Sites in Rajasthan

Practicalities & Further Reading

Rajasthan sits in the middle of Asia, connecting the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. The region benefited from exposure to a variety of civilizations, including Bronze Age cities in the Indus Valley to the west and settlements along the Ganges in the east. Ancient Sanskrit treatises known as vastu-shastra outlined how to model the cosmos with centrally-oriented temple layouts.

Mandore Gardens, outside Jodhpur

Large populations created a diverse labor pool capable of constructing stone buildings in complex shapes. Around 1,000 to 1,200 CE, Rajasthani architecture began taking intricacy to astounding levels. The regional style, often referred to as Solanki, covered entire surfaces in carvings: row upon row wrap around walls and pillars with delicate mandalas on domed ceilings.

Udaipur Palace Museum Courtyard With Checkered Tile Green Glass And Turrets Rajasthan India Architecture
Udaipur’s City Palace

At the same time, Islamic incursions ushered in an era of dramatic battles – and a cross-fertilization of ideas. Rajasthanis adopted central Asian traditions such as multi-lobed arches and formal gardens, while conquering Mughals found inspiration in the locals’ use of delicate stonework and subtle curves. The Indo-Islamic fusion endured even as Mughal power eventually dwindled. Rajasthan regained some political independence but infighting between the region’s dynasties made the region vulnerable to outsiders. Ultimately the British prevailed – and though they too drew upon local architecture, it was primarily as ornamentation for essentially European buildings. This mixture became known as the Indo-Saracenic style.

Chand Baori Stepwell Abhaneri Rajasthan India View Into Well With Streep Steps Lining Sides And Three People Standing On Top Row

One of India’s most striking sights is the stepwell, which collects vital rainfall in an inverted pyramid shape. In Rajasthan and the neighboring state of Gujarat, communal wells needed steep walls to avoid excess evaporation on the surface. Stairs criss-cross down the sides in order to make the slopes more manageable. The narrow, rail-less descent incorporated ritual worship at shrines carved into the stone. Upper sections of the baori served as gathering spots, particularly for women doing the washing.

Chand Baori Stepwell Mughal Palace Built Into Side Of Well Abhaneri Village Rajasthan Architecture India

At 13 stories deep, Chand Baori is the largest of its kind, as well as one of the oldest. It’s also a rare chance to compare early Hindu and later Muslim designs in a single well. Chand Baori’s lower levels date to the eighth century, although much of the original adjoining temple was destroyed later. Mughals turned the structure into a private palace in the 18th century, adding the upper levels and an arcade to screen off the surroundings.

Jaipur Hawa Mahal Palace Of The Winds Iconic Pink Palace Facade Rajasthan Architecture

At the intersection of Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, the Pink City is a mecca for architecture fans. One of India’s most photographed buildings, the Hawa Mahal features 953 windows on a single facade. Most of the structure is only one room deep, with screened openings designed to provide the women of the royal palace a view of the world outside their zenana, or harem. This allows cool air to circulate freely, hence the name Palace of the Winds.

Jaipur’s City Palace

One needn’t be an astronomy geek to marvel at a nine-story sundial and outsized instruments at the UNESCO-listed Jantar Mantar Observatory. Nearby, an opulent City Palace completes the trio of major sites in the Old City. Besides a photogenic open-air pavilion, it features the celebrated  Pritam Niwas Chowk, a courtyard with four elaborate gateways representing Hindu deities and the four seasons.

Amer Fort Geometric Garden With Fountain And Shrubs Outside Palace Of Mirrors Jaipur Rajasthan
Mughal style gardens opposite the Sheesh Mahal at Amer Fort

Amer (or Amber) Palace, the royal residence within the UNESCO-listed fort, is considered one of the greatest fusions of Hindu and Islamic architecture. The conquering Mughals mixed new designs like layered arches and vaulted ceilings with regional traditions such as elephant brackets and tiered towers. Over at Nahargarh Fort (“Abode of Tigers”) a love nest perches on the hilltop directly over the Old City; the retreat and surrounding trails command stunning views. 

See our post on Jaipur for more information.

Bundi City View From Garh Palace Stone Balcony With Columns Rajasthan India

A bit sleepy – insofar as an Indian city can actually feel sleepy – Bundi offers distinctive Rajasthani architecture without crowds. The local palace looms directly over town, with the semi-abandoned military Taragarh Fort stretching into the hills above. Compared to other regional fortresses this one has gone a little wild.

Bundi Palace Rajasthan Chitrashala Exterior With Garden Bougainvillea And Monkeys Rajasthan India

Rudyard Kipling described the structure as “the work of goblins rather than of men.” Even the inside seems to meld into the mountain. A maze of rooms and stairways leads to unexpected vistas and the occasional monkey den. Above the palace, screens protect the Chitrashala, with a lapis-hued cycle of murals depicting tales of Krisha.

Nagar Kund (left) and the Queen’s Stepwell (right)

Bundi is also famous for its stepwells, with several different types clustered around the central bazaar. A small street separates the Nagar Kund and Sagar Kund, both of which feature steps running around the water on the sides. Both looked less pristine than they do in most photos – we stayed clear of the gap in the railing along a sheer multi-story drop. Nearby, the Raniji ki Baori or Queen’s Stepwell presents a very different experience. Walled off from the street, a single expanse of stairs runs down between monumental walls with ornamental and devotional carvings. The long, almost processional form evokes the ancient Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro, an ancestor of the stepwell.

Bundi 84 Pillared Cenotaph Memorial Rajasthan Architecture
Chittorgarh UNESCO Listed Fort Walled Lake Tower Of Victory And Temple Towers Rajput Architecture

Tales of heroism and tragedy abound in Chittorgarh, a prominent symbol of India’s history. As the capital of the mighty Mewar dynasty for 800 years, the citadel witnessed countless battles – and on three occasions, mass self-immolation instead of submission. (Akbar is not considered “the Great” around these parts.) Because the dynasty eventually abandoned Chittorg for Udaipur, the former preserves its medieval – and more purely Hindu – architecture. At least half a dozen of the site’s 19 major temples could be destinations  in their own right; together, they represent perhaps the largest set of structures inRajasthan’s distinctive Solanki style. 

Chittorgarh Temple Exterior With Multiple Carvings Hindu Religious Architecture Rajasthan India

Above and right: Adbhutanath ji Temple. Left: Kirti Stambh, the Tower of Fame.

Along with the temples, water structures, and four palaces, Chittorgarh holds a remarkable pair of towers. Long before modern skyscrapers, the Kirti Stambh (Tower of Fame), and Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory) used metal rods embedded within the stone blocks to provide stability and prevent lightning damage.

Udaipur Palace Exterior View From Lake Pichola At Sunset Rajasthan Architecture

The serene, almost otherworldly beauty of Udaipur’s seven lakes makes a perfect foil to the riotous contrasts elsewhere in Rajasthan. The City Palace complex sprawling along the shoreline is Rajasthan’s largest – no minor accomplishment considering the competition from the region’s other dynasties. A well-organized path leads visitors through the labyrinthian layout, which includes the Moti Mahal (Palace of Pearls) and Mor Chowk (Peacock Court).

Many monuments in Rajasthan have a Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) with shiny glass pieces embedded within dazzling patterns of inlaid stone, tile, or paint. But Udaipur’s palace features multiple disco-ball rooms, literally covered in tiny mirrors. Slightly convex surfaces turn any light source into a sparkling display by day and a constellation of stars at night. 

Udaipur Rajasthan Lake Pichola View From Above With Taj Lake Palace And Ambrai Ghat Two Boats And Distant Mountain Soft Morning Light

Boats on Lake Pichola pass a sparkling-white 18th-century palace (now the Taj Lake Palace hotel) before depositing visitors on Jag Mandir. The island getaway for maharajas features a palace and gardens with a row of life-sized stone elephants lining the jetty. In the main courtyard, arcades topped with delicate arches frame views of the lake and surrounding hills. 

The white marble Jagdish Temple – used continuously since its completion in 1651 – and multiple havelis round out the main sights in town. Nearby highlights include the Eklingji temple complex and over 250 cenotaphs at Ahar.

See our post on Udaipur for more information.

Ranakpur Jain Temple Interior Carved Marble Columns With Religious Figures Rajasthan Architecture

If we had to recommend a single temple in Rajasthan, this would be it. The main structure features 1,444 pillars (38 by 38), each one a unique work of art. Such a multitude allows for seemingly infinite variety, while the pure white marble used throughout brings unity to the whole. Every detail has its place, but the organization feels fluid rather than restrictive. 

The 15th-century design is a culmination of the Solanki style. Traditional Hindu temple forms such as the curved pyramidal shikara fold in and out at pronounced angles, covered in bands of carvings. Details include sinuous diagonal lines called flying arches and a pair of demon-like heads guarding entry steps. The style became especially popular with the Jain community, whose temples can appear almost interchangeable with Hindu architecture. (The easiest way to distinguish between the two is to look over the main doorway: Hindu temples will have a statue of Ganesh, while Jain temples will feature one of the religion’s 24 tirthankaras, or teachers.)

Kumbhalarh Fort Temples And Walled Fort On Hilltop Rajput Architecture

After being forced to abandon Chittorgarh, the Mewar dynasty wanted something truly impregnable. The result was Kumbhalgarh Fort, with a wall system second only to the Great Wall of China. Bulbous towers make it appear strangely sculptural.

Kumbhalgarh UNESCO Listed Fort Cloud Palace Domes People Enjoying Views Of Mountains Rajput Architecture India

A remote site high in the mountains maximized the defenses and – as one might guess from the aptly-named Cloud Palace – creates spectacular vistas. A series of temples below the palace includes one with a fascinating building-within-a-building configuration.

Jodhpur Mehrangarh Fort View From Old City At Night With Lights And Blue Buildings

In the hot, dusty stretches of the Thar Desert, Jodhpur may appear more vision than city. Its mighty fortress grows right out of a mountain, over 400 feet straight up from the scrubby plain. At its base, a wash of buildings echoes the sky by day and lights up with blue pinpricks at night. It’s hard to conceive of mere mortals creating this place. Understanding the city requires diving into its streets: the blue buildings mitigate blazing heat and provide a respite from the bazaars’ chaos. 

Jodhpur Blue Buildings In Old City Woman Wearing Long Pink Veil And Sari Walking Next To Motorbike Rajasthan India

Inside the spiked gateways of Mehrangarh Fort, courtyards with red sandstone carvings provide shade. The Fortress of the Sun preserves 13 original spaces, such as the ultra-opulent Phool Mahal (Flower Palace), where golden paintings depict 36 ragas (melodies) as well as royal portraits and divine legends.

Left: entering Mehrangarh Fort. Right: the Phool Mahal (Flower Palace).

Other rooms showcase collections of paintings and howdahs for riding elephants. An inspired pairing upstairs lines royals cradles down the middle of a hallway lined with jali (stone screens) for the women to watch court life below.

Mandore Gardens Jodhpur Sandstone Cenotaphs Women In Colorful Saris With Trees Rajasthan Architecture

On the northern outskirts of modern Jodhpur, the Mandore Gardens complex offers a break from the tough desert landscape. Here the rocks give way to lanes brimming with sandstone chhatri set among leafy trees and fountains. It’s an idyllic spot for humans and monkeys alike. Along with an impressive collection of traditional cenotaphs, Mandore also features memorial temples. At the gardens’ rear, remains of a fort and temple date to the sixth century, with traces of an even older settlement. 

See our post on Jodhpur for more information.

Nagaur Fort Interior Columns And Painted Arches Rajput Architecture

Many travelers miss out on one of Rajasthan’s best experiences because they haven’t heard of Nagaur and its Fort of the Hooded Cobra. An award-winning restoration incorporates historically-accurate materials such as a wall paste made with sand and sheep’s hair. The restoration also emphasizes the fort’s ingenious climate and water management systems. Floor channels carrying water regulate temperature and humidity, while fish-scale textures create musical splashing sounds. Rooftop wind towers redirect air currents through the interior via wall pockets filled with sweetly-scented grasses. 

Ahhichatragarh Nagaur Fort Of The Hooded Cobra Gardens And Columns With Lobed Arches Rajasthan Architecture

Ahhichatragarh Fort provides knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides – what we learned here enhanced our understanding of Rajasthani architecture as a whole. The site occasionally hosts events such as a sacred music festival. The queens’ palaces have been converted into a heritage hotel.

The Golden City – named for the color of the local stone used in its buildings – lies out in the sandy stretches of the Thar Desert. As one of a handful of “living forts” left in the world, Jaisalmer’s 12th-century fortress still houses thousands of families. Unfortunately modern construction has badly damaged the drainage system, leading to the collapse of multiple buildings, including the Queen’s Palace. Along with a royal complex, the fort includes seven Jain temples as well as some of India’s oldest libraries. Multiple havelis, some converted into hotels, showcase the sophisticated taste of merchant traders. The royal cenotaphs of Bada Bagh lie just outside the city, as does a contemporary girl’s school which incorporates traditional materials and techniques. Because Jaisalmer lies quite a ways west, we regretfully left it off of our itinerary.

Rampuria Havelis

Rajasthan’s Red City can feel like an alternate reality. Affluent Silk Road merchants erected grand mansions in the 18th and 19th centuries, their delicate red sandstone resembling swathes of lace dipped in cinnamon. Ornamental doors face off across tiny lanes – but the historic center no longer sees much business.

Bikaner Junagarh Fort Exterior Sandstone With Red Cuppolas Tourists Waiting Outside Entrance Rajasthan India

Art and architecture in the Junagarh (“Big”) Fort started in the Mughal style and became increasingly eclectic over time. The 19th-century Badal Mahal, or Weather Palace, is a blue-and-white ode to monsoon rains painted in a style reminiscent of East Asia.

Bikaner Royal Cremation Grounds Cenotaphs White Marble Devi Kund Sagar Architecture Rajasthan India
Royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar

One of Rajasthan’s most characteristic forms is the chhatri or “umbrella”, a cluster of columns topped by a dome. These stone kiosks are part of the region’s unique fusions of Hindu and Islamic architecture. Besides lining the roofs of major palaces, they were used on elevated bases as memorials. Out at the Devi Kund Sagar royal cenotaphs, masses of chhatri look strangely futuristic, especially void of people in the desert landscape. Red sandstone and white marble domes reveal still-colorful paintings on the inside, and the site even has a handful of modern iterations.

Things get even stranger at Bikaner’s temples. Crayon-colored paintings decorate the 12th-century Bhandasar Jain Temple. According to legend, 40,000 kilograms of ghee (clarified butter) was used instead of water to mix the mortar. A short drive away, Karni Mata is the world’s only temple dedicated to rat worship.

Nawalgarh Haveli Museum Mansion Exterior With Elaborate Paintings Of People In Traditional Indian Costumes Shekhawati Rajasthan
Nawalgarh Podar Haveli Museum

Rajasthan’s northeastern stretch features a series of small towns full of exquisite havelis built by wealthy merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries. These mansions show how non-royals adapted the architectural conventions of palaces. Multiple courtyards allowed men to conduct business away from the zenana, the secluded domestic realm of women.

Nawalgarh Grand Haveli Hotel With Frescoed Exterior Facade And Columns Shekhawati Region In Rajasthan India

A prime spot on trade routes brought so much income to the area that locals vied for the fanciest homes. The most visible evidence remains in the paintings covering the structures, both inside and out. Mixtures of religion, history, folklore, and modernity include scenes like Krishna and Radha riding in a convertible limousine. The region has been called an “open-air museum”, and our single night in Nawalgarh wasn’t enough time for more than a sampling. Besides Nawalgarh, Mandawa is another good base from which to explore Shekhawati. Both towns have a high density of havelis open to the public as museums or heritage hotels.

We couldn’t squeeze all that we wanted to see into a few weeks. Other sites we considered were the Jain temples of Mount Abu and the abandoned temples in Osian with their incredible carvings. As a place of pilgrimage for multiple faiths, Ajmer has mosques as well as temples. The town of Alwar has an impressive fort-palace and one of the region’s most elegant memorials, Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri. Other UNESCO-listed sites include the forts of Ranthambore and Keoladeo – both in national parks – and Gagron Fort, which is nearly surrounded by rivers.

Mandore Gardens Temple With Two Monkeys Sitting By Carved Sandstone Columns Jodhpur Rajasthan

One of our best decisions was to find an experienced travel company in India. TGS Tours provided our excellent driver as well as assistance with our itinerary and hotel bookings. The trip could not have gone more smoothly, and the price was less than most packaged tours. (Please note that this is not a sponsored endorsement.)

For more on Rajasthani architecture, see our India page.