There are a few experiences in life that money can’t buy, they say. Watching the sun go down over the Great Thar, ankle-deep in the cool sand, as the sweltering day turns into a chilly desert night…yes, that’s one of them. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Sam Sand Dunes on a full moon night, the desert looks like chandi, they say. Like silver.
But there’s more to Rajasthan than just the desert, although arguably it is the most breathtaking. Just about a 45-minute drive away from Sam is Jaisalmer, home to the Golden Fort, the only living fort in the world. Jodhpur beckons you with the Mehrangarh Fort, as mighty as the city is blue. And for a budget traveller, Zostel is probably the best location to stay, through the winding lanes and into the heart of the old city. It seems as though the fort was built just to watch over you. The promise of Udaipur is its lakes, over half a dozen of them. And through the lakes are the magnificent heritage structures that make this city, quite literally, fit for kings.
March is considered peak tourist season in Rajasthan. The weather has yet to descend into its summer heat of hell, desert spring is blooming, and the vibrance of Rajasthani folk music and dance can be experienced at every corner. This March, however, was different. As the state grappled with its first COVID-19 cases, which came with Italian tourists, the travel and tourism industry took a massive hit.
Nearly 90 per cent of travel to Rajasthan was cancelled, all events called off, and hotels saw an 80-90 per cent rate of cancellations, according to Shreya Guha, Principal Secretary for Tourism, Art and Culture, Government of Rajasthan. The season had ended before it even began. But the state is nothing if not resilient. In order to revive interest and keep the morale high during the lockdown, Rajasthan is creating, collecting and curating virtual experiences around its monuments, cities, wildlife and culture. The state’s government wants to proactively provide this service to the people, available for free on their website!
“We have created virtual tours, and will be putting them up sustainably throughout the period of this lockdown, and even after,” said Guha. “The focus is on digital and virtual events for the next three or four months until travel goes back to normal.”
You can cruise through the Jantar Mantar and Hawa Mahal, take in the art and architecture of the city palaces in both Jaipur and Udaipur, relish some ghevar and kachoris, experience the hustle bustle of the Masala Chowk and the Gangaur festival, and even go on a pilgrimage to Ranakpur Jain Mandir and the Pushkar Temple. But that’s not all, the festivals of Rajasthan are also brought straight to your couch (or bed; we don’t judge). you can enjoy the Teej festival with locals and even stomp some hooves at the Pushkar Camel Fair!
“We are also planning on introducing digital walkthroughs of monuments,” said Guha. “These will include exhibitions of our state archives, where we will display photographs, documents and other archival materials.”
And the best part is that this is just the beginning. Hits on the website have doubled in a single day, and the state is all set for more. There are online contests, people cooking authentic Rajasthani delicacies, wildlife films and documentaries, curated events, concerts and tributes in the works.
Recently, the department paid— virtual—homage to Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary and also had different artists from across the country record music at their homes for the state to compile as a tribute to frontline workers.
“We are catering to requests coming from the people,” said Guha. “And we’re exploring new ideas every day.”
Visual arts organisations are also putting up art camps where both established and up-and-coming artists would pick a theme and interpret it in their own style.
The government has also launched the Lok Kalakar Protsahan Yojna, which aims to give back to local artists who reside in remote areas of Rajasthan. As tourism is a large part of their livelihood, the government is encouraging these artists to record videos of themselves performing—while maintaining social distancing protocols, of course—and sending it in. A few select videos will be showcased on the website and the artists will be given a basic remuneration.
“This situation has really been a gamechanger,” added Guha. “The tourism industry will have to change with it. The products and services that we offer, the sanitation standards, social distancing norms, everything will undergo a massive shift.”