Rajasthan is one of the most colorful parts of India. Located in the northwest (see map), it was ruled by a group of warriors called Rajputs, who built medieval-looking walled cities. This area has always been strategic, both militarily and in trade, and its history is the history of the armies who marched through.
The Rajputs are thought to have come from Central Asia, though they quickly assimilated the local Hindu culture. They were ferocious fighters, who preferred mass suicide to defeat. The Rajputs made their money from conquest and customs, and left a legacy of impressive opulence. In spite of this, they never built a unified state, the many princes preferring to squabble with each other. As a result, most of the Rajasthani kingdoms became vassals of the Mughal empire.
At the time India became a nation, the area was still divided into small, princely states. The local rulers knew they would have to join either India or Pakistan, but many sat on the fence for as long as they could. Finally, the state of Rajasthan was created, and all the kingdoms joined India in 1948, a year after independence. Some of the maharajas became polo-playing, international jet-setters; others became statesmen in the new India. Still others turned their palaces into hotels after Indira Gandhi revoked their special privileges.
Despite its vibrant history, current-day Rajasthan is trying to catch up with the rest of India. It's arid, mostly rural, and at the time of this visit, the monsoons hadn't come for four years. Trade dried up as well with the partition of Pakistan. Ironically, war with Pakistan brought the area back into prominence with military bases near the border, but the main cash industry has shifted to tourism. There are tourists from the West, as well as tourists from other parts of India, and the competition for their business is ferocious. Many of the handicraft makers are organized into collectives, and goods are exported as well.
The spoken language is Rajasthani, which is most closely related to Gujarati1. Even though it's distinctive, Rajasthani never became an official language, for the same reason Rajasthan never became a unified state. There are as many dialects as there were political divisions, and no strong literary tradition could grow. The court of Marwar (Jodhpur) used a literary form of Rajasthani called Dingal, but in the rest of the region, the literary language was the Braj form of Hindi, which was spoken around Agra. Today, standard Hindi is the written language in the area. Rajasthani is assuming the role of a dialect, with Rajasthan classed as a Hindi-speaking area.
1Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of Languages, London: Bloomsbury, 1998.