The Indian state of Rajasthan boasts an exotic mix of dazzling desert scenery, ancient cities guarded by majestic forts and some of the world's best hotels, many in palaces that once belonged to maharajas of old.
Although some of these hotels -- such as the famed Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur -- might be beyond the reach of mere mortals, there are plenty of other stunning places to stay.
Excellent choices include Hotel Rangmahal in Jaisalmer, Lalgarh Palace in Bikaner, the Palace Hotel (Bikaner House) in Mount Abu and Castle Mandawa in Mandawa.
Rajasthan's main city is Jaipur. Many travelers on quick visits to India combine it with Agra and Fatephur Sikri on the so-called Golden Triangle Tour from capital city Delhi.
Jaipur is often called the Pink City, a reference to the rosy color of many structures. The most notable is the wonderful Hawa Mahal, a five-story confection of pink sandstone. From the top, there are great views of both the city skyline and the passing parade in the jam-packed bazaars below.
Jaipur's markets are known for jewelry, especially gold and silver, but visitors should be on their guard against fakes.
The City Palace Museum offers an admirable collection of armor, spears, knives and other weapons. Nearby, the Jantar Mantar, an early-18th century observatory, houses huge, exotic constructions devoted to time, the zodiac and things astronomical and astrological.
But Jaipur's premier attraction is the Amber Fort, about six miles outside of town. Most tourists take an organized elephant ride to reach the fort entrance, perched on top of a hill. The fort has numerous courtyards and passageways leading to myriad rooms, and the ramparts offer good views of the surrounding countryside.
One of Rajasthan's most attractive cities is Udaipur, with its lakes, temples and palaces. The famous Lake Palace Hotel seems to float on Lake Pichola. Women gather to wash clothes on ghats, or steps, on the edge of the lake, in the shadow of the imposing City Palace, the largest maharaja palace in Rajasthan.
The palace museum is packed with fascinating furnishings, miniature paintings, mosaics and historical photographs.
Rajasthan boasts wonderful temples, including the lovely Indo-Aryan Jagdish Mandir temple in Udaipur and the two Jain temples at Ranakpur and Dilwara near Mount Abu. The latter two contain some of India's finest temple architecture, with columns and pillars -- Ranakpur has 1,444, each one unique -- and huge sculptures of elephants and other animals.
Many towns and villages across Rajasthan are dotted with havelis, old mansions that once belonged to wealthy merchants. Facades are often ornate, either carved or with painted frescoes.
Many are in a poor state, but where money is available some are being restored to their former glory. Examples can be found at Udaipur; at Fatephur and Mandawa in the Shekhawati area; and at Jaisalmer. In fact, most tourist routes lead to Jaisalmer, dominated by a magnificent fort.
Parts of the fort are crumbling badly; an interesting sight during one recent tour was a camel pulling a huge grindstone around a trench, mixing up mortar for workmen doing repairs. Camels are Rajasthan's beasts of burden of choice and the loads they pull are massive.
Camels on parade
Jaisalmer hosts a Desert Festival each February that includes a colorful Camel Tattoo, resembling Scotland's Edinburgh Military Tattoo, but with dromedaries.
A band on camelback plays music while troupes of brightly dressed camels perform intricate maneuvers -- circles, cross-overs and ballet-like steps -- before their riders perform various tricks on their backs.
Naturally, a camel safari is a must for any visitor to Jaisalmer. The nearby villages of Sam and Khuri are the main bases for these activities. Some safaris last two to three days but visitors can also opt for a shorter, sunset sand dune camel ride.
Another Desert Festival event is rangoli, traditional building or pavement decoration using colored paints made from ground sandstone and soapstone.
A notable feature of life in Rajasthan is the use of color in dress. Many men still wear a turban, tied with material up to 35 feet long, and the color and shape can indicate status. In addition, most sport a moustache and take great pride in developing them into huge, bushy affairs, curled up at the ends. For men in parts of Rajasthan, earrings in both ears are common. These can be simple or tribal-patterned studs, or ornate, gold hoops.
For their part, most Rajasthani women wear saris, even when working in the fields.
Many U.S. and Indian tour operators include Rajasthan in their brochures. Delhi-based Travelmasti offers a raft of standard tours and custom itineraries, handling all arrangements for hotels, car and driver. Four-star accommodations, car with driver and guided touring are recommended.
Visit www.travelmasti.com or call (877) INDIA-07. For general information on Rajasthan, go to www.incredibleindia.org.
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