In the Footsteps of the Maharajas

Step back in time and live like a king in the romantic state of Rajasthan
by Tina Lofthouse

With sand-swept forts rising out of the desert, warren-like bazaars packed with silks and spices, and camels competing for road space with cows and cycle rickshaws, Rajasthan is like walking on to a movie set.

Bordered on one side by Pakistan, Punjab to the north and Gujarat to the south, it is one of India's most conservative states - and it feels as if time has stood still here. Turban-clad men, with their unfeasibly long moustaches, herd goats and cattle whilst women in brightly-clad saris tend the fields. And you're as likely to see oxen and camels used as handy HGVs as you are more conventional motorised modes of transport.

But this is no region stuck in a time-warp as far as luxury travel is concerned and whilst one minute you might be wandering through a rural village avoiding the local bull barging though the streets as you admire the painted havelis (mansions), the next you can be sipping gin and tonic by the pool in a beautiful elegant palace.

The state's fascinating history - a whirlwind of battles, bravery, invasions, and the opulent lifestyle of the maharajas - has left its mark on Rajasthan in the form of a wealth of imposing forts and palaces. Today, many of these landmarks have been sensitively converted into stunning hotels.

Rajasthan is vast and choosing where to go will be your biggest dilemma. It's possible to see the major highlights in two weeks if you're happy to tour most days. Alternatively, you can dip in and out of the region choosing, perhaps, to fly to the beautiful lake city of Udaipur or the pink city of Jaipur.

Those with a sense of adventure and a taste for the open road could hire a car or motorbike - if you're crazy and are skilled in dodging the cows, rickshaws and the odd goat or two that are all too happy to wander into your path. Far more civilised is to hire a car and a driver. That way, you can kick back, relax, and watch the odd Bollywood movie or two on the in-car DVD whilst sipping ice-cold Kingfisher and gazing out at the desert scenery.

Jaisalmer is the furthest city to the west, and its fort sits like a giant sandcastle on the horizon of the Thar Desert. The approach to the imposing fort makes you glad the city walls are lined with only hawkers and not warring Rajputs and it is hard to imagine how an enemy might have even begun to penetrate this vast structure. Once inside, you can explore the warren of narrow streets packed with brightly coloured homes, guesthouses and temples. From Jaisalmer, you can take a camel out at sunset to the Sam Sand Dunes. Ask the camel driver nicely and you can race your travelling companions.

Known as the ´┐Żblue city', Jodhpur is also a fascinating place to spend a couple of days. From the magnificent Mehrangarh fort, you can admire the lavender hue of the houses, which are painted that colour, not for mere visual effect but to repel heat and insects. Umaid Bhawan Palace played host to Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar's recent wedding and is home to the current royal family of Jodhpur. Built in the art deco style, this huge place now incorporates a hotel, which has a range of luxurious suites to stay in.

Jodhpur meets the desires of even the most ardent shopaholic. There are antiques, fine silks, baby-soft shawls and intricately embroidered throws to be had. Have fun haggling (unless you are in a fixed price co-operative) and shop around for the best quality. Maharani Art Emporium is a popular eight-storey Aladdin's Cave and its staff are all too eager to show you their press cuttings from around the world and boast of their celebrity shoppers including Richard Gere who apparently bought 108 pashminas here.

James Bond fans will be in their element in Udaipur where the beautiful Lake Palace - the home of Octopussy in the movie - sits in the middle of the tranquil Lake Pichola. It is now a hotel. You can also stay at the grand Shiv Niwas Hotel, where Bond stayed in the film. The city is impossibly romantic and heading to one of the lake-side restaurants at night to watch the lights flickering across the water is an idyllic way to spend an evening. A couple of hours from Udaipur is the magnificent Jain temple at Ranakpur. This vast marble complex is made up of around 1,400 intricately carved marble pillars, no two of which are the same.

Wherever you choose to go, Rajasthan is a magical place. From picking your way through the crazy bazaars and watching the colourful street life from a hilltop fort to dining in style in an ancient castle, you can't fail to be caught up in its spell.

Rajasthan is easily reached by plane from Delhi or Mumbai - party-lovers should head to Mumbai, which has established itself as cool place for nightlife. Bars of the moment include Vie Lounge and Rain.

The best time to visit Rajasthan is between October and March. Things really start to heat up from April onwards until the monsoons hit in late June to September.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.