Get set for serious sensory intoxication. There’s nothing subtle about Rajasthan: blazing colours, vivid culture, bazaars heaving with hand- made temptations, a hypnotic desert festooned with bejewelled, lavishly ornate palaces. Best of all, you can now swan about the fairytale digs of erstwhile royal families. Whilst the larger palaces ooze opulence, the smaller, village and rural palaces scattered throughout the western Thar Desert present a regal reverie that’s personable and homely. Peacocks strut about the lawns of these quirky piles. Each room is unique and embellished with antiques and sepia stories and many have museums crammed with vintage cars and artefacts.
In The Pink
Named for its resonant rose hued sandstone, the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur is just a few hours’ drive from New Delhi. Within the walled city, the Maharaja’s heyday is still keenly felt. The shopping here is riveting- think hand-honed textiles and home-wares, silver and gem jewellery- as is the spectacular City Palace.
A short drive from town, Amber Fort is most atmospheric just before twilight; an awed hush sets in and the vista of fort walls splaying over painted hills is an evocative way to end the day. Encrusted into a mountainous landscape and near an artisan village, the splendid Samode Palace is accessible to Jaipur but a world away from city clamour. Samode’s murals and flamboyant ornamentation conjure swoons and many rooms have courtyards and cupolas framing sedating views. Horse and camel safaris crank up the escapist vibe.
Blue On Blue
Jodhpur’s old town is distinctive for its reverberating blues. The time-frozen labyrinth of narrow lanes is presided over by the majesty of Mehrangarh Fort, described by Kipling as “the work of angels, fairies and giants”. Secreting a giant jewellery box of ornate courtyards, palaces and shrines, the rampart walls are an iconic perch for soaking up slow-burn desert sunsets.
Each October, the fort comes alive to the tunes of the annual RIFF International Folk Festival. Edgy design combines with sumptuous comforts at Raas Jodhpur, a series of mansions recently re-incarnated as a boutique hotel.
On a hill just a little beyond the compelling old city is the stately art deco stunner: Umaid Bhawan Palace. Exuding a glamour that instinctively gets you checking your posture and your diction, this is a never - to -be -forgotten splurge. But even if you’re staying at one of Jodhpur’s many affordable havelis (mansions), at least relish a meal amidst Umaid’s deeply affecting extravagance.
Around Jodhpur, proudly traditional villages are dotted throughout the craggy badlands. Camels are a common sight and men brandish shockingly bright cantilevered turbans; tattooed women wear wrist-to-shoulder bone bangles. The ardently nature and animal revering Bishnoi people now offer accommodation in their fascinating walled villages, such as the Bishnoi Village Camp.
At the edge of a village pulsing with the tap-tap of metal workers, Rohet Garh is run by descendants of the original local aristocracy, who’ll happy share stories. Rooftop balconies and onion- domed turrets overlook timeless rituals: shepherds singing as they steer flocks home, jewel-coloured veils billowing as women balance water vases upon heads.
Rohet’s handsome Marwari horses can be taken out on safaris. Overlooking a lake that’s now a wildlife sanctuary, the red sandstone Gajner Palace was an esteemed hunting retreat in the Raj era. The sense of secluded decadence persists. The Thar desert ignites into photogenic life at the annual Naguar fair, a medieval whirl of traders, camels and Marwari horses prancing in embroidered bridles and.
A Desert Dream
Like a gargantuan golden sandcastle, Jaisalmer fort rises from the sandy mirage. After moving along zigzag ramps (designed to hinder invader’s elephants) and past almighty doors studded with spikes, you’ll arrive at the main square where troops and petitioners once assembled. These days, it’s the domain of musicians, dancing girls, fortune tellers and astrologers.
One of the world’s only living forts, Jaisalmer is crammed with ancient temples, palaces, homes, shops and lately – stylish lodgings. Elaborate carvings in the sandstone have turned the pedestrian-only lanes into a transfixing outdoor art gallery. There’s little elbow room when jostling cows and hand-pushed carts.
Lavishly ornate havelis (mansions) built by Jain merchants in the 1800s, attest to fortunes garnered from Jaisalmer’s strategic position on camel train routes between India and Central Asia. Happily, they now offer travellers an inimitable Arabian Nights fantasy.