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India's romantic Rajasthan, land of legendary splendor

By Hugh A. O'Haire Jr.Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 1985



New York

There is another India besides the one seen in the travel posters of the Taj Mahal, Delhi, and Bombay. It can be found in Rajasthan, an almost medieval landscape of hilltop fortresses and palaces right out of the Arabian Nights, where the imagination can expand, and where visitors can live like a Maharaja. Rajasthan, in Northwest India near the Pakistan border, is named after the indigenous Rajputs, the fierce warrior clans of North India, who fought all invaders from the Moguls to the British. It is a land of contrasts: flat arid plains and deserts alternate with hills and fields of green mustard topped with yellow blossoms. It is also a culture of contrasts, where martial ferocity and the most delicate and feminine architecture are equally valued, where princes develop their aesthetic sensibilities but also indulge in ostentatious displays of wealth.

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During my first visit to India, I was fortunate enough to tour Rajasthan for a week with a group of American journalists. We visited the fortresses and ruins of that wild and romantic land, rode elephants, and stayed in Maharajas' palaces now converted into luxury hotels.

From Delhi we first flew to Agra near the Rajasthan border, picked up our rental cars, and started off to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Along the way, we stopped at the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, built in 1570 by the Mogul Emperor Akbar in tribute to a holy man who foretold that Akbar would have a male heir. Twenty years later, it was abandoned because it could not be supplied with enough water.

It was eerie listening to the wind whistle through the Hindu columns and Muslim cupolas of this perfectly preserved but empty red sandstone city, complete with palaces, and courtyards with latticed windows, where ladies in purdah (seclusion) could peep down at the proceedings without being observed. Close by was another courtyard laid out in the form of a giant game board, where the emperor is supposed to have played chess using slave girls as the pieces.

We entered Rajasthan a few kilometers down the road. At first, the terrain was flat but as we neared Jaipur, bare brown hills thrust up from the seemingly endless plains. Along the road, we passed through small agricultural villages, where 80 percent of India's population lives. As we traveled farther into Rajasthan and the desert, there were subtle changes. The bullock carts gave way to camel carts, and the women's saris changed from subdued to electric colors.

``There's a Rajasthani woman,'' our driver said, pointing to a small, wiry figure wearing a fuchsia and silver sari with a chartreuse head covering. He explained his theory that the colors get more vibrant as the landscape becomes more monochromatic.

Five hours later, our arms and faces sunburned and our hair full of dust from the open windows, we arrived at Jaipur, called the ``pink city'' because of the color of the sandstone used in its construction. Jaipur was planned and begun in 1727 by Maharaja Jai Singh II, the great warrior-astronomer. Like Renaissance princes in Western Europe, the maharajas of Rajasthan not only had their own ateliers, but many became skilled artists, scientists, and city planners.

We stayed at the Rambaugh Palace, a salmon and pink building designed in the Mogul style with delicately scalloped arched porticos. The rooms were modern and comfortable, although I was fortunate enough to get one in the old wing with a decorated 30-foot high ceiling and a fireplace.

The next morning we visited the Jantar Mantar, an observatory-park of fantastic building complexes also planned by Jai Singh II. It looked like a modern art park with sculptures by Modigliani and Henry Moore. Each building can be used for a specific purpose, such as measuring the position of stars, calculating the next eclipse, or telling the exact time.