India's romantic Rajasthan, land of legendary splendor

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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.

Later, elephants carried us up a mountain path past Lake Maota and the Mohan Bari Gardens to the famous fortress-palace of Amber, the ancient capital of Jaipur. We sat back to back in howdahs -- box-like saddles -- while the elephants ambled up the mountainside at a leisurely pace, gently rocking us back and forth. There was time to focus on small details we probably would have missed otherwise: tiny, bright red flowers growing out of crevices in the rock, black-faced monkeys sitting on the walls watching us warily as we lumbered ever closer. I could easily imagine Man Sing, fresh from a new victory, riding up the same steep incline in a covered, bejeweled howdah on his royal elephant to his waiting court.

Finally we reached Amber, which was built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, the Rajput commander of the Akbar's Army. Like most ``forts,'' Amber is a small city containing a palace residence for the maharajah, and his family and concubines, as well as public halls where he held audiences. The Jai Mandir Palace inside Amber is built of pure white marble. Its walls are inlaid with arabesque panels and the ceiling is decorated with glittering mirror work. Across the way is the Sukh Niwas with an ivory inlaid sandalwood door. A channel that at one time carried cooling water runs right through the room, an early form of air conditioning.

Later we visited the Jaipur City Palace, which contains one of the best small museums in Rajasthan. Dr. Dass, the museum director, showed us the collection of priceless miniature paintings, considered the best in Rajasthan. In the museum are also found illuminated manuscripts, rare (circa 1860) photos of maharajas, carpets, and displays of the fearsome Rajput daggers and swords. I touched one of the swords hanging on the wall -- it was still as sharp as a razor.

The next morning we flew to Jodhpur, a city on the edge of the Thar desert. Jodhpur is dominated by the massive Mehrangarh Fort, topping a sheer rock hill that rises right out of the middle of the town. In early morning, when the mist obscures the town below and sunlight illuminates the ramparts, which seem suspended in space, it is an imposing sight.

At the entrance to the fort are 15 sets of handprints, the sati marks of widows of the then-ruler, Maharaja Man Singh, who threw themselves upon his funeral pyre in 1843. Inside the fort there is a complex of palaces. Here, the courtyards of the Jhanki Mahal, and the Palace of Glimpses, are surrounded by lattices and peepholes so you have the sensation of being watched. A guide gestured toward the Zanani dyoti, the women's apartments, a casbah-like warren of now dark and empty rooms which once held the Maharaja's concubines and their children. He told us there were so many connecting rooms that an unwary visitor could get permanently lost in them.

We were guests one night in Jodhpur in the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which was built by the local maharaja. However, it was designed by the British and not completed until 1943. It's a very official building, fit for administrators, and unduly formal. There was none of the feeling of beauty and whimsy of the Rajput and Mogul palaces. But it did have the usually friendly hospitality of Rajasthan. Outside, the desert was beautiful, full of brownish-red outcroppings and single hills shimmering in the heat. At night it was very cool, and the sky blazed with stars.

From there, we flew to Udaipur, nestled high among the lofty Aravali hills, and site of the famous Lake Palace Hotel. This is the seat of the Maharana of Udaipur, the highest ranking of the Rajput rulers. One of his ancestors, Maharana Pratap, routed Akbar's forces near here.

The old city is on the banks of Lake Pichola, which was created by damming a river. The Lake Palace, built of the same creamy white marble as the Taj Mahal, completely covers a four-acre island in the middle of the lake. It seems to float there: serene, remote, and cool among the arid brown hills. This was once the summer palace of the maharana but now has been converted into a luxury hotel, complete with its own pool. The James Bond movie ``Octopussy'' was filmed there.

A launch took us out to the Lake Palace. As maharajas must once have done, we ate a sumptuous lunch overlooking a dazzling white marble courtyard and listened to the gentle lapping of the waves while gazing at the city on the near shore -- 800 feet away.

Our lodgings were at the Shivniwas Palace on the mainland. One of the largest complexes in Rajasthan, the palace sits on a hill overlooking the lake on the west side and the city on the east. Before dinner, we met in the enclosed marble courtyard and watched the sun set behind the far hills, turning the lake and the palace to gold.

The City Palace and attached museum is entered through the Tripola Gate with its eight carved marble arches. Here, the Maharanas once were weighed, and received in tribute their weight in gold and silver, which they, in turn, distributed to the city's inhabitants. The museum, a series of palaces, exuded a feeling of gaiety and delight. Windows with delicate lattices chiseled out of a single piece of white marble framed the view of the Lake Palace.

But there was also the reminder of the bloody past of the Rajputs: each stairway was so narrow that only one person at a time could pass through, and entrances to rooms were so low that you had to stoop, entering head first so that, in case you were an enemy, your head might be readily cut off by one of the lurking palace guards.

On my last day in Udaipur, sitting on my veranda in the palace high above the city, I heard the incongruous sound of an Ann Murray song floating up to me. During the time I was in Rajasthan, I hadn't thought of home, so overwhelming was the experience of this colorful country. Suddenly, I was homesick. It was good timing. We flew back to Delhi and New York the next day.

But India has stayed with me, and home now seems a bit dull, monochromatic, empty.

``You really will enjoy India on your second trip because you will know what to expect,'' an Indian friend had said.

Now, I can't wait to go back. Practical information:

The best time to visit Rajasthan is during the cool season from December to March. The weather gets progressively warmer after that, culminating with the monsoon in July. If you go to India during the cool season, bring a sweater and a warm jacket.

It's a long trip to India from the United States and you should lay over in Europe for a day or two to offset time changes, especially on the trip back. If possible, book a window seat on a flight that takes you over the Himalayas during the day: this is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. If you wish to tour Rajasthan by car with a guide, you can arrange to do so through a travel agent, or you can make arrangements yourself. There are several excellent companies -- among them, Rajasthan Tours and Mercury Tours. The Government of India Tourist Office, which has offices in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, can help organize your trip. The jumping off spot for Rajasthan is Delhi. After visiting Delhi you can fly to Agra, visit the Taj Mahal, and pick up your guide and car for the drive to Rajasthan. The cost of a double room at the palaces ranges from $30 to $40 a day.

Bring Sun-screen if you need it; it is unavailable anywhere in India.

Hugh O'Haire's trip was partly sponsored by Government of India Tourist Office.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...