From the moment I step off the plane, India starts working its magic on me. The air swirls with smoky sandalwood and spices, and the streets are teeming with people, cars, and cows. One of my favorite places to visit is Rajasthan, the “Land of Kings.”
The Land of Kings
Rajasthan is one of India’s most exotic and colorful regions. Here, the gorgeous fabrics of traditional clothing — turbans and saris in crimson, gold, and hot pink — stand out against the arid landscape. It is known as the “Land of the Kings”, because, prior to British rule, it was a collection of princely states, each with its own Maharaja and his warrior clans.
A palette of color
Almost every town in Rajasthan is dominated by a huge fort with battlements, massive walls and turrets and has a palace of amazing opulence and luxury. The exotic atmosphere of this region goes beyond the spectacular forts and palaces because the Rajasthani people themselves are a palette of color. The women are dressed in bright, mirrored skirts and ivory or silver jewelry from head to toe and up each arm. The handsome tall men wear huge pastel colored turbans and sport long, black soup-strainer moustaches.
Rajasthan, in India’s northwest corner, is about twice the size of the state of Wisconsin. With all this area, Rajasthan might seem daunting at first—but you’ll be able to see its finest by hiring a car and driver and taking a loop tour of its most vibrant cities-known for their gorgeous architecture and rich culture. On the road, you’ll get the best sense of the country, stopping at forts, palaces, and other sights along the way. Begin your journey in Delhi, which has fabulous shopping and pulses with life; then visit Agra and its most-famous monument, the impressive Taj Mahal. Then travel by road to Jaipur, the pink-hued city, and finish with a visit to Udaipur, a small romantic lake town with waterside and impressive palaces.
There are world-class palaces and heritage hotels sprinkled throughout the region, which allow you to take in all of the sights at a relaxed pace—and finish off each day of sightseeing with spa treatments and fine cuisine.
Time to Travel
Fall and winter are fantastic times to visit India — days are pleasantly warm and nights are cool and refreshing. It’s also a great time to catch Rajasthan’s fairs and festivals. But plan ahead: December is the height of Indian wedding season, so it can be a busy month. Although I recommend visiting India from October to March, I have traveled through Rajasthan, Kashmir and Ladakh in the summer, which is monsoon season. Although it was hot, it was tolerable if you have air-conditioned accommodations and transport. The monsoon rains were sporadic and heavy but didn’t last all day. The advantages of off-season travel are deep discounts, lush green landscapes, and very few Western tourists.
Explore Jaipur, the “Pink City”
Women in flowing scarves and saris of saffron, turquoise, and vermillion glide among camels, sacred cows and rickshaws in the streets of the old town, encircled by thick crenellated walls with seven gates. Regal Rajasthani men in white tunics and pink-and-orange turbans strut through the alleys. Jaipur’s building, palaces, forts, shops, and people are a photographer’s dream.
Jaipur, is well known as the ‘pink city’ from the pink colored sandstone buildings, but the population is equally colorful and enchanting. Of course you’ll visit the old town, palaces and the fort, but leave time for strolling and shopping. You’ll need to buy an extra bag to carry home your inexpensive purchases; purses, clothes, rings for fingers and toes, bracelets, handmade paper, silver jewelry, textiles, and puppets.
Jaipur’s pink stucco buildings enchant architecture buffs, and Mark Twain once compared the color of the city to “the soft rich tint of strawberry ice-cream.”
The first planned city in India, Jaipur is certainly a feast for the eyes. It has nine districts representing the nine divisions of the Hindu universe, and the hills surrounding much of the city are dotted with palaces, mansions, forts and gardens.
You won’t want to miss the Hawa Mahal, aka the Palace of the Winds, which was built by a poet-king for the ladies of his court. Its 953 delicate sandstone windows were perfect for the courtesans to gaze out at the action on the street, and these days you’ll love peering up at the pink-confection of a building from the outside. At the Jantar Mantar observatory, stargazers can marvel at the complex astronomical instruments, including the world’s largest sundial.
Best Palace Adventure
On the outskirts of Jaipur, there’s a gem of a palace – and getting to it is at least half the fun. Amber Fort is located on a mountaintop seven miles from Jaipur. Every tour includes a visit to Amber Fort, but if you’re on your own, you can easily hire a taxi. Or you can hike to the top of the mountain, or for a royal experience, you can ride an elephant.
I recommend impersonating royalty — your legs will thank you, especially because once you dismount, you will then climb more stairs to the palace proper. The fortress palace is stunningly situated on a steep hillside overlooking a lake, which reflects the massive walls and gateways. Inside you’ll find intricately decorated buildings including the Palaces of Women, which had separate quarters for all the maharajah’s wives.
Go on your own, or book through a reputable tour company. I recommend , an award-winning Indian Travel Company recognized by National Geographic Adventure for stellar adventure travel and ecotourism. I know the founders/ owners well and have traveled in India with Ibex. They specialize in adventure, custom trips and luxury.
Part of this story was excerpted from my book, . Publisher: National Geographic.