The intense, rapid-fire explosion of colours that typifies Rajasthan is so incandescent I am almost forced to look away. One glance reveals the swirling vermilion of a dancerâ€™s skirt, while another captures saffron, fuchsia and lime cantilevered turbans that seem set to topple their wizened wearers. Another peek and all around me I see magenta and emerald saris sewn with beautiful gold thread. The sights and the colours are intoxicating.
Iâ€™m a tragic when it comes to Rajasthanâ€™s exuberance, having lost count of the times Iâ€™ve been bewitched. These jubilant, electrifying jolts of colour have become a type of shock therapy for me, a scintillating balm to assuage the blandness and banality of suburban life. Rajasthan stands as the ultimate reminder that you donâ€™t need to live a life in monochrome and you certainly shouldnâ€™t blend into the crowd.
Life is trying in these stark, barren lands; and yet, rather than become inured, Rajasthanâ€™s people choose to be the brightest they can be, infusing everyday life with celebratory bursts of colour. India is vast, astonishingly varied and laden with captivating sights. Try to see too much and you risk exhaustion. A better way, Iâ€™ve learned after multiple journeys, is to zone in on one region and allow for a contemplative, openâ€“ended adventure that invites surprises. Adding further to the conundrum, Rajasthan was originally comprised of squabbling, fiercely independent princely states, so even within regions the diversity is intense.
You can choose between whimsical Jaipur, romantic Udaipur and holy, whitewashed Pushkar. Theyâ€™re touristy, but Rajasthanâ€™s hotspots are also very seductive. For me, though, itâ€™s the fullâ€“throttle exoticism and frontier feel of the western districts skirting the hypnotic Thar Desert that are most affecting.
Like a giant, golden sandcastle, Jaisalmer fort rises from the unfurled desert. Itâ€™s a surreal scene that is sharpened as we move through the massive embankments along zigzag ramps (designed to hinder the charge of invadersâ€™ elephants) past massive doors studded with spikes.
We clomp along cobblestones polished by centuries of traders, royals and renegades. As we reach the main square â€” where troops and petitioners once assembled â€” weâ€™re welcomed by girls whirling like dervishes, their penetrating, kohlâ€“rimmed eyes flickering to music that induces quivers. Nearby, fortuneâ€“tellers and astrologers wait.
Jaisalmer is one of the worldâ€™s only living forts, crammed with temples (some dating back to 12th century), palaces, homes and shops. Staying within the ramparts is a privileged opportunity to soak up an enduringly medieval vibe. Overlooking the ramparts, we watch the sun rise from the desert while sipping spicy chai, then abandon ourselves to the labyrinth of narrow, convoluted alleys. Itâ€™s pedestrian traffic only, but thereâ€™s no contest when faced with corpulent cows, whose bells ricochet along the ancient stone walkways. Nor is there much elbow room when jostling between chatting locals or hand-pushed carts.
Having lived by their wits since the 12th century, Jaisalmerâ€™s residents hold their local legends in high regard. Just about every doorway is guarded by protective carvings of elephants or horses, lauded for their role in battle. Beauty is believed to ward off evil and, accordingly, just about every visible surface leaps with ecstatic expression, rendering Jaisalmerâ€™s tangled, honeyâ€“hued sandstone lanes into a sumptuous outdoor art gallery.
This decorative fancy went into overdrive in the havelis of the old city, which spills from the base of the ramparts. These lavishly ornate mansions, built by Jain merchants in the 1800s, attest to the fortunes wrought from Jaisalmerâ€™s strategic position on the camelâ€“train routes between India and Central Asia.
To meaningfully interact with the desert intrigues, we arrange a road trip. Our driver, Krishna, has a celestial smile and a sparkling black Ambassador that immediately inspires confidence. Garlands of auspicious marigolds are draped over mirrors, the paisley modesty curtains are freshly pressed and, most importantly, a pantheon of deities is poised on the dashboard. Once prayers have been said and incense lit, weâ€™re off, through moody, amber-hued flatlands, past villages of mud huts. This is a landscape that inevitably conjures daydreams; however, I canâ€™t help but do a double take when we arrive at Bikaner to find the Ambassador overshadowed by camels.
Once an important staging post on the great trade routes, Bikanerâ€™s salmon-pink sandstone old city is encircled by a high, crenulated wall. At the heart of this gritty city is the massive, moated Fort Junagarh, an impenetrable garrison whose ruggedness is countered by the delicacy of the palace artwork, including many murals painted with ground semiâ€“precious gems and gold.
Bikanerâ€™s convoluted lanes are crammed with pink havelis, stalls that spill spices and flowers onto the cobblestones, as well as donkeys, camels and ornately painted Jain temples. But Iâ€™m unusually hasty at the bazaar â€” eager to return to our home here, the Lamxi Niwas Palace Hotel, a former base of the maharajas that drips with references to their opulence.
Our suite is located in a rooftop turret with a deck overlooking the cityâ€™s echoing pinks and is embellished with floral paintings and antiques. Dinner is a delectable buffet served in a carving-embossed pink sandstone courtyard. The event is announced by wafting notes of folk music that becomes increasingly imploring as we head downstairs along corridors of stone lattice screens. Part lament, part celebration, this gypsy-style music evokes visceral emotion made all the more poignant when heard in its place of origin: Rajasthan.
Happily, Krishna has more tribal delights in store. At the fort town of Nagaur, the annual fair â€” a carnival-style sale of cattle, camels and the graceful Marwari desert horses â€” is in full swing. Once again, we marvel at medieval visions: camels, led by pruneâ€“faced men wearing their brightest dress turbans; flamboyant Marwari horses, flaunting embroidered bridles, dancing and prancing; huge, unflappable cows standing calm against a backdrop of dancing, rousing music and races where haggling is conducted over terracotta cups of chai and may last for days.
Continuing towards Jodhpur, we pass crumbling forts and fields ablaze with mustard crops, villages that specialise in particular types of pottery and irresistible textiles, and magnificent â€œmessenger horsesâ€ that almost outpace the Ambassador. There are wild peacocks and even wilder-looking shepherds, disappearing into craggy hills. Itâ€™s wedding season and Jodhpur pulses with raucous bands and unbridled bonhomie. Presiding over the old town, which is distinctive for its reverberating blues, is formidable, majestic Meherangarh Fort. Inside the towering garrison lies a giant jewellery box of ornate courtyards and palaces.
Scattered within a few hoursâ€™ drive of Jodhpur are proudly traditional villages. When Krishna steers the Ambassador off the road through bumpy, beige badlands then almost imperceptible sandy tracks, weâ€™re richly rewarded, dropping into villages where feisty women plant hands on hips, revealing tattoos and wrist-to-shoulder bone bangles, and entire families get about on camelâ€“carts. We visit the tattooed, ardently vegetarian Bishnoi people who, since the 1700s, have followed a strict creed of environmental protection.
The desert around Jodhpur is also replete with delightful smaller palaces, typically erstwhile hunting lodges or seats of smaller principalities. These petite, more remote palace hotels are exceptional. Each room is most likely unique and often features quaint original antiques and walls brandishing sepia family portraits. The atmosphere is intimate and inviting.
One of my favourites is Rohet Garh where, from rooftop balconies and onion domed turrets, weâ€™re privy to timeless rituals: shepherds singing as they steer flocks home, jewel-coloured veils wafting as women balance bronze water vases on their heads, heavy silver bangles and anklets glistening in the last rays of afternoon sun.
- India experts, Ram World Travel specialises in customised itineraries. Rajasthan packages start from $2995 p/p. T: 9262 1661, W: www.ramworldtravel.com.au.
- A room with a mood: Bikanerâ€™s Laxmi Niwas Palace Hotel is Ã¼ber-atmospheric and very friendly. W: www.laxminiwaspalace.com.
- Both Jaisalmer Fort and the old city feature many affordable guesthouses. To get the scoop on atmosphere, views, and hopefully a balcony, research before committing. A stylish and friendly boutique option in Jaisalmer Fort is Killa Bhawan, www.killabawan.com.
- Jodhpurâ€™s old city also has many atmospheric guesthouses. For palatial tranquillity, the lakeside former hunting lodge Bal Samand Palace Hotel is only 7km from town.
- Smaller Palace Hotels: Rohet Garh, Kimser Fort and Fort Chanwa Luni offer delightful, unique suites and spellbinding locations.
- Stay in the heart of Nagaur and among desert tribes: W: www.farhorizonindia.com.
- Best Times: October to March is the cool season and coincides with many festivals.