Delhi - An Indian dream
Larger than life, and far more colorful - no doubt about it, a journey through Rajasthan is a veritable assault on the senses. India's largest state - in terms of area - abounds with unforgettable sights: cities the color of strawberry ice cream, sumptuous palaces, gorgeously painted elephants, and landscapes almost too vast for the naked eye to encompass
An Indian dream
I sometimes dream of Rajasthan. This is not something I experience with many places I've visited, but Rajasthan seems to have snagged some part of my brain. There it sits, waiting for a chance to work its way into my dreams every three or four weeks. Not that it does this stealthily, softly creeping. Oh, no, it comes with true Indian pomp and circumstance! In my dreams of Rajasthan, camel caravans plod swaying across the desert, brightly painted elephants trumpet proudly, besabered riders salute. Sometimes a sinking sun is reflected in the glassy surface of a palace lake, and a man in a turban serves a double gin and tonic on the rocks.
Jumbo jaunt: The Amber Fort in Jaipur offers elephant rides to the palace
Dream researchers have discovered that in our sleep we humans often tackle impressions we haven't fully processed. If this is true, then there's nothing strange about my dreaming of Rajasthan. In fact, I really should dream about it more often. This country is a full frontal attack on the senses. Wherever you may have been before, whatever countries you have visited or cultures you have experienced, Rajasthan will top them all.
There you will see fortresses and citadels that look straight out of a 1950s adventure film; areas of the city that seem to be nothing but an endless stream of bazaars piled high with spices, jewelry and fabrics; more colors than you ever imagined before, and more smells, and more sounds, too. Rajasthan is a land of endless horizons and wide, open skies. It is also a land seething with activity and noise.
Sensory overload: Surrounded by the crowds at Jodhpur's Sardar Market, it's easy to feel you've strayed onto the pages of a discovery picture book
But more than anything else, Rajasthan is the India of our childhood imaginings: a land of temples and palaces, tigers and maharajas, snake charmers and monkey trainers, a land somewhere between The Jungle Book and Indiana Jones.
India's northwestern state is almost as big as Germany, which is why it's a good idea to plan exactly what you want to see before you leave home: Jaipur, for example. Jaipur the magnificent, capital city, home to 2.5 million and, like all Indian cities, bursting at the seams. To new arrivals in the country, Jaipur can be quite a shock at first - the whole city seems to leap into your face, yelling: Look over here! And now here! Try this! Buy that! Smell this, really fresh! You want a guide? A taxi?
Indulge in a magical journey through time: The best way to explore India's northwestern state is with your own personal chauffeur. But will he really collect you in a vintage 1939 Mercedes?
And: sir, sir, please give me some rupees, please sir! Jaipur beleaguers and bewilders, it is flirtatious and frightening, delightful and thought provoking, and more than anything, absolutely enchanting.
I didn't notice the feeling straight away. It gradually set in, on the second or third day. By that time, I'd checked all the tourist attractions on my list and still had a couple of hours left for some gentle exploring until it was time to leave. It was one of those days when the heat pounces on Jaipur like a snarling tiger and the usually restless Indian world seems to turn a little more slowly. A glass of peppery masala tea in the bazaar banished my torpor, and a few minutes and streets later I suddenly found myself standing in front of the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, Jaipur's main tourist attraction.
The Hawa Mahal is a monumental building with a towering facade the color of strawberry ice cream. Its lofty windows allowed the maharaja's wives and mistresses of bygone days to survey comings and goings down on the street without being seen themselves. On this particular day, the palace walls had soaked up the day's heat, and with each step nearer I took, the temperature seemed to rise a degree. On reaching the wall, I suddenly felt a breeze, a refreshingly cool breath of air. Two paces away the heat hung in the air, but right there at the wall I could feel a cool caress on my cheeks and smell orchids on the breeze.
There are things in this country that seem incomprehensible at first glance, things Rajasthan is reluctant to share, things that remain a marvelous conundrum provided you don't seek a scientific explanation (in the case of the Hawa Mahal, it's the sophisticated architecture that creates little eddies of cool air). The game of myths and mysteries has a long tradition here, not least with the maharajas, who once used them to enchant the English into leaving them at least their amazing wealth, if not their power. Only with the creation of the Indian Republic in 1947 did the maharajas of the northwest lose their godlike status, and under Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, in the early 1970s, their last sources of income, too. Now many of their palaces have been converted into hotels, lending new meaning to the notion of "living like a maharaja", which is something anyone can try today.
Pink landmark: In the old days, the maharaja's wives and mistresses would look down unobserved from the 953 oriel windows and slits in the facade of the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds in Jaipur
So how does it feel to live like an Indian king? At the palace of the Maharaja of Udaipur, for instance, a man whose family tree can be traced back 76 generations? To start with, on the way to your room, remember to make a mental note of your way back out of the labyrinth of courtyards, corridors and halls large enough to hold minor sports events or even a special session of the UN General Assembly.
Inside your modest suite, comfy shoes are a boon considering the distance you will have to cover between bed and bathroom. The suite is well appointed, with three seating ensembles, several divans and two secretaires at which you can deal with your daily correspondence (although you could also ring for a real live secretary to do the job for you). You won't feel bored, at any rate, thanks to a constant stream of people who come knocking at the door bearing all manner of new things: tea, coffee, dainty cookies, seven extra pillows, four bolsters, not to mention five different daily papers every morning.
Wow! What a view! What magnificent luxury! Marble! Gold! Works of art! And a labyrinth of rooms it's hard not to get lost in. Spend a night at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur and experience the incredible wealth of Rajasthan's rulers
Abundance seems to be the operative word in this country. There are too many palaces, too many forts, too many shawls "100% real pashmina", and too many kinds of bread on the menu. Even Rajasthan's women are - no, don't get me wrong here, it's not that there are too many women here - it's just that each woman is just too much! Really! I'm serious! Look at the one stepping out of that car over there: bright yellow sari, painted nails, rings on her fingers and toes, golden bangles at her wrists and ankles, diamonds in her nose and ears, lipstick, makeup, necklaces and pendants around her neck and to complete the picture, a bindi, the traditional red dot on her forehead. ls that too much? It is too much!
A trip into the countryside works wonders when you find yourself longing for less. Beyond the towns and cities lies another Rajasthan. The Rajasthan where the Rajput's ancient strongholds are tucked away among the hills and candy-colored Hindu temples stand out like bright dots against the ubiquitous ocher of the landscape. Villages rise like misty memories in the pale light of dawn. White oxen plow their furrows out in the fields. Children stare in wonder and wave. Sometimes it feels like time simply doesn't pass in this country; as if it simply stood still at some point and has been piling up ever since, like the wisps of sand the desert wind blows across and randomly deposits.
Rainbow fashion: Rajasthan's women love to wear brightly colored saris, golden jewelry and bold makeup
Rajasthan conjures lingering memories of all these moments and many more besides: clay huts in villages at first light, mighty forts, pilgrims on their way to the temple. Once you have visited Rajasthan, you will never forget how it feels to sit in a hotel garden amid the mingled scents of hibiscus, coriander and incense, the velvet caress of a warm wind on your back and way over there, on the horizon, the glowing red orb of a slowly setting sun as it abseils down the mountains. Then little by little, twilight seeps through the trees and for a few brief instants, the sky recalls the pink walls of Jaipur before deepening into crimson and finally a dusky blue. Now the time has come again to sleep - perchance to dream.
Photos: Goisque/Le Figaro/laif, Patitucci/Horner/Harrington/Harvey/Corbis, (4), Modrow/laif, mauritius images