36 Hours in Rajasthan, India
INDIA is modernizing rapidly, sometimes too fast. You have giant malls, but grandmothers afraid to use the escalators. There are villages in the middle of nowhere, with ornate temples soaring into the hot sky. Still, old Rajasthan endures, evoking rulers with giant mustaches, harems of beautiful women in the finest colored silks and some of the most spectacular palaces ever built. They can be found in the state’s three biggest cities: Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur.
1) LIKE A KING
Life in the dusty city of Jodhpur revolves around Mehrangarh Fort (The Fort, Jodhpur; 91-291-254-8790; www.maharajajodhpur.com), perhaps the best preserved of the hundreds of forts in Rajasthan. It offers an excellent audio guide in English explaining the cannonball scars from battles with other Rajput kingdoms and the hidden balconies in the Pearl Palace, which Raja Sur Singh’s wives once used to peek at the outside world. Before leaving, stroll through the Chokelao Bagh, a fragrant garden with exotic flora including sweet white kamini and chandni flowers, exactly as it would have been in the 18th century.
2) HINDI FOR TERROIR
For sheer extravagance and luxury, few places in Rajasthan compare with the Umaid Bhawan Palace (Palace Road, Jodhpur; 91-291-251-0101; www.tajhotels.com), a golden sandstone complex finished in 1943 on 26 acres of lush gardens. The Art Deco-style masterpiece is now a 347-room hotel, with rates of as much as 500,000 rupees, or $10,740 at 47.5 rupees to the dollar, for a night in the Maharani Suite. It is the type of place where Elizabeth Hurley married Arun Nayar, an Indian textile tycoon, in one of two lavish ceremonies. For your own memorable evening, make your way through the delicately lighted corridors to the terrace restaurant Pillars. Skip the overpriced Indian dishes and order the shiitake mushroom cappuccino to start and the spaghetti pescatore. There’s also an excellent chenin blanc from Bangalore. Dinner for one, 3,000 rupees ($64).
3) COLONIAL COCKTAILS
While you’re still buzzing from dinner, glide across the marble floors and twisting staircases to the hotel’s handsome Trophy Bar, which evokes a colonial hunting lodge. Grab a footstool that looks like an elephant’s leg, lean back on tiger skin cushions and order the signature cocktail, the Mathania, a martini infused with chilies (around 2,000 rupees). The maharajah’s family and staff still occupy one wing, so perhaps they’ll drop in for a nightcap.
4) MAGIC NUMBER
Get up early to the hillside resort of Ranakpur to see one of the most spectacular temples of the Jain faith. Built in 1439 around measurements based on the number 72, the age at which the founder of Jainism achieved enlightenment, the structure is a maze of hand-carved marble pillars and small shrines where it is not unusual to see a lone devotee kneeling. You can even stay the night for a 10-rupee donation, a bargain even by Indian standards, though don’t expect anything other than a mattress on the floor.
5) CHAI, NOT TEA
To visit the city of Jaipur is to see Indian life at its most concentrated. For an intimate introduction, stop at the junction of Kishanpol and Gangori Bazaar Road, a makeshift bus depot, and get acquainted with something that unites Indians of all castes and creeds: a cup of chai (4 rupees). Milk is added to stewing cardamoms and other spices on the spot, then brought to a boil and served immediately in clay cups. Buy a sweet fan biscuit or a spicy pakora while listening to the latest Bollywood hit from an old tape stereo.
6) WINDY CITY
The City Palace (Pink City, Jaipur; 91-141-260-8055) is Jaipur’s main attraction, a complex still guarded by turban-wearing watchers. The hall of Diwan-i-Khas houses two urns that the Guinness World Records book calls the largest silver objects ever created. They were made for the Maharajah Sawai Madho Singh II to fill with holy water from the Ganges when he traveled to London for King Edward VII’s coronation. Around the corner is the Hawa Mahal, called the Palace of the Winds because of the sharp breeze that flows through the stairs of this five-story relic. It’s lined with 953 screened windows so that the women of the royal court could watch processions without being seen by commoners.
7) CURRIES AND CHAPATIS
Foreigners are often too timid to venture into local restaurants, which is a shame. Curries in this state are often simple and spicy, not the extravagant cooking the guidebooks often promise — and almost always vegetarian. A clean, hygienic spot is Khandelwal Pavitra Bhojnalaya (Amer Road), basically a big room with rows of tables and fresh food made at the kitchen out front. Order the thali (100 rupees), with unlimited amounts of lentil curry, rice and chapatis.
8) ART OF HAGGLING
The Pink City, the old walled quarter in central Jaipur, is filled with endless rows of market stalls. At Sankhala Handicrafts (opposite Hawa Mahal; 91-141-261-0597), the young entrepreneur, Ashok, will try to sell you opulent embroidered silks and saris while practicing his French. Across the street, Best Jaipurnagra Shoe Stores (56, Johari Bazaar; 91-9-8284-5688) makes leather shoes and slip-ons by hand. Don’t be put off by the aggressive sales ploys. Everything in India is a negotiation, so be ready to play hardball. That includes walking out of the shop. When the owner runs after you, that’s the time to offer 60 percent off the asking price.
9) CHICKEN AND DANCING
If you’ve had enough vegetarian food and crave some slow-cooked chicken or mutton and rice in creamy yogurt-based sauces, head to the Royal Treat (New Ramgarh Mod, Amer Road; 91-141-263-0795), an upscale restaurant furnished in Rajasthani red, gold and dark woods. Dinner for two about 450 rupees, including Kingfisher beers. The restaurant also features folk dancing. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but who cares when the food’s this good?
10) WEDDING CRASHERS
Liquor is rare, and this is not a party town anyway. Luckily, Indians are hospitable and will invite you to almost anything. Put on your best suit or that sari you bought and go to Shani Mandir (1, Peelwa Gardens, Moti Doongri Road). There is a ceremony at this Hindu temple every night in wedding season, the biggest and longest party you’ll ever see.
11) NO GONDOLA?
With its elegant, winding streets, Udaipur is called the most romantic city in India, the Venice of the subcontinent. It’s also among the most Westernized, with backpackers and students riding around on mopeds. Have a coffee (50 rupees) at Café Edelweiss (73, Gangaur Ghat), where a clash of languages can be heard. Then follow the ghat, or steps, that lead down to Lake Pichola and savor the manufactured views — the lake was created in the 1300s.
12) ISLAND OF ONE’S OWN
In the middle of the lake is the Jagmandir Island Palace (91-294-242-4186; www.hrhhotels.com), a stunning complex built by Maharana Karan Singh for his son to use as a pleasure palace. To get there, take the boat (250 rupees) and lunch at the Darikhana Restaurant. With exotic birds circling overhead and stone elephants guarding a nearby garden, it’s a place fit for an Indian prince in the 17th century.
The closest major international airport is in New Delhi. Air India has nonstop service from Kennedy Airport (and Continental from Newark), with flights starting at $1,100 for travel in January, according to a recent online search. To get to Rajasthan from the capital, take the train from New Delhi station to either Jaipur or Jodphur and then rent a car. The three cities are about six to eight hours apart by car.
Jodphur is dusty, loud and busy. Not the Heritage Kuchaman Haveli (inside Merti Gate, Jodphur; 91-291-254-7787; kuchamanhaveli.com), tucked on a residential side street, where children play cricket in front of the gates of a converted 18th-century mansion. Doubles start at 1,550 rupees, about $33 at 47.5 rupees to the dollar.
In Jaipur, avoid the hotel chains and head to Ram Jharokha Guest House (Peelwa Gardens; 91-141-260-3745). It offers spacious double rooms, a friendly owner and a decent selection of home-cooked meals. Doubles from 990 rupees.
In Udaipur, the Taj Lake Palace (Lake Pichola, Udaipur; 91-294-242-8800; www.tajhotels.com) stands as one of the world’s most stunning hotels, with a price to match. It was built in 1746, a marble wonder floating in the middle of Lake Pichola. The spa sits in a small tugboat and the 83 rooms start at 15,500 rupees.