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Living like royalty in Rajasthan

In the northwestern state, former palaces and hunting lodges turned hotels give a taste of the rich life without paying a king's ransom.

October 05, 2003|Elizabeth Pope | Special to The Times

Rajasthan, India — This land of kings is dotted with the centuries-old opulent palaces, hilltop forts and hunting lodges of maharajahs. And, luckily for travelers, many of these palatial digs are surprisingly affordable luxury hotels.

On our first trip to India last November, my husband, Larry, and I wanted to live like royalty in Rajasthan's heritage hotels -- once-private royal residences turned hostelries, some with the maharajahs still in residence -- while we traveled through the northwestern state.

India can challenge the most experienced Western traveler, so instead of booking our own arrangements we chose a custom tour. Terrorism didn't worry us, but delayed trains, broken buses, scam artists and Delhi belly did.

Larry found a 16-day tour offered by Indian Moments, a small Jaipur-based company, that included A-list hotels and a private car and driver. The trip was so tempting that we invited our friend Peter Burleigh, a retired Foreign Service officer with decades of South Asia experience. The final tab covered hotels with breakfast, transportation, sightseeing and airfare between Udaipur and Delhi, the capital. Meals, tips and entrance fees were excluded. The cost came to $1,737 each for Larry and me, and $2,674 for Peter, who had to pay a single surcharge.

We would have saved money planning the trip ourselves. But as we learned soon after our arrival at Delhi airport, tour agent's assistance is priceless.

"I am sorry, but the Imperial Hotel is overbooked and has canceled your reservation," the tour agent told us shortly after our 1 a.m. arrival. He switched us to a suite at the Grand Inter-Continental, which was fine, although it lacked the Imperial's Raj-infused glamour.

Delhi is a scruffy, noisy, dusty city of 14 million people and horrendous traffic. We spent a day of whirlwind sightseeing, evading hawkers and listening to the stale patter of our tiresome guide. It was an inauspicious beginning, but we left the din behind the next day when we set out for Agra in an air-conditioned Ambassador car.

It was the first of many long, harrowing drives. But our driver, Rishi Raj, was brave and chivalrous as he expertly maneuvered around huge trucks, bullock carts, wandering cows, overloaded tractors, wild dogs, camels and scooters.

I was distracted from thoughts of my imminent demise by the vivid costumes of Rajasthani women. Even the poorest ones looked like bouquets. Their full skirts, midriff tops and veils of magenta, parrot green, acid yellow, bright orange and cerise vibrated in the sun.

The brilliance of Rajasthani dress contrasted sharply with the parched landscape, bone dry after years of weak monsoons, deforestation and over-pumping of groundwater. The well-irrigated gardens, green and full of blooms, surrounding Jaypee Palace, our hotel in Agra, were a welcome sight.

Despite its name, this wasn't a heritage hotel but a new 350-room conference center with a swimming pool, three restaurants and an astrologer on call. We settled into our spacious room, then met our guide for a Taj Mahal tour.

Shikha Oberoi Sharma knew her Mogul history and gave us an insightful half-day tour of the jewel-inlaid Taj Mahal. I was flabbergasted by the tomb's scale, its delicate marble carving and fine inlay of coral, carnelian and ebony. The mausoleum was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in tribute to his second wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth in 1631.

Sharma was the best guide we had in India, all of whom were hired by Indian Moments. On an afternoon tour of Fatehpur Sikri, a little-visited but well-preserved 16th century palace complex west of Agra, she described daily court life under Akbar, who ruled most of India from 1556 to 1605 before British traders arrived in the early 17th century.

Sharma described the Mogul emperor in his pleasure garden, reclining on richly patterned carpets and silken cushions while listening to court musicians and watching beautiful maidens dance across a giant Parcheesi board. Palace walls were painted with gold and crushed semiprecious stones, traces of which were still evident.

Our next overnight stop was Bharatpur, where we would tour Keoladeo National Park, a bird sanctuary with more than 350 migratory species attracted to the semiarid plain that floods during the monsoon. That night we stayed in our first palace, Laxmi Vilas, the home of descendants of Ragunath Singh, a minor maharajah. It reeked of eccentric charm. Rooms were furnished with ancient brass beds and washstands, old mahogany dressers and sepia photos of 1930s hunting parties with the maharajah and visiting dignitaries, posing among bags brimming with 4,000 birds.

These days wandering cattle and drought, not hunting, threaten wildlife. A sign at the park's entrance warned that the number of waterfowl had dwindled. Nonetheless, Larry checked off many species in his "Birds of India" book -- three kinds of eagles, iridescent blue-green kingfishers and Indian rollers, an oriole and spotted owlets.

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