THE crimson-turbaned concierge held a gold brocade parasol over our heads as we climbed the stone steps to the Rambagh Palace Hotel in Jaipur.
It was well past 9pm and there was equally no chance of sunburn or rain but it was a nice “passage to India” touch. The parasol was whisked away and rose petals scattered on our heads, a wreath of jasmine bestowed and a red dot anointed to our brows before you could utter, “Maharaja of Jaipur”.
Jaipur, the capital of the Rajasthan State, sits on the edge of the Thar Desert in Western India. It is one of India’s most arresting metropolises, known as the Pink City because the buildings were painted terracotta pink to welcome Edward, Prince of Wales in 1876. The Rajasthani men and women dazzle dowdy tourists with a kaleidoscope of bright silk turbans and saris and in the bustling Johari Bazaar there’s a rich hoard of exotic fabrics, spices and gems. But most captivating are romantic hilltop forts and glorious palaces, which give an insight into a sumptuous royal past.
I first visited the city 19 years ago. Back then my funds didn’t stretch to a night at the Rambagh Palace, but I did spruce myself up for a G&T on the veranda that blew a week of my meagre budget. I was swept away by the romance of the place, built in typical Mughal style with cool marble interiors, bulbous domed roofs adorned with slender minarets; vaulted gateways leading to shady terraces where fans whirred and polo players wooed bejewelled ladies. It was just as atmospheric as I remembered.
What began life in 1835 as a home for the Queen’s favourite handmaiden was extended to a palace in 1925 for Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II. He lived there until 1957 when the building became too costly for the royal family to maintain and it was converted into a luxury hotel. Today it is managed by Taj Hotels, but still owned by the royal family and we really felt like guests of the Maharaja as a private butler showed us to our suite of opulent rooms.
Jaipur is home to 3.1 million people but tradition and progress seem to co-exist quite happily. Motorbikes and scooters jostle for road space with goats and camels and Bollywood tunes haven’t quite managed to drown out the Panihari folk songs sung by elderly Rajasthani women as they go about their chores.
The face of Jaipur is the quirky Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds built in 1799. It’s five storeys high but only one room deep and it was built so that the inquisitive ladies of the King’s harem could watch what was happening on the dynamic streets below. Its tiered façade is a beautiful arrangement of tiny windows with ornately carved screens and balconies, which turn from pale pink to amber as the sun rises and sets.
Some say wacky and indulgent, others brilliant and ahead of its time, but all agree that Jantar Mantar is extraordinary. Maharaja Jai Singh II’s Observatory, built in 1728, is the result of his obsession with the solar system. Take away the astronomy and none of these 16 colossal instruments would look out of place in the Tate Modern. Local farmers still plant and harvest their crops in accordance to predictions taken from the Samrat Yantra, a 23-metre high sundial, rather than forecasts from the Met office. “It is 100 per cent guaranteed to be right 90 per cent of the time,” my guide told me without a hint of humour. “And if it’s not they still blame the weather man.”
From the silver trinkets worn by peasants to the rubies in a Maharani’s necklace, no Rajasthani woman would be seen without her jewellery. If you’re in the market for an emerald ring or a menakari (enamelled) bracelet then Jaipur is the best place to buy. I threw caution to the desert wind and put my trust in a tuk-tuk driver, who charismatically wore me down. He took us to Ratnavali Arts, a gem workshop and emporium, where my husband muttered repeatedly under his breath, “How on earth did we end up here?”
It’s bliss to return to the Rambagh Palace after a day of sightseeing, especially when there’s a vintage Ford waiting to whisk you the 200 metres from the main gate to reception. Where were my silk headscarf and Jackie O sunglasses when I needed them? Talk about arriving in style. We settled on the veranda to watch the sunset and chat to the effortlessly dashing Sharwan, who has served drinks here for 31 years. My new ruby ring glowed in the dying rays. My husband, however, looked a little pale.
I was intrigued to see where the current Maharaja lives today within the City Palace, a complex of public buildings and royal quarters. You can only gaze upon the outside of his seven-storey Chandra Mahal Palace, but it’s a pleasure to meander from the huge stone elephants which guard the Rajendra gateway to the lovely Pritam Chowk (Courtyard of the Beloved) with its four beautifully painted doorways representing the seasons. Autumn stole the show with its elaborate peacock design.
From here we hopped in a tuk-tuk for the 8km journey to The Amber Fort, stopping en route to drink in views of Jal Mahal (Water Palace), which floats like a mirage in the centre of Man Sagar Lake. But it was a young girl who caught our attention instead as she balanced on her homemade tightrope two metres in the air. A skilled acrobat she placed pots on her head, bounced on the line and conducted all her tricks with a cheeky grin and nod towards her collection pot.
The Amber Fort, built between 1621 and 1667, is a rambling citadel set amidst barren countryside. The massive ramparts follow the contours of the hills and are most impressive from a distance. Within the walls Ganesh Pol, the three-storey painted gateway, has recently been restored and Sheesh Mahal, an exquisite mirrored chamber, has survived the years, as has the shimmering silver door to the Shila Devi Temple. At all these locations the national sport of trying to get a foreigner into your photo was in full swing and more than once I realised that I was centre stage in a family portrait.
You don’t have to dress in your finery for dinner but if you don’t you’ll be outshone by the immaculate waiters in their white livery and the peacocks that saunter across the lawn. We took a peek in to the exquisite Maharani Suite, with its fabulous Art Deco mirror-tiled bathroom which was built as a surprise present for Maharani Gayati Devi, and the opulent Sukh Niwas suite where Charles and Di shared the canopied circular bed. Neither of us could resist a pre-dinner audience with the resident palmist Kusum Dandiya, whose family have been reading hands at the Rambagh for more than 60 years. He told me that I have three children (I do) and that I shouldn’t eat spicy food. Thankfully it was too late to cancel our reservation in Survana Mahal Restaurant that specialises in dishes from the regional royal kitchens. We feasted on fat tiger prawns roasted with cardamom in the tandoor oven and Dhundhar Murg, a Rajput delicacy of chicken cooked with fresh mango and flavoured with saffron. With Kusum’s predictions ringing in my ears I mused on the future.
“No kitchen in our suite though,” I remarked practically. My husband looked perplexed.
“We’re both going to live to our nineties so I’m just thinking ahead,” I explained. “For when we want to move in here permanently.”
• Fly direct to Delhi or Mumbai with British Airways from London Heathrow. Fares start at around £600, www.britishairways.com; Jet Airways or Air India operate the short onward service to Jaipur. Fares start at around £35 one-way, see www.jetairways.com/Flights or www.airindia.com Rates for a palace room at the Rambagh Palace Hotel start at £262 per night, inclusive of breakfast and tax, www.tajhotels.com