For many, Rajasthan is the very essence of India, with crenelated forts and impregnable palaces that rise like giant fairy-tale sets above dusty sun-scorched plains and shimmering lakes. India's second-largest state similar in size to France is largely covered by the ever-encroaching Thar Desert, but despite its aridity, Rajasthan was once remarkably prosperous: Traders from as far afield as Persia and China had to cross its dry plains to reach the southern ports of Gujarat, something the warrior princes of Rajasthan were quick to capitalize on. Today the principal attraction of Rajasthan the post-independence name for Rajputana, literally "land of princes" is the large variety of forts and palaces its aristocrats built throughout the centuries, making it one of the most popular destinations in India. But Rajasthan offers so much more than desert castles and culture from tracking down tigers in the Ranthambhore jungle (incidentally, the best place to spot wild tigers in Asia) to gaping at the world's most intricately carved marble temples on historic Mount Abu. Peopled by proud turbaned men and delicately boned women in saris of dazzling colors, the "land of princes" is rich with possibilities, and offers easy road access to the less-traveled state of Gujarat.
You could plan to spend your entire trip to India in Rajasthan, which is within easy striking distance of Delhi (and the Taj) by train, plane, or road. Certainly you'll need at least a week to take in the major destinations, of which the lake city of Udaipur and the desert fort of Jaisalmer the only fort in the world still inhabited by villagers are top highlights. Also vying for your time is the "blue city" of Jodhpur, which has the state's most impressive and best-preserved fort as well as the largest palace in India; the tiny town of Pushkar, built around a sacred lake and host to the biggest camel mela (fair) in Asia; the painted havelis (historic homes or mansions) of the Shekhawati region, referred to as India's open-air gallery; the tiny Keoladeo "Ghana" National Park, which boasts the largest concentration and variety of bird life in Asia; the untainted, almost medieval atmosphere of little towns like Bundi; and the bumper-to-bumper shops and bazaars in Jaipur (the state and retail capitals of Rajasthan). Shopping, in fact, is another of the state's chief attractions: Because of the liberal patronage of the wealthy Rajput princes, skilled artisans from all over the East settled here to adorn the aristocrats and their palaces. Today these same skills are on sale to the world's designers and travelers, and no one from die-hard bargain-hunters to chi-chi fashionistas leaves Rajasthan empty-handed. The question is how to choose from an unbelievable array of textiles, jewelry, paintings, handbags, rugs, pottery, diaries even kitchen utensils and then how to fit them into your bulging suitcase.
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