The state of Rajasthan exceeds even the most far-fetched fantasies of what India might be: women dazzle in swathes of brilliant bright fabrics; luxuriously mustachioed men drive camels over dunes; tigers and leopards prowl through ancient forests; and princely forts and palaces loom up from the crushingly hot sweep of the Thar Desert.

Over the centuries, and in testament to their tradition of chivalry and independence, Rajasthan's rulers have built scores of evocative forts and palaces, such as those at Samode, Deogarh and Udaipur. In Jodhpur, the majestic Meherengarh sits high above a moat of iridescent blue houses, while the far-flung wonder of Jaisalmer rises proudly from the surrounding sands. But much of Rajasthan's more recent architectural bounty - and its predilection for pomp - is due to British imperial policy towards the state's then maharajas. The colonial regime allowed them great wealth but little power, thus creating a civilization characterized by great extravagance. It is this surfeit of opulence that you'll see everywhere so sadly but atmospherically crumbling into decay.

Rajasthan's people are as theatrical as their architectural backdrop, and in today's cities and villages you'll encounter an eye-popping cast of characters: everyone from suave polo-playing Rajputs to tall, peasant camel-drivers in incandescent turbans with a gold hoop in each ear, and tribal women whose thick, gathered skirts are a shock of colour against the sands.

Although it is synonymous with desert dunes, Rajasthan has landscape beyond the Thar: it holds some of the world's oldest mountains; has green, rolling hills; and dense jungle that hides Rathambhore's famous tigers, along with monkeys, leopards, deer and hyenas.

Tourism is one of the main engines of Rajasthan's economy, and some of the local colour can seem correspondingly stage-managed. Yet the state remains a sumptuous feast for the senses with many corners almost entirely untouched by tourist development.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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