Maharaja Treatment

In Rajasthan, a commoner's budget buys plenty of luxury

Some time around 1670, the fifth Rawat of Deogarh, Dwarkadas, made a decision for which future generations of travelers in India's Rajasthan region will forever be grateful: He built the Deogarh Mahal. Three centuries later, you can sleep where Dwarkadas slept, eat the same sumptuous food he ate--and walk away with your fortune intact. The room rate is the far from princely sum of $56, in rupees, per night.

If you like being treated like a rawat--at prices that can be embarrassingly proletarian--Rajasthan is for you. This desert region southwest of New Delhi has long attracted travelers who want to wallow in luxury by night and by day wander through a land frozen in time: Kiplingesque forts, marble temples, and roadsides where monkeys beg for scraps. And there has never been a better time to visit Rajasthan. A drop-off in tourism, caused by India-Pakistan hostility, has emptied the region's usually crowded hotels and tourist sights.

But tensions have eased, so try to get there before the tourists come flocking back. When you go, keep in mind that the most fascinating sights and hotels are not usually in tourist itineraries. Your travel agent will send you to Jaipur, a beautiful if touristy city, but probably not to charming smaller towns such as Deogarh or Bikaner. They push luxury hotels like Udaipur's Lake Palace, which are indeed magnificent. But the experience is even more impressive at a converted palace about 20 miles north of Bikaner.

The Gajner Palace is at the edge of a lake and overlooks a wildlife preserve teeming with peacocks and tree-dwelling bats. Built as a residence in the early 1900s by Maharaja Sir Ganga Singhji, this property is lovingly landscaped but has gone to seed at the edges, which only adds to the fallen-grandeur charm of its 6,000 acres. The hotel seems to have changed little since the Raj, and much of the staff served the last maharaja.

Tourists are also scarce in Bikaner, which flourished for centuries as a trading post between the Arabian Sea and central Asia. On the outskirts is a Hindu temple, Karni Mata, that was named for a mystic who lived in the 15th century. It is said that the souls of Karni Mata's devotees live on today--as rats. The rats swarm all over the place, climbing on the feet of the faithful and feasting on sugary sweets.

Another spot neglected by tourists, because of its remote location, is Jaisalmer. This camel-caravan way station, dominated by a 12th century fort, is in the far reaches of the Thar Desert. About a quarter of the city's population lives within the fort's walls, and the city is known for its sandstone havelis, mansions built by the town's wealthier merchants in bygone days. Camel excursions are available on the outskirts. Unfortunately you don't get to actually steer the camel--a kid leads you and camel around. Even so, a camel jaunt is the best way to tour the surrounding sand dunes.

One virtue of a trip to Rajasthan is that you can easily work the Taj Mahal, in nearby Agra, into your plans. Avoid Agra's tourist traps, but bring an extra suitcase to fill up on fabrics, carpets, and sundry trinkets in Rajasthan. Bring an appetite, too. The food in Rajasthan is extraordinary, particularly at its ubiquitous roadhouses. The quality rivals the best restaurants in New Delhi. It is quite a treat for a Yank accustomed to U.S. roadside fare. But then again, in Rajasthan the surprises are so commonplace they aren't really surprises at all.

By Gary Weiss

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