JAIPUR WAS ONCE A must-visit stop for backpackers on the hippy trail, with a copy of Lonely Planet's Across Asia on the Cheap as their guide not only to the exotic charms of South Asia, but also on how to eke out their countercultural journey for as long as possible. While the elaborate palaces and well-preserved forts have long been a draw for anyone eager to discover India's opulent heritage, Jaipur now holds appeal for the more affluent visitor as luxury hotels draw inspiration from the city's palaces to transport guests back to the days of the maharajas, with lavish suites and extravagant activities.
The capital of Rajasthan and the state's largest city, Jaipur is famously home to The Raj Palace, a former maharaja's residence that dates to 1745 and is now a hotel. Its guest list ranges from Bollywood big-wig Aamir Khan to novelist Frederick Forsyth, some of whom bedded down in the property's most sumptuous offering, the Maharajah's Pavilion, a four-floor apartment with its own private museum displaying the old throne and bolsters of the maharaja, or Thakur Sahib, against a backdrop of gold-leaf-painted walls.
Noting the success of such heritage properties, other companies are seeking to capitalise on Jaipur's storied heritage. These include Alila Fort Bishangarh, a 59-suite resort housed inside a 230-year-old fortress just outside Jaipur, which is scheduled to open late this year.
Doubtless mindful of the steady upsurge in tourism in Jaipur, Fairmont opened its first Indian hotel in the Pink City last year. Here, against a royal-blue sky punctuated by cotton-wool clouds, I receive a VIP welcome. Guards, mounted on horseback and dressed in traditional royal garb, trumpet my arrival as pink rose petals are scattered from a tower at Fairmont Jaipur's palatial entrance.
To the sweet sound of a sitar wafting from the lobby, I step through a thick wooden door into a shady courtyard and then onwards to my room, an elaborate affair decorated with hand-painted wallpaper and dominated by a four-poster bed with an intricately carved wooden headboard. There's even a wooden, jewel-green ring-necked parakeet on a swing, a nod to the Mughal women's love of the bird (they talked to them when the men went off to war, or were absorbed in hobbies such as falconry). After a soporific soak in the cavernous tub, I stretch out beneath the roof of a reimagined Rajput palace, with its octagonal towers and large arched windows, and drift off into a deep slumber.
Out on Jaipur's busy streets, the seductive pinks, ambers and ochres captured in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are just as vibrant as director John Madden's flattering cinematic portrayal. Asked why he chose to make the movie in Rajasthan and film parts of it in Jaipur, the director told Fodor's travel guide that he was inspired by the state's rich colour palette and its even richer history. “Jaipur, and I suppose Rajasthan in general, was a perfect emblem of an older feudal system...an agricultural economy that was colliding in a very immediate way with the modern technological India – ‘molten India' essentially.”
That pile-up of old and new is neatly represented as I attempt to cross the road alongside cows, rickshaws and an increasing number of cars in downtown Jaipur, where the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) beckons in all its pink and red glory. Shaped like the crown of Krishna, this sandstone masterpiece has more than 900 windows decorated with intricate latticework, created so royal ladies could observe their subjects in the street below without being seen, since they had to observe strict purdah (face cover). Even surrounded by the modern paraphernalia of a typical Indian street – trolleys loaded with tomatoes, cabbages and ginger, pashmina stores and parked mopeds – this 18th-century palace is still mesmerising, topped out by gold finials shimmering in the midday sun. Inside, shaded courtyards provide welcome respite from the heat, with painstakingly crafted murals depicting nobility framed by meticulous floral borders providing many a photo opportunity for the mix of Indian, Chinese and French visitors who jostle to zoom in on Jaipur's regal past.
India may have abolished its monarchies shortly after independence in 1947, but City Palace continues to be a residence of Jaipur's former royal family, and a flag of red, orange, white, green and navy stripes flutters against the blue sky to indicate they're in residence. The vast palace complex includes Diwan-I-Khas, a marble-floored chamber that was once the private audience hall of the maharajas, now juxtaposed against a more contemporary scene as a woman wearing a pretty pink and green sari strikes a demure pose for the camera from one of the palace's elaborate doorways.
Alongside City Palace, Amber Fort is Jaipur's most eminent landmark, and it's a scorching October morning as my elephant ambles up the stone path towards the gate, while vendors persuade me to part with my rupees for pachyderm-themed wall hangings – but I keep my eyes fixed firmly over the other side to Maota Lake and the sturdy fort walls surrounding it. After a sticky ride up, it comes as some relief to walk barefoot across the cool marble floors of Sila Devi Temple, and then take in the elaborate floral paintings adorning the palace walls. Most striking is Mirror Palace, where reflective ceilings made the maharajas feel as if they were sleeping under the stars, and had the added benefit of helping the palace warm up in winter, according to my guide Balbir. Snake charmers wielding pungis, the flutelike instrument used to stir snakes, lie in wait around the fort, hoping to catch a tourist dollar as cobras emerge from their baskets and stand to attention.
Perched on the edge of the Aravalli Hills, Nahargarh Fort has acted as an important defence for the city since the 1730s, but it's also a tranquil spot for an early breakfast and 360-degree views over the city as it roars into life. After masala chai and croissants with strawberry jam, I peer over the fort's thick stone walls and gaze at the profusion of pink-and-white buildings, the city eerily calm from this elevated spot at this early hour.
Keen to discover Jaipur beyond the boundaries of its iconic pink structures, I take a jeep to explore Nahargarh Biological Park, a 720-hectare space where tigers and antelopes once roamed, and the odd leopard is still spotted. The driver pulls up alongside a 400-year-old amber step well, where I see my first ring-necked parakeet so beloved of the Mughal women, but, alas, no leopard – though I later hear the unmistakable growls of tigers and Asiatic lions reverberating through the greenery at Nahargarh's rescue centre.
Back at the Fairmont, I enjoy roti Chennai and yet more sweet, spicy masala chai for breakfast at Zoya, where, as I take in the ornate camel-bone furniture and Mughal tents, it seems that everyone can be a maharaja. But in modern-day India, casting yourself as a contemporary raja means preparing for an unexpected assault on the senses. As Judi Dench's character Evelyn puts it in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Nothing can prepare the uninitiated for this riot of noise and colour.”