Jaipur is Rajasthan's biggest city, a fantasy in pink, actually a shade somewhere between pink and ocher, with which the facades of all the buildings within the old walls and the walls themselves and the majestic gateways are painted. Mark Twain, who visited in the 1870s, thought of it as the color of "strawberry ice cream," but I think he took more than a little literary license with that description. read more

Built in the 18th century by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh and planned down to the last detail according to precepts laid down in the Shilpa Shastra, an ancient Hindu architectural treatise, Jaipur has a surprisingly contemporary feel about it because it is laid out in a grid pattern, as, by the way, were the most ancient cities on the Indian subcontinent, which were flourishing in 3500 BC.

It is a throbbing, vibrant place, full of color, and not only pink-ocher either. When you get up close to the shops under the shaded arcades of the bazaars, you see that they are packed with hand-dyed cloth of every color of the rainbow – hot reds, pinks, maroons, oranges and yellows predominate, but blues and purples aren't left out either. And a lot of it is meant for men – for turbans as much as eight yards long that are wrapped around the head and look like beautiful and showy large baskets or pillows. That sounds ridiculous I know, but the Rajputs pull it off with dash, style and character.

Camels pull wooden carts fitted with truck wheels along the city streets to deliver goods, as do massive white Brahma bulls, their large humps swaying to the rhythm of their gait. Monkeys can be seen on the ledges of the buildings going about their business on a higher than human level. The facades might have been made for them with all their ledges and projecting cornices and bay windows covered in stone latticework screens to let in air and light and protect the women inhabitants from prying, lascivious eyes, but which also provide neat hand and footholds for the monkeys. And electric wires serve as simian suspension bridges for crossing the roads.

Jodhpur is as unplanned and spontaneous a city as Jaipur is planned and organized. Dominated at its northern end by a 1200-foot high piece of rock, atop of which broods the overpowering Mehrangarh Fort, traditional home of the rajas, it is a presence that cannot be ignored. In its own way the town is as colorful as Jaipur for many of the houses are painted a startling electric blue and the inhabitants, many of whom have tribal roots, are even more colorfully garbed than their counterparts in the "Pink City." Like their disorganized town, their costumes are a dazzling cacophony of colors that no description could do justice to. Turban styles vary from region to region and the ones here are often of gargantuan proportions, the cloth formed into hanks and wrapped in coils so it looks as if the wearers are sporting fabulous serpents on their heads. Carol wondered how I would look wearing such a turban instead of my red bandana. By the way, "bandana" is actually a Hindi word. From the verb to tie or bind, it refers not to the fact that a bandana is a kerchief that is tied around the head, but to the process of tying off portions of the cloth and then dying it – tie-dying, for which Rajasthan is renowned.

The palace in the fort is among the best preserved and most evocative royal residences in India. There are immense views from the ramparts looking out over the desert and over the city itself, the blue of the houses startling even from way up here. The rooms are sumptuous with gold and deep reds and colored glass – whole walls of it – and mirrors galore. Walls and floors are decorated with a mind-boggling array of designs and patterns that no one in his right mind would ever think of juxtaposing, yet incredibly, it all works together harmoniously.

Our hotel, a converted nobleman's home, was directly under the fort walls and the view from the rooftop restaurant had nothing in it to remind us of the historical era we're currently in.

Polo is originally an Indian game. And Jodhpur is the center for breeding the fine Marwari polo ponies, Marwar being the name of the erstwhile state of which Jodhpur was the capital. Hardly ponies, these are gigantic steeds: slim, muscular, virile and spirited. One of the rajas, Pratap Singh – an avid horseman (he virtually lived on horseback) and polo player (as most were) – got tired of wearing out the insides of the knees of his riding pants with each match and designed a new style of riding breeches that have ever since been known by the city's name – jodhpurs.

We spent one night in a village in the desert, sleeping in a round thatched hut in a farmyard surrounded by cows, goats and camels. The evening, night and morning air was so embracing – cool but not cold – it seemed as if it was part of my body and awareness of it disappeared. The space was vast and the utter silence of the desert was among the loudest sounds I've ever heard.

We left Jodhpur at 6:30 and were escorted out of town by the camel-mounted brass band of the Indian Army's camel corps. When they saw us they struck up a spirited marching tune. They were quite together, and believe me, it's no easy feat to play an instrument at all let alone achieve such unity and precision on the back of a camel, for while the camel lopes the rider bounces.

Very soon we entered the scrub of desert country and the territory of the Bishnoi tribe. "Bishnoi" means twenty-nine, and these people are so called because they follow twenty-nine precepts: no killing or hunting, no intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, opium, even tea and coffee), no felling of trees, no work for women during the days of their menstrual periods, strict vegetarianism, to name a few of them. They worship a god called Jambhu or Jambhaji, an earth deity; and like earth divinities elsewhere in India, it has no image, quite extraordinary for a country that has so many images of its millions of gods. We took a detour to visit the god's main temple on the site where 363 people were killed by the army of one of the Jodhpur rajas in 1787. Actually, they sacrificed themselves to protect the trees of their land from the king's desire for timber, particularly the Khejri trees (prosopis cinerari ), which have edible pods and leaves that are used for fodder; even the bark can be eaten in times of famine. It is an amazing tree, remarkably well adapted to the desert with roots that may grow a hundred feet down into the earth to reach water. The Bishnois embraced the trees and fell with them as the raja's troops mercilessly cut them down, tree and Bishnoi indiscriminately. One of those old trees still stands. Venerable and composed of many trunks fused together, it has narrow leaves, hard and spiky like many desert plants. It lives in a walled enclosure surrounded by hundreds of young trees of the same species. Scores of peacocks, unconcerned with human presence, peck around for food beneath this leafy canopy. This area is home to the rare black buck antelope with their remarkable spiral horns, which graze at the edges of the Bishnois' fields not far from the roadsides, fully aware, it seems, that no one here will harm them. At the back of the compound stands the temple, an unadorned cement block. Inside, on a platform, was a beautifully wrought blue-green box in which an oil lamp burned. This was Jambhu, god of the earth. Above the box, a poster of one of the sect's past gurus was fastened to the wall. "Jambhu's disciple," said the young priest who had been showing us around. It was a reminder that Indian gods are much closer to humans than are Western ones; they move (or at least used to move) among men and teach them.

We stopped in a small town at the luxuriously restored palace of a minor royal family, vassals of the rajas of Jodhpur. After Indian Independence in 1947, the rajas were deprived of their vast feudal estates and their land distributed to the peasants who worked it. They did continue to receive an income, the so-called privy purses, from the Indian Government for years, but in the 1970s Mrs. Gandhi discontinued that practice, which had come to be considered an unjustifiable drain on the Indian government's coffers. So to compensate for this lost income, many of the royal families refurbished and modernized their ancestral homes and turned them into heritage hotels. You cannot go far in Rajasthan without bumping into one. They vary from quite modest to utterly extravagant; and believe me, it is a real treat for tired, sweaty travelers to arrive at one of these oases of cool luxury.

These fort-palaces present an incongruous picture: rugged defensive walls with bastioned ramparts, moats and gateways with heavy doors that sport long steel spikes to make elephants think twice about ramming them. Inside these forbidding exteriors are utterly whimsical and delightful, virtually fairytale-like palaces. These are dwellings that seem to have nothing to do with war, valor and bloodshed. In fact the buildings seem swish and effeminate. But then so do the costumes of the rajas, their hairstyles, their jewelry and the outlandish coiffures they inflicted on their beards and mustaches.

This fort is more somber than most. The main façade is of undressed red sandstone with a wide curved cornice framing a scalloped arched window above the main entrance. It is more tasteful than outlandish. The gardens are impeccably manicured and the pool was a delight.

Driving through Rajasthani desert country, we passed large concentrations of camels, cows, bulls, goats and sheep herded by mustachioed men in massive turbans of shocking pink or blazing yellow or chartreuse, all dyed with what must be the same stuff they use to color jelly beans; and women with wide swaying ankle-length skirts, cleavage-revealing bodices and long scarves or odhnis, all in the most unlikely color combinations – skirt of orange, blue and purple worn with a monstrous Astroturf-green odhni, for example.

In a large market town, a smiling old couple led us to a modest restaurant. It served only one dish, dal batti, a uniquely Rajasthani preparation. Balls of coarsely ground wheat flour, each about the size of a squash ball, are baked in the coals of a fire until their centers are as soft as fresh bread and their crusts thick and hard as stone. They are impervious to all attempts to break them, short of taking a sledge hammer to them. But the waiter (who must have undergone years of training to perform this task) crushed them between his palms and then crumbled, actually sort of massaged them into large crumbs. Then he liberally poured ghee (that's clarified butter) over them until they were soaked through. A side dish of dal (a thick lentil soup) and another of yogurt accompanied the battis. Believe it or not, this description is actually making my mouth water.

We arrived in a small, quiet village as night fell. Here it was not the palace but old horse stables that were renovated to create a hotel. And they must have been in pretty bad condition because there was little evidence of them in the new construction; and the architect wisely did not try to make the structure look old. The rooms, arrayed around an open court, were nicely fitted out and opened onto a portico of pointed archways. The small courtyard garden, though not manicured and perfect, had a homey and comfortable ambience. Shortly after we arrived, the owner, a native of the village, and his companion, a Canadian woman who designed the hotel and who lives here for at least half the year, pulled in. We were the only guests and the four of us had a fine dinner out in the courtyard under the night sky.

Next day ride we traveled on minor roads, so minor in fact that much of the route was on dirt tracks. We passed a single file of fifteen camels coming towards us on a narrow stretch of track. They were unperturbed as we came within inches of their wide padded hooves and still we didn't interrupt their slow-motion yet jaunty pace.

We crossed the Aravalis, the major range of mountains that roughly divides Rajasthan into two halves. They're not high by mountain standards, mere hills in fact (and very old in geological terms). Just at the bottom of the range we could see the road turn into switchbacks and snake up a mountain. And there, on the left, was a temple and we stopped, though this temple was an unremarkable concrete block with an ugly corrugated roof, but it was bedecked with flowers and colored pennants and hosted a large group of colorfully dressed tribal people: a festival was in progress.

The temple was dedicated to Vir Tejaji who is depicted as a Rajput, mustached and beturbaned, mounted on a horse; and here's the fascinating part, holding a serpent in front of his face and apparently kissing it. According to the legend, dacoits or bandits had rustled his father-in-law's cows and Tejaji went off in pursuit of them. On the way, he encountered a snake who tried to bite him. Tejaji pleaded with the serpent to allow him to complete his mission of recovering the cows and promised that he would present himself before the snake after having done so. The snake agreed. When Tejaji returned, victorious but bloodied all over from his encounter with the rustlers, the snake refused to bite him anywhere he had been wounded, which was everywhere on his body except for his tongue, and it was there that the snake mortally wounded him.

The snake was so impressed with Tejaji's virtue in keeping his promise to return to meet his fate that he made Tejaji into a demigod and gave him the power to spare from death any snakebite victim who ties an amulet in Tejaji's name. And to this day the priests of Tejaji's temples go into trance and suck the poison out of snakebites and then tie a thread around the wrist or ankle of the victim. And it is believed that no one so treated will die from the bite. Many recovered victims and current sufferers were gathered on this, Tejaji's feast day. We met a boy who had been bitten in the foot. The extremity was still swollen to several times its normal size, but the boy was on his way to recovery for he had been delirious with fever and in tremendous pain only a few days before. Now both those symptoms had disappeared and the swelling was diminishing too. Tejaji's treatment requires no medicine; coming to his temple, gazing at his image, having the wound sucked by a priest in trance and tying a thread in his name effects the cure.

Going up the range, the scenery was spectacular. Settlers lived here and there in these rugged hills grazing flocks of goats and cultivating the small plots they managed to carve out among the steep, rocky slopes.

In the late afternoon we reached a fairly large town, the old part inside medieval walls entered through a large gateway. Outside, the new part straggles along a highway and sprawls onto some new roads branching off it. The Hindu holiday of Diwali will occur tomorrow, on the night of the new moon, and the entire town is festooned with sparkling streamers strung over the streets.

Diwali, the festival of lights, marks the return of the gods and heroes after their defeat of the forces of evil. All buildings, walls and gateways are lit up to show them the way and to celebrate their triumphal return. It is a new year's festival of sorts, beginning a new period after wiping the slate clean of sins and discarding old baggage. So houses are cleaned, new clothes are donned and businessmen tally and close their accounts and begin anew, marking the spot in their large red-covered ledgers with a swastika, the ancient symbol of good fortune. (The Hindu swastika is positioned flat side up, unlike the Nazi emblem in which a point is uppermost, a rotated form of the ancient symbol.)

Diwali is also a festival in honor of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, whose picture hangs in most of the town's shops. She is a benevolent goddess, often shown standing between two elephants which anoint her with holy water sprayed from their trunks. She has four arms and hands; in one she holds a lotus blossom, symbol of the earth's spirituality; another produces a shower of coins from its outward-facing palm.

The fort-palace here is a fantasy. Begun in the seventeenth century, this sprawling building is composed of many wings constructed at different periods; and it shows influences of Hindu, Islamic and European Renaissance and Baroque styles. There are domes and stone umbrella-like pavilions and scalloped arches framing windows and entranceways. There are projecting balconies supported by ornate brackets. At night, the entire building is artfully illuminated producing a real fairytale effect. There are many-roomed suites decorated in decadent royal fashion with crystal or silver furniture and entire walls of colored glass or mirrors, actually hundreds of small convex mirrors. When the light is switched on, countless points of light appear, and as if that were not sufficient, reflections of those lights are reflected again and again ad infinitum. Some of the rooms have beautiful stone latticework screens over the windows that soften the light and let in cool breezes.

We stayed in a room on the ground floor at the back of the palace. There were only three rooms down there, all opening onto a small arched patio in the center of which a large swinging platform was suspended from the ceiling by heavy chains. Beyond the patio was a grassy garden surrounded by high walls and shaded by large trees. The whole area constituted a wing quite separate from the rest of the palace, connected to it only by a long, narrow flight of steep stone steps.

It was at the end of the 14th century. The raja of this place was already quite old when the king of a neighboring province sent his daughter to be married to his eldest son. But when she arrived at court, the son was absent or "out of station" as they say in modern-day India. So the ambassador who had escorted the intended bride presented her to the old king who, surrounded by his court, observed that his son would soon return and claim the girl, and then "drawing his fingers over his mustaches," as the annals so quaintly put it, added, "for I don't suppose you send such playthings to an old greybeard like me." This was considered a clever remark and was widely repeated. But when the son, the intended bridegroom, returned to court and heard of his father's jest he became offended at, to quote the annals again, "delicacy being sacrificed to wit" and refused to accept the girl as his bride. Yet she could not be sent back without offending her father, the king of the neighboring province, and giving such offense would not do. So the old king married her with the proviso that his son, the presumptive heir must swear to renounce his and his progeny's claim to the throne in favor of the offspring of his father's union with the young princess. Which he did, and then retired to this wing of the palace. This story is one of many that illustrate the characteristic Rajput qualities of immense pride, chivalry, honor and extreme emotional sensitivity, as well as a penchant for extraordinary self-sacrifice.

The custom here is to have before-dinner drinks with the royal family. The current raja, locally called the Rawal, is something of a Renaissance man. A retired history teacher at an exclusive prep school in a distant city, he is also an ornithologist, local historian, former big game hunter, honorary wildlife warden, and a connoisseur, revivalist, cataloguer and collector of miniature paintings of a now extinct school of Rajasthani painting. And he is an excellent raconteur as well.

Whereas the Rawal was a slight and ordinary looking fellow, someone you would never think was of royal blood, though he had sparkling eyes and a lively expression, his wife, the Rajmata, was queenly in every way. She had the kind of beauty that some few older women have, glowing as if enveloped by a halo and seeming desirable at an age when most women's sensual attractiveness is but a distant memory. She was a gracious host and charming conversationalist, interested in everything we, and especially Carol, had to say. She also had an aristocratic hauteur, was critical of the tastes of the masses, especially of the (admittedly execrable) cement elephants that have become fashionable for framing the entrances to temples. When we mentioned that we had taken a local bus to visit a nearby temple, she visibly shuddered at the thought.

We visited a temple on the morning of the Diwali holiday. We had meant to walk there but some locals hailed a bus and it stopped for us. As we boarded, the passengers, turbaned men and bejeweled women, looked at us in amazement; then they all smiled. When we got under way every piece of metal in the vehicle began to rattle, each singing its own tune, due no doubt to the road's uneven surface but also to lots of loose screws.

Inside a large cavern, the temple, dedicated to the god Shiva, contains, unusually, two lingams or phallic emblems, Shiva's most common manifestation. They stood one in front of the other, the rear one, a five-foot tall slender stone column with two porcelain eyes inset and a mouth formed of three frangipani blossoms placed in a line, petals pressed against the stone and stems sticking out. Crescent moons (one of Shiva's symbols) were painted under the eyes, giving an impression of eye sockets. The lingam was crowned with a pile of rose petals and the whole "face" outlined by a garland of marigolds. Directly in front of that lingam was another, this one, a mere foot high or less, of rough black rock. And it is the main devotional object in this cave temple for it is said to be "swayambhu," that is, self-manifested, not made by man but created by the god himself. It is the raison d'être for the sacredness of this place.

We sat in the high cave next to a large stone statue of the bull Nandi, Shiva's vehicle, who sits outside every Shiva temple staring devotedly at the image of his Lord. Looking into the small chamber containing the lingams, we watched the priest's ritual activities, captivated by the grace of his complex movements and gestures and hypnotized by his resonant chanting of Sanskrit slokas. He and his assistants bathed the small swayambhu lingam with coconut water, anointed it with sandalwood paste and decorated it with rose blossoms, heaping them on the stone until they tumbled off in their abundance. Their final act was to place a coiled copper cobra, made especially for the purpose, over the lingam, the snake's hood spread as a protective umbrella over the ithyphallic god.

Unusually, at this temple the priests must be unmarried, for in virtually all other Hindu temples, priests are family men; in fact it is practically a requirement that they be married. There is a celibate monastic tradition in India, but its adherents are seldom temple priests. In this respect Hinduism is similar to Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. But here, the priests must be celibate, and equally unusually, they inhabit a huge palace that had been built by a rich landlord about a mile from the temple. Now just recently the head priest, who had held his position for many years, was found (to use a Biblical turn of phrase) to be lying with a woman and so was fired from his job, forbidden from ever again performing rituals in the temple.

There's yet another story associated with this temple, albeit indirectly. The cave in which the temple is located is set into the side of a large rocky protuberance, a miniature stone mountain. On the other side of this mass of stone is another cave, this one a wide, very low gash in the rock. Twenty years or so ago, a dacoit or bandit (sometimes still referred to in India as a brigand) fleeing from the police took refuge in this cave. He had a stock of sesame oil cake with him for food. (Sesame is a local crop and extracting oil from the seeds a local industry. A large stone mortar holds the seeds and a stone pestle – made heavier by weighting it with a large rock – is attached to a wooden contraption harnessed to a Brahma bull who walks in circles and provides the power to rotate the pestle and crush and grind the seeds. The oil flows out through a channel carved into the rock of the mortar. The oil cake, the remainder of this process, is used for the most part as animal fodder but it is also mixed with sugar and sold as a sweet, which is both tasty and very nutritious.) The dacoit held out in his hideout for some time but eventually the police found him out and laid siege to the cave. Negotiations took place and a deal was reached by which the dacoit would surrender. But as he walked out of the cave, one of the policemen (no one knows or is willing to say who or why) shot him dead, a tragic breach of trust that has left a legacy of bitter feelings and suspicion, which remains to this day.

Later that evening we heard this story a second time from the Rawal's younger brother who lives in a smaller (though still none too small) palace adjacent to the hotel. "I was there," he said. "I was in charge of that police contingent. But we never found out who shot him." I had detected an aura of sadness about this man even before he told us the story, and now I wonder if the subsequent course of his life hadn't been scarred by this incident of treachery that occurred on his watch.

In the afternoon, as the final decorations were being put in place for the evening's Diwali festivities, we walked through the bazaar. Long lines of small electric lights were being draped over the streets. Tiny clay saucers filled with oil, each with a cotton wick, were being laid out on every available surface and ledge, and more sparkling streamers were being hung. Firecrackers were being purchased from shops and makeshift stalls that were set up wherever there was space. Some vendors were even selling them from jute sacks hung on the handlebars of their bicycles.

At a teashop just down the hill from the palace's main gate, we met Johnny, sign painter, god-artist and magician and his companion, the chief engineer of a gem mine. The engineer had no official qualifications for his job, his abilities in this field being "god's gift... no theory, no training, no school, practical knowledge only," as he informed us repeatedly. After tea, we walked together through the town, eventually winding up at Johnny's house where his wife and daughters served us lunch. Then we strolled some more, frequently stopping off at the houses and shops of Johnny's numerous friends and acquaintances where we were served sweets and endless cups of chai.

As evening fell, the lights were turned on all over town, the wicks in the clay saucers of oil were lit and shop keepers began to perform their pujas (devotions) to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. Their shops had been transformed into ephemeral temples for the occasion, and they and their families were decked out in all their finery, especially their daughters, who were dolled up like goddesses: little Lakshmis for a day. We attended a puja at the mining engineer's home. He brought out tray after tray piled high with rough, uncut gems: emeralds, rubies, diamonds, tigers' eyes, sapphires and so on, placed them in front of an image of Lakshmi and recited mantras (or prayers) over them.

Then, after darkness fell and just as firecrackers started exploding throughout the town, we bade goodnight to Johnny and the mining engineer and retreated to the safety of the palace, which was also lit up for Diwali with every ledge lined with flickering clay-saucer lamps. Even the hotel's cars, three white Ambassadors, the world's oldest model automobile still in current production (an early 1950s Morris), were garlanded with marigolds and sported flaming oil lamps on their hoods. They looked like fat, well-satisfied beasts. We joined the other guests and the royal family on the roof of the palace from where we watched impressive fireworks and rockets illuminating the night sky.

The following day we reached Kumbhalgarh Fort. Originally built in the 15th century, Kumbhalgarh is the second largest fort in Rajasthan. Its walls, more than twenty-five miles in circumference and broad enough for eight horsemen to ride abreast on, follow the contours of the rugged hilly landscape, an impressive feat of building. The palace complex is concentrated on the highest point of land within the walls and is topped by a vast and incongruous 19th-century palace, as much art nouveau as Rajasthani in style. Called the Cloud Palace, for at certain times of the year it is shrouded in mist and clouds, it is visible for miles around and has become the distinctive feature of the place. The fort was originally built by Rana Kumbha (the rulers in this part of Rajasthan having the title "rana" instead of "raja") as an impregnable retreat in the face of the onslaught by various Muslim dynasties, particularly the Khiljis, who were overrunning virtually all of North India in that period. The fort was captured only once, and that because of an act of treachery from within its walls.

The views from the ramparts, irregularly punctuated by large circular bastions, and from the roof of the Cloud Palace, are sweeping and majestic. The jungle canopy of a wildlife sanctuary spreads out to the west. Equally impressive are the views of the fort's walls, rising, falling and zigzagging to accommodate the uneven landscape. The fort is so large that there were at one time at least 360 temples, countless palaces and many villages as well as extensive lands under cultivation within its walls.

We walked over the Aravali Range on a track through a wildlife sanctuary. Our hotel, in a town near the fort, engaged a guide for us. There aren't many forests in India you can actually walk through. It's simply too dangerous, for there are large populations of wild animals in them: elephants, tigers, bears, wild boars. Unlike most countries in Asia, not to mention Europe and America, India has not entirely decimated its wildlife. This is in part a result of legislation and management but due more to the widespread Indian belief in the sacredness of life, which has led to a disinclination to harm living things. So amazingly enough, this country, a third the size of the continental United States with a population of more than a billion people, is teeming (relatively speaking) with wildlife.

But the forest around Kumbhalgarh is an exception. For one thing, there are no wild elephants here, and few if any tigers. There are boars and bears but somehow they keep their distance and are shy of humans, perhaps because in the not too distant past this forest was a hunting preserve for the Rajputs of the area. It is a real treat to walk through virgin forest. The alien environment is completely captivating and full of wonder, sort of like being in another reality or on another planet. We saw virtually no wildlife except for some troops of monkeys and a crested serpent eagle. We disturbed the bird, probably as it was feeding on a kill in some low shrubbery. It took off quite close to us, probably reluctant to interrupt its meal until the last possible moment, and landed not far away on the limb of a dead tree, so it was in plain view. We studied it through our binoculars, getting an eyeball-to-eyeball view. We could see the beautiful patterning of its feathers, its erect crest and what seemed to us to be a very angry expression on its face. We soon left so it could resume its meal in peace.

The trail ended at a road and a Jain temple on the edge of the forest. We had a look. At the entrance to the temple was a pair of large cement elephants of the kind the Rajmata found to be in such bad taste. Next to one of them a throng of people was gathered around a large open steel chest, worshipping. I walked up behind them and peered over their shoulders, curious to see the object of their devotion. It was money. The box was full to the brim with it. A wealthy community of bankers, businessmen and financiers, Jains are renowned for loving money. And they were certainly living up to their reputation here.

We shared what was left of the lunch we had carried on our walk through the jungle with several of the sorry looking dogs who hung around the temple, hoping no doubt to garner some nourishment from all that wealth. We managed to get a motor rickshaw to take us the few miles down the road to yet another small town with a palace hotel.

If the palace hotel in the previous village was grandeur preserved and restored, this one was grandeur decayed. The building was equally magnificent, parts of it even older and more impressive. This had been a garrison town, the local chief providing troops for the defense of Kumbhalgarh Fort, guarding its main supply route. Parts of the palace had been restored though, and modern fittings installed. Like all Rajput palaces, and most palaces in India, there were separate men's and women's sections, the women's generally being more fortified and larger in order to protect and accommodate the rulers' wives, concubines and their numerous female attendants. Some of the suites in the women's palace had been lavishly restored and furnished. We stayed in a simpler but sprawling suite in the former men's section. There was a courtyard in front of the main salon with a little pavilion in its center. With several rows of delicate slender columns and scalloped arches, it was a wonderful place to sit and watch the sunset.

We toured the village with one of the boys who worked in the hotel. The village was in about the same condition as the palace. There were beautiful and capacious step-wells with lovely decorative stone facing on the staircases leading down into the earth to water level, which, depending on the season and the amount of rainfall, could be many stories down. But with the recent drilling of deep bore wells and the installation of hand pumps by the government, all these old wells are disused and derelict. It's a lot easier to use a hand pump to get water than it is to walk down four, five or even seven stories and carry pots of water back up to ground level. But we could admire the artistry of these old wells and understand the significance and preciousness of water in this desert land, which provided the impetus for the creation of such large and beautiful structures to contain it. The women however still collect and carry the water in age-old, shiny hand-beaten brass and copper water pots, which they balance gracefully on their heads.

We visited the home of a shoemaker. Working only on order, he creates works of art for the feet from the leather of cows, buffaloes and even camels. The large, pointed Rajasthani loafers he crafts are the height of elegance.

One night sometime in the 15th century a wealthy Jain merchant dreamed of a celestial vehicle. So moved was he by this vision that he vowed to realize it in stone. He held a contest among architects from all over India and finally found one whose design perfectly matched the vision in his dream. The temple took fifty years to complete. Built entirely of marble, it covers almost 4500 square yards. It is a forest of domes and spires supported by 420 ornately carved pillars, the design of each different from any of the others. Every surface is profusely carved. The whole structure is stone desolidified, turned into lace or into the filigree of snowflakes. And the spatial complexity of the temple is staggering. This is Ranakpur.

We met the head priest, who gave us a tour. He was fluent to the point of glibness, his lines rehearsed to perfection, especially his request for a donation at the end of his spiel. He was the P. T. Barnum of temple priests. He explained that he and the other priests devoted their lives to the temple and worked for no salary, being completely dependent on the generosity of pilgrims and visitors. In fact, this is the case with all temple priests in India. Anyway, from the looks of things they were doing quite all right. We gave our donation and he blessed us, foretelling great success and happiness in our future.

We returned in the evening for aarti, the fire ceremony held at dusk in most Indian temples. In front of the main shrine room, hanging from the center of a high dome, the inside of which is sculpted into a lotus blossom, is a gigantic crystal chandelier lit by hundreds of candles. It's not often you get to see such a multitude of flaming, flickering prisms. And you can imagine the effect of those innumerable flames lighting up all that sculpted marble. The main image in the central shrine room is of Adinath, the first of the twenty-four Jain gurus. A larger than life-size seated marble statue with sparkling silver and glass eyes, he wears a gold crown and is draped in golden raiment. Drums and bells sound so loudly you cannot hear yourself think or even be aware of your own being. The head priest wielded a massive candelabra of flaming oil cups and drew circles of fire – flaming mandalas – around the image.

We walked back over the Aravali Range on a different route, again through the jungle, this route slightly longer than the way we had come; and the track was much rougher, but still it was another opportunity to be in the jungle. So with the help of a friendly hotelkeeper we engaged another guide and left shortly after sunrise the next morning.

In India, the word jungle (and it is originally a Hindi word) refers to any wild land; it may even be a place without any trees at all. It certainly doesn't have to be the steamy tropical "jungle" of Tarzan movies. This was deciduous forest of delicate beauty.

Bhimji, our guide, belongs to the Garasia tribe, one of the two tribes that comprise a large part of the population of this region, the other being the Bhils. People find it surprising to learn that India has the world's largest population of tribal people, many of them still living in jungles as hunter-gatherers in pre-agricultural societies. However, the Garasias do practice agriculture, although unlike most Indian farmers, they do not live in villages with the houses bunched close together, but in isolated dwellings widely spaced out on their tribal lands.

Right away we could see that Bhimji was another kind of man. As soon as we entered the jungle he became part of it, the jungle being as much in him as he was in it. His posture was transformed and he moved in a different way than when he walked on the road. All his movements were slow, leisurely, almost lazy but he covered a lot of ground effortlessly and very fast.

It was in fact a much longer and steeper walk than the first one, but finally we reached a dirt track that could accommodate four-wheel-drive vehicles. We hadn't seen any animals but we enjoyed the walk thoroughly, especially the views of the mountains and plains and of the Cloud Palace of Kumbhalgarh Fort perched atop the highest peak. And the company of Bhimji. He spoke Hindi so we carried on a lively conversation with him as we walked, and he seemed to find us as interesting as we found him.

The track led to the base of a sheer cliff. Long flights of cement stairs ascended the cliff face. Troops of gray langur monkeys abounded, running and leaping everywhere, completely unafraid of humans. We reached a teashop built under a rock overhang. The steps continued beyond it, disappearing into a narrow cleft in the mountain. We climbed them and eventually entered the cleft. Monkeys scampered by us along the steel-pipe railings, brushing our legs and shoulders as they went. These are large monkeys, reaching to our shoulders when they stood erect so it was somewhat daunting to have so many running wild all around us, but they were very considerate, never doing more than barely making contact with us.

The cleft is actually the entrance to a cave so narrow that two people can barely stand abreast in it, but so high that in the dim light you cannot see the top. Stalactites of enormous length hang from the invisible heights above and from the walls, giving the place a primeval feel, and it seemed as if we had entered a space and time before creation. The cave didn't go very far into the mountain. At its end stood an orange-robed holy man. The floor was paved with marble. Near the very back of the cave, a rough stone decorated with flowers, jutted out of the earth. It was another self-manifested Shiva lingam, this one called Parshuram Mahadev. The god Parshuram once stood here gazing over what was then a vast sea. He let fly an arrow into the waters, causing them to recede and creating in their wake the fertile plain far below us; its inhabitants worship him to this day.

Occasionally a bold monkey squeezed past us and stole one of the marigold garlands that bedecked the lingam. It would sit on the railing not far away munching on the blessed blossoms.

After stopping for a cup of tea at the chai shop below the cave, we continued our hike; and it wasn't long before we reached a paved road. There were a few autorickshaws and taxis hanging about in a parking area under a tree but they quoted exorbitant prices. That gave us an excuse to walk another couple of miles with Bhimji until we reached a more major road where some locals were gathered. After a few minutes a bus came along. There we said goodbye to Bhimji, who would wait for a bus going the other way back over the range. For us it was only a short ride to the town where we spent the night.

The owner and the manager of the small hotel we stayed in were two friendly guys. When we mentioned that we hadn't seen any wildlife on our two walks through the jungle they proposed that we all drive into the sanctuary that very evening. They rented an open-top jeep, which we and they along with their wives and children all piled into.

The driver had two powerful searchlights that he attached with long wires directly to the jeep's battery. The men took turns holding the lights and directing their beams into the foliage along the sides of the road and on to the bare mountainsides farther away. It was eerie to see the contrast between the layers of foliage lit up and those that remained in impenetrable darkness. It wasn't necessary to keep the light directed at any particular spot for more than a moment or so, as I realized when we spotted the first leopard. Its eyes reflected the light so strongly that they were as noticeable as lighthouses from the sea. We saw four cats in all, two of them huddled close together in what appeared to be a small niche in the mountainside. But all we could see of them were their shining eyes; for it was too dark to see anything else. Yet somehow we could visualize their bodies from their eyes. We both saw them and didn't see them, as if they were shades.

We reached a lively temple town in the mid-afternoon. Entirely devoted to servicing pilgrims, the town's several narrow streets are lined with hotels, restaurants, snack and tea stalls and a myriad of shops selling religious paraphernalia, mostly pictures of the local deity whose image is contained in the main temple and whose presence here is the only reason for the town's existence.

Although the idol is very old and has been venerated for ages, its location in this town is relatively recent. It was 1691 when devotees shifted the statue from its original home in Mathura, three hundred miles or so to the northeast, fearing its destruction by the fanatical iconoclastic Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. They had intended to move the idol farther than this, but when they reached this place, one of the wheels of the carriage carrying the idol "sunk deep into the earth and defied extrication; upon which the augur interpreted the pleasure of the god, that he desired to dwell there."

A form of the god Krishna, the idol is a monolithic stone sculpture made of gleaming black marble. Not at all realistic in style, rather geometric in fact, he is short and heavy-set and has his left arm elevated, its palm facing up, supporting a sacred mountain, which is not depicted. Unlike most other Indian temples, which are open for large parts of the day, this one remains closed and so the statue is out of view most of the time. In fact it is only revealed to devotees six times a day for fifteen minutes or so at a time. On each of these occasions it is attired and adorned for the activity it is performing at that particular time: waking up, having breakfast, taking a morning bath, eating lunch, preparing for an afternoon nap and so on. The pictures in the shops portray the god in these various costumes.

As it is one of the most popular temples in India with people coming from all over the country to see the god, huge crowds assemble for every viewing, the Sanskrit word for which is "darshan." Now "darshan" can simply mean a seeing, like the English word "vision." But when used in a religious context the word has a great deal more resonance than that: it has the sense of revelation or as one writer put it, "sacred sight-seeing." The idea is to make eye contact with the eyes of the god for this is said to effect a direct experience of the divine. Darshan is a kind of mutual seeing, both seeing and being seen by the deity. So it isn't as if the devotees particularly care to linger in front of the image; they just want to catch a glimpse of the god and for him to catch a glimpse of them.

There was nothing remarkable about the temple itself. It is in fact a structure that is solely devoted to crowd control. At the busiest viewing times, men and women are separated, the women waiting in the courtyard while the men are admitted into a vast antechamber. One wall of the chamber contains an ornate pair of silver doors towards which everyone's attention is directed. The first time I went for darshan I had to escape from the anteroom before the doors were opened. The crowd was just too much for me to handle; but it wasn't easy to get out either and I had almost given up the attempt when a passage through the massed bodies fortuitously presented itself and I escaped. There was Carol, standing near another entrance where the women were also squashed against closed doors. She couldn't face entering such a crush of bodies either.

When we returned to the hotel and told the manager that we hadn't been able to see the god I could see disappointment written all over his face. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll let you know a good time to go, when there won't be such a rush." He was as good as his word. At around seven in the evening he phoned us in our room and said with some urgency, "Now go!"

There were still large crowds in the anteroom but nothing like earlier in the day. We (for this time, men and women were mixed together because the crowds were relatively thin) stood there for only a few minutes when suddenly the doors were thrown open and all thrusted themselves forward, hungry, as if starved in fact, for a look at the god. We were swiftly carried along with the crowd into his presence. The dramatically lit shiny black image was flower-bedecked, garbed in a luxuriant sarong and posed against a light purple curtain. The whole effect was heavily theatrical, but somehow, even for the few moments we were able to look at it, the statue transcended the stagy effects that detracted – or so it seemed to me – from its power, and I could sense a numinosity emanating from it, the true source of its long-standing appeal.

We arrived in Udaipur in the early afternoon and navigated the narrow, winding streets to the lakeside. There we stayed in small family-run heritage hotel where we had stayed on a previous visit. Although that had been six years ago, the owner remembered us well and surprised us when he produced the business card we had given him then.

We strolled through Udaipur's bazaars and watched, or I should say heard, metal workers hammering the ubiquitous brass and copper water pots into shape. We revisited the majestic, sprawling royal palace and that evening at dusk admired the skyline of this paradigm of Rajasthani royal grandeur from across the lake.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006