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 postindependence name for Rajputana, literally “land of princes” — is the large variety of forts and palaces its aristocrats built throughout the centuries, in usually breathtaking sites, that makes it one of the most popular destinations in India. But Rajasthan offers so much more than Rajput warrior history, desert castles and culture — from tracking down tigers in the Ranthambhore jungle (arguably the most reliable 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. It’s also high on contrasts: You could bed down amid some of the most sumptuous luxury on earth and then spend the day roaming ancient villages, exploring medieval marketplaces.