Tourists hoping to conquer India in a fortnight are doomed to disappointment. The lesson is this: if you want to visit small towns, travel cross-country, meet locals not in the tourist trade - then you have to concentrate on a single region. But which region? Some candidates were obvious: Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala. But would my experience of these tourist destinations be sufficiently authentic?
It was my tour operator, Trans-Indus, which first suggested Gujarat. Until now, all I knew about Gujarat was that it had a thuggish state governor and that it had suffered a terrible earthquake in 2001. But now I also know that it is one of India's most prosperous states and the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. It has mosques and temples, wildlife reserves, beaches, old forts and exquisite handicrafts.
So Gujarat it would be. A two-week itinerary was prepared, with a guide and driver placed at my disposal. The hot season was beginning to broil, but in an age of air-conditioning I had little to fear. And at Bhavnagar, I immediately found myself in an old maharajah's pad, the Nilambagh Palace. Out and about, the trappings of the "authentic" India were instantly to hand: the lounging cows, the piles of fruit, the bubbling tea, the frying food, the burning sun, the waving children, the rascally sadhus, the multitudinous domes and minarets...
Gujarat, I was delighted to note, even turned out to be blessed with several large patches of wilderness. Not far outside Bhavnagar stretch the grasslands of the Velavadar nature reserve, grazed by herds of skittish blackbuck deer. Over the coming days I would enjoy similar safari-esque experiences, both at Sasangir (home of the last Asiatic lion) and the Little Rann of Kutch (frequented by India's only wild ass).
But culture was the main thing. On my second day in Gujarat, I panted up a mountain outside the town of Palitana to reach one of the holiest sites of the Jain religion. At the summit, pilgrims in white cotton robes shuffled amid towers and trees; the only sounds were of distant chanting, bells in the wind, and the squawking of green parrots. The views extended over half of Gujarat.
And beaches? Oh yes. Descending from the temples to the baking plains, I set off for Diu on the southern coast of the Saurashtra peninsula. Strictly speaking, this is not quite Gujarat; as a former Portuguese colony, it falls under direct rule from Delhi. An advantage of this, for the tourist, is that Gujarat's anti-alcohol laws do not apply here. Suddenly, the scenery was lush and tropical. In damp churches, primitive wooden effigies of forgotten saints were rotting in the tropical air. Diu was a place to enjoy a cold beer and a meal of fried fish cooked by an old woman called Fatima D'Souza, before spending the night in a place like the Pensao Beira Mar.
Next morning I headed inland once more. My destination was Junagadh, though this dusty, historic town seemed to warrant a stay of days rather than hours. Its centre is dominated by the palace of the old Muslim Nawab, who in 1947 had declared his intention of joining Junagadh to Pakistan. So many Gujarati towns are dominated by epic palaces, the remnants of that disreputable but seductive century - from around 1840 to 1940 - when India's princes found themselves free to spend their burgeoning revenues on culture, music, art, lakes, palaces and hunting - but seldom on their subjects.
In Gondal, later, I once again enjoyed a maharajah's ease at the Orchard Palace hotel, eating amid shady terraces, ancient retainers and dilapidated furnishings. The spindly manager showed us the antique car collection of the royal family of Gondal. "Oh yes," he murmured, sadly, caressing the bonnet of a 1940s Chevrolet. "Things were better then."
Not that Gujarat was just about palaces. I now took a different route, north, into the Great Rann of Kutch, a desolate wilderness of salt flats that marked the borderland between India and Pakistan.
Architectural masterpieces were few: even the famed city of Bhuj, since the earthquake of 2001, is not the attraction it was. In spite of the damage, however, the villages of Kutch remain a treasure trove. Their crafts are among the finest in India. I regretted having only a day in which to meet shawl makers, weavers, potters and painters; for them the earthquake seems to have brought hope. Foreign funds are arriving. Co-operatives have been established to maintain traditional skills, sell merchandise and entertain tourists. You will never feel more strongly motivated to buy souvenirs than in Kutch.
After the Great Rann, my next destination was the Little Rann. Here I took a room in a delightful village-style camp called Rann Riders, the property of an organic farmer and Islamic gentleman-scholar called Malik, now 65 years old, who, until a few decades ago, had been destined for a small kingship. Thanks to Indira Gandhi's abolition of the old royal titles of India, this had not come to pass, but the 24 villages of his former jurisdiction still showed him respect. At dusk a camel-drawn cart took me away along dusty tracks to surrounding villages. I will never forget the welcoming villages of Dasada and Zinzuwada. Old men in fancy shoes milked their cows; women with pots on their heads stood in carved teak doorways; a monumental Hindu gate, festooned with faceless gods, crumbled in the sunset.
My only anxiety, in this rustic haven, was the thought that I would soon be heading for one of India's greatest cities. Ahmadabad was next. When we got there, a goodly proportion of India's teeming millions were out on the streets selling vegetables. My hotel, the House of MG, was a boutique that would not have looked out of place in Chicago. Perhaps this was the place to end the tour.
But Rajasthan was only a short drive away. So I fled to the state border and checked into a room that resembled an exotic museum, in a hotel called Udai Bilas Palace, beside a lake in Dungarpur. When the son of the last maharajah came to chat to me at sunset, he pointed at a stork's nest in the tree above the swimming pool. "Our aim," he explained calmly, "is to keep things simple." Keeping things simple? In India? I laughed. Having reached Dungarpur, I was in no mood for simplicity. Udaipur was within touching distance. From there, I could drive on to Jodhpur. And then to Jaipur. And then to Delhi, and...
A peacock screamed. The maharajah's son looked up. And I suddenly remembered, with a savage pang of regret, that India could never be conquered in a fortnight.
Jeremy Atiyah flew to Mumbai with Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin atlantic.com) which offers flights from £425 from 25 December to 31 March 2006. He travelled around Gujarat courtesy of Trans-Indus (020-8566 2729; transindus.co.uk), which has a 15-day tour, including flights, full board b&b and guides, from £1,998 per personReuse content