Vibrant, colourful, dazzling, vivid, garish – none of these words do Rajasthan justice. Stand in a market place in Jodhpur or Jaipur and search long and hard for a single shade that is not within your view. Every street is a sensory assault, from lime to mint, saffron to crimson, turquoise to indigo, magenta to lavender.
This regal Indian state is known for its blue, pink and gold cities (Jodhpur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer respectively) and for the splendour of its forts and Maharajas' palaces, where the sun shines through emerald, ruby and sapphire Belgian glass windows, to dance on dazzling paintings of past opulence.
But it is not just Rajasthan's past that shines in a hundred hues. Its present is equally vibrant. The people here seem to revel in opulent displays. Drive down a desert road and suddenly there is a shock of brilliance: a group of ladies circled under a tree, their saris crimson, fuscia and tangerine. Nearby, old men with impressive moustaches gossip while sporting fluorescent turbans that match the yellow, green and pink of highlighter pens.
And behind each colour is a story, from the electric blue of the Brahmin houses to the holy orange of the Sadhus. The Rajput warrior class wear saffron turbans to denote chivalry, the Brahmin scholastic men candy pink, the nomads black. While a white sari might indicate a widow, one combination of red and yellow can only be worn by a woman who has borne a son. In spring the favoured Hindu festival of Holi is an orgy of colour as people race through the streets showering each other in bright powders and paints.
In a nation known for its colourful quality, this state outshines its neighbours. Even the flag of Rajasthan is a rainbow. In the words of Vansh Pradeep Singh, my guide in Jaipur: "I have never been anywhere else in the world. But in all of India this is the most colourful place and we are very proud of it."
The name of India's largest state translates as the "Land of Kings". It's the home of the princely Maharajas and the Rajput warriors, who claimed to originate from the sun, moon and fire. It is known as much for its fearsome inhabitants and bloody battles as it once was for opulence. To this day, men wear the earrings that denote their Rajput warrior caste.
So, it's slightly bemusing that when Maharaja Ram Singh decided in 1876 that there was only one colour to paint the city of Jaipur to welcome the Prince of Wales (and future king of England Edward VII), he chose a pretty pink. From then on, the main streets of the "City of Victory" have remained a delicate salmon, most spectacularly evident in the beauty of the 1799 Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, with its façade of delicate screens and gold adornments.
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is the most visited by tourists, but still feels untouched enough to seem like a venture into the unknown. Battered Ambassador cars and garishly adorned lorries may vie for space with bicycles and auto rickshaws in the crazed mayhem of its streets, but so do elephants, camels, curly-eared Marwari horses and pigs. Those sacred cows can still bring a main thoroughfare to a screeching halt, simply by lazily stretching out across a junction, unfazed by the cacophony of horns. Long-tailed monkeys leap across the roofs before performing commando descents down the front of pink buildings to greet observers with impertinent stares.
A slightly darker shade of coral, the City Palace is an Aladdin's cave of treasures, bejewelled daggers and pistols or ornate gowns the size of tents for some of the more portly princes. Within the museum are two giant silver urns bigger than India's tiny Tata car. These were used by the current Maharaja's grandfather, Madho Singh II, to transport the water of the Ganges to Britain (as he wasn't prepared to drink any other). Other curiosities include the intricate metal ball, with a candle inside used for nighttime polo games by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II. To his hosts' undoubted consternation, he died during a game of his favourite sport on the playing fields of England.
Centuries blend into each other here. The pale yellow structures that stretch skywards at Jantar Mantar could be modern works of art but this is an observatory built in 1728 by Maharaja Jai Singh II, where giant sundials tell the time within two seconds. It is here that astrologers assess the compatibility of young couples who want to wed and see how many of 36 "likes or dislikes" they have in common. Too few and the marriage is doomed; but too many would also be an inauspicious start.
Outside an old man rocks a giant brass urn containing sweet pistachio kulfi (ice cream): ideal refreshment before taking on Jaipur's market. You delve into a claustrophobic lamp-lit maze of shops, rich with incense burnt to placate the gods, while ladies gather sipping chai and traders pompously unfurl one startling cloth after another: scarlet, fuchsia or royal blue. Nearby a glittering array of bangles or a pretty parasols are laid out for sale, and piles of turbans await inspection.
For all its urban psychedelia, Jaipur is matched by its rural neighbours. Drive out of the city, past a 100ft, rather garish statue of the monkey god Hanuman, and you descend into villages of lilac, mint, baby blue and candy pink houses. Even the women labouring in the fields or roads, carrying rocks in baskets on their heads, seem adorned in finery.
In this swirl of colour it is the snow-white Jain nuns that catch the eye as they walk by the side of the road, shunning all worldly goods or transport. Their life is a constant pilgrimage in which they sweep the road for fear of treading on ants and will not eat after dark in case a mosquito or bug should be consumed on their vegetarian food.
India is land of a million gods and a thousands sects. The average Rajasthani appears to co-exist comfortably amongst myriad beliefs. Eighty miles south-west of Jaipur, within the bright avocado seventh-century mosque at Ajmer – one of the most revered in India – Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists all crush into the confines of Dargah Sharif. This is the ornate silver tomb of the Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chisti. Here they throw bougainvillea and jasmine petals at the revered saint before tying tangerine and tomato coloured strings to its outer gates in quiet prayer to their deity.
Down the road in Pushkar, satsuma-robed sadhus offer salvation to pilgrims. They have travelled far to bathe in the holy lake created, it is said, by Lord Brahma when he dropped lotus petals. There are 52 bathing ghats, including one where Vishnu was said to have appeared as a boar and another where some of Gandhi's ashes were scattered.
Among the 500 blue temples is one of the few in India dedicated to Brahma, yet the temples are often overshadowed by bhang (marijuana) cafes and internet shops. Be aware, the locals warn: these sadhus are charlatans seeking money. The real ones wander naked, shunning all human company.
A 100 miles to the west, to the south of Jodhpur, lies the town of Rohet. Here Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines and William Dalrymple began City of Djinns within Rohet Garh, the ancestral home of a local aristocratic family. Down the road, Sidharth Singh and his wife Rashmi have now built Mihir Garh, an oasis in the desert with just nine antique-laden suites, all with plunge pools. Singh is passionate about riding; he'll take you on a gentle trot to visit the Bishnoi people in their reed and mud villages.
The Bishnoi are the original eco-warriors. In 1730, 363 of them were killed when they clung to trees to prevent a party sent by the Maharaja of Jodhpur from felling them for his new palace. Today they still eschew all modern amenities, including electricity and running water. By contrast, the bright blue homes of the nearby Brahmin community may be basic, their women churning cream from milk, but they all have televisions. Nevertheless, the elders in their candy pink or burgundy turbans still welcome you to perform the traditional opium ceremony, where a drink made from the narcotic (now a pale version as the government takes most of the sap for medicinal purposes) is revered for its restorative purposes.
Jaisalmer, Rajasthan's most westerly city, springs out of the Thar desert. At sunrise and sunset it glistens like bullion. Within the 99 bastions of the walled honey-gold fort, a warren of tiny streets appears to have survived, unchanged, for centuries. In a desert land so hot that cold water can crack glasses, life seems to play out on rooftops caressed with evening breezes – until a sand storm blows in and turns everything to sepia.
Outside the ancient city are a host of 16th- and 17th-century havelis, the homes of merchants who once grew fat on the silk route trade. Behind lace-like stone façades, portraits of Queen Victoria hang beside murals of Maharaja-era magnificence in rooms as richly decorated as those of their royal counterparts. The trappings of the Raj era – entire silver beds, chess sets of ivory or camel bone and old gramophones – blend with antique Indian artefacts.
While the gold sandstone of Jaisalmer may not be as colourful as its Jaipur or Jodhpur counterparts, it makes up for it with a unique local tradition. On almost every home is a brightly painted portrait of the elephant god Ganesha, alongside inscriptions to signify the wedding date of its occupants. Yellow-green chillies and limes hang above every door to ward off the evil eye.
Travel 150 miles south east to Jodhpur, a city forever immortalised by riding breeches. It owes its peculiar fame to the fact that a former Maharaja of Jodphur was travelling over to England in 1887 when the ship sank with all his V Cpossessions on board. He immediately commissioned his favourite wide-thighed trousers from Savile Row. Jodhpurs became all the rage in Victorian London.
In places, the earth of the Marwar region (known as the Land of Death because of its harsh, arid desert) around this pretty city is a deep rose so vivid that the buffalo that roll in its watery puddles emerge like cartoon characters, completely transformed from black to coral-pink. The palaces, hunting lodges and havelis of the city are all a burnt cerise, apart from the off-cream structure of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which looms on the horizon. Started as a job-creation scheme during a time of drought in 1929, the palace – stuffed with art deco delights and 347 rooms – took 3,000 people 15 years to build.
It's in Jodhpur that another shade hits you: a startling ceil blue. Look down on Jodhpur from the ramparts of Mehrangarh Fort – an imposing structure that appears to soar out of the mountainside – and blue is all you can see. Each house is awash with the colour.
But as with Jaipur, it is Jodhpur's medieval bazaars around the old clock tower that really feast the senses. Spices in every shade of brown from mustard to cinnamon or dark oak sit in powdered mountains next to vendors proffering pale green unripe mangoes, or cucumbers, tomatoes and blood-red chillies for spicy thalis. Nearby old men fry up toffee-coloured sweet jelabi treats. Marigold, bougainvillea and jasmine flower sellers offer fragrant oils and perfumes. Unlicensed local restaurants serve cold beer in china mugs – "special coffee", as they describe it.
The route south takes you to the spectacular 14th-century Jain temple of Ranakpur. Its 29 marble halls and courtyards took 63 years to build, and while the official records state that it has 1,444 pillars – each uniquely carved – the locals insist no one has ever been able to count them. Amid this forest of milky white, the only dash of colour is the amber Buddha-like figures of Jain.
Fifty miles further south lies Udaipur. In 1828, Lieutenant Colonel James Tod, then political agent to the Western Rajput States, described the city in his Annals and Antiquities as the "most romantic spot on the continent of India". Its seven interconnecting lakes, little islands and lush greenery set it apart from its more arid counterparts.
By far the most picturesque of all its treasures is the ice-white Lake Palace which appears to float in the middle of the deep azure waters of Lake Pichola. At night, its glistening reflection lights up the waters.
Built in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II as a summer retreat, it is now a hotel. It's worth blowing your budget for dinner here, just to enjoy the regal boat ride over and the fleet-footed dancers who twirl among its candle-lit fountain courtyards. When the lake is low, giant fruit bats swoop down at night in search of water.
Looming over the lake is the City Palace, a deep ivory that turns burnt amber at sunset. The largest in Rajasthan, it is an eccentric collection of additions created by succeeding rulers. It's also packed with treasures, including dazzling peacock mosaics and seven arches where rulers were weighed in gold to distribute to their subjects.
And next door is Fateh Prakash Palace. Here one man's obsession led to the extraordinary Crystal Galleries. In 1887, Maharana Sajjan Singh was so taken with English crystal that he ordered entire furniture sets. Mercifully no one has ever had to sleep in the cut-glass bed; the ruler died before it was delivered. In this extraordinary land, nothing seems out of the ordinary, not even beds made of glass. The only surprising thing is that it wasn't studded with multi-coloured jewels.
Travel essentials Rajasthan
* The writer travelled with Ampersand Travel (020-7289 6100; ampersandtravel.com). Tailor-made trips to Rajasthan start at £1,990 per person including flights, private transfers with a guide, accommodation in heritage properties and entrance fees.
* The writer flew with Etihad Airways (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) which flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Delhi via Abu Dhabi. Return fares start at £424.
* You can alternatively fly non-stop from Heathrow to Delhi on Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.in), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com), Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com).
* Samode Haveli, Jaipur (00 91 141 263 2407; samode.com). A heritage hotel built for a 19th-century minister of the royal court. Doubles from Rs11,590 (£159), including breakfast.
* Greenhouse Resort, Pushkar (00 91 145 230 0079; thegreenhouseresort.com). A collection of sumptuous tents in landscaped gardens, starting at Rs5,500 (£75) inc breakfast.
* Mihir Garh, Rohet (00 91 2936 268231; mihirgarh.com). A luxury fortress in the desert comprising private suites with pools, from Rs14,500 (£199) full board.
* Garh Jaisal, Jaisalmer (00 91 941 414 9304; garhjaisal.com). A charming hotel in the fort. Doubles from US$84 (£56), B&B.
* Raas, Jodhpur (00 91 291 263 6455; raasjodhpur.com). A sleek hotel at the foot of Meherangarh fort. Doubles from Rs16,800 (£230), including breakfast.
* Deogarh Mahal, Deogarh, (00 91 2904 252 777; deogarhmahal.com). The former fortress of the Rajpat, now an elegant hotel. Doubles from Rs8,000 (£110), B&B.
* Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (00 91 294 242 8800; tajhotels.com). This former palace appears to float on Lake Pichola. Doubles from Rs28,600 (£392), B&B.
Red tape & more information
* British passport-holders require a visa to enter India (0905 757 0045 – calls 95p/min; in.vfsglobal.co.uk).