Few structures evoke the majesty of the Indian courts as splendidly as the country's numerous palaces and ancient forts. Each one offers a fascinating window into India's immense historical and cultural diversity, from the haunting remains of the erstwhile Hindu Empire at Hampi to the many grand royal residences of the maharajas dotted throughout the state of Rajasthan.
At the time of independence in 1947 there were more than 550 princely states extending across the subcontinent. India's "great kings" enjoyed extravagant lifestyles and, more often than not, expressed much of their wealth in spectacular buildings.
Live like a maharaja?
Palaces were more than dwellings: many of the rulers led very public lives and often these buildings served not just as a residence but also as areas for public audiences called durbars, artisan workshops and garrisons for troops.
Many palaces are now historic monuments, but to keep their homes viable, many owners have opened their homes to paying guests. Options vary from gargantuan palaces run by hotel chains to more modest residences, where you feel like you are staying with the family.
The Indian Heritage Hotels Association (indianheritagehotels.com) is good place to start your research: a collection of family-run hotels extending the length and breadth of India.
The best place to begin?
Rajasthan in India's north-west offers the largest concentration of the fairy-tale ideal of the grand residences and crumbling hilltop forts of the Rajputs and Mughals that ruled India for centuries. With their turrets, balconies, towers and impenetrable battlements, these buildings are offset by a diverse and breathtaking landscape, ranging from the dusty expanse of the Thar Desert to princely cities such as Jaipur and Jodhpur.
As well as giving visitors the chance to observe the luxurious lifestyles once enjoyed by the ruling elite first-hand, royal courts throughout Rajasthan also showcase the renowned talents of local craftspeople displayed in the ornate stonework, woodwork and decoration used throughout the buildings.
Mahout (01295 758 150; mahoutuk.com) is a UK-based company that represents a collection of some of India's most atmospheric smaller properties, among them the 39-suite Devi Garh (00 91 2953 289 211; deviresorts.com), a short drive north of Udaipur. With gorgeous views of the Aravalli hills, this 18th-century hilltop palace, with its blend of traditional architecture and restrained Mughal-chic interiors, has won many fans. Doubles start at around 15,000 rupees (£200), including breakfast.
Known as the Pink City, owing to the rosy hue of its buildings, Jaipur was founded in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, one of the greatest rulers of the Kachawaha clan of Rajput warriors. It is now firmly on the tourist trail, as one corner of the "golden triangle" (Agra and Delhi are the other two). At the heart of Jaipur is the magnificent City Palace; it is still partly occupied by the royal family, who live in a wing called the Chandra Mahal.
Just outside the palace wall is one of Jaipur's most celebrated landmarks, the Hawa Mahal or "Palace of the Winds", with a unique façade decorated with 953 niches. It was built in the late 18th century by Maharaja Pratap Singh to provide the ladies of his court with somewhere to watch the activity on the bustling streets below without being seen.
Forty kilometres from the city is the Samode Palace (00 91 1423 240 014; samode.com), another independently run hotel, oozing Mughal splendour, with lavishly decorated rooms, some with original frescoes and block-print fabrics. Double rooms start at £250, including breakfast.
Udaipur – one of Rajasthan's most romantic spots – is crowned by its sprawling city palace, built by ruler Udai Singh in the 16th century as a strategic capital on the shores of Lake Pichola. While the lake is now fringed with many grand palaces and hotels, few can touch the Lake Palace (00 91 294 242 8800; tajhotels.com). Floating in the middle of Lake Pichola, its cool white marble and mosaics make it one of Rajasthan's most instantly recognisable landmarks. Now one of the country's most celebrated hotels, doubles here start at 18,375 rupees (£250), without breakfast.
Castles in the sand?
Further west, towards India's border with Pakistan, the remote desert city of Jaisalmer is another recommended stop. Its singular location in the heart of the Thar Desert is further enhanced by its architecture: a biscuit-coloured fort with a tinge of gold. It was founded in the 12th century by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal. The fort's main square or chowk is dominated by the imposing Palace of the Maharawal, with an intricately decorated stone façade deemed one of the best examples of its kind in India.
Jaisalmer Fort currently faces the threat of irreversible structural damage owing to its antiquated drainage system and increasing water demand caused by its burgeoning tourist industry. Jaisalmer in Jeopardy (020-7352 4336; jaisalmer-in-jeopardy.org) is a UK-based charity founded to conserve the fort, undertaking projects such as restoring the Maharani's Palace as well as upgrading the sewage systems of the 350 homes within the fort.
One of the best ways to see Rajasthan is with a car and driver. Bales Worldwide (0845 057 1819; balesworldwide.com) offers a 12-day "Maharajas and Moghuls" itinerary, staying in a mix of palaces and forts throughout Rajasthan. It costs £2,350 per person, based on two sharing including international flights, transfers, all accommodation and excursions.
Another point of the triangle?
Agra is a must. While the Taj Mahal might be Emperor Shah Jahan's most awe-inspiring legacy and India's most recognisable monument, there are other reasons to visit this one-time capital of the Mughals in Uttar Pradesh. Set on the banks of the Yamuna river, the sprawling Unesco World Heritage-listed Agra Fort (asi.nic.in) contains impressive vestiges from the Mughal period. These include its Mirror Palace, from whose tower there are inspiring views of the fort. It opens daily from sunrise to sunset – but try to visit around sunset, when it is at its most magical. Admission costs 250 rupees (£3.40), Fridays free.
Around 40 kilometres west of Agra, the Unesco World Heritage site of Fatehpur Sikri (asi.nic.in) is one of northern India's most impressive examples of a royal home, built by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. It is now little more than a ghost city, yet it was the first planned city of the Mughal period, with a harmonious terraced layout.
And the third?
One of the Indian capital's most striking landmarks is its Red Fort, built as a residence for Shah Jahan in the 17th century when he moved the capital from Agra to Delhi. This fort, which occupies the northern edge of the atmospheric quarter of Old Delhi, contains several marble palaces, including the Rang Mahal or "Painted Palace", which was home to the emperor's wives and mistresses. The fort also boasts India's largest mosque, the Jama Masjid. It opens daily from 10am-5pm, admission 250 rupees (£3.40). See asi.nic.in for more information.
Audley Travel (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com) offers 12 nights in northern India visiting the Golden Triangle, as well as v c stays in a handful of forts and palaces, from £2,395 per person, based on two sharing. This includes flights, transfers, accommodation and all excursions.
The king of the castles?
The awe-inspiring Umaid Bhawan Palace (00 91 291 251 0101; tajhotels.com) in Jodhpur takes some beating. One of the largest residences in the world, it was begun in 1928 by Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present Maharaja of Jodhpur, who still lives with his family in a section of the palace. This sandstone and marble palace was designed by British architect HV Lanchester and is Indo Deco style on a colossal scale. For all its opulence, it came about from a desire to do good – the palace was conceived to give work during a drought. It is now one of India's most stunning and expensive heritage hotels; doubles start at 19,800 rupees (£265), room only.
I'd like to journey south
The austere remains of Hampi (asi.nic.in), the last great Hindu kingdom of the Vijayanagara rulers, can be seen in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Here fabulously wealthy princes built an impressive array of temples and palaces, mostly dating from the early 16th century, before the region was conquered and pillaged by the Deccan Muslim confederacy in 1565. Subsequently abandoned, Hampi's boulder-strewn expanse is now one of southern India's most important heritage sites. Admission costs 250 rupees (£3.40).
Further south, Mysore was home to one of the longest empires in Indian history, the Wodeyars, who established the city as their power base in the late 1400s. The present City Palace, designed by Henry Irwin in 1897, replaced an earlier wooden structure that was destroyed by fire. Still home to the Maharaja of Mysore, the building has Indo-Saracenic architecture, with whimsical turrets, domes and colonnades. The palace is particularly spectacular when it is illuminated by more than 100,000 lights on Sundays, public holidays and during the 10 days of the Hindu Dasara festival, which takes place this year in October. TransIndus (020-8566 3739; transindus.co.uk) offers a 16-day itinerary entitled Hampi & the Deccan Plateau, which includes visits to sites and historic monuments at Hampi, Hyderabad and Mysore. This costs from £2,795 per person, based on two sharing and includes flights, transfers, accommodation and excursions.
One of the hotly anticipated openings of this year will be next month's launch of the Taj Falaknuma Palace (00 91 662 985 85; tajhotels.com) in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This erstwhile royal guest house of ruler Nizam Mahboob Ali Khan has accommodated dignitaries such as King George V and the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
An impressive Italian marble palace, the name of which translates as "Mirror of the Sky", the Taj Falaknuma Palace is an unusual blend of Italianate and Tudor architecture. Following a painstaking 10-year restoration of rooms laden with artefacts, frescoes, Venetian chandeliers and miles of parquet, it is set to become one of India's most opulent new hotels when it opens on 15 February. Doubles start at 36,200 rupees (£485), without breakfast.
Known as the City of Nizams, Hyderabad is worthy of plenty of exploration in its own right. It contains noteworthy landmarks such as the magnificent Charminar Palace in the centre of the old city, which was built in 1591 by Sultan Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah, and the Chowmahalla Palace, a cluster of four 19th-century palaces in Mughal and European styles which served as the official residence of the nizam, or "administrator of the realm".
Off the beaten track?
The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, Gujarat is one of the subcontinent's lesser-visited states. However, it has fascinating historical sites as well as atmospheric palace hotels that feel more akin to a homestay. The Unesco World Heritage-listed Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park (asi.nic.in), 50 kilometres from Baroda, is home to a number of sandstone monuments, mosques and palaces dating from the eighth to the 14th century and the largely unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city of Champaner. It is still an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, who worship at its Kalika Mata Temple. Open daily, sunrise to sunset, admission free.
The city of Gondal is home to three imposing palaces, all of which are now heritage hotels: the Orchard Palace, Naulakha Palace and Riverside Palace, whose Royal Garage contains an impressive array of vintage cars. For details see the website gondalpalaces.com.
The small state of Chhattisgarh is home to the magnificent Kawardha Palace, a 140-kilometre drive from its capital city, Raipur. Set in the verdant greenery of the Maikal mountain ranges, this palace, built in the 1930s, is a fascinating architectural fusion of British, Mughal and Italian architecture.
Greaves India (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.com) offers a 12-day itinerary entitled Orissa & Chhattisgarh Unveiled, which includes a stay at the palace. Prices start at £2,999 per person, based on two sharing including return flights, accommodation and transfers.
Right royal rail: Luxury on the tracks
As well as their palaces the maharajas also travelled in style thanks to specially designed mini-palaces in the shape of train carriages.
Launching in Mumbai on 16 January, the Maharaja Express is tipped to be the most lavish of a number of tourist trains that recreate these luxurious journeys. It will complete four different circuits to some of India's major sights, among them Agra, Jaipur and Delhi. An 11-night Classical India itinerary starts at £4,795 per person including international flights, accommodation, some meals, all transfers and excursions. Available through Cox and Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.com).
The Palace on Wheels is another impressive option. Great Rail Journeys (01904 521 936; greatrail.com) offers several different itineraries on board including a 15-day trip from Delhi to Jaipur, Chittorgarh Fort, Updaipur Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Agra on a range of departure dates throughout 2010. This costs from £3,775 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights, accommodation on-board and in hotels, transfers and excursions.
Travel essentials: India
There are numerous direct scheduled flights to a selection of destinations all over India including British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com), Air India (020-8 560 9996; airindia.com) and Kingfisher Airways (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com).
Distances in India can be vast and an internal flight is often the best option. As well as carriers such as Air India and Air India Express (airindiaexpress.in) there is an ever-increasing number of budget airlines, including Jet Airways, SpiceJet (spicejet.com) and Kingfisher to choose from.
With over 65,000km of track, India's railway network is the greatest transport undertaking in the world. For details see indianrail. gov.in. India-based cleartrip.com offers online booking. In the UK, SD Enterprises (020-8903 3411; indiarail.co.uk) books rail travel in advance for an additional fee.
Numerous UK-based tour operators offer organised itineraries. As well as those listed above, these include Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings. co.uk), Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk), Ampersand Travel (020-7289 6100; ampersandtravel.com), Cazenove + Loyd (020-7384 2332; cazenoveandloyd.com), Kirker Holiders (020-7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com), Somak (020-8423 3000; somak. com) and Western & Oriental (0845 277 3355; wandotravel.com).
All UK passport holders require a visa to enter India. A tourist visa valid for six months costs £30. Applications can be made either in person at offices in London, Hayes, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester, by post, or online. Processing times can be longer than expected, so leave plenty of time before you travel. For details see in.vfsglobal.co.uk or telephone 0905 575 70045 (calls cost 95p per minute).
There are no compulsory vaccinations required for travel to India unless you are arriving from a country with yellow fever. Diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and typhoid protection are recommended, as are anti-malarial precautions, depending on what part of the country you plan to visit. Consult your doctor or see a travel health specialist such as MASTA (masta-travel-health.com).
When to go
One of the most influential factors is the wet season or monsoon, which arrives on the Keralan coast in May and works its way north-east for the next six weeks. By September, the monsoon will have petered out in the north, but the south is subjected to another monsoon between September and December. Now until March is the ideal time to visit most parts of the country, although northern India and mountainous areas can be cold.
The Foreign Office advises there is a high general threat of terrorism throughout India. For further information see fco.gov.uk.
Contact the India Tourist Board, 7 Cork Street, London W1S 3LH (020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org).