The setting for 'The Far Pavilions' - the blockbuster novel that's soon to become a West End musical - is somewhere that India virgin Amy Jenkins has long fantasised about. But what is Rajasthan really like?

Your India cherry. You've either lost it or you haven't - and if you haven't, people just love to tell you how painful it's going to be. Painful but worth it. To the British, India often seems like a different planet, the country we never quite conquered, and I stepped off the plane at Delhi with some trepidation. Revise that: I was downright scared.

Your India cherry. You've either lost it or you haven't - and if you haven't, people just love to tell you how painful it's going to be. Painful but worth it. To the British, India often seems like a different planet, the country we never quite conquered, and I stepped off the plane at Delhi with some trepidation. Revise that: I was downright scared.

At the jabs clinic a few days earlier, I had guiltily ticked the box marked "luxury trip" and that's what we were on - a tour of five-star India, met at Delhi by a retired naval attaché who runs a small guest house just outside the city, Tikli Bottom. Martin Howard loaded us into his 4x4 and we drove off into the night.

The Delhi outskirts were just as apocalyptic as I had been warned, cloaked in a dusty, dung-fire, diesel haze. Stagnant rivers of lorries sat bumper to bumper on the other side of the dual carriageway. Sinister at first and then, "a bit like elephants", said my travelling companion. And they were, bulging and sagging, with front cabins decorated and adorned like colourful harnesses.

Driving through the concrete hovels of Delhi's satellite town, Gurgaon, it seemed impossible that we were heading for a beauty spot. Nevertheless, we woke the next morning in a graceful Lutyens-style house with pretty gardens and a refreshing breeze that came down from the surrounding hills. Organic salads and Cornish cheese were served at lunch. Tomorrow, India threatened with tales of limbs severed in road accidents and no seat belts but, for today, we were at nothing worse than a charming Wiltshire house party.

Then our Ambassador turned up. Imagine a London taxi, but lower, and white, and elongated. Inside it's like a 1970s Fiat, with skinny gear stick and tinny everything. It rattles and quakes. We were delivered from paradise into the hands of our driver, the competent Mr Ajit. "Don't worry, your lives are very valuable," he assured us, before hurling the car into the midday traffic.

We drove all day, bouncing along unmade roads crowded with cows and donkey carts, ploughing through waterlogged potholes the size of Lake Geneva, passing stately women in saris riding side saddle on the backs of mopeds or gliding along under vast bundles of twigs, and, once, lifting my heart, a teenage girl in jeans, riding along upright on her own bike.

Once we'd left the hurly-burly hell of the towns we emerged into beautiful countryside. Soft, lime-green fields of wheat lay like fine fur, tinged with gold, under gnarled neem trees. We crossed the border into Rajasthan at sunset. The landscape became desert; the road, single track. On a crest ahead, a solitary camel stood silhouetted in the dying light. It looked down its nose at us as we bounced past in the ditch, imperious as only camels can be.

Just when we thought we'd never get there, we did. Mandawa. A quick plunge into the bazaar, teeming in the dusk with evening shoppers and then in through the imposing gates - big enough for elephants - of Mandawa Castle. And then - magic. As we stepped on to the hotel terrace, a beautifully tiled bar with paddle fans, wicker chairs and waiters in turbans, I felt we were entering some kind of colonial fantasy - and we were. Drumming began. Braziers burned and, beneath a canopy of stars that seemed lower than usual, a procession of camel-drawn rickshaws rolled into the magnificent sandy courtyard describing a dramatic circle, as if bearing important guests to a masked ball. It was pure spectacle. Never mind that it was only scruffy French tourists who descended, never mind that it is all laid on, it was a great show.

Mandawa Castle is one of many havelis in the Shekhawati district of Rajasthan. These glorious buildings with their unfolding courtyards are elaborately and intricately frescoed inside and out. They are mostly crumbling and unlived in, but the restored ones give a flavour of past glories. Endearing paintings survive from the 1910s showing Edwardian ladies with tightly furled umbrellas and maharajas listening to gramophones.

Next stop Kishangarh, a small town on the way to Ajmer, where a ruined fort looks out over a romantic lake dotted with islands. Except the lake is no more. It dried up four years ago and hasn't yet returned - the famous lake at Udaipur is also a puddle at the moment - and the lake bed turned over to a patchwork of arable green and gold.

The old town here is a treat. Our guide, Mr Purohit, took us around the narrow streets at dusk and we tasted spicy koftas and barfi, a delicious nutty fudge, while turning up our noses at the vast blackened pans of bubbling buffalo milk. Small black hogs snuffled around our feet and disappeared into the open gutters when we tried to photograph them.

At Ajmer, we visited the tomb of Mohamed's son-in-law. Seven pilgrimages here are worth one to Mecca. The rickshaw ride through the old town was hair-raising. The narrow lanes seemed to get smaller with every twist and turn. No room for even a donkey cart here. The beggars were on the scale you get warned about as an India virgin. In a wild moment, I gave 50 rupees to a heart-rending boy who looked about five. The money was immediately stolen from him by an older boy and my little boy sent up a great wail of despair. Our rickshaw accelerated away - too late to go back - and I thought guiltily of the misery I had caused.

At the heart of all this is the tomb, set in a spacious open-air marble complex, the size of a small village, where people picnic, pray, and simply hang out. A bespectacled young priest, Yousuf, led us barefoot into the unbearable crush of bodies around the saint's silver casket. We threw in rose petals and were blessed. It was utterly functional, a production line, but somehow moving anyway.

There are times in India - such as when the Ambassador broke down on the Jaipur highway and we lay limp and exhausted on cellophane-wrapped tables in a yet-to-open service station - when you wonder if the beauty is worth the hellishness. But there are times, too, when your heart really sings. One of those moments was the elephant ride up the hill to the fort at Amber. It's cheesy, but exhilarating and unmissable.

Is it really possible to have a five-star time in India? I don't think so. India is like its own dust. It gets in everywhere. There is no defence. Even the good hotels have a kind of inevitable ramshackleness. Even the grandest of cars have to go along motorways where people drive on the left only if it suits them.

But there is one exception to the rule. If you want time out in Rajasthan - and a real treat in this land of mayhem - there's the Amanbagh resort. It was with some relief that we crawled into this palace of private pool pavilions and unspeakable pleasure set among the arid Aravalli hills, north of Jaipur. This is a true oasis: gardens garlanded with bougainvillea, black marble baths deep enough to float in, a great chef, a heavenly spa, and even an elegant reference library - where I write from now, having lost my India cherry in the gentlest possible way.

'The Far Pavilions' opens at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2 on 14 April (020 7379 5399)

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Coromandel, Andrew Brock Travel (01572 821330; www.coromandelabt.com). It offers similar 17-day, tailor-made, private-car tours of Rajasthan, starting at £2,188 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Delhi on British Airways, b&b accommodation and a car and driver.

Where to stay

Double rooms at Amanbagh (00 65 6887 3337; www.amanresorts.com) start at US$600 (£428) per night without breakfast

Further information

All visitors to India are required to be in possession of a valid tourist visa. These cost £30 and must be applied for in advance from the High Commission of India (0906 844 4544. Calls cost 60p per minute. www.hci.london.net), India Tourism (0207-4373677; www.incredibleindia.org).

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