In a wooded valley at Ranakpur, in the heart of Rajasthan's Aravalli Hills, the Chaturmukh temple's milky marble has been worked like butter and finished like filigree. Around 1,444 carved pillars and a multitude of friezes, balconies, corbels and domes are intricately incised with tales and fables of Jain sages and saints. Fifty years in the making and nearly six centuries old, it is among India's most stunning temples.
I was here not just to wonder but also to walk. The bare sandy hills, rocky ridges and scrubby valleys of the Aravalli range stretch for nearly 300 miles northeast from Dungurpur towards Jaipur. Among large strands of forest I set aside three days to hike from Rajasthan's finest temple up to its highest fort and down to one of its quirkier palace hotels, a cluster of sights near Udaipur that is attracting more visitors, though few take it in on a trek.
The 230 square mile Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, where most of my walk would take place, starts on the edge of Ranakpur. Bima, my guide, led the way, swinging his staff at coarse bushes he thought might bother my knees and thighs. We wormed through acacia scrub and tall grass cut by slender streams, pausing once by a sand bar to examine fresh leopard pugmarks.
Navigating the boulders and rock pools of a thickly forested ravine, we slowly climbed the first Aravalli ridge along a faint path. Bear droppings stained flat rocks, while a troop of excited langur monkeys unleashed a confetti-like burst of twigs and leaves as they crashed through the trees. Eventually, we reached a paved track that steadily wound up to a salmon-pink dharamshala, or pilgrims' hostel. Ecstatic cries and shrieks came from the cliff's peculiar Parshurama temple wedged into a cleft, and a family soon emerged beaming and draped in tinsel as though leaving a party.
After gaining the ridge to join a slender country road, I reached Kumbalgarh an hour later. There is no other fort quite like it in Rajasthan. Built in the 1400s by Rana Kumbha – whose prowess saw the construction of 31 others – it lords it over the Aravallis at 3,500ft. Seven imposing gateways precede its citadel crowned by the Badal Mahal, or Cloud Palace. By Rajput standards, the buildings are not truly palatial but their views are sublime.
Most striking of all is Kumbalgarh's vast encircling wall. Tall and muscular with crenellations, loopholes and splayed bastions, it winds around the edge of the plateau much like China's Great Wall. Many local guides and books still claim its perimeter extends for an astonishing 22 miles but even on a short visit many years back I had been doubtful. Now, with a full day to ramble, I set off anti-clockwise along the broad ramparts designed for patrolling guards and even horses to move with ease and speed.
Within minutes, I was deep within the Aravalli countryside. The wall drops steeply to several spurs and then snakes north by the rim of a deep valley. Of the township that once thrived within, just a few modest temples – some of their sculpture and decorative motifs still intact – remain, and I paused here and there to soak up the views. At an ancient baori, or step well, I watched villagers fill cans with water and load them on to camels, after which we shared sweet custard apples pulled from nearby trees. Ideal for a day walk, the great perimeter wall proved to be around 11 miles and, restored a century ago, it remains in remarkable condition.
Below the fort next morning, my new guide and I followed a timeworn part-cobbled path that briefly weaved across a saddle and then plunged back into the sanctuary's thick forest. Reputedly an old supply route, it joined a broader trail that passed by a tower-like hunters' hide built by a Kumbalgarh prince. Royalty favoured tigers, leopards, boars and sloth bears. Bar tigers, there are still a few of these creatures around, together with some wolves, but you'd be very lucky to see them.
The trail levelled into an unexpectedly jungly valley of streams and lakes called Thandiberi before emerging on to a plain of farmland and villages. I took some convincing about Thandiberi's alleged crocodiles until late that afternoon, lounging over tea on the terrace of Ghanerao Castle. With a few old trophy pictures on its walls, Himmat Singh – scion of the region's feudal barons – confirmed their survival.
Nudging the north-western foothills of the Aravallis, Ghanerao has faded into an unassuming slice of small-town India. Rather than modernise and go lavishly upmarket, the rambling castle opted to remain modestly comfortable and so feels closer to the era it celebrates. Tucked away up narrow stairways and off deep courtyards, its rooms are individual. Some have pavilion balconies with cushions, stained glass and mirror inlay walls, and most ooze character. Mine was full of knick-knacks and family portraits, as if the royals were simply putting me up for the night.
Reunited with my car next morning, my driver was clearly relieved. Most Indians seemed aghast at the idea of hiking. "It's like this..." I began, explaining its joys, but I don't think he really got it at all.
How to get there
Amar Grover travelled to India with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk), which offers tailor-made tours throughout Rajasthan and the Aravalli range. Its 13-night Grand Tour of Northern India visits Ranakpur, Udaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Jaipur and Luni and costs from £2,095 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, b&b and guided excursions.
Further reading 'Lives of the Indian Princes' by Sharada Dwivedi and Charles Allen, published by BPI (India) PVT Ltd, price £19.99
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