Amber was the capital of the Kachchawahs from 1037 to 1727, when Sawai Jai Singh II moved the capital to Jaipur. Technically more a palace than a fort, it is said to have gotten its name from the many inlaid jewels and gemstones in the decoration of the inner sanctums of the fort. The approach is through a narrow pass, and the fort, an imposing edifice that grew over a period of 2 centuries, starting from around 1000 B.C., is naturally fortified by the Aravalli Hills, making it an ideal stronghold. It's a stiff 20-minute climb to Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) unless you opt for an elephant ascent or a jeep ride (Rs 280 return including Rs 30 parking fee), beyond which lies a beautiful and spotless complex of palaces, halls, pavilions, gardens, and temples. Either travel by car or pretend you are of royal blood and ascend on elephant-back (Rs 600 and up) for one to four riders; if you want to take pictures of the elephants, they pose for you for around Rs 50. After entering Jaleb Chowk through Suraj Pol (more elephants take riders for a turn around the courtyard), dismount and take the flight of stairs up through Singh Pol (Lion Gate) to Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), a raised platform with 27 colonnades. Opposite you'll see the ornately carved silver doors leading to Shila Devi Temple, which contains an image of the goddess Kali, the appropriate family deity for the warring Rajput Kachchwaha. Massive, three-story, intricately decorated Ganesh Pol (Elephant Gate) leads to the private apartments of the royal family, built around a Mughal-style garden courtyard. Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) -- covered in mirror mosaics and colored glass -- would have been the private quarters of the maharaja and his maharani, literally transformed into a glittering jewel box in flickering candlelight; guides will point out the "magic flower" carved in marble at the base of one of the pillars around the mirror palace -- recognizable by the two butterflies hovering around it, the flower can be seen to contain seven unique designs (a fish tail, a lotus, a hooded cobra, an elephant trunk, a lion's tail, a cob of corn, and a scorpion). Above is Jas Mandir, a hall of private audience, with floral glass inlays and alabaster relief work. Opposite, across the garden, is Sukh Mahal (Pleasure Palace) -- note the perforations in the marble walls and channels where water was piped to cool the rooms. South lies the oldest part, the Palace of Man Singh I. If you want to explore the old town and its many temples, exit through Chand Pol, opposite Suraj Pol. Note: As is the case elsewhere, the press of bodies and noise levels can seriously detract from the experience -- try to get here as soon as it opens to avoid the heat and crowds, and, if possible, avoid visiting on weekends, or better still, arrive just before the last ticket is sold where you will have more of a solitary ramble and great photo opportunities with the softer light
Tip: Perhaps the most novel way to see the palace, fort, and its environs is with Jaipur Balloon Safaris (tel. 0141/401192324; www.skywaltz.com), a new venture that has European pilots and provides aerial views of the area (Rs 12,000 per person for two people to Rs 10,000 for four).