Jaipur – sights and sounds
From the moment I mentioned that I was going to Rajasthan, KP kept singing “Jaipur” – to the tune of the Slumdog Millionaire dance tune, with increasing intensity and volume as the day of my departure drew near. Many of us form our opinions of the Indian sub continent from a variety of media. For me it was through the pages of many books from White Tiger, to Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, The God of Small Things, Heat and Dust, Eat, Pray, Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Life of Pi, Narcopolis to Shantaram and more, plus films such as Monsoon Wedding and the aforementioned Slumdog. Through food I now count many lovely people who hail from different parts of India as friends; over 40% of residents in the UAE are Indian nationals and via Fooderati Arabia I’ve got to know a lot more about the people, cuisines and country. So with all these preconceptions in mind I headed off with two friends for a long weekend in Jaipur; now I can hardly believe that we were there for only three days and the tumultuous impressions won’t all fit into one post. So this is part one about what there is to see in Jaipur, with more to follow about shopping, where to stay, how to get there and what to eat. This is not a guide book with all the facts and figures – these are my random experiences and impressions of the sites we visited (and loads of pictures).
Jaipur is known as the pink city as in around 1876, Maharaja Ram Singh II decided to give everything a fresh coat of paint in honour of the visit of The Prince of Wales and he chose pink. It is now a regulation colour for all houses and shops although the hue changes because of light, surface, age and circumstance from rusty terracotta to delicate rose. The original capital of was in nearby Amber but the new city, including many temples and palaces was planned by Sawai Jai Singh II who laid it out on a grid system, referring to the Hindu treatise on architecture (Vastu Sastra) with wide roads, a city wall and seven gates in collaboration with two architects Vidyadar Bhattacharya and Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob. Throughout the centuries the royal families activity encouraged artists and craftsmen to move to Jaipur and it is still famed for artisan craft skills such as block printing of textiles, hand-dyeing, weaving, blue pottery and paper making.
Our first port of call and feeling vulnerable as we leave our tuk tuk and approach the arch to the palace. A snake charmer appears and we pounce with cameras, but the lid is swiftly thrown on and the cobra disappears until notes are proffered. We refuse a guide but the signs are not very helpful (Jaipur 10 city walks has very clear info to all the rooms). We meander around taking in elegant pillars, the imposing palace fascia, some museum rooms of costumes and armaments, and the marble-floored Diwan-I-Khas, a private audience hall with enormous silver vessels that Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II filled with water from the Ganges to take with him on a two week trip to England. The Pitam Niwas Chowk which portrays the four seasons and Hindu gods is truly stunning especially the peacock arch with delicate designs and vibrant colours. Closed doors indicate the continued residence of the current Maharajah; we are still in the presence of royalty.
These extraordinary and ingenious structures, listed by UNESCO, for reading the weather, astrology, astronomy nevertheless look like an extreme skateboard park from an inner city estate. Korean tourists with made to measure face masks wander in groups. A couple of disenfranchised young men, possibly lovers, use the surroundings as a tableau backdrop to pose and display their fashionable clothing; silk voluminous drop crotch pants for one, gold trainers for the other, sharp haircuts and cheekbones in common. The instruments are still used to used to predict the intensity of monsoons; pretty amazing as they were built in the early 18th century. It’s quite peaceful, despite the tourist hordes and feels like a garden of modern sculpture.
Hawa Mahal – the palace of the winds
The view from the road is disappointing as pictures give the impression of serenity and isolation; it is nothing of the sort. Rickshaws lurch, camels groan, hawkers pester, aromas rise up from the drains, pores, nooks and crannies and the ornate facade that I took to be pink stone from the pictures, in reality, is painted pink. However, we seek the back entrance and the real delights unfold. The view of the street below is much more alluring when viewed through the eyes of the women in purdah from behind a screen. The lacy lattice frames, the cacophony dims, the rapidly lowering late afternoon sun bathes everything in its kinder glow. Baboons frolic on distant rooves below; we are on top of the world. Beginning our shaky descent we hear a sudden communal gasp. The fountains have been switched on.
Jal Mahal – water palace
In need of revitalising after our packed first day and thinking of roof top bars looking over the city on our Istanbul trip we ask Kadir (our guide) to take us to something similar. Arriving at a clean, modern coffee bar on the top of a petrol station we realise he isn’t quite on our wavelength but glancing to the other side of the road see that it looks out onto Jal Mahal. The evening light is perfect and we’re glad of the happy accident that has brought us here now rather than the next morning as planned. Families gather near the edge of the lake and there is a constant swell and thrashing of fish which come to the surface to be fed. Sari-clad ladies are occupied in the futile action of rolling a paste into small sausages to sell as fish food; patently these beasts will eat anything.
Amber fort (also called Amer fort)
Our tuk tuk engine starts to wail as it tackles the gradient of the winding approach road to Amber. “No overtaking” we command as Kadir indicates with his body language that he is considering passing a truck on a blind bend. Suddenly the fort appears reflected in the Maota lake below in the misty morning light and there is a snake charmers 100 metre sprint to get to us as we stop with our cameras. Walking up the cobbled approach lane, painted elephants with tourists in swaying howdahs on their backs rise up above us. Warned to keep off the elephant road by a passing guard “elephants are very hard to control and it is dangerous”, the two routes eventually merge and we are forced very close to their pounding feet.
The fort is vast and signage not great but we resolutely eschew having a guide so just ramble about happening upon labyrinthine corridors, purdah screens, latrines (there were more than 100 throughout the fort all leading directly out into the fresh air), the famous mirror room – the Sheesh Mahal – and the king’s bedroom which has private entrances leading directly to it from the ladies’ apartments. The scale of the place is pretty mind-blowing and we try to imagine life there in late Medieval times; secure behind walls, freezing cold in Winter, a vast army of people required to maintain the life of the court. Not being part of a group means that we find ourselves alone a few times, a nice respite from the competitive clickers. ‘The garden in the lake is closed’ says a guard placed there for the sole purpose of communicating this information – it only opens at night during the light show and there are serried rows of benches set for this purpose. We climb higher along the wall which snakes through the surrounding hills. The concrete cladding, streaked black by polution-laden precipitation lends a weird sense of Cold War era Eastern block to the hills even though the Medieval forts lower above us on higher hills. We are shadowed by a man who is following us at distance to beg; we are relieved when he gives up after twenty minutes. Our entry fee to this astonishing place as foreigners is 200 rupees each – about 2 GBP (12 AED). The charge is 25 rupees for Indians.
Galtha, Galta, Galtaji, Galwar Bagh or monkey temple
This has many names depending on which guide book or guide you follow. We approached from through the Galta gate. Pigs wander about the dirt rubbish-lined track, monkeys swim in a water trough. A boy selling food to give to the monkeys thrusts peanuts in our faces. Through the grinding poverty Ravi approaches dressed in an bright white cricket jumper and chinos. “Galta is my birth place” he says proudly. Nervously, we scan the monkeys and dogs that line the route for signs of rabies and climb up the winding path giving us a view over Jaipur shimmering in the haze of pollution of a million two-stroke motors. Not sure we are in the right place, I keep asking about the tanks of water from seven springs which I’ve seen in the guide book but which is not apparent in this decrepitude. Cresting the brow of the hill, which has a cluster of shabby looking shrines and equally shabby Holy men, we descend into a valley. The red-haired monkeys are everywhere and doing everything, we quickly avert our eyes from one enthusiastic couple. Ravi gives us a pep talk before we reach the temples warning us that the first one is small, we will feel uncomfortable and they will demand money. We see what he means when we are level with the entrance and refuse the invitation of the persistent Holy Man. Walking round a rank pond of water (‘for the monkeys to swim in) we look down on the first pool over a high wall topped with jagged, coiled razor wire. Apparently a prevention against further suicides. It is all fairly grim but there is enthusiastic washing going on at the bottom of the stairs.
The lower pool is closed for washing as the water is not clean – although it has exactly the same amount of floating debris and scum as the upper pool. The once grand temples are crumbling and dotted with modern Holy paraphernalia. A piece of string is tied round our wrists – for long life – and a blob of yellow dabbed on our heads by a young, earnest ‘Holy Man'; we give money. A less reticent member of the religious community harangues our guide as we exit and I sense that this is because we avoided the Hanuman shrine, which Ravi confirms as true. We retrace our steps up the hill, taking a ‘short cut’ which thankfully avoids aforementioned pushy mystics. Ravi chats about cricket and how the monkeys often raid his house and steal things like shoes (and his brand new trainers). “They are having sex” he points out helpfully; we quickly avert our eyes. The path is steep and hot but we are rewarded by the view of Jaipur again as we reach the top. Proudly, Ravi points out the school where he is a student; small children are helping their mother wind thread on a rickety wooden contraption in a garden; families beg from tents along the track. The approach from the Surajpol Gate has given us a pleasant walk and a very different view from just arriving at the main entrance to the shrine. The tranquil peace of the hotel grounds has never seemed so welcoming.
We’ve had an uncomfortable moment when out in the bazaar and fled to find Kadir. It’s too early to eat but we have no more appetite for shopping. He speeds through the streets to a Hindu temple – we are all too tired to notice where it is. Removing our shoes we are too nervous to leave them at the street gate in case they disappear. Intending to carry them round, disapproval makes us leave them at the door but the rest of the greeting is in kind gestures and very welcoming. It is bright, light and every surface is dazzlingly reflective. People visit the altar or shrine in the middle then do a circuit in a corridor around it, touching pictures on the wall as they go. It is tranquil to the ears and soul, if not the eyes. Our bad experience is forgotten.
This is merely one dimension of our three days in Jaipur. I felt that I could hardly blink or I would miss something. More about the sights from street level, the shopping, where we stayed, how to get about and, of course, what to eat, to follow soon.