Jaipur is one of the foremost tourist attractions in India because of its superlative forts, grandiose palaces, vivacious temples, multicolored bazaars, pulsating streets, and its distinguished pink color to which the city owes its oft-used name “The Pink City“.
The above is a description I found on the internet before I had departed for India. This one sentence summed up all that I imagined Jaipur to be. More than any other part of our whistle-stop tour of India I had been looking forward to this. The day promised the above mentioned forts in the shape of the ‘Amber Fort‘, elephants to ascend the steep pathway to the fort, palaces, (in the shape of the ‘Royal Palace‘), in the centre of Jaipur, and one of the grandest Hindu temples in India along the way not to mention a trip to a vast outdoor celestial observatory ending with a visit to the Palace of the Winds during our time here.
With so much to do the events of the previous night faded quickly. I mention the previous night because it had proven itself to be eventful in more ways than one. An impromptu trip into the bazaars of Jaipur in the fading sunlight of yesterday had led to a trip to a back-street tailor via a manic car ride through the lesser seen streets of the city. Having been suitably laced with beer and whisky from the cold fridges backstage (a good hospitality tip for the UK), we ran the usual gauntlet of sales patter from the over zealous sales force.
Having been plied with alcohol, which I now realise is NOT just a nice hospitality gesture but also a stealthy way to break down your resistance to a sale we willingly began producing our credit cards proceeded to burn tremendous gaping holes in them. For my own sins this consisted of a small fortune for a hand-made silk dress for my partner Tracy which was to be worn at a forthcoming summer wedding back home in England. With promises of a peaceful life in return for payment for the dress I succumb to the pressure as did many others. We paid, we parted, we went back to our beds and slept peacefully.
For now though we all stood waiting in the foyer of the colonial fort on the outskirts of Jaipur eagerly waiting to see the fabled Amber Fort for ourselves. The fort was the Kachhawaha citadel until 1727 perched up in the hills of Amber until the capital was moved down to Jaipur. The citadel was established in 1592 under Man Singh I but it was Jai Singh I whose personality is most firmly stamped upon the buildings and their design.
The Amber Fort is protected by the Jaigargh Fort high above it where the soldiers were stationed ready to be called upon at a moments notice to stream down and protect all those of importance below. The route up to the fort follows a cobbled pathway consisting of many switchbacks and steep gradients.
The fort itself is gained by a precipitous elephant ride up a narrow cobbled path. Clambering up some steep steps to the elephant mount we locked ourselves into the cradle a top a fine beast ready for our ride up to the imposing fort. The next 20 minutes consisted of many yells and squeals from Tracy as she convinced herself she was about to be toppled from her perch high up on this elephant. We are told that the elephants only do 5 trips up a day which if true helped ease our guilt at placing our not inconsiderable combined western weight on these poor creatures backs. Deep down though I feel that the Indian race will tell you almost anything that you want to hear, especially when Rupee’s are involved! Maybe this is a disservice but many a time it certainly felt that way, but as we were on an Indian adventure we entered into the spirit of the moment and rode the beasts of burden to the hot crest of the hill.
We entered the Jaleb Chowk, (the square), via the “sungate”, this area being originally the parade ground. After a rather ungainly dismount of our elephant we assembled in the growing heat and massing crowds waiting to access the fort proper. After a brief talk from our guide Dilip we approached the magnificent ‘Ganesh Pol‘. This is a shimmering three-storied gateway built-in 1640 which leads through to the private apartments and a screened upper floor where the ladies could get a glimpse of the outside world below.
Pleasure gardens followed plus halls of private audience set amongst the most glorious setting imaginable. Were it not for the sweat running down my forehead it would have been hard to determine whether or not this was all real or some figment of my vivid imagination. The Amber Fort is the kind of place that you have read about in fantasy stories and possibly heard about in ancient historical chronicles but never actual fully believe still exist in the modern 21st century.
We wandered around in awe as we saw marvelous archways and magnificent imposing doors and gateways to hidden gardens with fountains and exotic smelling flowers arranged in formal flowerbeds which have probably hardly changed layout in centuries. We ascended stairwells onto the rooftops and gazed down upon the small town of Amber way below. Having marvelled at the opulence and beauty of the structure we finally began our exit route back down to Amber. Leaving via the back entrance of the fort we trudged past an assortment of rag-tag entertainers, court merchants and other various lower caste hawkers all attempting to ply their trade in our direction. Snake-Charmers blew their rhythmic tunes through small flutes as their snakes arose out of the baskets in front of our eyes while overhead wild monkeys fought and played with each other in and on the many balconies and ledges presented by the architecture of the fort.
Eventually we emerged to be greeted by a collection of 4WD vehicles ready to whisk us down the narrow cobbled streets back to our waiting coach way down in the valley. We jumped in the back of the nearest Jeep and the driver dropped the clutch and off we sped at breakneck speed down the twisting narrow lane. With Jeeps in front and behind us with the horns blaring as loud as they could in the narrow streets we hurtled along hanging on for dear life until eventually we pulled into the dusty car park. What had taken 20 minutes to ascend via elephant had taken just 4 minutes to descend via 4WD!
We now left the old capital of Amber and headed back towards Jaipur. Jaipur is a labyrinth of crazy bazaars, opulent palaces and historical sites. We were headed for the heart of the city and the magnificent City Palace the home of the rulers of Jaipur since the early 18th century. An amazing blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture this building stands as a testament to the design and craftsmanship of those ancient and famous Indian dynasties.
In the Diwan-i-Khas the two largest silver objects in the world can be seen standing proudly flanking an archway. They are urns which carried the sacred waters of the Ganges for Madho Singh II during his trip to London in 1901. They are now guarded by the immaculately turned out palace guards and are proudly displayed in glass cabinets for all to see.
The Chandra Mahal area of the palace is still used today as the residence of the maharaja and is off-limits to the public, but you can still gaze in awe at its exterior while wondering to yourself what treasures must exist behind its facade.
After a spot of lunch in one of the many courtyards amongst pictures of 1920’s western colonial aristocrats on safari, proudly standing on top of their kills attaining a heroic stance to the camera, gladly it was time to leave. For all the want of adventure and travel it is still hard for my western sensibilities to see such images, although its part of our history as a nation etc, etc and I know I needed only to glance outside the confines of the palace walls to see the daily struggle of survival, but still it turns my stomach to see such images however old. So thankfully we left and headed towards something uplifting to the human heart, a structure built specifically to further human knowledge! The Jantar Mantar.
Jantar Mantar is the largest and the best preserved outdoor observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II. Sawai was a keen astronomer who had been inspired by the king of Samarkand also a keen star-gazer. Built between 1728-1734 the structure consists of 16 instruments all built on a massive scale outdoors. They were, and still are, used to forecast how hot the summer months will be and the expected arrival dates of the monsoon. Even today there is nothing more accurate for making these predictions. Many of the skills used by the royal astonomers at the observatory have been forgotten over the many centuries and scholars today struggle to grasp exactly what many of the instruments were originally designed and used for in astronomical terms. Many hours can be spent wandering among the huge instrumentation imagining to oneself what it must have been like hundreds of years ago to observe the night skies for the benefit of the royal court.
If you were to place these structures into a modern art gallery in Barcelona or somewhere similar they would be lauded as modern masterpieces. Yet here they are exposed to the elements standing in a walled garden in a run-down poverty-stricken area of town with beggars outside the walls and where mothers holding babies beg for food for their infants. As ever the contrasts in India are possibly greater than anywhere else in the world.
Having marvelled at the madness and magnificence of it all we were then hurried over to some waiting rickshaws which were to take us on a perilous ride through the back streets of Jaipur. Our driver had broken flip-flops, not the best footwear when pedalling quickly upon a bike, and a tendency to cough up large mouthfuls of phlegm which were deposited on the road at regular 2 minute intervals. Occasionally some of this phlegm made its way through the air and into my face as we raced around the various roundabouts and narrow alleys of Jaipur! No punches were pulled on this little trip and all the good and bad of street life was laid bare in front of us to see. Wildlife cohabited the streets with the humans as ever in India and monkeys hung from electricity lines suspended above us while we veered to and fro to avoid sacred cows and evade hitting wild pigs snorting around the kerb-sides of the potholed pavements. The smells passed through our nostrils, some good, some not so good and on we sped through the streets.
Eventually we all arrived back (and still amazingly all alive) at our transit ready to drive to our next destination. That destination was the largest and newest Hindu Temple in Jaipur. Built out of marble and blindingly white the temple shimmered in the afternoon sun. Dilip a proud inhabitant of Jaipur conducted the Hindu religious study for us before we entered and then we spent time at leisure wandering around the temple much to the laughter and intrigue of the many locals.
Blending in though was not really an option as I am afraid more English looking you just could not get, and that English uneasiness spread through the group like wild fire as we wandered around the temple not knowing whether to bow or stoop at the holy men, or indeed if in fact they were holy men at all or just fellow worshippers.
The day ended and we headed back to our splendid residence the Kanota Castle. As mentioned earlier on the previous night a handmade silk dress had been ordered whilst under the influence in a backstreet tailors in Jaipur. The moment of truth was upon us now as our evening meal ended on the castle rooftop and the dress turned up at our room. A fitting ensued and the now sober expectation that it was never going to fit dawned painfully upon me and my partner Tracy. A few tears and the dress was going back to the backstreet and the credit was being handed back rather embarrassingly to my person. A situation of greater embarrassment and magnitude was avoided, dignity on both sides was still intact and so we all decided upon a swift nightcap of scotch and then retired to our respective beds. When in bed my thoughts turned to the next day ahead of me. Tomorrow we were headed towards the fringes of the Thar Desert and the hilltop fort of Kuchaman where we would stay for the remainder of our stay in India. The website for this heritage fort when viewed while back in blighty promised much, and I gently fell asleep dreaming of sand and forts and the adventurous and romantic sounding name of ‘Kuchaman’!