Jaipur & Amber Fort Friday 13 – Friday 20 November 2009
Jaipur is known as the Pink City after it was painted in the official colour of hospitality in 1876 when the city was spruced up for a royal visit from the Prince of Wales. Before this the Maharajah who designed and built the city (Jai Singh II see below) was determined to use local products and as Jaipur stone lacked the natural pink/red glow of that used in Agra and Delhi the colour had to be painted on! Actually it's more a sort of terracotta than pink and quite attractive not a bit Barbie!
Built in 1727 by the great builder/warrior/astronomer Jai Singh II, Jaipur is northern India's first planned city - a forerunner for Chandrigarh if you like! The capital of Rajasthan (the state of Kings) it has many good examples of the forts palaces and colourful bazaars which make up the state. It is an elegant city with a lot of lovely architecture, parks and wide tree lined avenues. It also showcases some of the state's worst sides. This is a poor rural area affected badly by drought and the streets are full of economic refugees - who have come to the big city to find the streets aren't paved with gold. Entire families sleep in colonies on the streets and kids and women with babies surged at our car window to beg whenever we pull up at lights which isn't easy to deal with. Much of the recent expansion of the city has been unplanned urban sprawl and the necessary infrastructure is lagging behind.
We try not to give to beggars but often buy food for the kids. It is sad the locals often don't see this as we westerners do. Often we are told not to buy for them as they are pickpockets - undoubtedly this is true and we always watch our valuables but it seems awful that a country as rich as India is in parts seems to turn its back on these kids - mere toddlers some of them - leaving them to subsist on the streets. It's not pretty but -sadly maybe- you get used to it.
Anyway we had to find somewhere to lay our own heads and by asking around we swiftly found the usual overlander's camping spot. Lakshmi Villas was once no doubt a swanky hotel but it has since fallen on hard times. Other than one night when they were hosting a wedding we seemed to be the only guests staying there the entire time we were there. The dining room smelt musty and old and when I went to the toilet half the ceiling came down on my head when I flushed the loo! Still - in the large tapestry which is overlander camping these details were mere dropped stitches - and we were very pleased to have a large grassy area (overlooking the salubrious golf course) so near town where we could camp. It was a great little spot.
Next morning we headed to the Albert Hall a grand building situated in the middle of the new city - an add on dating from the mid 19th century. This is a very swish building built in honour of the Prince of Wale's infamous 1876 visit (hope he appreciated all this effort!) it now houses the central museum. In front of this is an impressive statue of Maharaja Man Singh ii who was the last ruling Maharaja in Jaipur.
The Albert Hall is a pretty imposing building with a lovely garden around it and the museum itself is very interesting. It's a somewhat eclectic collection - ranging from ancient Hindu statues, the beautiful blue pottery which is a local specialty, local musical instruments and various doubtless priceless nick nacks which the Maharajas picked up on their travels from Japanese dolls to a real Egyptian mummy - it was very interesting.
Whilst there we used the audio headphone system which we'd encountered previously in Mysore and Delhi. This is very good as often local guides can be a bit hit and miss to understand and there are only so many times you can ask for a repeat! Anyway as an aside we were told this company -Narrowcasters- is Aussie so we were pleased to be supporting a product from home! Have a look at their site www.narrowcasters.com to see which places in India are covered.
Next we went to what is probably Jaipur's main attraction the city palace. We left the very wide avenues of the new city to head to the old city where the palace lies right in the centre. The pink old city was apparently built by Jai Singh II according to an ancient Hindu document on architecture and very well done it is too, the bazaar area all laid out in rectangles specializing in various different crafts.
The bazaars were fascinating - the Jaipur merchants can give the Kashmiris a run for their money on the "hard sell" stakes and we were pursued down the streets a good few times! Gemstones are a specialty of the region and we were press ganged into various jewellers. I did buy a really nice silver pendant. An early birthday pressie!
Fascinatingly we also ended up in the wedding quarter. As we have mentioned wedding season is very much here and the whole area was in an up roar of manic activity. We saw nervous looking grooms being fitted for their gorgeous gold coats and turbans. Indeed the entire roof tops over the bazaar were taken up with piles of turbans as there was little storage room.
Of course the girls can't miss out and there were lots of mother's buying the gorgeous red and gold cloth which makes up a traditional Indian wedding gown. I liked the picture of the merchant swearing on his heart that it was a good bargain. We have had this pitch a few times - looks like it was getting nowhere with the lady in our picture! Out on the street, stalls everywhere were painting ladies' hands with beautiful henna patterns used for weddings. It was all very atmospheric. As well as the usual crazy jumble of cars, pedestrians cows and autorickshaws there is a new factor to dodge on the streets of Rajasthan - the camel cart is still a popular mode of transport and you see them carting everything from sandstone, to plumbing fittings to people everywhere.
Right where we parked the car was a man with an original 160 year old German camera. Whilst an interested crowd - mainly street kids - gathered he took a picture of us "the old fashioned way!" This was an elaborate process he first took our picture developed it within the camera as a negative and then photographed the negative to turn it into a positive image. Quite a palaver - one picture took over 5 minutes. Thank god for digital cameras!
Right in the centre of the old pink city we reached the city palace. Dating from 1727 this is a huge complex of courtyards gardens and buildings. The original outer wall was built by Jai Singh II but over the years adaptions have been made by various rulers.
It is a stunning building and actually still a living palace - the present royals still live in a 7 storey palace not open to the public but visible from the courtyards. The current Maharaja is a polo chum of Prince Charles apparently!
First we took in some of the Royal artifacts - including the Maharaja Man Singh II's pj's - which were HUGE - he apparently weighed over 250 kgs and was a bit of a foodie!
The Diwan-I- Khas or the hall of private audience set in a beautiful open courtyard was very lovely. At its centre is a carved marble gallery with 2 imposing silver jars on display. Apparently they are the largest silver objects in the world (as listed in the Guinness book of records!) each weighing 345 kgs and made by silversmiths from within the palace from 14,000 melted down silver coins. They were made for Maharaja Madho Singh II a devout Hindu, and they accompanied him to London in 1902 when he attended Kind Edward VII's coronation so he could have enough "holy water" on hand to see him through the trip. The wonderfully dressed guards are everywhere throughout the palace - they invite you to take their picture and then want money! We might start charging to have our pictures taken it happens all the time!
All through the hall were beautiful chandeliers & portraits of the various Maharajas - one of whom was a real patron of the arts, and a bit of a hippy dying his own clothes. Although he pre-dated him by 100 years he was a dead ringer for John Lennon! Sadly you weren't allowed to photo the portraits in the gallery up close so you might not see this from our picture.
Nearby there was also a display of local handicrafts - where you could speak to the artists, watch them working and buy their products. There was some beautiful work on offer - they specialize in pottery, painting of miniatures and marble work. We wished we had more money!
We wandered on through displays of gruesome weapons and ornate carriages - all very interesting. We particularly liked the Pitam Niwas Chowk -an inner courtyard with 4 gorgeous gates depicting the seasons - the best being the Peacock gate which depicts Autumn. On the nearby tower the one and a quarter flags fly to show the Maharaja is at home. This dates from a title granted to Jai Singh II in 1703 by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb "Sawai" which literally means "one and a quarter" i.e.) that much better than all other men. All following Maharajas have retained this title and the quarter flag flying signifies that the Maharaja is at home.
Next stop - after heading back onto the pavements to once more brave the salesmen and beggars - was the Hawa Mahal or palace of the winds. This pink sandstone building is Jaipur's most distinctive landmark. Constructed by Pratup Singh in 1799 this palace is part of the city palace complex. It was necessary due to the practice of Purdah - by which after marriage the royal women couldn't be looked on by any other men. Thus they lived as birds in a gilded cage in this amazing 5 storey palace whose peep hole windows allowed them to view the outside worked without being seen.
Affording natural air conditioning (hence the name) the palace allowed the ladies to watch the bazaars and city streets without being observed.
There was an internal courtyard where select merchants (presumably old ugly ones!) were allowed in so that the ladies could shop as they never left got to wander around the bazaars themselves. The roof top affords a gorgeous view over the Jantor Mantor (see later) and the city place.
That evening - after taking advantage of the superb internet connections here - the website is now up to date! - we headed off to Mediterraneo an Italian restaurant for dinner. We had already seen that Rajasthan is fairly conservative and has strict alcohol laws i.e.) all grog shops shut at 8pm on the dot. In the restaurant the waiter leaned to us and said "you want specialty?" so we said "what is the specialty?" …"no no madam you want….. (grotesque wink)……. SPECIAL-TY?" This went on for a few minutes until eventually we got it/ "special -tea" comes in a tea pot but is in fact beer! A bit like Kerala they seems to think this will fool the authorities that licensing laws are being obeyed! Anyway we had a pot. The pizza was very good too, and we had a party of Italians at the next table which leant the whole thing authenticity.
Next morning we headed to another feather in Jai Singh II 's cap - Jantor Mantor. As well as town planning and war JS had a very keen interest in astrology. This collection built in 1728 - and one of 5 he built around India- looks like a set of bizarre sculptures - the names means literally "instrument of calculation". Here JS spent hours apparently charting the sun's progress through the zodiac. He put a lot of thought into it sending his best scholars overseas to study how things were done there prior to beginning construction.
The most striking is the Brihat Samrat Yantra - literally King of Instruments. This is the largest sundial in the world with its 27 metre arm set at 27 degrees - the latitude of Jaipur. It is still used by astrologers and is important in predicting the extent of monsoon rains. Restored in 1901 the Jantor Mantor was all in good condition with some new restorations going on as we were there. It was pretty fascinating and way ahead of its time. On a lighter note outside we met a fortune telling bull - though he was on his break when we met him!
It's amazing how often you bump into familiar faces "on the road" and we were thrilled at the Jantor Mantor to recognize some Aussie friends we met in Pokhara Nepal. Stuart and Kerry from Sydney are on their honeymoon Stuart is a mechanic and Andrew made him work on his holidays and picked his brains for ages in Pokhara. It was great to see them and catch up on travelling tales. We all went for lunch at LMB a renowned vegetarian restaurant. We all had the house specialty - the Rajasthan thali -a huge range of local tastes. We liked some more than others but it was really interesting and we were all so full we couldn't move afterwards! Hope the next stage of your trip on to South Africa is great guys.
After a few more hours wandering around the bazaars we headed up to Nahargarh (or Tiger Fort) to see the sunset. This imposing structure was built in 1734 to protect the city. It was an amazing view over Jaipur though the sunset was a bit so -so as the sun just sort of melted into a smog haze!
It was definitely worth the trip though as we met up with Kylie. This amazing lady originally from Christchurch NZ is 7 months into a trip home from the UK by pushbike. She has passed through Iran Pakistan and (amazingly) Afghanistan thus far!! Typical plucky Kiwi chick ! We went for dinner with her so we could pick her brains as much as possible. To have a look at Kylie's adventures see her website : http://www.bugbitten.com/kyles
Finally for our last day in Jaipur we took a drive out to Amber Fort 10km out of the city centre. This is an amazing building - a gorgeous pink fort palace set against the rocky desert mountainside. Prior to Jaipur Amber was the capital of the state and so an important fortification centre. It's a steep climb up to the fort first passing through the lovely gardens. We were going to have a picture of just the 2 of us with the fort as a backdrop but we ended up with a huge family group joining us! This happens all the time and we often find we are being photographed more than the monuments we are visiting - as mentioned above maybe we should explore the earning potential of this!
You enter the fort through the Suraj Pol or Sun gate into the Jaleb Chowk or main courtyard - where once returning armies showed off their war booty- with the ladies watching from above from behind the veiled windows - Purdah again! A large stairway leads to the main palace and a hall of public audience where the Maharaja heard petitions. There was a Kali temple nearby - where a goat was sacrificed every day until 1980 when (unlike Nepal where as reported this is still going strong!) the Indian government banned the practice - but somehow we missed it!
Very impressive was the Jai Mandir or Hall of Victory - inlaid with panels of coloured foil and mirrors - which would have looked amazing lit up at night. There were also many beautiful carved marble relief panels - with intricate designs of flowers and insects carved painstakingly into the marble.
There was a lovely view down over an ornamental garden and over the Maota Lake though it had no water at this time. The zenana or women's' quarters were designed to be independent but open onto a common corridor - presumably so the Maharaja could visit the wife/concubine of his choice without the others having to know about it!
The palace was very impressive. Like all the best forts it also had a secret passage enabling the Maharaja and family to escape if under attack. This interconnected with both the city palace and nearby Jaigrah Fort. This neighbouring fort was up a fairly steep incline for about 1 km and we walked up there to have a look. An impressive monument, Jaigrah was designed by the original JS but only built by his son and was only opened to the public in 1983 so it remains in very good condition. There was still a strong army presence around.
The fort was never captured and is very impressive with turrents and walls looking out over the hills - like an old fairy tale castle. It has a residential area, an armoury an inbuilt puppet theatre(!!) and the Jaivan -the world's largest cannon. Being a boy (!) Andrew was very keen to see this so off we went. Built in the fort foundry in 1720 this monster of a weapon is 7 metres long and weighs in at 50 tonnes. To get it into firing position 4 elephants were needed and each cannon ball of 50kg needed 100kg of powder to be fired for a range of 35 miles! Thankfully considering all this the cannon was never actually fired in war and was tested only once - it remained on the hill top as a sort of insurance policy to stop the fort being taken under siege. It never was so perhaps it worked!
Inlaid with clever rainwater harvesting devices the fort was pretty set up to withstand a siege should one have happened. It was used as a treasury to store valuables and rumours long persisted that money/jewels remained here -even the Indian government had a good look around a few years ago though nothing was found! It was an amazing view - just about justifying the steep walk up!
We got back that night to find the Lakshmi Villas carpark jam packed and a wedding in full swing. No one had warned us! We drove off down the road and parked near the golf course where we slept well until woken by the groundsman shinning his torch in on us at 5am!! The nights now are increasingly chilly - we don't mind there's no mozzies and it's good for sleeping - though it's best to have an early shower before the sun drops!
So on Friday 20 November we headed on to our next destination the pilgrimage town of Pushkar - though sadly we're behind schedule so the camel fair will be but a distant memory!