Jaipur has been a pleasant surprise. First, there is this hotel, an oasis in the desert of backpacker lodgings I’ve been staying in for the last two weeks. The staff is kind and attentive, and the surroundings with their well-chosen furnishings are a delight to the eye. Last night I had some trouble sleeping, I think because of the silence. I haven’t been in an atmosphere so quiet since I arrived in India.
The western-style breakfast in the dining room, among some Australians and a Spanish couple was tasty: two fried eggs, toast, juice and tea.
Afterwards, I walked five minutes to the bus station to inquire about buses to Pushkar and Udaipur. It was difficult. I got sent to an inquiry window staffed by guys who didn’t speak enough English.
On the subject of English in India, I’ve found that, although it is the language of the professions, the man on the street speaks it badly if at all. The English of the average tourist guide is fluent, yet so grammatically and syntactically different that those things, combined with unusual stress patterns and odd diction, becomes tiring to listen to. After a day out sightseeing, I’m happy to escape to my room or to another place where I can be alone. On the other hand, it has been a pleasure to chat with educated Indians and those of other nationalities that I’ve been meeting along the route.
The old city in Jaipur is unusual in that the great warrior/astronomer, Maharaja Jai Singh who founded and planned it, starting in 1727 did so according to the principles contained in an ancient Hindu architectural treatise. He laid out a grid with nine sections. At the intersections, the idea was to build architecturally interesting buildings. It was done so long ago, yet the results are still visible. The old city is large, six kilometers on a side. Also the facades of most of the buildings are colored a reddish orange, giving them uniformity as well as the name, “The Pink City.”
Much of the old city is a collection of grand bazaars, each specializing in a different craft. These are some of the most interesting I’ve ever seen. I wish I could take home a trunk full of the textiles I saw today; Kay would love them. This city is also famous for its jewelry.
In the center of Old Jaipur is the City Palace, the traditional home of the Maharajas and the seat of government of Jaipur State.
Entering the City Palace through a tall gate, the first thing I encountered is a large square building known as the Mubarak Mahal, the Welcome Palace. Its intricately carved marble screens, cusped arches, hanging balconies, turrets, etc. – all beautifully executed – make it a very striking piece of architecture. It stands alone in the middle of a large open courtyard and can be looked at from all four sides.
On the ground floor there is a museum of Rajasthan textiles, featuring lovely examples of cotton and silk. Tie dying is specialty of this part of India. Some of the examples on display belonged to the rulers and their wives and are really splendid. One curiosity is an immense atamsukh or robe belonging to a giant nearly seven tall and weighing about 500 pounds. It’s a great museum. I found my way around the City Palace with the help of a very good audio guide.
Another small high-quality museum in the City Palace is the Arms Gallery. Usually I give weapon collections short shrift, but this one is exceptional, both for variety and interest of the collection and for the display. The Jaipur Maharajas collected these weapons over the centuries.
The Agenda Pol is a gate way leading from the first large courtyard into another which contains the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), a pillared pavilion on a marble platform that holds two gigantic jars made of solid silver, the largest silver objects in the world according to Guinness Book of Records. One of the maharajas, Mahdo Singh II, a devout Hindu, filled these jars with water from the Ganges and carried them with him on a trip to England. Each jar holds 900 gallons.
One part of the palace has portraits of all the maharajas, a distinguished lot. More than one was a great ruler; tolerant, wise, and a patron of the arts. Together, they created an inspired culture and have left a remarkable legacy.
In another part of the City Palace the Chandra Mahal is the residence of the current maharaja and his family. It is generally off limits, although some of their luxurious rooms are available to be seen for an extra fee, an invitation that I declined.
I ate a lunch of dal and rice in the pleasant City Palace café. While I sat at my table in the outdoor patio a musician and a young male dancer both of whom were in costume entertained me.
I made two other visits in the Old City, first to the Jantar Mantar, a very curious celestial observatory consisting of some enormous instruments spread out across a walled enclosure several acres large. The city’s founder, Jai Singh, who had a great interest in astronomy, commissioned it. It’s really something very special. There are two sun dials; the gnomon of the largest of is a vertical triangle standing three storeys tall. The scale is equally large and is accurate to 2 seconds. The guide who led me around the observatory was quite knowledgeable and lost me because of my ignorance of astronomical matters. Little by little though, it dawned on me that the Maharaja’s passion for astronomy might have had to do with astrology and that the emphasis on precision had to do with creating accurate horoscopes. Nevertheless, I doubt there is anything else like this observatory in the world. And, it was built in the 18th century!
My last visit in the Old City was to the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, so called because it was built in such a way as to capture refreshing breezes even in the hottest days of summer. It’s a five-storey structure rising above a large courtyard beyond the entrance gate and with no access from the busy street in front. This is because at the end of the 18th century, a time of strict purdah or the complete covering and hiding of women, no one could look in. The Hawa Mahal was built to allow the maharaja’s wives and concubines to luxuriate in secluded comfort yet be able, through some ingeniously carved screens, to look on the outside world without being seen. Its five storeys are accessed by a winding ramp instead of a staircase, and on each level there are various rooms, terraces and balconies. The maharaja came here to relax and spend time with his women.
From the top of the Hawa Mahal I witnessed a procession consisting of a large brass band, a camel pulling a cart, a painted elephant and bunch of men carrying signs in Hindi. Everyone was in costume, and I was dying to know what this was about. It turned out to be a promotion for a TV station. This country is so strange.
In Istanbul, Kay and I enjoy watching the feral cats of which there are dozens around our neighborhood. In India, there seem to be no feral cats but plenty of stray dogs. In place of cat-watching, though, watching monkeys is even better.
I phoned Tirlok, the driver who picked me up at the train station last night, asking him to meet me at the New Gate of the old city. He drove me up into the mountains around Jaipur to a place called Tiger Fort, an abandoned palace as well as a fort. From an upper floor of the palace I could look down on greater Jaipur. I hadn’t realized how big it is, a city of probably four million. The Old City is only a small part.
Back at my hotel, I drank my daily beer at poolside while listening to music on my iPod. I wasn’t terribly hungry, so I ate a sandwich in the restaurant then retired to my room to read a bit. I also called my sister Janis to wish her a happy birthday. It was about 11 hours earlier in Chicago, and I surprised her with my call just as she was getting up.