Travelogue ISC 5: Jaipur

20-21 November 2012

Arriving in Jaipur, we wound our way up the mountains through the ‘hotels’ that lined the streets on either side that had welcomed the traders as they arrived with their caravans of wares. The buildings are all in relatively good condition already and are planned for a restoration project that will turn them into proper tourist attractions.

Jaipur, founded by Jai Singh, is known as the Pink City because when the Prince of Wales visited in 1876 the Maharajah Ram Singh painted the entire Old City pink, which is the colour of welcome in India.

Our hotel, Mandawa Haveli, is gorgeous! We have a lovely suite with marble floors and walls, an entire lounge (which it sounds like not everyone has) and a flatscreen tv and satellite decoder on a lazy susan that swivels between the lounge and the bedroom, so you can watch from the couch, 4 poster bed or window seat in the bedroom.

We decided to eat in the hotel since our journey in hinted that there was nothing of interest in the direct neighbourhood. Turned out to be a great decision and we thoroughly enjoyed our starters of tandoori mushrooms (me) and chicken pineapple salad (Christian) and our shared main course of chicken lababdar and lamb, with garlic naans. Double victory for the hotel kitchen since we’d decided well in advance to take a night off curry and have a western dinner!

Shilpe Shastra

9 square miles within the walls, with 9 rectangular grids, length and breadth of roads are multiples of 9 and 9 gates to enter the city, emulating the 9 openings in the human body. Other reasons for the 9 are found in Hindu mythology, Vishnee the Preserver has had 9 incarnations and Durga appears in 9 different forms and so on.

We made a stop to look at the facade of a Palace where the royal ladies used to sit behind the windows and watch the royal processions. While taking pics, we were lured in by a snake charmer and I got to don turban and play the calabash pipe to get the snakes going. Creepy but cool.

We were disheartened to see the long snaking queue at the elephant rides, but it moved quite quickly and soon we were atop an elephant and climbing the hill to Man Singh’s Palace (built in 1592). Man Singh was the maharaja of the Rajastani people and a general in Mughal King Akbar’s army. The entire structure of the palace, much like the rest of Jaipur, is well preserved since the city has never seen war, having strategically aligned with the Mughals. They were generals in the Mughal army and ceded any territories won to the Mughals but brought the bounties home to fund their prosperity.

The entrance quadrangle is large with frescoes painted above all the arches and entryways into the buildings. Frescoes are painted while the plaster is wet, so lasts longer and requires more skill.

The summer palace was constructed with a primitive aircon that drew cool air from the lake on one side of the palace up 3 walls to cool, then through a khuskhus reed curtain with tiny pipes of water spraying on it to give it a light scent and cool it even further. The winter palace was lined with thick curtains that made the areas 5 degrees warmer than outside. The central area had mirrors embedded on the walls, to help the king ‘get in the mood’ when the belly-dancers performed before he was due to make heirs.

The harem had 12 apartments for the king’s 12 wives. The king had so many wives because of matrimonial alliances with neighbours to prevent fighting. The king would use a secret passage that ran behind the apartments to access them so as to prevent squabbling between the wives. Only women were allowed in this area – not even their sons could visit after a certain age. Children fathered through concubines or servants were either passed off as belonging to deceased soldiers or murdered.

Then the shopping started.

With a jewellery shop.

Not only was inner magpie on high alert, but they also greeted us with samoosas (pyramid shaped veg ones) and *cold* Cokes, so we were done for! They displayed the beautiful ruby Star of India stones that the country is famous for. The salespeople had done a good job of piquing interest by ushering us all into a darkened office and spotlighting the stones, but the chap holding the stone made the faux pas of glimmering the reflection ‘star’ toward himself so the rest of the group was quite underwhelmed. Having a solid education in such things, I picked up another stone and showed our little huddle the star and there was much ooo and aaah’ing from everyone.

Block painting fabric. The patterns are made from a series of stamps. The first lays the outline and then ensuing stamps colour in their part of the picture with a single colour. Once all the stamps are overlaid, the pattern is completely coloured in. Traditionally all the colourants are sourced from nature – green from mango leaves, red from cane, yellow from turmeric, black from gooseberries, grey from onion leaves and, least of which because of cost prohibitiveness, orange from saffron (“golden flower”).

We were also shown the process of carpet making and the millions of knots per centimetre that make up the better grade carpets. While reassuring that they’re washable and fire retardant (they went at it with a blowtorch and then just brushed it clean), the opening price of R10k for a small mat was enough to make an easy decision. But we did accept their offer of a Kingfisher, so as not to offend and headed into their shop where their hospitality was rewarded with Christian buying half a dozen silk ties.

Pooped from shopping, we all welcomed lunch, which doubled as a trip to the Turban Museum. We had a delicious Mutton Shahi Korma (I was delighted that their korma doesn’t have nuts as normally I can’t have it because of the cashews), paneer stuffed tandoori potatoes and a garlic and an onion naan.

Jai Singh was a great astrologer and mathematician, so established an awesome open-air observatory at Jantar Mantar, with a great big sundial (the Vrihat Samrat Yantra) and smaller dials that measure time with accuracy up to 2 seconds, astrological charts and monsoon forecasting. We had a lovely wander round, finished off with a visit to the Art hall, where we were demonstrated the art of miniature painting. This is a painstaking technique that requires the artist to use a very thin brush (sometimes a single squirrel hair!) in order to create the finest of outlines and smoothest smear of colours. The paintings can be quite elaborate, painted on gold leaf with embedded jewels.

The artists included craftsmen of wooden items, inlaying trinket boxes by hand with brass wire to make intricate patterns or crushing semi-precious gems to adhere the dust onto glass that turned over reveals a beautiful pastel artwork, which is inlaid into the top of a wooden box. We bought a few items, but held back as the plan for the remainder of the afternoon and evening was a visit to the markets.

This turned out to be a chaotic affair. We were dumped rather unceremoniously roadside (the bus wasn’t allowed to formally pull over for fear of fines) and had to make our way back to the shops and market. This wasn’t what we expected at all. Rows of shops the size of a single garage lining either side of the road, with owners hovering in the doorway luring people to come buy their merchandise. The problem was that their wares weren’t what we wanted to buy. They were all home goods and rolls of textiles, hardware items and PEP style clothing stores.

After being given poor advice by seeming Samaritans, who really just wanted to take us to their shop no matter how ill-fitting the category, we (us and the Aussies) decided to suck it up and high-tail back to the fist bus stop we’d made in the morning (where I’d charmed snakes). Fortunately, it was quicker to get there on foot than it had been in the bus – but that’s not to say it was a pleasant walk!

Nonetheless, we found it… And with it an entire road of stalls with the tourist stuff (tees, crafts, parasols, sarees and tunics etc) that we’d all been looking for. We spent a few hours looking at everyone’s stuff and walked away with surprisingly little. Really just tees for the kids, a smattering of gifts, one or two odds and sods for us and (my coup de gras) a lovely leather laptop bag for me.

Getting home was another story. We (by now just Christian and me) walked and walked. We hadn’t realised how far we’d wandered, after the high-tailing which had only begun outside the Old City, within which we were staying. It wasn’t the distance that was the problem, but the darkness from the power failure, hawker-obscured pavements, maverick bikers, garbage everywhere, incessant hooting, puddles and filth. Still, we got back to the hotel quicker than if we’d caught any mode of transport – and we were very grateful to be back in the clean sanctum that was our home for the night.

We’d decided to eat in, and to eat ‘international’. Christian ordered a garlic chicken and noodles dish and I ordered a spag bol, then we also ordered ‘exotic veg au gratin’ to share, mostly because we were curious to see how exotic the veg actually was.

As it turns out, the spag bol was the most exotic! It was a stewy gravy with lumps of mutton (or goat?) served moat-like around a mountain of spaghetti. Not in the slightest bit tomatoey, garlicky, thick and saucy. I suppose we should have predicted that. The exotic veg turned out to be cauliflower, carrots, peas and green beans, which wasn’t really exotic (to us), but was delicious in the creamy cheese sauce with crunchy baked breadcrumbs on top.

Fed and watered, we hit the sack so we’d be rested for the next day’s trek.