October 29, 2011

Enchanting Jaipur


The anticipation of visiting the fabled pink city of palaces and exotic bazaars was overtaken by the child-like excitement of travelling in a train for the first time in three decades. On a warm April morning, I was waiting at Delhi Railway Station to board the Shatabdi Express. As the train slid aside the platform, passengers promptly shuffled on board; five minutes later it was speeding out of Delhi. The pleasant initial impression at the railway station was soon blighted by the sight of a vast garbage dump that ran for miles and miles on both sides of the track. There was no consternation as pigs and dogs rummaged about while trains whistled past. Mercifully, the rustic charm of the countryside gradually started to transform the scene that seemed so familiar; one could well be travelling somewhere in our own Sindh or Punjab. For me, the train ride was especially thrilling, as I thought there was no better mode of travel to study the land and people of India.

Most of the passengers seemed to be well-heeled as the Shatabdi tickets are a bit dear. The money was well-spent, however, as everything was good about the train: the compartments were clean, seating was comfortable, newspapers and magazines were plenty, the food was a delight for a vegetarian like me and, not the least, the hostesses were most courteous and smart. I must also add that the train driver was an absolute stickler for punctuality, an attribute little cared for in our part of the world.

Four hours later, I was at Jaipur. As I got off, two trains stopped by in quick succession, with as many passengers on the roof tops as were inside the compartments. “Such a sight is common on weekends due to rush,” explained a polite taxi driver who drove me from the station to the Narain Niwas Palace where I had a reservation. The high sounding palace is actually a ‘heritage’ hotel now, as most of the former rulers of India’s Princely States have converted their palaces into attractive tourist dwellings. These earn them sizeable revenues which help keep up their princely airs, while the government gets a good return from the thriving tourist trade.

After a quick snack at a nearby Subway joint, I took a taxi that dropped me at a place called Bara Chaupar (Big Square) on the eastern end of the pink city. I may add that the pink colour of the buildings has an amusing history behind it. In preparation for the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1853, the Maharaja decided to impress his colonial benefactors and whimsically decided to paint all buildings of the city pink. (That should be known as ‘going pink with kindness!’) Nine blocks of buildings, including the City Palace and the Jantar Mantar Observatory, constitute the original city that was started by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1727, and completed six years later. The well laid out city with wide streets is said to be the first in the sub-continent based on a proper grid plan, after a break of well over four thousand years since Harappa and Moenjodaro saw their glory days.

All kinds of wares are sold in the bazaars, including textiles, jewellery, flowers, local handicrafts, etc. Curiously, I saw several female cobblers doing their work by the road side. Sadhus and yogis were a common sight on the streets. The imposing Jamia Masjid near Bara Chaupar is a triple-storey structure with fifteen arched entrances. A sizeable Muslim population of the city lives in harmony with the rest, mostly Hindus. The main thoroughfare of the city is named after one of the most accomplished Prime Ministers (Diwan) of Jaipur State, Sir Mirza Ismail.

On the other side of Bara Chaupar is the famous fantasy structure known as Hawa Mahal (Palace of Breeze) built in 1799 as an extension of the Maharaja’s City Palace. According to one tradition, it was designed to let the royal ladies witness the market scene through the small windows and filigree screens, while remaining in purdah. The fa├žade is supposed to represent the crown of the Hindu god Krishna, to whom the builder of this palace, Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, was intensely devoted.

As one walks down the Tripolia Bazaar (named after a triple-arched gateway to the palace compound), a prominent Islamic-style minaret catches one’s eye, but it is a surprise to find that there is no corresponding mosque. It is actually Ishwar Tower, built as a victory memorial by one of the maharajas after defeating his step brother. The association of Kachwaha Rajput rulers of Jaipur (and previously Amber) with the Mughals is well known and, one sees this most vividly in architecture, where Islamic elements are clearly evident. Interestingly, the title of ‘Sawai’ was given by Emperor Aurangzeb to his unusual Hindu ally, Jai Singh II, for being extraordinary or ‘more than one’ against the Marathas, sawa (one-and-a-quarter) being used as a metaphor. The Maharaja’s heirs seem to have taken the title too literally, for they fly two Indian flags atop the City Palace, a full-sized one and a smaller, quarter the size of the bigger one. Old habits die hard, they say!

After a busy day, I retired to the hotel for a brief rest. The evening fare at the hotel consisted of an open air dinner in a lovely mango garden, with a Rajasthani folk dance and music troupe in attendance. Next day, I started my tour with a visit to the City Palace, which is as old as the city of Jaipur itself. A portion of the palace, the Chandra Mahal, is occupied by the heirs of the last Maharaja, while the rest is open to public. I was welcomed to the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) by two liveried guards with lances who were keen to help me with the camera. They suggested pictures with them as, “you will look like a Maharaja,” they uttered in unison. Of course they earned a good tip for the smooth talk. Located inside the Diwan are two silver urns, said to be the world’s biggest silver vessels, each weighing 750 lbs. When a former Maharaja visited England for King Edward’s coronation in 1901, these urns were shipped along, so that the Maharaja could drink ‘pure’ water from Ganga River and not be polluted by the English Thames. Ganga Mineral Water, anyone?

Paucity of time demanded that I choose the Sileh Khana (armoury) over Mubarak Mahal where a boring display of textiles and crafts was underway. Some of the exotic items at the Sileh Khana included a dagger with two pistols on the sides, a disembowelling device whose many blades open up like an umbrella on penetration, daggers bejewelled with rubies and emeralds and, dual-purpose walking sticks that could shoot bullets. I came out awed by the opulence as well as gut-churning tastes of the Rajput royalty.

A many-faceted Maharaja Jai Singh II had an interest in astronomy and mathematics as well, which led him to an observatory construction spree in five major cities. The one at Jaipur known as Jantar Mantar is a fully functional one, and has several structures including a huge sundial and devices for calculating the positions of heavenly bodies, as well as exact times of eclipses. It was amazing to see scores of children checking the time on the sundial, while many others were seen trying their skills at various other devices. I thought we needed an observatory in every district that could at least sort out our perennial moon sighting problem!

After a short trip to the magnificent Amber Fort, I collected my night kit and checked out of the hotel. As the clerk handed me the bill, the manager soothingly came around to congratulate me for having lived like a Maharajah for a day! A late afternoon ride on the Shatabdi was uneventful except for some lively interaction with a fellow passenger. When I had declined a meat patty served over tea, he was quite pleased that I was a strict adherent of ‘the’ faith and hadn’t succumbed to modern ways. Then we discussed local politics, Delhi’s civic problems, world politics and just about everything under the sun. When he asked me what my profession was, I told him that I had been flying the fast stuff. “Oh, so you can take care of the neighbours!” To this one, I emphatically replied that I could. Despite conversing for hours I had managed not to give away my identity, but after his swipe, I was itching to let him know where I belonged. As we got off at Delhi Railway Station, he asked my address. When I told him I was from the neighbouring country, he nearly tripped off. He held his head in his hands and said it was amazing that in nearly four hours of conversation, not once did he think that I was an outsider. He was a businessman from Jaipur and invited me to visit again; he assured me that what he said earlier didn’t have much meaning to it. I thought I could do one better and warmly invited him to Lahore, “so I could take care of the neighbours!” We had a hearty laugh followed by effusive goodbyes, which brought a befitting end to a wonderful weekend at Jaipur.

© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 30 October 2011, under the title, 'Going Pink.'

2 comments:

  1. You had choosen a wrong profession.You would have been an excellent history or english or enthropology professor.Your treatment of words and language is delicate and poetic.The deadly attributes of a fighter is completely missing from your writings.You create warmth through your writing.Beleive me you would have been a very very popular professor with the students.
    Great writing.
    Pradip Kumar Guha Thakurta,
    Your neighbour across the boarder

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  2. Next time you visit India, make it a poiont to visit Bijapur(Karnataka). I am sure you will be mesmerised to see GOL GUMBAZ built by Mohammed Adil Shah.
    Follow the link for more details,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gol_Gumbaz

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