Jaipur Japes: Part One

You know that feeling when you arrive somewhere new, and instantly know it’s your kind of place? It was this sweet sensation that washed over me as we pulled into Jaipur. The entire old city glitters with lights – the same lights that line old-fashioned dressing room mirrors. Indeed, they are putting on a show, for they illuminate the warm, pink buildings of India’s most photogenic city.

Jaipur is known as the ‘Pink City’ for a very simple reason. In 1876, Prince Albert was touring India. As time went on, he got tired of it. Jaipur’s Maharajah decided the homesick Prince needed cheering up. So, to entice the illustrious royal to visit his city, he ordered the entire place to be painted pink – a colour of hospitality and welcome here in India. Prince Albert came, saw, and loved it. It’s now written into local law that the old city should be kept pink, and the authorities even provide new builders with the correct shade of paint.

On our first night, Mohammed and I got to explore rather more of Jaipur than anticipated. Taking Manu’s recommendation for a restaurant across town, we attempted to flag down an auto rickshaw. Usually, they see tourists and stop automatically, asking if you need a ride. However, we walked, and nobody stopped. Wondering if it was because Mohammed was starting to blend in too much, I switched places with my friend and walked in the road, capitalising on my white face to hitch a lift. Lo and behold, it worked, and we were soon on our way.

Seeing that the traffic ahead was too dense even for him to weave through, our driver opted to take some dimly-lit backstreets. The lanes got narrower and narrower. Men milling around outside cigarette and paan (betel leaf breath fresheners. I had these in Pakistan) stores gave us perplexed stares. Mohammed shifted his weight, growing a little nervous, but I was oblivious to potential dangers. Except the hazards in our path, which mainly consisted of donkeys and dustbins.

The buildings parted, and we were back on the twinkling thoroughfares of Jaipur’s old city. Breathing a sigh of relief, Mohammed and I paid our clever driver, and went for dinner at Laxmi Mishthan Bandar – a vegetarian restaurant and hotel. Glimpsing the mithai counters and amazing cake stands in the foyer, my stomach started rumbling. I was thrilled to see I was the only white person in there, which so far on this trip had been a sign of good quality food.

We ordered enough food for four, keen to sample the Rajasthani specialities on offer. I could sit here and describe each dish in detail, but what’s important is how food makes you feel. And a picture says a thousand words. So here’s Mohammed, before and after.

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He’s happy, really, just full up. Which is what you want from a meal out.

Bellies full, we rolled back to our heritage hotel with a friendly rickshaw driver, who struck up a pleasant conversation with Mohammed. After an equally hearty breakfast the next day (I don’t think India is capable of light meals), we headed out bright and early to the Amber Fort. I’d assumed the name of this fortress came from a continuation of Jaipur’s chromatic theme, and although it is amber-coloured, that’s not so. It’s actually known as the Amer Fort, because it’s situated in a village called Amer. The British colonists just couldn’t get their heads round that, so added an extra B.

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There are actually two palaces in Amer. The one in the foreground is the 16th century Rajput structure, which is open to the public. The one on the hill in the left background is 1000 years old, and still privately owned by the Maharajah of Jaipur.

To reach the palace, you can walk up the 2km from the village, or you can do something much more adventurous – a bumpy Jeep ride. Overtaking people on elephants and motorcycle riders dicing with death, ten hair-raising minutes went by in an instant, and we passed under the Moon Gate to enter the Amer Fort’s first courtyard.

Dancers seemed to perform in every corner of the square, their colourful Rajasthani costumes glinting in the morning sun, bangles and anklets lightly jingling in tune. One gate was completely occupied by elephants passing in and out of it. Suddenly, music started playing. My head whipped around to see two musicians banging the dhol (drum), welcoming visitors to the site. Mohammed pointed out that they played a Punjabi rhythm than a local one, but then it is primarily for tourists, who seemed to be enjoying the vigorous shoulder-shuffling Punjabi music encourages.

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These elephants look cool, but do not support businesses that use animals in this way. They’re often overworked and brutally ‘tamed’. If you want to make an entrance, try rocking up on a bejazzled rickshaw instead. Just make sure you pay the driver handsomely!

This large courtyard was once the stomping ground of the Maharajah, who watched military parades from the comfort of his throne. Nowadays it’s used as an entry to the palace, and there’s not much to gawp at, save for a small Hindu temple dripping in silver. This can be found at the base of the Sinh Pol – the gate that marks the proper start of palace finery.

I did, however, see this bin.

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To me, this photo depicts many facets of modern India. It’s beautiful, colourful, fragrant and floral. Masala chai, as you can see from the cups, is available wherever you go. However, there’s also quite a lot of rubbish.

Moving swiftly on, the second courtyard is where the real Amer magic begins. At the centre of it all? You guessed it – it’s another Diwan-i-Aam, just like we’d seen in literally every other Indian city thus far.

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I suppose the placement of this ‘Hall of Public Audience’ makes sense, as it meant the Maharajah wouldn’t have to let the plebs into the very heart of his palace. Instead, he could comfortably keep them on the sidelines, the full luxury confined to the fort’s inner sanctum. The plebs could, however, admire the breathtaking views over the village from here.

They could also admire the stunning architecture of the Amer Fort. The gateway to the third courtyard was even more spectacular than the last, its ornate patterns climbing right up the pillars to onion-domed pavilions at the top. The Ganesh Pol truly is one of the palace’s most beautiful landmarks – and one of the most popular photo ops.

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We had to queue for 10 minutes to get this. Thankfully, we had the time – our adoptive Korean parents had got lost, and had to complete the entire palace circuit before finding us again.

Feeling our way through a narrow passage, our group emerged in yet another stunning courtyard. Only this time, it possessed the most spectacular hall I’ve ever seen. This was the Sheesh Mahal, or ‘mirror palace’. Covered floor-to-ceiling in millions of miniature mirrors, this 18th century marvel was designed to look like a “glittering jewel box in flickering candlelight”. I’d say it looks like a jewel box under any kind of light.

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Photos really don’t do this place justice. They simply don’t show just how much it shines.

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Here’s a close up. Just look at that lavish detailing and sparkly decor. This is a disco lover’s paradise.

We spent considerable time wandering through the dazzling arches, craning our necks to take in all the majesty of the place. I ran my hands down one of the walls, feeling the cold, metallic bumps glide underneath my fingers. I wondered what the Maharajahs actually used to do here – did they use it as a throne room, or was it simply a pretty place to relax?

The Amer Fort is a bit like the Vatican, in that it saves the best bit until last. Well, nearly. After the Sheesh Mahal, there’s still one more courtyard, the zenana (women’s palace), to explore. And I do mean explore – unlike other parts of the palace, it seems you’re free to wander up the steep steps and winding corridors at your leisure, and see where they may lead.

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Completed in 1599, the zenana is the oldest part of the fort. As such, it feels a bit more austere than the other sections. But look beneath the peeling plaster and dusty floors and you’ll find it’s a maze of historical value, decaying grandeur, and layer upon layer of fascinating architecture. Better still, nobody really seems to bother to look around it, so the chances are you’ll find yourself completely alone in places.

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For instance, we found this deserted balcony with a great view of the private palace!

Exiting through the gift shop and heading downhill, we drove back into Jaipur for the next palace on the hit list: the Jal Mahal. This was something I was desperate to see, for this sort of building can only be found in Rajasthan; it’s one of India’s iconic floating palaces.

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Built in 1596, this gorgeous magnolia palace appears to float on the surface of the Man Sagar lake. It was used as a hunting lodge for a local bigwig. But then, a century or so later, a drought befell the city. The citizens decided to build a dam, which inadvertently flooded the bottom 4 storeys of the pretty palace. Somehow, the water hasn’t seeped through in 400 years. You used to be able to get gondolas up to it, but you can’t anymore, as it’s closed to the public. Shame, really, as Google tells me it’s spectacular, packed with gorgeous frescoes and cool gardens. There’s talk of it turning into a restaurant, though.

Before we knew it, it was on to our third palace of the day – the City Palace, a vast complex that dominates the old heart of Jaipur. When it was completed in 1727, the Maharajah moved his seat from the Amer Fort to his new construction in the city centre. It’s still the royal seat today, presided over by the current Maharajah of Jaipur. Personally, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the man – he’s a glamorous, handsome young fellow who graces the front covers of magazines the world over. Thought I could convince him to enter into a rishta (relationship) with me, but alas, he wasn’t there.

No matter. His palace was, and we nosed around. The Chandra Mahal is the biggest and oldest building in the City Palace, coming in at a whopping seven storeys. Each storey served a different purpose – be it work, play, or ceremonial.

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That’s not even the coolest thing about the palace. What I’d really come to see was one of its courtyards, and more specifically, a beautiful doorway within said courtyard. In case you hadn’t had enough beautiful doorways here in India.

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Ta-da! It’s the famous Peacock Gate. Where 3D peacocks adorn the door. Plus some painted on peacocks for good measure. The closer you look, the more peacocks you see.

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It’s like peacock-ception up in here.

There are three more spectacular doorways in the Pritam Niwas Chowk. There’s the Lotus Gate, Rose Gate, and even a Wave Gate. Each one is dedicated to a season and a Hindu god. I thought this was pretty neat, satisfied I’d seen enough wonderful architecture to put my camera away for the day. But there’s even more awesome things in the palace that are worth a look: a museum, a chandelier-filled Hall of Private Audience, and the world’s largest silver urn.

The latter is a 19th century treasure, borne out of the fussy tastes of a snooty Maharajah. He’d heard the water in England was bad, so when he went there, he brought along this massive vat of Ganges water to drink. Regular conversation with Mohammed might lead you to think he had a point – apparently, the water in Yorkshire is vastly superior to  anywhere else. As for me, I like my water with a hearty dose of chalk and calcium, thanks very much.

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You’ll also find the above museum, packed with interesting artefacts from royal cricket memorabilia to the Maharajah’s ridiculously extravagant wedding outfits. It’s a great place to get to know this fascinating family, who still hold much cultural sway over the region today. And with that thought, we departed the day’s final palace for an afternoon of shopping for tourist tat.

I won’t bore you with our shopping list, but I managed to pick up some bangles (with peacocks on, naturally) while Barbs stocked up on jewellery and textiles. Then, we whizzed back for a siesta.

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Classic Indian road scene. There’s that shade of pink I was talking about at the beginning.

Tonight’s dinner would be an entirely different affair to yesterday’s. Hoping to improve my chai making skills and (finally) master chana masala, Mohammed and I opted to take a cookery class with a local family. I’ve been lucky enough to watch Indian and Pakistani aunties cook before, so I have a vague idea of what to do, but it usually goes one of two ways. Either everything ends up tasting of tomato, or I put too much chilli in and fall victim to a streaming nose and tearful eyes on my lunch break the next day.

Auntie started us off with masala chai, the delicious, milky tea unique to this part of the world (and diaspora families across the globe). Every family makes theirs differently, with a slightly different concoction of spices, so no one cup tastes the same. The key is to use fresh spices, add lots of sugar, and use cheapo tea to get that authentic Desi taste. Auntie boiled some ginger, cardamom and dried spices in the water for a while, added the teabags and the sugar, then finally the milk. Allow to boil, and voila.

For those who don’t have fresh spices and cheap loose leaf on hand, my usual technique is to brew some masala chai teabags (they have all the spices you need, albeit less room for creativity) in a small amount of water, add 1-2 tsp sugar per bag, and allow to boil. Add lots of milk (whole is best, but I mostly use oat milk) and keep boiling so a skin forms, then give it a few more minutes.

While we sipped our chai, cold hands heated by the glasses, we watched Auntie make pakoras for starters, followed by a Rajasthani potato curry, and some pooris (delicious deep fried bread).

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Look at Mohammed go – he can actually make a round poori.

Well, I say watched – Mohammed dutifully observed, while I got distracted by the Bollywood bops coming out of the stereo. “This is my jam!” I exclaimed, excitedly shaking Barbs’ arm. My friend was good enough to humour me and join in. I’m not sure if our moves genuinely impressed our hosts, or if they were just being polite, but hey. It was fun to teach the group some classic, floor-filling shapes. Our signature moves include frantic hand movements and a jump-step Mohammed and I like to call ‘the Asjad’, after our secretly-great-at-dancing friend.

A pile of plates coming out of the kitchen suggested that grub was up. Our hostess, in traditional auntie form, kept refilling our plates if it looked like we were running low. I don’t think she would have let us leave if we hadn’t eaten a minimum of 6 pooris, 3 heaped ladles of potato curry, and a generous dollop of raita. But that was quite alright with me.

Manu sent the group back to the hotel, while he and I took a trip to the famous Raj Mandir cinema. Its instantly recognisable frontage and glitzy interior represent all the things I like about the Indian film industry – it’s over the top, and it loves to show it. Sadly, it was closed, so I could only peek through the door into that showbizzy world, but no matter. I’d found something more interesting. A billboard outside advertised CNN’s selection of the world’s best cinemas, and the Raj Mandir only came in third.

Who could possibly have won, I hear you ask? Well, in my opinion, it was a deserving winner. It’s a cinema that’s very close to my heart. It shows good movies. It’s got laid-back vibes and cool beverages in spades. It also has fantastic views, tempting your eyes away from the cinema screen. It’s the Cine Thisio in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis – my favourite cinema in the whole world. This outdoor cinema is best visited at sunset, when the Acropolis is illuminated in a breathtaking orange. I’m smiling just writing about it, fond memories of friends and Athens’ best cupcakes rushing into my mind. That’s also what I felt as I stood in that Jaipur car park on a frigid January night.

My last rickshaw ride of the day jolted me out of my comforting nostalgia. I asked Manu how he maintains the energy to guide unruly groups round India, and keep a smiling face while he’s at it. He shrugged, and said he didn’t really know – only that he loves what he does, and wants to show visitors how fantastic his country is. With India’s reputation abroad ranging from grubby at best to dangerous at worst, that can’t be an easy task. But Manu was making a truly admirable effort, and with our group in constant awe of the things he was showing us, I’d say he did a good job.

Safely within the walls of our hotel, I bid Manu a good night and retired. Barbs and I armed ourselves with hot water bottles and prepared for our bone-chattering beds, which would only be warmed when the sun streamed through our shutters the next morning.

 

 


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