Breakfasts in Indian hotels are something else. The moment I’d grabbed a measly bowl of cornflakes and sat down with a few fellow early risers, a masala chai appeared in front of me. But unlike back home, my cereal and cuppa was only the starter – it would soon be followed by buttery parathas and bhaji, chickpeas, and fruit to finish. The morning spread also includes these uniquely Indian cakes called ‘tutti frutti’ – plain muffins with bits of vibrantly coloured dried papaya within, a green and red symphony of sponge. Eating enough for 4, and stuffing a few cakes in my teeny handbag for good measure, I passed my compliments to the chef and headed out the door.
The reason I was up so early is because I was about to go on a solo adventure to the Hawa Mahal. This gorgeous, iconic ‘Palace of the Winds’ is the face of Jaipur – its pink facade is covered in 953 latticed windows, each with onion domes of various size. Completed in 1799, it was the women’s part of the City Palace, which we’d visited the day before. Here, royal ladies lived in seclusion from the rest of the world, in a practice known as ‘purdah’. Problematic histories aside, the Hawa Mahal is a stunning building.
It’s so close to the busy road you can’t get a good picture of it, unless you take your chances in the traffic.
The Hawa Mahal wasn’t included on our itinerary, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to see it. I’d walk there if I had to. Taken aback by my stubbornness, Manu kindly arranged for an auto rickshaw driver to pick me up at 9AM sharp. Mohammed opted to stay in and take a much-needed rest – though I had accidentally locked him in the room while I went to breakfast, so it wasn’t as restful as he’d hoped.
I’m aware that India isn’t the best place for solo women. Jaipur, however, seemed quite safe – no bad vibes or dodgy-looking men. Perhaps that’s because it’s a touristy city, but I was still nervous about going it alone. I took a deep breath and stepped my ridiculous, conspicuous sparkly Doc Martens into the hazy street.
A gathering of tuktuks blocked the entrance from the hotel driveway to the main road. A familiar sensation hit me – that same uneasy feeling women get when we walk past building sites or groups of drunk men. I didn’t recognise my rickshaw driver right away, so when he called to me, I assumed he was heckling or trying to sell me something. A double take confirmed that he was actually the person I was looking for, so I made my way back to him, mortified. He understood, though. His kindly face and quiet demeanour was reassuring, so I boarded the tuktuk, and we made our way into the city.
I imagine a tuktuk ride is somewhat similar to the feeling horse riders get when they feel the breeze through their hair. Can’t vouch for the quality of the air, though. We parked up opposite the entrance, and in a death-defying stunt, I crossed that busy road. Thankfully, because it was early in the day, it was half as busy as it would otherwise have been.
The same was true of the Hawa Mahal. Instead of massive groups and people spending ages taking selfies, I could hear the birds, and the muted murmurs of family conversations from the few visitors that were there. A lady with a twig broom swept the dust out of the courtyards. It reminded me why I’m an early riser – the world is always at its best in those few quiet moments before 10AM.
Free to roam as I wished, I climbed up and down the stairs and passageways of the Hawa Mahal, seeing royal women in saris talking and laughing vigorously in my mind’s eye. Away from the formalities of monarchy and its judgemental gaze, these women would have come into their own here. Perhaps they voiced their political opinions, or maybe joked about the size of the Maharajah’s danda.
If you weren’t wowed enough by the exterior of the palace, you sure as hell would be by its interior. There’s no furniture, à la Versailles, but there is some gorgeous glasswork. At this hour, when the sun was shining through it, it created shadows as colourful as India itself.
You can’t see this from the outside, so it’s well worth paying the entry fee to admire the many different stained glass patterns in the Hawa Mahal.
Every floor had a different design, something to look forward to on every level. The higher you climb, the smaller the rooms become, but the glass remains just as beautiful. You might also notice the shutters onto the street are quite small – they were meant to be looked out of, but not looked into, so the women couldn’t be seen by the Rajasthani hoi polloi. From the quiet and empty palace, the hustle and bustle of Jaipur seemed a world away.
Naturally, women in the 19th century wouldn’t have seen tuktuks or candyfloss vendors.
As I made my way back down, a group of blokes had spotted me, and wanted to take a photo. Usually, if it’s some kids or women, I oblige. I know it’s wrong – it perpetuates notions of white supremacy, as if being pasty is something to be revered or aspired to. But it can be hard to refuse. With this lot, though, I put my foot down – it felt sinister and weird coming from them. I made a beeline for the door, but I could hear them snapping their cameras anyway as I walked out. Time to go, I think.
Dicing with death once again, I found my friendly rickshaw driver, and we sped back to the hotel to meet Manu, Mohammed and co. Both seemed a little relieved to see me back safe and sound, and Mohammed had an extra glow about him, as he’d just been on a mini shopping spree. Hopefully he had forgiven me for the trauma of being trapped indoors for quarter of an hour.
First on the day’s agenda was a stop at a local townhouse, where a wealthy Rajput family ran a historical information centre for tourists. Friendly and hospitable, our host sat us down with a cup of chai, and told us about the illustrious past of his high-caste family. “I don’t want to give you a lecture”, he said, before proceeding to give us a 2-hour lecture.
Mohammed and I both have history degrees, so we were into it.
He began by explaining the unique position the Indian Maharajahs found themselves in after Partition. How could India, a fledgling republic, justify keeping these royal families on payroll? Then again, could they risk society breaking down in those areas, without a stable leadership? Their answer was to slowly decrease the amount the state granted to the Maharajahs, generation by generation, until they received nothing at all. His family were one of the families impacted, but they appear to have made a name for themselves in hospitality and in banking, so all’s well that ends well (for them at least).
The young man serving the chai distributed maps of India alongside shortcake biscuits. I dunked my biccy in my tea (you can take the Brit out of Britain, but can’t take the Britain out of the Brit) and listened closely. My knowledge of modern India is entry-level at best, but Mohammed has studied it extensively, so theoretically this should have been right up his street. Our host proceeded to delve into the violent divisions between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs etc that India has suffered since Partition, blaming Pakistan for parts of it, yet stopping short of holding Britain to account. This mystified me. Surely, those religious divisions would have been far less pointed, had the British not systematically followed a ‘divide and conquer’ policy?
Not to our host. “The British have an innate sense of justice”, said he. Do we? Last I checked, our criminal justice system is deeply flawed, and our police are known for brutality. But perhaps, the way this historian saw it, Britain does seem to function a little better than India – at least on the surface.
Time was getting on, and my attention span getting shorter (a reflex from university days, my brain zoning out whenever professors talked for too long). I looked at my friend, whose thought process was disguised by an enigmatic expression. Being a British Asian Muslim, I suspected he wouldn’t agree with our host either, but you wouldn’t have known it from his face.
Still, it was a very interesting talk. As we shook hands with our host, I asked him about Pakistan, a country he had just been slating. “I have always wanted to see it – some of my family came across the border during Partition. Lahore, particularly; it is my dream to go there one day”. Current rules won’t let him, as there’s strictly no admission for Indians to Pakistan, and vice versa. “You know Youtube?” he asked, with an endearing innocency. “Sometimes I watch videos of the train crossing the border. It is amazing that, thanks to technology, I can see what Pakistan looks like. I’ll never see it for myself, but it almost feels like I’m there”. His eyes appeared to go misty, as if he were fondly remembering an old friend.
A pang of sadness hit me in the chest. Thanks to colonial privilege, I have been lucky enough to visit both India and Pakistan. This joy is denied to people like our host, and my dear friends across the border. Why? Because I am perceived as ‘neutral’, but Indians and Pakistanis are automatically assigned an allegiance at birth. No, it isn’t fair, but it’s a sad fact of life.
We bid goodbye to the historian for our next adventure. As if being a pedestrian in India wasn’t dangerous enough, allow me to introduce you to an even more frightening mode of transport: the cycle rickshaw.
Looks unstable, doesn’t it? Probably because it is.
Aside from being pushed a bit too close together, Mohammed and I felt very exposed. With a tuktuk, you at least have a roof over your head. Not here – it’s just you and the traffic out there. Our driver pulled out into the road, and we instantly came within a hair’s breadth of an oncoming coach. “aaaaARGGGH” would have been our last words, had our cycling wizard not taken a sharp right to avoid it.
Once you have that sort of near-death experience, the rest seems a breeze. Mohammed and I travelled under the Chandpole Gate into the heart of Jaipur.
Must be a stressful job, when you have to navigate this sort of scene on a daily basis.
The group was dying to explore Jaipur’s famous bazaars. I’m not much of a shopper, but nevertheless, I wanted to buy all the pashminas, spices and bangles I could get my hands on. This was a cultural tour, so first, we’d be learning about why markets in India are an entirely different beast to those in the West.
Things are sold in bulk here, and as fresh as they come.
However, dried spices and pulses are preferable, as they are cheaper, and keep better in the Indian weather.
Once we’d explored the street, we were let loose in a spice shop. This one was run by a Buddhist family, one of India’s religious minorities I had yet to encounter. Situated by the flower market, the aroma of golden marigolds and magenta roses appeared to do something impossible; it sliced through the pollution of Jaipur’s roundabouts. The spice shop did the same.
I browsed the store and peppered my English with Hindi words, thinking it might get me a better deal. It did not, but the shopkeeper was impressed, which I’d say is a win. His products were a bit more expensive than I’d seen in the Asian shops at home, so I left with only a small bag of curry powder and a pinch of saffron.
Speaking of food, breakfast was hours ago, and we were getting more than a little peckish. Manu had come up with a fantastic way to wave goodbye to Jaipur – a lavish lunch at a rooftop restaurant. The sun had (finally) come out, and Barbs and I were emboldened to remove our coats.
The temperature reached the lofty heights of 19 degrees Celsius. This is what we had actually expected the weather in India to be like.
The food, as to be expected, was rich and delicious. Mohammed particularly enjoyed the beetroot pakoras – deep fried battered beetroots with spices. I hate beetroot, but it was certainly an unusual appetiser. The goat curry was good, apparently, too. Included in the bargain price was a bottomless pit of naan, which is the part of any South Asian meal I always look forward to.
Plus, one of my favourite tunes – Morni Banke – was blasting out of the stereo, as it had done last night. My shoulders, which have a mind of their own when it comes to music, started to move as I reached for another portion of paneer. By this point, I’d built up a reputation for being something of a dance fiend, but I resisted the temptation to bust a move while there was food about.
Besides, something much more interesting was happening in the city beyond. We looked out over the rooftops, and noticed many children flying their kites, taking advantage of this beautifully clear and breezy day. Mohammed informed us that it’s a very prominent tradition in these parts. Besides being a fun, simple and cheap activity, it allows for interaction with one’s neighbours, by engaging them in thrilling kite battles. Manu had managed to source some last minute kites for us to have a go.
One of our number flies a kite in the wind. It’s actually much harder than it looks.
After wrestling with the kite for all of 30 seconds, I gave up, as it looked like it was going to take someone out on its speedy descent towards the ground. Barbs fared a little better, but we didn’t have long to enjoy the kite flying, as the sun was starting to fall low in the sky. We needed to get on the road to the final stop on this fascinating tour – the middle-of-nowhere Rajasthani village of Pachewar. Join me and Mohammed soon for more tasty grub, Indian hospitality, an old fortress, and a performance of my erratic dance moves.