This post is the first in a series about my week-long departure from Hubli to travel ‘The Golden Triangle,’ the preeminent tourist beat in India. It’s been overdone, so I’ll focus mostly on my personal impressions and some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. Oh, and I’ll warn you: I get distracted on some pretty esoteric tangents.
After 24 hours traveling – a night bus to Mumbai, a morning exploring Colaba, and then an afternoon flight – we arrived in Jaipur. We set up at our hostel then headed to the Pink City to do some preliminary exploring and grab dinner. After a rickshaw ride downtown, we were dropped off on a busy shopping road. We looked in some shops, and then continued on to a vegetarian restaurant for some cashew curry and chickpea dumpling curry – a rajasthani special.
We spent our first real day in Jaipur out of the city, in neighbouring Amer. We explored Amer Fort, and then walked from there up the old road to Jaigarh Fort, finishing up at a step well in the town (step wells are now a real architectural obsession of mine).
In a way, Amer is the original Jaipur. 11 kilometers away in a narrow, rocky valley, it was the seat of the Kachwaha nobility at the time of the Mughal Empire. When water and space became tight, the Raja moved his capital out onto the plain, founding Jaipur.
Amer Fort called to memory the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain. Like the Alhambra it is just as much palace as it is fort. Like the Alhambra, it has a wall that extends all the way around the surrounding city. Except Amer fort makes the Alhambra look small. Its exterior walls rise over 50 feet tall, ornately capped with domes and spires shading the tower parapets. The zigzagging road up to the main gate is built for the convoys of elephants and armies that would parade victoriously up to the palace. The walls extend many kilometers: down into the valley, up and along the opposing ridge and around the city, blocking any way in or out of the surrounding area. The modern highway enters the valley through the mouth of an imposing old gatehouse. Jaigarh fort, a hilltop fortification overlooking the main palace and a massive undertaking in its own right, rounds out the defensive real estate package. If you were trying to build the ideal place to kick back and sit out a siege in comfort, I think you’d be hard-pressed to build a better one than this.
Still, if I were to choose one of them to make my own, it would have to be the Alhambra. The Taj Mahal notwithstanding, for me the scale of Mughal architecture doesn’t quite outclass the Moors’ ornate ceiling sculpture or delicately splashing fountains. Of course, this difference in perception could result from different levels of restoration funding. Mughal architecture, heavily influenced by a combination of Ancient Greek, Persian, and Indian styles, simply paints or inlays its interior ceilings and walls. As they chip and fade they adopt a plain look, whereas their Moorish counterparts at least retain their intricate sculptural elements. Also, the Alhambra was built to be ‘heaven on earth.’ This is pretty badass, and cements it as my martial-palatial residence of choice.
But all this is more than a little nit-picky when you consider the scale of effort required to complete each of them. They’re both monumental testaments to structural engineering, large-scale design, manual labour, and our human obsession with having cool houses. Anyway, time to end this nerdy tangent (and rather pointless comparison – they’re both worth seeing in their own way). Here’s a step well for you:
Day 2 was our day to explore the Pink City, the oldest district of modern Jaipur. Its name comes from a fortunate and/or unfortunate surplus of pink paint prior to the royal visit of Prince Albert in 1876 and the Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s fortunate and/or unfortunate desire to impress. Jaipur’s pinkness is now fortunately and/or unfortunately enshrined the local legal code, as a result of the Maharajah’s wife.
Sawai Ram Singh II’s great-great-grandfather Jai Singh II planned and built the city from the ground up in 4 years, starting in 1726. Apparently an avid reader, architecture enthusiast, and overall smart ruler, he designed the city based on classic Hindu and western ideals. It’s organized on a grid layout categorized into 6 sections that surround the central palace. That overall structure exists to this day, albeit overrun with activity. The city is a complete rebuttal to the classical Hippodamian hypothesis that social and economic order follow from orderly city planning. This is easily the most in-your-face city I’ve been to so far in India. (I have not yet been to Varanasi, but I’ve been warned.)
Our first stop of the day was for a photo opp with the façade of the Hawa Mahal. Façade is the right word here. We were both feeling a bit jilted because the structure was much smaller than we anticipated. Moral of the story: don’t spend too much time on Instagram, kids. Nevertheless, we continued the tradition of deception and climbed up to to the opposing roofs with our longest lenses to get a sweet sweet compressed background in the shot.
Mission accomplished, we went to go find somewhere to chill. We found a courtyard in the buildings behind the palace where we ran into a guy from our hostel.
Hans is a German photography student who’s most recent personal project involved two weeks photographing the Bishnoi, a traditionally environmentalist people living in the Rajasthani desert. His stories were incredible, and a real testament to the cultural diversity of India.
After further research, I can’t help but again get sidetracked and share a little bit about the Bishnoi. Beginning in the 1500s, following the enlightenment of their founding teacher, the Bishnoi have lived in harmony with the local ecosystem. Their name literally means “29,” referring to the 29 core lessons their founder preached. Their centuries-old commitment to environmentalism is impressive. An example: traditionally among the Bishnoi, young married couples must settle on bare, arid land and make it arable using a variety of traditional techniques (their animal rights protection and record and history of tree-hugging is even more impressive, but takes longer to explain). [source]
After chilling and swapping stories in the courtyard, we all went to check out the inside of the Hawa Mahal palace complex. The view from the top of the palace tower alone is worth it (the rest of the palace architecture is pretty cool too.) Hungry, we left and hit up a local eatery for some Rajasthani thalis. We then parted ways with Hans and went to check out Jaipur’s handicrafts.
Jaipur has a long tradition of manufacturing, particularly leatherwork and jewelry. Before long, we stumbled on an old jewelry workshop complex. Avi, a welcoming and energetic wholesaler, gave us a short tour of his gem-cutting workshop. After, we drank chai and he showed us his wares. (Full disclosure: I bought something and continue to flip back and forth between shame at the opulence and Gollum-like reverence for its shininess. Sue me.)
That evening we went for dinner with some other hostel friends and then caught a night bus to Agra.
The bus was pretty rickety. We were the first passengers to board and settle into our sleeper berth. Soon after, workers started filling the floor with large burlap bags of grain and citrus, which was crushed as the other passengers boarded. Once the roof was similarly piled high, the bus set off. I lay next to the rattling window, the pungent smell of oranges and the low-hanging moon accompanying me across the Indian countryside.
Epilogue: Some Thoughts about Jaipur
I usually consider two days as not enough to do a historical city justice, but it was long enough for me in Jaipur. That being said, Jaipur is beautiful. The earthy-pink coloured towers and gates soar above the courtyards and streets, and the hills and lakes nearby make for a dramatic setting. But in my experience, doing even the smallest thing in Jaipur is a struggle. Bargaining, getting rides, relaxing, everything becomes a bit more taxing when every step involves yet another sales pitch. I was ready to leave Jaipur and a little bit apprehensive thinking about what it would be like in Agra and Delhi. In the end, Jaipur was the most aggressive of the three, the place where people were least understanding of ‘no.’
Pro-tip 1: If you’ve got it, bring student ID to Jaipur. It needs to have an expiry date, and a student visa is not accepted. At most monuments you save 75%.
Pro-tip 2: if I’m not interested in buying something someone’s trying to sell me, I usually just look at them seriously and make them a crazy low offer. They usually realize it’s not worth their time. Not so in Jaipur. No matter what they’ll sink their teeth into bargaining with you. On the other hand, you get a sense of the true value of artisan goods (and how much they’re marked up in the West). In one case without really trying I managed to get the price of a bedsheet-sized pashmina scarf down from a reasonable-by-western-boutique-standards $100CAD to $30CAD. If you’re not interested in buying, wave them on politely and then firmly ignore.
Note: I’ve changed some names and details because I didn’t have the chance to ask permission to write about some people on the blog.