Saturday, 4 October 2014

Jaipur - The Pink City: Part 1

Now that Delhi was done and dusted, Angela and I had an overland journey through northern India ahead of us. While we would be riding some of the country's famous long-distance trains a little later during the trip, for now we had our own private driver named Bubloo (though I found myself constantly referring to him as "bubbly") at our disposal. Over the next eight or so days, Bubloo would take us by car across the romantic province of Rajasthan, a realm of maharajas, desert palaces, colossal forts, camel trains and lost treasures. It is India's largest province, and one filled with so many historic towns and cities, and such a variety of landscapes and cultures, that it could almost be considered a country in itself.

Our first stop was Rajasthan's capital, Jaipur, which is commonly referred to as the "Pink City" due to its coral-pink buildings in the old city centre, though it has a number of other nicknames, including "City of Victory," "City of Palaces," and "the Paris of India." Designed by and for the royalty of Rajasthan, its historic sights are opulent, and its planned streets laid out in a grid that seems almost un-Indian in its orderliness. Climbing the marble ramparts of Amber Fort, admiring the astronomical artistry of Jantar Mantar, or wandering through the splendid pink courtyards of City Palace, it all feels so noble and stately that it's easy to imagine the maharajas still rule over this citadel from their illustrious thrones.

That's not to say Jaipur doesn't have a crazy side though. The traffic - that same familiar mess of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and cars that we saw in Delhi, now with added cows - creates a whirlwind of noise and chaos that never seems to leave you as you explore the streets on foot. There are so many predatory touts, crafty tuk-tuk drivers, and shopkeepers trying to swindle the unwary tourist, that we came to regard every single person that spoke to us with immediate suspicion. Every few steps that we took, a stranger would try to stop us in the street with a seemingly innocent question like "where are you from?" or a smiling, friendly piece of advice like "there's an excellent textile market down that street." This would be okay if the comments stemmed from genuine goodwill, but it seemed that every single one came with an ulterior motive, like leading us to a certain shop, or forcing us to buy something we weren't actually interested in buying. It's a pity, because there may well have been some actual well-meaning types in among the mix, but we were forced to turn them all away with a firm but polite "sorry, we don't want to talk."

Fortunately, Jaipur's inherent beauty, as well as its unique and varied sights, help atone for its deafening, scam-filled anarchy (something that seems true of India as a whole, I think). Once you get away from the filth and the noise and the secret agents of deceit, there's a very fantastical city to explore.

Our route by car from Delhi to Jaipur took about five or six hours. India is big!
Bubloo drives us out of Delhi in the early morning.
Perhaps the most defining part of India's roads are these multicoloured trucks, nearly all of which have some variation of "blow your horn" inscribed on the back, not to mention a horn that bellows a fast arpeggio of notes, as though the driver is playing demented melodies on a synthesiser attached to his steering wheel. We saw a few of these in Nepal too, but here they're everywhere.
Another common sight: cars, vans and tuk-tuks packed to double or triple their capacity with clinging passengers.
Much of the terrain surrounding Delhi is flat and featureless, making for some rather dull driving out of the capital. After a couple of hours though, hills and mountains emerged from the otherwise dusty expanse, many of them resembling the semi-arid sierras of southern Spain or Mexico.

As we approached Jaipur, the hills became crowned with impregnable forts and walls, and elephants lumbered slowly forward, rubbing shoulders with the traffic.
Crowds of people were marching in the street in celebration of the nine-day festival, Navratri, which we would see more of in the coming days.
We didn't see many cows in Delhi, but here we saw dozens of them wandering in the middle of the street, seemingly blind to the speeding cars and motorbikes. Sometimes they'd be rummaging in the half-decayed garbage that piles up by the side of the roads. The sad truth is that while cows are considered sacred here, most of them do not live in very idyllic conditions. Those that are able to produce milk are often left in the streets during the day to feed on organic waste, since this is cheaper than providing them with fields to graze on; later at night, they are rounded up and milked. Many elderly cows that are no longer able to produce milk are simply abandoned altogether. Despite such conditions, slaughtering them is still illegal in most Indian states.
After dropping our bags off at our hotel, we went straight out to explore. First we stopped off at a restaurant to enjoy a vegetarian Thali set. This was probably the tastiest thing we've eaten in India so far, almost as good as the Thali sets we had in Nepal.
Admiring the pretty pink buildings of the city centre.

Not all the buildings are pink, however. There are also a bunch of cream-coloured buildings, like this wall surrounding the city palace.
As you get deeper into the city palace, though, there are some pink courtyards that look almost like cardboard cutouts.

Posing with some men wearing pagari, the Rajasthani term for a turban. Across Rajasthan, lots of older men wear them as a symbol of honour and respect.
Looking towards the Diwan-I-Khas, the private audience hall of the maharajas that once ruled Rajasthan.

Soon we headed back out into the cow-filled streets.

Our next stop was Hawa Mahal, also known as the Wind Palace. It has beautifully ornate, latticed windows that encourage cool air to blow through the building, providing refuge for the royals from the summer heat.

We had to enter the palace from the back.
From the top, as well as a pleasant breeze there were some great views over the city. Here you can see how crowded the streets become. In the bottom left are construction works for a new metro system that will hopefully alleviate the traffic problem.
Looking west, we could see the giant sun dial of Jantar Mantar, as well as Nahargarh Fort overlooking the city from atop the cliffs.

A pretty map of India we saw outside a primary school near the Palace of Winds.
More cow-browsing.

Next we were off to Jantar Mantar to see that giant sun dial up close.
Known as the Samrat Yantra (The Supreme Instrument), it stands 27 metres tall and is one the world's largest sundials, telling the local time with an accuracy of 2 seconds.

There are several other large astronomical instruments nearby.

Once again we returned to the streets, and this time saw some colourfully-decorated elephants.

One thing we definitely wanted to do while in India was watch a Bollywood movie, so we went to the Raj Mandir cinema and booked tickets for a viewing the next evening.
Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2!

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