Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Travel to Jaipur: The Pink City of Rajasthan

Rajasthan is a kind of space-time door where you can dream of being part of a world of boundless wealth away from the daily chaos and near to different and fascinating traditions. Indeed, in this there is much truth and still will happen, for example, to see the camels get tired walking in the sun leaving footprints on the hot sand or storytellers moving from village to village to tell the ancient local glories. If you do not want to miss this atmosphere, you should begin your tour from Jaipur, the pink city.

When you think about Jaipur, you immediately think about those ancient monuments, colourful men in turban, ladies in sari with the delicate scent of jasmine, but the essence of Jaipur is the life trapped between the future and the past, between the modernity and the traditional printing of fabrics made with hand-carved matrices.

Jaipur has a peculiarity that distinguishes it from all other cities, which is known, in fact, for its colored sandstone buildings. Jaipur was founded in 1668 by the astronomer king Maharaja Jai Singh II and was built according to the rules of the Shilpa Shastra, the ancient Hindu treatise related to architecture and sculpture.

I know that in a travel blog we write about what to see, where to stay and eat, but what I was impressed by Jaipur is its essence, which is not as brutal and grandiose as that of Mumbai, or not too delicate and rural as that of Cochin. There are hundreds of places to see, of course in Jaipur from the museums, the Amer fort, Jaigarh Fort, Albert Hall, Nahargarh fort, Hawamahal, Jantar Mantar and the Jal Mahal, just outside the city. Jaipur is also famous for its beautiful temples such as Govind Devji and Moti Doongari.

We arrive in Jaipur after 3 hours of travel in a Jet Airways flight.

We were welcomed by the countless monkeys, who take dip in the water ponds as do humans. Jaipur is a fascinating city, hectic in the Indian sense of the term and the perfect starting point for a trip to Rajasthan. The city is characterized by organized roads and lanes, which is rather unusual for the Indian urbanism of the period.

Jaipur is the capital that is a true paradise for the eyes where you can admire some of the most extraordinary examples of Rajasthani architecture, starting with the symbol of the city, the Hawa Mahal, a richly decorated palace complex with 953 small windows built in 1799 by Maharaja Pratap Singh Sawap.

A short distance from Hawa Mahal is the City Palace, whose genesis lasted about four centuries. It was founded by Sawai Jai Singh II. Around it is surrounded by walls and on them open seven gates, with beautiful cobbled streets around. Despite its wants to evolve and point to the future, it always remains tied to its historically important past and legends of the ancient Rajputs. The Jagarth fort, boasts of the largest cannon in the world.

Another masterpiece and a must visit is the Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in 1728 by Jai Singh, which is a real marvel of science. In India, the astronomy is a cult that has been perfected by the use of science, and right here we get to see measuring instruments used for the study of the stars, when science was still long away.

The impressive thing about this great place is that each instrument is built of stone and as large as a room, from graduated scales, zodiac symbols, sundials, with all that is here has pinpoint accuracy, while living in the sun, the heat and the torrential rain. I'm not passionate about study of science, but this place made me understand many things.

Here even the newspapers are studded with ads of astrologers and magicians, but this place takes you back to the origin, where you can almost see the same stars of the man who invented the sundial.

Just ten kilometers from Jaipur is the legendary Amber Fort, an authentic rajasthani architectural masterpiece. The expansive Fort Amber is a typical example of what brave Rajputs were, engaged, adventurous, temperamental and self-indulgent. Amber Fort was built in 1592 by Man Singh, who conceived it as an impregnable walled citadel that would also serve as a residence for the Royal Family for nearly a century and a half. What today is considered Amber Fort is mainly the Palace located in the interior of which now is called Jaigarh Fort. In their day both places were only one although at the moment they are considered independent entities.

The designs dictated by the Maharajas from the late 16th to early 18th centuries remained in Amber until Sawai Jai Singh II, the astronomer, decided to take his court to the new city, Jaipur. Gone but not forgotten, the Palatial Complex was molded under the principles of the Mughal architecture of the time and adorned with the delicacy of those who projected works such as the Taj Mahal of Agra or the Tomb of Humayun in Delhi.

After leaving the city and passing the Jal Mahal we only require 10 minutes to stop the tuk-tuk and have the first sight of the imposing Amber Fort-Palace on a rocky hill. The colossal panorama of the Fortress sheltered by long walls is especially dazzling. Its slenderness and power attract reminiscences of that exotic and magical India of which so much is written in books of adventures.

But Amber not only attracts travelers because of its delicate charm but also because it is possible to enter the main door in a spectacular way, on the back of an elephant. Riding on an elephant to climb the fort has become a classic that is capable of making one of the best moments of the trip. Mine seemed to want to go faster than the others.

Suddenly when it was no longer possible to climb further we made our triumphal entrance to the Palace through a huge arched gate that led to a large courtyard (Jaleb Chowk) where you could see the elephants park their eventual loads. Just before the end of the march appeared a boy who after having a few words with the Mahut, ended up capturing my photos, at the expense of a few rupees. They are the problems of traveling alone, that you have to manage as it is to leave in the photo. It does not go up in elephant every day so for once it is done, it is normal that you want to immortalize the moment.

In the courtyard, there were enough foreign and Indian tourists. The place where I was at that time is actually the Palace where the Kachhawaha Dynasty resided until 1727. A visit to the Palace, without haste but without pause, can take about two hours. Besides the good thing that Amber has is that the visit is not guided and you can get your way through labyrinthine corridors that end in vaulted rooms with special details, either through handmade windows, frescoes in the domes or who knows what decorative elements. Let's say it's a more entertaining visit than usual.

From Jaleb Chowk, the main courtyard, I climbed a staircase to a fairly ornate silver door that serves as a gateway to the Shiva Deli Temple, where silver lions guard a stone Goddess Kali, who was particularly invoked during the reigning clan of the Kachhawaha. From there is the succession of Diwan-i-Aam columns, where the Public Hearings were received by the Maharajah.

No less interesting is the nearby Sattais Katcheri, where 27 pillars gave shadows to the scribes who wrote down income. And then I faced the most spectacular Gate of the palace complex, the Ganesh Pol, that communicates different dependencies through a system of corridors, something very present in the whole of the Amber Fort.

If you cross depending on the directions you take, you will appear in one place or another, but if you do not ascend higher it is normal to pass to a third courtyard, you can access a beautiful garden or Charbagh, based on the Mughal style of gardens, whose center is landscaped (Aram Bagh).

On the left is the Diwan-i-Khas, the Private Audience Hall, Sukh Niwas, Jai Mandir and Jas Mandir. Diwan-i-Khas shows us cases of a rich amalgam of Rajput and Mughal architecture. Here you can appreciate the delicate work of the alabaster joining with marble and glass. The main attractions of these rooms are the miniature murals made of colored crystals representing Radha and Krishna.

With this meticulousness, it was intended to play with the light, as in another of the most outstanding stays, the Sheesh Mahal, which takes advantage of the incrustation of small mirrors so that a single candle would light up the whole room.

From there I did lose myself in the labyrinthine corridors that led me to tiny rooms overlooking a dying Maota Lake through convoluted marble latticework, or to other less decorous rooms where courtiers and courtesans evacuated what was swallowed up in succulent banquets. I discovered a hole where water probably rose to the upper rooms where tiny bats lived.

Climbing upstairs my exploring soul took me to the zenana, which is as it is called the part of the Palace intended for women. The rooms were very small. Many of them were not in a not too good state but the frescoes in their walls and roofs were still appreciable. The zenana appears through arcaded corridors to a fourth patio that owns a beautiful pavilion of twelve columns which is known as Baradari.

From the Zenana, there are magisterial panoramas both to this patio and to the exteriors of Amber. There is even a rocky road that connects Jaigarh, with a watchman in his watchtower. I looked for the exit following the indications of the directions and I went to an area of stalls and craft shops. Amer Fort is not at all the best place to get souvenirs.

The entrance to Shila Mata Temple is through Singh Pol. The temple is dedicated to Kali, the goddess of victory and houses a black marble idol of the goddess that was brought here from Jessore by Raja Man Sigh in the year 1604.

Here in addition we can see nine images of the goddess Durga (strength) and ten forms of the goddess Saraswati (knowledge) that are carved in the silver doors of the temple. The "mandap" of this temple is built of white marble, which contrasts with the colors of the idols.

On the way to Jaleb Chowk, I saw my first snake charmers, who, to the rhythm of hypnotizing flute sounds, took these poisonous reptiles out of the basket. These men, who do not work for the sake of art and the dance of the Cobra, claimed a few rupees from the tourists who wished to be photographed with them.

We noticed that there was a woman running up the stairs and kissing each step. Another older woman was behind her touching her heels every few seconds. I had no idea what that matter was, but it seemed like a promise to someone or an act of religious devotion. The guide of a group of tourists commented that it was very likely that she was one of the courtesans of the Maharaja of Jaipur, but I am afraid it was a story to draw the attention of the people who went with him. Although who knows.

At the door we saw a number of gray and white languor monkeys, with the long tails who rushed up to the trees. It was to see a stick up in his hands and come out in terror in a safe place.

Everywhere, they are scattered fragments and bits of Amber's rich past. Among the many temples near the Old Palace is the beautiful Jagatsiromani Temple, dedicated to Krishna. The temple is inspired by Shikhara and was built by Man Singh in memory of his son Jagat Singh. It has some sculptures and paintings and the famous black stone Krishna which is said to have been worshiped by the poetess Meera Bai of Chittor. It is also famous for its carved marble entrance door guarded by stone elephants.

Across the road is the Jain Temple of Sanwalji. Nearby is the ancient Narsinghji Temple with its marble jhoola, Ambikeshwara Temple and Lakshmi Narayanji Temple. The latter has a Shiva Lingam installed by Raja Kakil, the first Kachhawaha, who ruled from Amber. It is also said that Amber takes his name from this temple.

A marvel of design is the seventeenth century adorned for Panna Mian ki Baoli. Its construction was considered as an act of great generosity and benevolence. Panna Mian is a water tank that is surrounded on three sides by interlaced steps.

It also has corner octagonal kiosks and a two-story terrace. The unique and picturesque mosque in the area is here called Jami Masjid and was built in 1569 by Mal Bihar in honor of Akbar. After all, the Mughal king would need somewhere to say his prayers if he was going to visit his Rajput friends.

We climbed back on the Rickshaw to go to Jaigarh and enjoy the best views of both Jaipur City on one side and Amber on the other from top. A narrow and sinuous road goes up to the top of the Eagle Hill or Cheel ka tila, that protects the Palace in which we had just been minutes before.

Jaigarh has a structure that could be considered eminently military. Its walls and reddish turrets are undoubtedly mega-defensive constructions whose mission was always to ensure the safeguarding of the Amber Palace on one side and the city of Jaipur on the other. That is why it does not have extreme ornamentation or represent the luxuries of the court of the Maharaja.

For that was the City Palace, the Jal Mahal floating on the lake or the Hawa Mahal hiding the concubines behind the convoluted latticework. Jaigarh has more warlike character, although it would be safe to say that it was never assaulted and much less invaded, thanks to which it is in perfect condition.

In Jaigarh there is a military object that is registered in the Guinness Book of Records. It is the largest canyon with wheels in the world, the Jaya Vana. Fused in 1726 and no less than 50 tons in weight, it was never used. Although there are stories of dubious veracity that tell that the first time it was fired, the ball traveled 35 kilometers away.

I invested in the Fort a little less than an hour, which I used to visit in addition to the canyon, some preserved residential buildings, a couple of temples and an interesting Puppet Theater. Although perhaps the most admirable are the views that reach Jaipur and Amber in equal parts.

The neighbouring hills are bordered by ancient palaces and walls and what's particularly nice about this place and make an impression is to see an ancient palace inhabited by people similar to features and clothing, to those who have lived there. From here we enjoy a spectacular view over the valley.

In between disordered walls, we notice traces of Mughal architecture with stretches in Hindu style. Sheesh Mahal, the hall of mirrors multiply a single lamp into hundreds of beautiful reflections. After exploring the fort, we take a tuk tuk back to the main city centre.

In Jaipur, there are two large and interesting cenotaphic complexes of the Kacchawaha Dynasty, one dedicated to the Maharajas and another destined to honor their wives, who were known as Maharanis. First I went to the Maharani ki Chhatri located on the road to Amber, very close to the Ramgarh junction and just two minutes from the Jal Mahal.

After climbing a few stairs and crossing the main door came a wide esplanade of dry land where the beautiful marble cenotaphs emerged, to which the sunlight provided a changing color every minute. In the center what looks like a small rectangular tomb is actually the exact place where the remains of the person in question were cremated centuries ago. Depending on the importance of the character the motifs of the columns could be sculpted in greater or lesser detail.

The ensemble of cenotaphs was an overwhelming beauty radiated by the light of marble which, no doubt may be more noticeable at dusk, and is away from the mundane noise a few meters beyond. I was the only person who was walking in that place at that moment. But if the Cenotaphs of the Maharanis seemed really splendid, those of the Maharajas were sublime. Wrapped in the surrounding hills, they are more elaborate and in a better state.

The marble of the cenotaphs takes possession of the rays of the Sun to honor even more the rajput kings that left their bodies to continue in an inevitable trip of the soul. Amongst all the tombs the one of Jai Singh II stands out, whose memory rests on 20 white pillars profusely decorated with motifs that could be read by the most illiterate. In this royal cemetery, purity gives us a confrontation between virtuosity and the harmony of the elements.

If the mission of a cenotaph is to honor the deceased, it is surpassed here by elevating it to the altars of art and perfection.

We left to eat at a restaurant with an eminently vegetarian menu. I tried the Biryani Rice. Luckily I told the waiter not to go overboard with the spices.

We prepare for the last but not least expected excursion of the day, the area of Galtaji, where is located the fabulous and striking Temple of the Monkeys. The first time I learned of this place was thanks to a small reference that appeared in the Rajasthan travel guide under a prominent epigraph of Galtaji. It spoke of the existence of a Temple dedicated to the Sun God and is also known as Monkey Temple.

With such attractive words I began to investigate a little in the travel forums as well as in numerous web pages, where the location of the place and the temple was not clearly defined. And there are many temples and sanctuaries in Galtaji, but one of the monkeys is only one, dedicated to the Surya and the Hanuman, represented with monkey face.

To the east of the red city, we leave for Surajpol. We took a road that passed by the market. It was not long afterwards that we abandoned the traffic and started up a zigzag road that went into a dry, stony hill. Halfway down we stopped for a couple of minutes to throw the first bananas to some monkeys playing there. All they did was to take them and flee with their prize to safety.

The Sun Temple is a complex composed of several buildings that was much larger than I imagined. Practically all of its walls, which stand out from several terraces, were decorated with paintings alternating vegetable motifs with other figures from the Indian mythology and religion.

But it was a few meters ahead and in a somewhat higher position where I found the most interesting part of the Temple. The first sacred pond has a beautiful facade caught between scratches at the bottom. In that Kund, I was able to enjoy the presence of several monkeys that did not stop a second of playing. The acrobatics and feigned fights made me have a great time.

Just observing the unspeakable spectacle provided by these brown haired monkeys (here I did not see any long-tailed Langur) is reason enough to go there. In addition they have lost the fear of human presence. The Monkey Temple brought to mind scenes from the Jungle Book and the confirmation that a site that seems so unreal can exist and be open to anyone who wants to go there. There is a sacred corner where the primates are treated like Gods, as true descendants of the Great Hanuman, one of the preferred deities of India.

For lovers of shopping, Jaipur is a true paradise, with numerous picturesque bazaars where they sell traditional crafts of Rajasthan. Gradually we take a tour down the old city to Chandpole Bazar and Johri Bazaar through the majestic doors where hide a thousand wonders from spices, textiles, trinkets and the monkeys.

The contrast gives the greatest effect in the difference between the colour of the buildings and those of the clothes of women, which are richly coloured fabrics of high quality. Here, if you love shopping you will certainly not return empty-handed, because the Indian handicraft products are sold at very affordable prices. Everything turns this city into a fairy tale, which is so Indian and so different from the noisy and hectic India we are used to.

From the beginning Jaipur has been an important political and cultural centre, with a fame that still persists from the dreamy fixtures, the luxurious life of the Maharajas and princely kingdoms bordering the Thar desert that tell the truth, of that stretch of India that takes your mind back to a kind of stereotype, which we repeatedly see through television programs. Jaipur is the perfect starting point to discover closely the timeless beauty of Rajasthan.