I am so hungry when I arrive at Jaipur that I find an easy excuse to shake off touts as I get off the bus. No, I don’t need a room or want to visit the City Palace. I just need to eat my lunch.
‘I’ll take you to a nice hotel,’ one rickshaw fellow tells me hopefully.
‘The restaurant is just across the road,’ I point to Hotel Shiva’s Royal Thaliwala. The thali meal costs Rs. 50 and the place is clean. The touts are easily dismissed. I wait for my lunch while I chat with my sister on the phone. At the next table a group of ten Indian women have just finished their lunch. They appear to be tourists. Everyone of them is overweight.
I enjoy lunch but it is too rich for my taste. The tandoori rotis are heavily buttered. The gravies are thick and dripping with desi ghee and paneer. I like simpler meals. After lunch I head out in search of a room. I had spotted some guest houses earlier from the bus. I find a really cheap and dreadful room for only Rs. 100. Sometimes I can’t explain to myself why I stay in these places. The mattress and sheets are so bad that I can’t imagine using them. I bundle them up into a heap on the floor. The bare cot is much better. I freshen up and head out to visit the sights of Jaipur.
Jaipur is quite a modern city. It has wide roads, neat footpaths, gardens, shopping malls and posh cinema halls. I am more interested in the old town, the famous Pink City. Buses are convenient means to get to Pink City from the main bus stand. By chance I arrive at Hawa Mahal. I find that entry is closed for the day. I’ll have to come back tomorrow. But I can look at the palace on the outside. In fact, the palace is famous of its facade than for anything else. Like the conventional view of Taj Mahal, the facade of Hawa Mahal defines it. Built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, it has become the icon of Jaipur.
The facade is composed of purely oriel windows or jharokhas. Wide jharokhas are balanced with narrow ones between them. Little wooden windows open within the arches of these jharokhas. They are set within jali screens in brick and lime plaster. These windows are painted in dark green while the facade itself is pink with highlights in white. This colour scheme is in conformance with the rest of the Pink City. The jharokhas have sweeping cornices. The roofs of these jharokhas are topped with finials. They are either a round dome or of the bangla type.
Hawa Mahal is in five levels. The lower levels are a continuation of the enclosing wall and its corridored parapet. Higher levels taper to give this palace its characteristic look. It is said to resemble the crown of Lord Krishna. There is actually a danger in looking at a familiar structure. Because you have seen it so often in pictures you tend to ignore it. You are standing in front of it but you are not actually looking. This is quite apparent in many tourists who come, take a picture and move on. They look at the facade for not even a minute. You really need to make an extra effort to really look at a familiar building. When the details are studied and the scheme of the architect is understood, it becomes possible to admire it fully. It may appear to be a mundane approach but it works.
I leave Hawa Mahal and take to the streets of Jaipur. I wander around a good deal until I arrive at some public garden. Locals and tourists are relaxing in the park. Men are playing cards or chess. A woman gardener disturbs their play by turning on the water hose. They are forced to seek out another corner of the lawn. There are couple of temples within the park. The overall design appears to have been inspired by the char bagh concept of the Mughals, indeed of Babur’s original Ram Bagh at Agra. A large pool is surrounded by walkways. It drains through an arcaded pavilion by gentle cascades into the lower garden. This lower garden is divided into four quarters. The water channels are dry but the lawns are green and neatly maintained. Interestingly, the lawns are actually at a level higher than the dividing water channels and walkways, about 2 feet higher. A 4 feet high parapet wall separates the two.
I return to my shitty room and after a good night’s sleep untroubled by either mosquitoes or heat, I come back the next morning to Hawa Mahal. I look at the east-facing facade once more, this time brightly lit. The interiors are wonderful in their own right. Decorative work is very plain and hardly gives these interiors the character of a palace. On the other hand, I am enchanted by the different types of arches, pavilions, roofs, corbels and capitals. There is a quadrangle with a pool in the middle. The facade seen outside is on the inside only a thin space with jali screens and tiny windows opening out to the street. In the days of the purdah, women of the royal household used to view the scenes outside from these little openings. Needless to say, the space is well-ventilated, giving it its popular name.
From the terraces above, excellent views of Jaipur including the City Palace and Jantar Mantar are to be had with the farther hills making the beauty of Jaipur. It is these hills that give Jaipur its romanticism. A couple of these hills are capped with brown walls, crenellations, higher forts and palaces. The city, though not small in size, sits compactly within the ring of these hills.
Much of the city itself is beautifully organized. Rows of shops are neatly built and uniformly painted in pink. The name of each shop is labelled in blank paint. Here there are no messy signboards hanging from eaves or terraces clamouring for attention. A variety of essential items are sold in addition to dresses and handicrafts meant for tourists. The pink facade and their uniformity across many streets of this old town hold the buildings together in an aura of medieval charm. If the light is right, if the traffic is thin and if the noise is low, one many believe this is 18th century India.
I enter a turban shop. Rajasthani men wear colourful turbans. They can either be plain or with bandhini designs. Prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand. The cheapest turban cloth I find is for Rs. 75. I consider buying one but I know that the excitement will last only for a day. I will not have the patience to tie up 5 meters of cloth over my head. I am happy with my tennis cap. I am informed that turban cloths can be as long as 18 meters. Imagine that!
I see many wooden and cloth puppets being sold. ‘Where can I see a puppet show?’ I ask the vendor.
He shakes his head. He can sense that I am not going to buy a puppet. I repeat my question.
‘Doesn’t happen anymore. You may find it in some hotels,’ he replies unenthusiastically. This is the sadly reality of culture in India. India of the 21st century is losing touch with its cultural past. Classical music and dance has some following within elites circles and traditional gharanas. Folk traditions on the other hand are disappearing with every generation.
If you cross the main road near Hawa Mahal, you will find a staircase leading to a terrace above a row of shops. A narrow passage leads to Krishna Pavitra Bhojanalaya. A thali meal costs Rs. 35. The place is clean and uncrowded. Food is excellent.
‘There used to be a time when we could see a neat row of shops right up to the city gates. Today we have too much traffic and new buildings have come up,’ tells me the restaurant owner.
‘This must be an old building?’ I ask.
‘Yes, but it has undergone changes. The architect who laid the plans for Jaipur had specified the exact look of the facades, proper approach paths and entrances to each building. But over time people have not followed these rules,’ he reflects loudly. I can imagine the clean and long perspectives some 20 or 30 odd years ago. I can sense that today the simplicity and elegance of the original design is lost.
After lunch I head to the City Palace. It is approached by arched gateways beautifully painted with floral murals. Old cannons on wheels flank the inner gateway. Vendors sitting in a row are selling grains. Visitors buy these grains to feed a large flock of pigeons in the area. Feeding of pigeons is quite common across India: from Mumbai’s Gateway of India to Hyderabad’s Moti Masjid. Some do it as an act of goodwill, believing it will accrue them good karma. For others, particularly children, it is a pastime. For a few others caught up in crowded cityscapes, the pigeons are a symbol of nature, their flights representative of their free spirit and the open skies.
As I enter through the gateway, a group of school children come out. They are done with their classes for the day. Part of the palace is used as a school. This must be a school of some repute. I am sure it must difficult to get admission and only those who can afford it can manage to get one.
In a country where most monuments and museums have dirt cheap entry fees, at least for Indian nationals, a visit to the City Palace costs at least Rs. 40. It is still a reasonable amount but it will keep out poorer Indians and village folks. I believe this is really the intent, to keep out rather than welcome. Tourists wanting to take photographs have to fork out another Rs. 50 for the use of their cameras. But picture-taking is prohibited in some areas including the grand darbar hall.
The darbar hall is the one I most remember. It is a rich space with painted walls and ceiling. Some of the details are gilded in gold. The hall has is supported by pillars inspired by the Mughals. With muqarnas in the capitals and cusped borders at the bases, these are typical Shahjahani pillars that I have seen at Agra Fort. These pillars create an innter rectangular space free of columns and an outer corridor. Large portraits of the erstwhile kings of Jaipur hang on the walls in their ornate frames. Other frames contain Lord Krishna in his playful moods. One such scene depicts Krishna playing holi with Radha and their friends. For most Indians during the days of the princely states, their king was god-incarnate on earth. The arrangement of these portraits on these walls are suggestive of that sentiment. The absence of portraits of queens is perhaps also significant.
Other parts of the palace are interesting too but nothing unique that are worth recording. Typical Indian architectural elements can be seen – jharokhas, chajjas, brackets, jali screens, bulbous columns that taper towards the capital. There is an armoury with a decent collection and good arrangement. There is a gallery where I learnt about traditional dresses of the region. It is a pity that there is no access to higher levels. In this aspect, the palace does not live up to the experiences I had at Orchha or Datia.
Some foreign tourists are assembled at an open pavilion. A couple of women are getting their palms decorated with mehendi. Others are standing around listening to a folk song sung to the accompaniment of harmonium and dholak. One man is persuaded to learn a few steps of traditional Rajasthani dance. The strings of sarangi sing their lament in the afternoon air. I follow this sound and enter the cafe next door. Tourists come and go but no one stops to hear the sarangi. They just dole out ten rupee notes for the sarangi player. The mood is right but the song is too short. The sarangi waits in silence until the next tourist walks by.
It is almost the time of sunset. I leave the palace and hurry to Jantar Mantar. It is only a short walk from the palace. These enigmatic buildings are architecturally pleasing by their very nature. Slopes are supported on triangular structures with arches adding interest to the climbing walls. Some are topped with chhatris. The instruments here are looking much better than the ones at Ujjain. As for the observatory at Mathura, nothing of it remains. Since I have already seen the one at Ujjain, some of the instruments were familiar to me.
What we do in the modern age with electronics, and what other countries did with handheld instruments, Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur did the same with these unique set of buildings. The compass, the clock, the astrolobe, the sextant and many more are all in the form of buildings. They are in the form of slopes pointing to the sky and circles marked with minute scales. While the clock in Ujjain has an accuracy of 20 seconds, the one here has a two second accuracy. The simplest instrument is a compass that points to the Pole Star. It is named Dhruvdarshak Pattika. It is a plain slope at 27 degrees, the latitude of Jaipur.
A guide leads a group of tourists from one instrument to the next. He skips some of them which are under repair. He points to Vrihat Samrat Yantra and tells to his curious audience, ‘You may sometimes hear you astrologer predicting something but something else happens in your life.’
The audience nods almost in agreement.
With audience on his side the guide continues, ‘It’s all because your time of birth was not recorded properly. Look at this instrument. It has an accuracy of two seconds. Your time of birth has to be that accurate. All the Hindu calendars that we use come from observations made here.’
One has to be really careful to take these statements with a pinch of salt. Guides will say anything to people who know nothing.
There are some instruments here not present in Ujjain. Jaya Prakash Yantra is said to have been invented by the maharaja. It enables finding the position of heavenly bodies. The shadow of circular disc at the centre helps us to know where we are within the zodiac. It is a beautiful pair of two marble hemispheres representing half celestial spheres. Zodiac signs are marked in blank incisions along with concentric circles, arcs and radiating lines.
What had eluded me in Ujjain, I understood it today. The Dakshinottara Bhitti consists of a semi-circle on the western wall and a pair of intersecting arcs on the eastern wall. They are in the North-South axis along the meridian. They help in measuring the altitude of any celestial object as it crosses the meridien. Its accuracy is two minutes.
There is much I have not understood here. Astronomy is a specialized subject. Some of these buildings stand so plainly that one would not imagine their potential to read the secrets of outer space.
Like last evening, I wander the streets of Jaipur at evening twilight. I quite enjoy these walks without destination, turning at random and following the moment. I arrive at the museum building. I have no time to visit it tomorrow and I look at the building from the outside. It must have been a palace in the past. Its chhatris and sweeping chajjas remind me of the palace at Mandvi. I sit down on a bench under the gaze of Pandit Nehru in bronze. At the other end of the park, next to a dry pool with broken pipes and faucets, some boys are playing cricket. The evening traffic is choking up Jaipur’s dry air. Lights come on. I go in search of dinner.