The Kachhawaha Rajputs of Jaipur were ruling from Amber, also called Amer, before moving their capital to Jaipur in 1728. Amber is today famous for its palace that attracts hordes of tourists. It is also conveniently located close to Jaipur. A short bus ride brought me to the palace entrance. On the way I passed a fork in the road leading to Jaigarh Fort. Jaigarh Fort is famed for Jaivan which has the reputation of being the largest cannon on wheels. Unfortunately I am short of time and I am going to skip visiting Jaigarh Fort.
My friends seem to think that my journeys are carefree and the itineraries are infinitely flexible. They think I don’t have to keep to any schedule and I can take my own sweet time. Their views are only partly true. I have a schedule. I have to complete all of India within a year. Every town and village of India has much in offer. It is simply not possible to see everything. In many cases, I have to make choices, skip places and ignore lost opportunities. I would have loved to spend one more day in Agra. I wound have enjoyed a visit to Bharhut or Nagarjunakonda for their Buddhist ruins. I could have explored some Jain caves at Gwalior. I could have spent a night at the mela in Rajim. I could have made a detour to Kalinjar’s mighty fort where victorious Sher Shah Sur was killed in battle.
When I first see the fort of Amber, I am already in love with it. Its situation in the midst of scrubby hill terrain and spectacular isolation only improves its allure. I have seen nothing as romantic as this. In the foreground is a large lake accompanied by terraced gardens. The fort stands high in the hilly tops to the west of the lake. In the middle ground are the palace walls standing beautifully with its chhatris, projected towers and domes, gateways and jallied corridors. Neat switchbacks climb up these slopes to arrive at a gateway. From here it is an easy climb to the inner gateway leading to the palaces.
There is not a drop of water in the large Maota lake. Within the lake is Kesari Bagh laid out in three terraced levels. Each one is a char bagh and water channels cascade from the one level to the next before finally losing themselves into the lake. Of course, all this is imagination since the channels are all dry.
At its northern end of the lake is a garden with pavilions and kiosks topped with bangla roofs. It is a garden of pools, water channels, flower beds and lawns. Nature however is harsh and as in many other gardens I have seen elsewhere in India the pools and water channels are all dry. Maintaining such a garden in dry India is an expensive affair and inevitably many of them fall in disrepair. This garden leads to Ram Bagh, another garden set at a lower level. Both these are laid out in the manner of Mughal char baghs. The view of Ram Bagh is quite spectacular. A water channel runs into an octogonal pool and then continues further down to surround an open pillared pavilion (baradari) before continuing its journey to the garden’s other end. Hilly peaks stand in the background to set the scene.
I make my way through the switchbacks and cross a path of elephants. Elephants are used to ferry tourists to the palace entrance. The howdas are simple but the elephants are painted beautifully. A pink lotus blooms just below the forehead. Lotus buds open down the freckled trunk. Yellow paint decorates face and ears. A broad cloth covers their back and bodies. A bell hanging by the neck jingles as it makes its way up. Enormous bottoms swivel and the tail swishes with each step. The ears are in constant motion. Little eyes are looking. I wonder if they are looking at me. What is this wrinkled pachyderm thinking?
‘How much does it cost for an elephant ride?’ I enquire a photographer. There are many photographers here standing on the fort walls. They jump dangerously at times from one merlon to the next in an attempt to get tourists to smile into their lenses. They spoil the romantic ambience but it impossible to experience medieval India without a dose of everpresent tourist traps and touts.
‘You have to book below. Five-seventy rupees,’ he says. I express my surprise but really there is nothing to be surprised here. These rides are meant for foreign tourists who think of nothing in spending such outrageous amounts for a five minute ride. In any case, such a ride is little fun for a single person. I stick to my walking path.
In olden days, it was the tradition for musicians to mark specific times of day or night by performing a short recital. The drums would loudly proclaim the hour to the accompaniment of cymbals and long horn. The deep sounds of these drums would set the rhythm against which the shrill punctuated calls of the horns would sound the air. Sharp blows of the horn or clash of cymbals would punctuate the rhythm of the drums. It is to such a welcome that I entered the palace gates.
Two musicians are playing in a balcony overlooking the quadrangle. One is beating a single large drum with two stout sticks. The other is playing on a serpentine horn which he sometimes trades for a pair of cymbals. I join the two in the balcony. Down below the elephants are arriving, disembarking their loads and returning to base for another load of tourists. People mill about the courtyard. I listen to these musicians for many minutes. The music is neither lyrical nor melodious. It is rather solemn and just as ceremonial. It is purposeful to shake the stillness of air or energize the langour of the appointed hour. The rhythm of the drums reverberate smoothly from the stretched roughness of animal hide. There is no raga. Each note of the horn punches the air quick and sharp. The musicians take a break and show me some other traditional instruments.
Finally I buy a ticket and enter the palace proper via Lion Gate. The facade of the gate has painted murals. I see more such beautiful murals at Elephant Gate inside. Diwan-i-am is a beautiful space of red sandstone and white marble. It has typical Shahjahani pillars with 12-sided columns. Hindu elements are retained and most noticeable elephant cornices from whose open mouths voluted decorative brackets sprout to end in open lotus pendentives. It is a beautiful scheme I have seen nowhere else. The adoption of Shahjahani pillars may well due to the alliance between the Kachhawaha and the Mughal. It was a princess from Amber who was married to Emperor Akbar. On the other hand, the palaces of Akbar at Agra and Fatehpur Sikri betray Hindi elements from Rajasthan as well as Gujarat.
Leaving the Diwan-i-am, I enter through the Elephant Gate. Above the doorway is a painted portrait of Lord Ganesha. Ganesha of the medieval period looks very different. Painted in purple, he is in typical Rajasthani style. His face is in profile while his body is three-quarters. There is a total lack of realism and there is hardly any attempt to convery form. Indian art has always been like this. Realism was never important for Indian artists. Symbolism was paramount. Ganesha sits here above the doorway, removing obstables and paving the way for all good things to come.
Inside is a romantic courtyard composed of a private audience hall at one end, a pleasure palace at the other end and a parterred garden with a pool in the middle. The garden and pool are again derived from the idea char bagh. Guides speak of automatic air cooling systems to ward off the heat of Indian summers. Diwan-i-khas is a spectacular building with mirror and glass work on walls and ceiling. Dados here contain marble reliefs set within borbers of stone inlay. Some of the schemes here are clearly Mughal influences.
Moving further is another wonderful quadrangle. At its borbers, the space is cut up by plain walls to create partitioned rooms open to the sky. I quite like this mix of enclosed spaces which are yet open. These are ladies quarters and the palace of Raja Man Singh. Below the eaves are murals. Walls contain beautiful paintings. The rooms on higher levels contain colourful tiles. Jali screens at many levels open into the courtyard. A narrow passageway runs around at a higher level. Visitors are allowed access to higher levels. At the centre of the courtyard is a baradari of three bays on each side but built as a square within a square. In this space it is quite easy to imagine royal scenes of medieval India.
Other items of interest at Amber Palace are latrines, hammams and kitchen. In many of the perspectives, the backdrop of hills adds to the beauty of the palace. Fort walls snaking atop the crest of the hills appear to tame the hills but it is clear that they are being taken for a ride.