With its gloriously pink old city, roaming wildlife, brilliant architecture and traditional food, Jaipur is a shining jewel of India’s crown.
Traffic slows down as we travel the road into Jaipur, but not for the speed limit. It’s far too slow for that. We presume someone has herded buffalo onto the road, or that some cows have decided to lie down and sleep in the way, which isn’t out of character for India.
We come to a stop and our driver chuckles. “Would you like to see an elephant?,” he asks. “Why not?” is our muted reply, which hardly contains our excitement. Yes, it’s an elephant in the middle of the road. Someone is riding it to a wedding, the driver says. All right, then. Moving on.
Jaipur is a city of these small wonders, with each day presenting a new one. While every Indian city has its charms and idiosyncrasies, there are few as wholly unique as Jaipur. Many will know it, perhaps not in name, but from television and film, for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its colourful dainty architecture, or the documentaries that feature its monkey gangs tactically marauding markets and lounging about in the street.
One thing that sets it apart from other Indian cities is that Jaipur is built on a grid formation and was only founded 291 years ago. Formed by Jai Singh II, the then Raj who was fascinated by geometry and architecture, the result of visiting the old town is simple enchantment.
Many know Jaipur as the ‘Pink City’. It’s not the hot or pastel pink one might think of hearing that nomenclature, but more a sienna-orange-reddy hue. Jaipurians are proud of the pink, because it gives their city that unique character and charm a town’s inhabitants love to have, and by god it looks heavenly under the golden light of a sunset.
It was painted pink at the behest of Sawai Ram Singh I in 1876 for the impending arrival of the Prince of Wales. That was a temporary measure, meant to impress a guest, but the paint evidently stuck as the impressive story of a rich, pink city spread.
The bloody pink walls dotted by ornate windows and decoration reach their zenith in the incredible Hawa Mahal facade. This series of 953 windows provided royal women with an almost undetectable view of the street below during festivities, and now sit looking over the road like the eyes of a gigantic, bejewelled spider.
So many cities with charmingly aesthetic histories are just that; postcards to another time and little else. But Jaipur is still bustling. The industrious nature of the original Raj of Jaipur seems to have stuck with its people. It’s a busy town, full of industry, trade and the transient commerce of surrounding villages and regions. Gem stones are not in short supply, nor are the typical blue pottery, but it is the hand-woven and/or block-printed textiles that are truly enjoyable to peruse, or even witness being made in the local production houses.
There is, as always in India, a culinary galaxy to navigate in each province and city, but there are two simple and sweet recommendations that cannot be passed up in Jaipur. The first is the delicious and fun experience of a traditional lassi from Lassiwala. Here, the lassis are as simple as they are refreshing, served in terracotta cups, which one gets to amusingly smash in a bin once it is empty. The other is the subcontinental ice cream kulfi, flavoured with the likes of cardamom, mango and pistachio. It is delicious in many locations, but particularly at Pandit Kulfi. Again, it’s simple, delicious and a brilliant if temporary cure for a hot dry day.
The most enigmatic of Jaipur’s sites is almost certainly the outdoor astronomical observatory, up the road from those pink markets, bordering the similarly curious City Palace. One might guess that this observatory is of the old dome’n’telescope description, but not so. Jai Singh II’s fascination with geometry and architecture also lead him to study the stars, so this is a huge courtyard of very large, beguiling and complex sundials.
Each has their own purpose, be it to follow the progression of constellations through the sky and infer meaning from that, or to tell the time. One such sundial is at least four storeys high and tells time accurate to 20 seconds. Watching a shadow slide across stone is rarely such fun as it is in this mathematical fun park.
Another remarkable site is the Amer Fort, a nearby gargantuan fort, where the Rajs of old used to live. Looking out across a tight valley, the labyrinthine fort is worth a visit during times of Hindu festivities, when its shrine is visited by the thousands. Of course, if one is looking for clear roads, it is advisable to avoid those peak periods, as we discover when traffic slows on the road back into town. It’s another elephant. Oh, well.
The author travelled to Jaipur as part of an Incredible India tour courtesy of Encounters Travel.
Photography: John Dexter