Monday, 13 July 2020

J is for Jaipur

A hot, flat and barren land, divided up into small princely states, ruled over with a benign despotism by Maharajas of immense splendour from their walled cities; such is many people's idea of the quintessential India. It is a perfect description of Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings. And few places are more representative of this region than the city of Jaipur. The name has royal ring; it both evokes the whole region, and seems to contain within it the other great Rajput cities like Jodhpur and Udaipur.

Jaipur is pre-eminently the pink city: the red sandstone found throughout northern India is used not just for the city palace, but for the walls, which remain complete and impressive to this day, and for most of the buildings within them. Jaipur is probably unique in India in being a planned city; its streets are laid out on a grid which antedates Manhattan by a century. As a result, its avenues are very long and straight, which can make them even more oppressive than the endless winding roads found everywhere else in India; but set against that, they are broad and airy.

Not that this is immediately apparent travelling down the main road of the bazaars. Apart from the usual problems of traffic, with everyone trying to cut past everyone else, matters are made worse by the camels. If you travel to Jaipur on the train from Delhi - called, appropriately enough, the Pink Express - the odd camel begins to appear in the small villages and towns along the way. In Jaipur they are common; in their painfully slow imperturbability, they are quite unpassable in the street. The result is a gently ambulatory traffic jam - which suits Jaipur perfectly,

The best place to see the town is from the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. Externally, this curious building consists of a five-storey wall with a diminishing series of intricate windows and semi-octagonal turrets built into its dark pink facade. But facade is what it is: the window bays and towers are false, and behind there is no commensurately grand palace. Instead, a series of small rooms where the ladies of the royal household would gather to watch the bustle of the streets below without themselves being seen. It is a rare instance of India not fulfilling the promise of its appearances.

From the top of the Hawa Mahal, there are fine views over the city, and of the Nahargarh Fort which broods on its rock above it. But the most striking aspect of the city scene are the bicycles. From this elevated perspective, they seem to swarm down the long roads like huge plagues of insects, their tiny metal limbs and carapaces shimmering in the light as they wobble their way along, Seeing them foreshortened in this way brings home the sheer scale of bicycling in India: there must be millions - possibly hundreds of millions - of these frail contraptions in use.

Jaipur is notable too for possessing two museums, one as part of the old city palace, and the other in a grand, crumbling Victorian building just outside the walls. Both bear witness to the weight of history in Rajasthan; both, with their endless collections of swords and elaborate muskets, along with miniatures of bewhiskered princes, are melancholy reminders of what the proud and glorious Land of the Kings has lost.

A Partial India A to Z

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