Monday, April 7, 2008

Jaipur, the Pink City - Golden Triangle 6

The Pink City’s a lot more robust than you’d suppose. It’s not Barbie-pink, it’s salmon - and it’s our fault, anyway. When the Prince of Wales came to visit Jaipur, in 1853, they painted the whole city pink, to welcome him, and it’s been the model of urban monochromy ever since. The salmon stucco’s meant to resemble sandstone, in keeping with native geology. There’s a sprinkling of rebel blue houses about – you have to admire their spirit – but I don’t think the local B&Q does much trade in green or purple paint, for example.
Our guide for the day, Mr Kumar, takes us to cut our touristic teeth on a temple to my friend Ganesh, then on for a whistle-stop at Hawa Mahal, the Wind Palace, inspiration for many a Disney confection. It has no less than nine hundred and fifty-three latticed windows, with screened balconies, so that royal ladies and their entourage, in purdah, could observe without being observed. This excessive fenestration also permitted the free circulation of air, to keep the palace cool on hot summer days.

Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, is the first planned city of India, but don’t be thinking, Milton Keynes. Don’t be thinking, New Delhi, either, though. Just up the hill, former capital, Old Jaipur, was abandoned two centuries ago, since the population was expanding, but the water supply wasn’t. Today, a few hundred people still live in Old Jaipur, the Black City. Modern houses nestle up to ancient monuments, in a very familiar manner, and building work – rendering, mortaring, brick-laying – goes on daily, just like in Mumbai.
The current Maharajah of Jaipur, Sawai Bhawani Singh Bahadur, lives with his second wife at the City Palace, in the middle of the pink bit. He’s something of an entrepreneur, so most of the palace is open to visitors. In fact, for an extra 2,500 rupees, all of it is. The official town residence of the royal family is the creamy bit upstairs - two flags flying, means they're at home.
The Maharajah and Wife II have adopted his grandson, Kumar Padmanabh Singh, son of his only daughter by Wife I, as official heir. Grandpa’s in his seventies, Wife II and daughter are in their thirties. Our own Mr Kumar watches my chin hit the dusty floor. “He very old, but he very rich. For wife, old is no problem.” Couldn’t have put it better, myself.
At the gates of the City Palace, a snake-charmer lurks in wait for gullible tourists. At our approach, he whips the lid off his basket, and starts tootling on his pungi. The hooded snake wiggles upright, then patently loses all interest, and flops back into his basket, bored. In fairness, it’s very hot, and none of us feel like dancing, either...The charmer pauses in his charming, and gives the snake a smack on the nose, to buck up its ideas, but by now, we’re over the hills and far away.
Mr Kumar takes guiding very seriously, and won’t tolerate inattention. When Diana strays off, to take an unscheduled photo, he breaks off his monologue mid-syllable, never mind reaching the nearest comma. “Come here, Boss. Listen. This very important. I explain very interesting.” What can you do? So, we go through all of the Maharajahs of Jaipur, one at a time. I’m pleased to say, there are seventeen of them. We look at their clothes, their paintings, their drinking vessels, their elephant-harnesses, their polo outfits, leaving no peacock feather unturned. After an hour and a half, we’re fairly maharajahed-out, but no-one could see Madho Singh the First’s pyjamas and remain unmoved. “This one, big as small elephant,” says Mr Kumar, patting his own modest paunch. Seven foot tall and four wide, Madho was obviously no stranger to the pleasures of the table. “Madho Singh big wine-drinker,” says Mr K, jerking his thumb towards his mouth, with a sneer. “Drink wine, no brain. He only rule seventeen years.” Pathetic...
We drag our thoughts away from such wanton destruction of little grey cells, and move on to the largest stone observatory in the world, the Jantar Mantar, built by the founder of Jaipur, Jai Singh II, in 1727. Don’t ask me anything about it, though, because at this point I stop listening. To be honest, I nearly stop breathing too. Maharajah Gower and Maharajah Stott are fairly riveted, in a show-off boyish manner, but I suspect they’re faking it, knowing that Diana and I are bound to start clamouring for a sit-down with a chapatti, some time soon. How right they are.
You can’t have a thirst for knowledge, when you have just got a thirst, full stop. Lunch restores our fluid/thermal/interest levels to something like normal, so we can countenance more culture – Old Jaipur, in fact.

Here, we visit the Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort. Mr Kumar airily swats a brace of small Indian persons out of the way, so we can enjoy the Hall of Mirrors unimpeded. This is not to do with an entertaining succession of hysterically distorted versions of yourself, à la Blackpool Pier – it’s an exquisite mosaic of tiny mirror tiles laid into marble. We see Mr & Mrs Raja Jai Singh’s summer and winter bedrooms, with their ingenious 16th century aircon system (it’s about pulleys, ask Roland), and their elephant park (not a free-range enclosure for pets, it’s where they used to park their elephants...), and the massive cooking-pots used for entertaining thousands of festival guests – a ton of rice in one, a ton of fish curry in the other. The palace should be reflected in the lake at its feet, but they haven’t had any rain since 2003, so we have to imagine it, in the dust.
Later, we drop off Mr Kumar, to get his bus home. “Next year, you marriage son,” he says to me, by way of farewell. He's aghast to discover we have a hat-trick of decrepit sons, all unwed. “Then tell son, come Jaipur for honeymoon.”