Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rajasthan, Land of Kings

Our guide du jour is the silver-tongued, snake-hipped Karan Singh Rathore. He wants to be world-famous, and he might well be, one of these days. He’s learnt all his admirable English, not at school, but from tourists – he’s evidently had some street-savvy customers, over the years. His Pink City patter’s interspersed with snippets like “No wife, no life!” and “No money, no honey!” He’s not married, at the time of writing, so if you need a Jaipur guide, or a husband, ask me nicely, and I’ll give you his email address.

Jaipur has a population of five million. Most of them seem to be at the Amber Fort, with us. The walled city has seven gates, Karan says. “You know why seven? Because heaven itself has seven gates.” Obvious, when you know. The city’s painted “pink for happiness” and has been rosily so, since the Prince of Wales’ visit in 18-something – so he left his mark in Rajasthan in no uncertain terms. If you indulge in a bit of chromatic rebellion, here in the Old City, and splash out on a pot of mauve shellac or fuchsia gloss, for example, you’re up for a Rs 5000 fine, and two months in jail. And there’s you, all this time, thinking you can’t go wrong with magnolia...

We pass through the marketplace, where dairymen bring churns of milk to sell. Aluminium lids are wedged tight with a fistful of straw, straight off the floor of the cowshed, by the look of it. They’re prised off, for a potential buyer, who – here’s the tasty bit – dunks his hand up to the wrist in the milk, to test its quality with his bare fingers. What if he says no – what if the next punter, and the one after him, say no? By the time it gets to your breakfast Weetabix, your milk could have been through dozens of hands. – So, next time you’re in Jaipur, if anyone asks you, “How do you like your tea?” – say, “Black!”

We drive up the hill to the Black City, wiggling the Innova through tiny cobbled streets too congested for a push-bike. It’s most interesting, when someone else’s Innova’s coming the other way. Brinkmanship’s still the only rule of the road. Mano’s a passed master, and yields to none. There are shops selling rice and peas, full of veiled and sari’d housewives, jostling next to shops full of bermuda’d tourists, selling Rajasthani puppets and camel leather shoes. Eclectic retail.
Karan says, “Do you want to go to Fort by car, or by elephant?” Oh, Karan..... We drive to the elephant park where some of us are so excited, we can hardly get out of the car. Mr Roland and the boys tolerantly join the queue, trying not to look bored. We’re three steps up the elephant-mounting ziggurat – so close, I can smell the poo – when disaster strikes. Karan nips nimbly up the steps with a Don’t Shoot The Messenger look on his face, and I accept defeat before he opens his mouth. “Is too hot for elephant. This is last ride.” He points to the porky tourists climbing aboard even as he’s speaking, and I hate them. I don’t know who they are or where they’re from, they just look despicable. “We go by car,” says Karan. “Sorry...” Well, that’s better than having some poor pachyderm lumber up the hill, in the heat of the day, with a bunch of gora on his back, isn’t it? – No, frankly, it isn’t, but I work myself into believing it, by the time we get to the Amber Fort, prosaically on four wheels.

We’re just in time to nip into Ganesh’s temple, inside the palace, before closing time. We have to take off not only our shoes, but cameras, phones, and leather belts, before crossing the threshold. Between the statues on the back wall, and the rail to keep out the yeomanry, monks shuttle back and forth, ferrying offerings one way to the gods, and blessed Prasad the other, to the faithful. Not only fruit and flowers, we see one man hand over a bottle of gin (unequivocally labelled “Gin” to take the guesswork out of voyeurism) – which a monks upends into a flask. Incredulous, we ask Karan, and he says, “For Hindu, the fruit and the wine, is all offering.” Broad church, indeed...

We admire the Hall of Mirrors, its tiny mosaics winking in the sun, and the royal bathrooms, where you could swim in rose-scented water. The walls are tinted, but not with paint. The sixteenth century decorators ground up the off-cuts of semi-precious stones, from in the inlays, and mixed the powder with lemon juice and oil and seventeen other secret ingredients, to form a paste, which they used to paint the marble. I salute their parsimony. Like making jam tarts, with pastry scraps, I say, but no-one quite sees the similarity.

The Maharajah who built the fort, Raja Man Singh I, was a man of many talents. Not least, he ran twelve wives and two hundred concubines, simultaneously. (Mr Roland says that he has trouble running just the one. It’s all very well, being witty in company, but he’s going to have to be alone with me, sooner or later...) Each Mrs Raja Man Singh I had her own quarters, and her own kitchens. One woman, one kitchen, you can see the wisdom of that. When RMS was in residence, the wives weren’t allowed to talk to each other, which proves that, despite having two hundred and twelve women all to himself, Raja knew nothing about the fair sex. When he was off, going to war to have a rest, of course they talked to each other. Who in their right mind wouldn’t? “So what did he get you for Diwali, then?” “Is that a new tiara, or have you had it ages?” - The queens, he visited in their separate chambers, but the concubines were slumming it, three or four to a cell, so they were summoned to his rooms, as required. It comes as no surprise when Karan says, “You want to see the secret passages?” RMS has a rabbit-warren of interconnecting hidden corridors, so he could think his business was his own. Men, who’d have them?