There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Jaipur and Amber (or Amer): Part 1 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post describes days 1 and 2 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan.

The map shows our anti-clockwise journey round Rajasthan and (inset) the position of Rajasthan within India
Day 1 Delhi to Jaipur, Day 2 Jaipur and Around

The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert occupying the north and west it is also one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.

In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a courtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, supplement their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.

18 year old polo international Maharaja Padmanabh Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur since 2011
Photograph shamelessly borrowed from Jaipur's Pink City Post (thank you PCP)
We landed on time in Delhi at 10.00 - 04.30 on our body clocks. It was a chilly 6° and the smog was so dense we could hardly see beyond our wing-tips. Welcome to India! After a long walk through an eerily quiet terminal we descended into the cavernous immigration hall; the smog looked to have seeped in there as well.

With no queue for the formalities we were soon being introduced to Umed, our driver for the next two weeks and, lacking a reason to linger in cold, grey Delhi, we immediately set off for Jaipur, 230 km away – allegedly a five-hour drive.

Delhi's roads are inadequate for Delhi's traffic but we eventually ground our way to the city limit. Before entering the state of Haryana, drivers of cars carrying paying passengers must stop and pay a tax, so we joined the herd of taxis huddled beside the road.
Tax paid, we pulled back onto the highway which suddenly expanded to an unfeasible number of lanes, 18 southbound by my quick count. The road split, half going towards Jaipur, half elsewhere. Umed was one of the few drivers who selected an appropriate lane before the junction so there was a sudden sweeping and swirling of cars across multiple lanes as drivers turned right from the outside lanes and left from the inside lanes.

After the junction the 7 or 8 remaining lanes were reduced to a more manageable 3, as the inside lanes dwindled gently, or turned abruptly, into the concrete ‘safety’ barrier.
The urban sprawl continued, Gurgaon with a million inhabitants of its own, is contiguous with Delhi.

Driving on three lane roads is different in India; heavy vehicles usually use the outside lane, though they sometimes drive in the middle lane. Overtaking is a matter of slaloming through them. Nobody ventures into the 'slow lane', that would risk encountering a parked vehicle, a bevy of motorcycles or a local lorry, tractor or camel cart, using it as an unofficial contraflow.
Throughout the morning Lynne and I dropped in and out of consciousness, but we were awake when Umed slipped onto a service road and crossed under the motorway through what looked suspiciously like a drain. One of the group of restaurants on the far side was obviously the regular stopping place for foreigners - it was already feeding another British couple and a small busload of Japanese tourists - though, it looked just like all the others. Perhaps the prices - at least on the English language menu - separated it from the rest. Despite that our snack of vegetable samosas and a cup of tea was cheap enough by British standards.

The day was still cool, the smog still thick and we were dog tired. Why, I had been wondering, had we returned to India? And then everything started to change; the samosas were only mashed potato and carrot in a pastry case, but those simple textures supported an array of spices so subtly blended we could only be in India. As we ate, the day finally started to warm up and the smog began to disperse.

Happier, though still tired we continued to Jaipur, the journey eventually taking the best part of seven hours. As we arrived residents were out on their roofs flying kites in the evening sky.

Welcome to Jaipur
Our hotel, a family residence and boutique hotel was very pretty and we sat in the courtyard as darkness fell, drank a beer and ate peanuts... and that was enough for a day which felt long despite lasting only 18½ hours.

Beer and peanuts at the Jas Vilas, Jaipur


After a cup of tea and a spicy masala omelette we were ready for the day. Umed and local guide, R, turned up on time and we set off to see Jaipur and Amber. 
Jas Vilas, Jaipur. Unfortunately it was too cool to eat breakfast outside
Jaipur, a city of 2.5 million and the capital of Rajasthan, was founded in 1727 by Jai Singh II of the Kachwaha dynasty, one of the major Rajput clans....

Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur (r 1699-1743)
Anonymous portrait in the British Museum
...but first we headed for Amber (or Amer), the Kachwaha's first capital 11km to the north. To get there we drove through Jaipur's old city - the 'Pink City' - pausing, like many others, to photograph the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) which looks its best bathed in morning sunshine. Built in 1799, it enabled the ladies of the court to watch street processions while remaining unseen. There is little more to this monument to the oppression of women than a five-storey fa├žade with 593 windows. One room deep, there is nothing to see inside so we claimed our photo and moved on.

The Hawa Mahal, Jaipur
Flatness is northern Rajasthan's most obvious feature, but there are occasional outbreaks of hills and Amber sits among such an outbreak

The hilltop fort comes into sight first, then the palace, perched on a lower ridge. The best view, across Maota Lake, is less picturesque than usual after two poor monsoons, though in the past, when the lake was Amber’s water supply, the drought would have caused bigger problems than sub-prime vistas. Out of picture right, a sign warns of crocodiles, but given the water level I had my doubts, and the wild pigs splashing in the shallows looked supremely unconcerned.
Amber Palace across the remains of Lake Maota
Part of the fort can be seen in the top left corner

After replacing the tribal rulers, the Rajputs started building the fort in 1030s. The palace below was mainly the work of Raja Man Singh (ruled 1590-1614).

Like most tourists we made the trip from the small square beyond the lake to the palace by elephant.
Elephant stand, Amber

We clambered onto a waiting beast and lumbered in procession up the narrow twisting path.
If you ain't the lead elephant the view never changes,
On the way up to Amber Palace

Sitting sideways and facing outwards the views for us humans were good, both down to the town...
Looking down to Amber city

...and of the unburdened elephants coming down, though we could hardly see our own elephant.
Approaching Amber Palace

Near the top the mahout took my camera and popped his red turban - actually a hat - onto my head. It looked alright on him, but it made me look a prat.
Looking like a prat as we reach Amber Palace

Despite prominent 'no tipping' signs at the mounting point and in Jaleb Chowk where we dismounted, R had suggested '100 rupees minimum' but as we arrived the mahout explained at length that the proper tip was 500. I gave him 200; he seemed happy.

R had come up the back way by car and we re-united at the top of the steps to the early 18th century Singh Pole (Lion Gate)...
Lynne on the steps up to the Singh Pole, Amber Palace
 ..which had a good view across Jaleb Chowk.

Jaleb Chowk, with the elephant stand in the far left corner

The gate led to the Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience used between 1639 and the move to Jaipur in 1727. In the magnificent square the public, it at least its more privileged members, waited in the sun to petition the Maharaja....
The square of public Audience, Amber Palace and the Ganesh Pole into the next courtyard

....who sat in a covered hall....
The Maharaja's Hall, Diwan-i-Am, Amber Palace

....while his ministers sat in another hall to the side. The architecture is Rajput in style, but with strong Mughal influences, particularly in the minister's hall. The Hindu Raja Jai Singh I, ruler of Amber 1621-1667, was, like his father and grandfather, also a senior general of the Muslim Mughal Empire.
Minister's Hall, Diwan-i-Am, Amber Palace

From the square we could look down on in the elephant procession we had so recently been part of....
The elephant procession up to Amber Palace

...and the Saffron Garden, usually an island in the lake but currently high and dry.
The Saffron Garden, Amber - currently not quite an island in the lake 

Sheltered corners of the brightly decorated Ganesh Pole – the door to the next courtyard - retain some original paintings. The mosaics with mirror tiles are typically Mughal, though they nicked the idea from Persia.

The Ganesh Gate, Amber Palace

The next courtyard is dominated by a garden. To the right is the Sukh Mandir where the Royal families spent hot summer days in rooms cooled by running water, while opposite….
Garden and the Sukh Mandir, Amber Palace

…are the sumptuous personal apartments of the Maharaja.
Just a small part of the Maharaja's apartments, Amber Palace

The next gate took us into the plainer Zenani Deorhia where the Queen mothers, the Maharaja's consorts and their female attendants lived.

Zenani Deorhia

Heading to the exit we passed two enormous woks once used to cook lunch for the palace workforce.
Enormous woks, Amber Palace

From the back of the palace we could look up to the fort, the original more Spartan and functional home of the Maharaja…
Amber Fort above the city and the palace

…and down to the city of Amber. By the 16th century trade had begun to replace warfare as a way of life and the maharajas felt safe enough to move from an impregnable fort to a palace. The trend continued and by the 18th century defensive considerations ceased to be a major factor in locating a city. Surrounded by hills, Amber could not expand, so an ambitious ruler, like Jai Singh II, had to seek a new site for his capital. He headed for Jaipur, and so did we.
The city of Amber

Neither of us are much interested in textiles, jewellery or handicrafts generally, but we keep being taken to see them with the expectation that we will buy - though we already have more than we need, or can give away. The opening gambit is to offer tea, and once you are in their debt it is harder to refuse, so we habitually decline, show a polite interest and extract ourselves as quickly as possible - we do not wish to waste the salesman’s times any more than our own.

Our first Jaipur visit was a stone polishers and cutters. They were currently polishing stones for an Australian company, because, the manager said, he has skilled men who work for five dollars a day while Australians would demand a hundred (and the rest, I thought).
Polishing gems, Jaipur

Next, to a block printing shop where I was inveigled into doing their work for them. With help...
The start of my block printing career, Jaipur

....I printed an elephant....
My block printed elephant, Jaipur

....using four different blocks for the different colours.
My block printed elephant with four colours
The end of my block printing career, Jaipur

Not bad, for a first effort, I thought (there will be no second effort) but a small purchase was then deemed necessary.

We instructed R to find us Indian food for lunch, not tourist food. 'It might be too spicy for you' he bleated. 'No it won't,' we replied firmly. Torn between 'genuineness' and his responsibility not to poison us, R compromised on a small clean restaurant with a mixed clientele and instructed the waiter to recommend the hottest dish on the menu – perhaps hoping to teach us a lesson.

The restaurant’s specialty was mutton stewed to tenderness in a reddish gravy with abundant chillies [we later discovered it was the Rajasthani specialty, Laal Maans, by another name]. It had plenty of heat but behind that there was a deep, rich and delightful flavour. We had a black lentil dish too and if that failed to reach the same heights, it was still good. R had done us proud, whether he meant to or not.
Lunch in Jaipur

And then it was off to the palace which Jai Singh began in 1727, based on an earlier hunting lodge.  We entered by the Udaipole gate, as all proles must, the Maharaja has a different entrance.
Udaipole Gate, Jaipur Palace - a pretty good gate for us peasants

We paused by the Diwan-i-Am to see their carriage collection.
Carriage collection, Jaipur Palace
In the next courtyard is the Diwan-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience. The open sided building failed to catch my interest as it only appears in the left of this picture. The row of red chairs in front are for a forthcoming wedding. I do not know what Jai Singh would think of his descendent giving over half his palace to casual visitors and letting it out as a wedding venue and occasional Bollywood location, but this is 2018 and the current Maharaja (see photo at top) who is 18 and left Millfield School in Somerset last summer, must make ends meet.
On the right is the still private Chandra Mahal, flying the Maharaja’s flag showing he is in residence.
Diwan-Khas (left) and Chandra Mahal (right)
As a teenager Jai Singh was sent to the Mughal court where he impressed the Emperor Aurangzeb who called him 'sawai' - Man and a Quarter - the Maharajas of Jaipur have used the title ever since. A close up of the flagpole shows a quarter flag flying above the main standard.
The maharaja's flag and a quarter, Chandra Mahal, Jaipur
Inside the Diwan-Kas are two huge silver urns, the world's largest crafted silver vessels (Guinness Book of Records) each holding 8182 litres. They were made for Maharaja Madho Singh II who visited London in 1901 for the coronation of Edward VII and as he only drank Ganges water he had to take it with him. R added that his water came from the pure Himalayan upper reaches, not the heavily polluted river where we watched so many people bathe in 2013.
Madho Singh's water bottle, Diwan-Khas, Jaipur
An ornate elephant gate...
Elephant gate, JaipurPalac
...took us to the second main courtyard, the Sarvatabhadra. This has a clock tower in one corner and the Mubarak Mahal in the centre. Built in 1899, it now houses the royal textile collection. More interesting than it sounds, it contains the clothes of various Maharajas including polo suits (polo is still important to the Rajasthani nobility) and the 'billiards dress' of Ram Singh II (r1835-1880). The robes of an unnamed Maharaja who stood 7 ft tall and weighed 500 lbs we took with a pinch of salt.
Mubarak Mahal, Jaipur Palace
The Jantar Mantar, the royal observatory across the road from the palace, was built by Jai Singh between 1728 and 1734. The shapes of the 18 huge concrete instruments give it the feel of a sculpture park.
Jantar Mantar observatory, Jaipur
The star is the Samrat Tantra, the world's largest sundial with a 27m high gnomon. It gives the time to the nearest two seconds, though that is, of course, Jaipur time, some half an hour before Indian Standard Time, based on the longitude of Allahabad.
Samrat Tantra, the world's largest sundial, Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
Jai Singh designed many of these instruments himself. Sadly (to those of us of a rationalist bent) he put his undoubted talents to the service of astrology not astronomy. The ingenious Jaiprakash Yantra consists of two horizontal hemispheres with a ring suspended above each. The ring's shadow marks the time, date and sign of the zodiac - essential information for finding the auspicious day for a marriage.
Jaiprakash Yantra, Jaipur observatory
The buildings in the rectilinear grid of streets around the palace were all originally given a pink wash, either to cover up the poor building materials or in homage to the imperial marble monuments of the Mughals (you choose). The city's pinkness has waxed and waned over the centuries but there is currently a concerted effort to give it all a fresh wash, though the colour is more terracotta than pink ('we do have some colour sense' as R remarked).
The Pink City of Jaipur
We drove through the pinkish streets, some more freshly painted than others...
The Pink City of Jaipur
...and out through one of the northern gates...
Northern gate to Jaipur's Pink City visit the Man Sagar Lake built around 1610 by Raja Man Singh before the move to Jaipur. It is important for irrigation and the Jal Mahal in the middle hosted the maharaja’s fishing and duck shooting parties. Unfortunately, the growth of Jaipur has left the lake dangerously polluted.
Man Sagar Lake and the Jal Mahal
And, after a full day we returned to our very pleasant hotel.
In the evening we shared a paneer khadai. I had not previously been a fan of paneer, but at its best, like tofu, it absorbs and amplifies the flavours of the sauce. Khadai involves red peppers and a gravy with pounded cashews and a judicious selection of spices. The sauce had a slight sweetness, medium heat and a great clarity on the palate. Fresh ingredients simply cooked by a chef who really understands them are the essence of good food. We found space for a kulfi afterwards. Kulfi is not quite ice cream, though closely related with the strong clean flavour of cardamom; utterly delicious.
Well-fed we retreated for a night cap.


  1. Great pics of Amber fort. We went up there on a local bus ( 20 rupees each way) which was interesting! I discovered Laal Maas (or Laal Maans? Seems to be randomly spelt both ways) in Jodhpur and loved it. Look forward to reading your next Rajasthan posts. Amazed by your swift passage through Delhi airport. We took over an hour to get through passport control with our evisas as the pesky electronic finger printing devices kept failing due to the greasy fingers of the people using them.

    1. Thanks Gerald. We had the same problem with the fingerprint machine in Bangalore in 2016, but they didn't bother this time - I presume our prints were already on file.