How many times have I been to this overcrowded, over-touristy city? How many times have I said I really don't need to go again?
Too many times perhaps!
You either love or hate its buzz, its teeming hoards, its chaotic traffic. Me? I love it. I always find new things to see and do here.
Of course, the Grey haired nomads had never been here before, so they had to pack everything into the inadequate day and a half that our hectic itinerary allowed. We needed a plan. I'd been to all the interesting places before, so I knew what there was to see - but didn't know the order in which to fit it into so little time. That's where the superior knowledge of our driver came in handy. Although he currently lives 400 kilometres away in Udaipur, Yadu is a native of this city and knows the place backwards.
So, if you're on a tight schedule in Jaipur, you could do worse than follow in our footsteps. Here's what you do:
In an afternoon - Jantar Mantar and the City Palace in the Old City. Then on a full day - Hawa Mahal, Amber Fort, Jaigarh, Nahargarh and the Jal Mahal.
We added Galtaji on our day of departure because it was on the way to our next stop at Ranthambore, and you could include it too if you find the time. Now read on...
The 'Pink City'
First, a word about Jaipur's trademark name.
What they call 'pink' is more like a dirty salmon, orange-red or terracotta colour and you'll really only see it in the Old City.
Why is the colour there? Well, apparently, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (started when soldiers were ordered, contrary to their religious beliefs, to bite off paper - greased with unholy beef and pork fat! - from their rifle cartridges), the then Maharaja, Ram Singh, sided with the ruling British Raj. When the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII of Britain, visited Jaipur in 1876, Ram Singh decided to welcome him by reducing the sun's glare on buildings and monuments by having them painted in this strange colour. And the colour's stuck ever since - although it's now somewhat more grubby than it was then!
If you thought an observatory was a place for observing the heavens from beneath a big metal dome, think again. Nearly three hundred years ago, when Jai Singh II built Jaipur ('pur'=city, Jai=his name: see 'A 'garh' is a fort'), he added these immense instruments. Then, as now, many events in this land of devout religious beliefs were based on auspicious astronomical signs and times, so it was something of a necessity. He'd already had one such observatory built in Delhi, but this one in his new capital city had to be far larger.
More than just a random collection of sculptures, it's actually made up of fourteen devices that track terrestrial or celestial events, measuring and predicting as the earth orbits the sun. The first photo above is of the the largest of these contraptions, the Samrat Yantra - 'Supreme Instrument'. It's 90 feet (27 metres) high and is really just a great big sundial - in fact, it's the biggest sundial in the world! Its shadow visibly moves at around a hand's width every minute and, despite some subsidence over the years, it's still said to be accurate to within two seconds. That's almost as good as my Rolex watch (if only...!).
Tip: buy a 'composite entry ticket' here - as a foreign visitor it'll cost 300 Rupees (£3.65/US5.50/€4.30 as at Feb 2013); it's valid for two days and includes entry fees for Nahargarh and Amber as well (although it doesn't include the cost of the elephant ride at the latter). If you have the time and inclination, it'll also get you inside the Hawa Mahal.
The City Palace
This is probably one of the most visited palaces in Rajasthan so, inevitably, it attracts all the things you hate - insistent hawkers flogging postcards, little hands reaching out for a hand-out, uniformed attendants demanding tips for photos... you know the stuff! So here are a couple of useful Hindi phrases:
I don't want it/I don't need it: 'Nahi chahiye' (say it something like: 'Nie_ee chai_eeaa')
Go away/Keep your distance or words to that effect!: 'Dur rahiye!' (say: 'Door rye_he_aa!')
Jaipur's royal family was once one of the richest in India and nowhere confirms this more than the huge complex of palace buildings, gardens and courtyards found within these ancient walls. There's a museum, a shop disguised as an art gallery and displays of old royal costumes and weapons. The Peacock Gate is exquisite and, in the Diwan-i-Khas (the audience hall), you'll find the two largest sterling silver urns in the world, each weighing 340kgs (750lbs) and 1.6 metres (5 ft 3ins) high. They were specially made by the pious Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II to carry water from the River Ganges to drink during his trip to England for the coronation of Edward VII in 1901, thus avoiding the religious sin of consuming English water.
The royal family still lives here, above the museum in the graceful Chandra Mahal (Moon Palace). The present Maharaja, Padmanabh Singh, succeeded to the throne two years ago on the death of his grandfather - whose full name, incidentally, was: His Highness, First Amongst the Rajas of India, Lord of Princes, Great Prince over Princes, Lieutenant-General Sir Sawai Man Singhji Bahadur the Second, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India, Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire, Maharaja of Jaipur. He was also a flamboyant polo-playing friend of HRH Prince Charles. Padmanabh Singh inherited his grandfather's estimated £400Million fortune but, inevitably, this is being hotly contested by other family members. Meantime, the new ruler can only control the City Palace, though this probably provides more than ample income to pay his private school fees - Padmanabh Singh, you see, is only 15 years of age!
So, that's your first afternoon taken care of.
Very early next morning, drive first to:
You'll have probably passed the Hawa Mahal (The Palace of the Winds) the previous afternoon on your way to or from Jantar Mantar and the City Palace but it faces east so, if you want to photograph it at its best, you have to stop there in the morning.
This is one of the city's most recognisable buildings. Built in 1799 overlooking the main road in Jaipur's Old City, its five floors contain row after row of tiny windows with intricate lattice work; these were designed so that women of the royal household could observe the goings-on below without themselves being seen. A cooling breeze once flowed through these openings, giving the palace its name. Alas, 'Palace of the Winds' is now a misnomer as, at the end of the 19th century, these 950 or so openings were covered in glass imported from Belgium!
We didn't venture inside this time, but from a previous visit I know that behind the famous façade is just a maze of corridors connecting the windows, from which you can view tourists alighting momentarily from their cabs and coaches to 'Ooh', 'Aah' and point their cameras, before jumping back on board and moving on.
I said you needed to be outside the Hawa Mahal very early in the morning. You still have a half-hour drive up the Jaipur to Delhi highway to join a queue for elephants to take you up to Amber Fort. It was 9.15a.m. by the time we reached the line. We should have been there by eight o'clock to stand any chance of being near the front - take a look at the picture of where we were!
Anyhow, our lateness did serve the useful purpose of getting to know others in the line. There were three of us. Each elephant carries two people, you want to take photos of each other during the ride, and you have to pay Rs900 (£11/US$17/€13) per elephant. We were fortunate to meet three others travelling together, a lady from Massachusetts and two young ladies from China, who were only too happy to join forces to share three pachyderms.
The uncomfortable, lurching ride on the cobblestone path to the top of the hill is an experience some may not want to repeat. It's a controversial thing too. Some still say the joyrides should be stopped, that they're cruel, that the elephants work for too long in the hot sun and that they damage their feet walking on the hard stone terrain. Well, the elephants used to work here all day - they now finish by around 11.00a.m. (another reason for getting here early).
When I first took a ride some years ago, they carried four passengers up and down - but that's been reduced to a maximum of two people and they're no longer allowed to bring passengers back down. I have to say that the animals always look well cared for and many of them proudly sport colourful designs that must have taken hours to create.
Anyway, without the tourist trips, there would be no work for the elephants these days, so they'd be redundant and could be abandoned or starved to death. So, until such time as someone comes up with a workable retirement plan, maybe they need your support. Alternatively, you could walk, take your own car or hire a jeep, which is what I shall be doing in future.
Once at the top, you'll discover some great views to the Maota Lake and Gardens below, and stunning palaces, pavilions and gardens, some of which date back to the 16th century and all of which are in an excellent state of preservation.
A 325-metre long passageway was excavated between Amber Fort and the better-defended Jaigarh Fort on the Hill of Eagles immediately above. Probably designed as a royal escape route in the event of attack, you could escape on board a battery-operated golf cart (which we didn't see but believe are now in operation). Or, like us, you could arrange for your driver to wait in the car park and drive you up to Jaigarh!
The impressive Jaigarh (Jai's Fort), flanked by gateways and watchtowers and surrounded by huge battlements with inside walkways, was built in 1726.
Its claim to fame is the Jai Ban, the world's largest cannon on wheels. This was made in the fort's own foundry - indeed, it's so big that it couldn't possibly have been made somewhere else and pulled up the hill! It weighs 50 tonnes (49 UK Tons/55 US Tons) and has a barrel with a diameter of 11 inches (28 cms). It's more than 20 feet (6 metres) long and is said to have a range of about 22 miles (35 kms).
Much like today's nuclear deterrents, this cannon was never fired in anger, and neither was the fort ever captured. Consequently, Jaigarh has remained intact and is reckoned to be one of the best-preserved military structures of medieval India.
Then, continue to:
Nahargarh (a fort named after Nahar Singh, whose spirit was said to be destroying work during its construction) is perched high on the rugged Aravali Hills overlooking Jaipur. Although much of the fort is in ruins, it does offer some spectacular views over the city.
On your way back towards your hotel, pass by the:
This is a pleasure palace built by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799. You can't visit it because it's in the middle of a man-made lake called Man Sagar (named after Raja Man Singh, who ordered its original construction in around 1610, of course!). I nearly did get there once when the lake almost dried up after a particularly poor monsoon.
The view of the now partly-restored palace with its backdrop of distant hills is certainly worth a brief stop though. While you're here, you might be lucky, as I have been on two occasions in recent years, to see one of the Amber Fort's elephants walking home with its mahout. Now that's not something you see every day in your home town, is it?
Be aware that, in the mornings, you'd be in the company of coachloads of tourists. It's a hotspot on the way to Amber (so it's wise to visit here on the way back from Amber!). There are numerous sellers of tat seated along the pedestrian walkway waiting to part you from your cash!
So, there you have it - a concentrated day and a half, very full of interesting and fun things. You might still have time to drive out to the Monkey Temple, Galtaji - see my next blog!
On almost all of my visits to Jaipur over the years, I've stayed at the Umaid Bhawan Heritage Hotel in the Bani Park residential area of the city. Bedrooms are opulently decorated in traditional Rajasthani style, air-conditioned, and have cable television and free WiFi.
There's a rooftop restaurant with an excellent and reasonably-priced menu. Occasional entertainment (music, women dancing while balancing pots on their heads, and the like) is also provided here.
It's a budget-priced hotel with bags of style (Doubles from Rs1800 + tax including breakfast - £24/US$36/€28 up to to Royal Suites at Rs4500 + tax - £59/US$89/€69 as at Feb 2013. These prices are usually a bit lower for pre-paid online bookings).
*Since writing this, my new favourite hotel in Jaipur is the Khandela Haveli - a fabulous conversion of a mansion into one of the best heritage hotels I've ever stayed at.