Wednesday, February 12, 2014

India Adventure: Jaipur

Amber Palace, outside of Jaipur.

I arrived at the Agra train station before dawn on February 6, sleepy but intent on finding my train to Jaipur. No need to rush – my train was 45 minutes behind schedule. Two young Indian guys made room on a train station bench for me and my large backpack. We got to chatting, and it turned out that Anuj and Rawat were travelling on the same train. They made sure I boarded the train at Agra, and Rawat came to find me in my car 6 hours later when the train reached my stop, to make sure that I got off the train at the proper place. People are so nice.

Rawat also came to sit with me for part of my trip, while Anuj was taking a nap. I learned they work together, as airplane technicians for the Indian air force. They spend part of their time at a base in another Indian city, and part of their time in Jodhpur, which was another 6 hours on the train after my stop in Jaipur. They offered to meet up with me when I visit Jodhpur.

I reached my hotel in Jaipur in the early afternoon, exhausted and ready for a quiet afternoon at my hotel. However, that was not to be. I walked out of the hotel to run an errand, and was greeted by a friendly young rickshaw driver named Shakeer. He was so pleasant and interesting, telling me about his work helping foreign artists source materials in Jaipur. So when he offered to show me Monkey Palace at sunset, which he said was the best time to see it, and the Pink City, I found myself saying yes.

Like the taxi driver in Agra, and the driver Andre and I hired in Varanasi, Shakeer can be hired by the day. He took me through the historic part of Jaipur, known as the Pink City, while I flipped through the journals he keeps with past customers’ reviews in them, just like the driver I met in Agra. The books were great. You can tell Shakeer enjoys running his own tourism business, Raj Tours.

I had been looking forward to seeing the Pink City, imagining the buildings would be light pink in color. Instead, I soon discovered that the buildings are more of a salmon brown color, with white trim. Yes, I was disappointed, but it’s still an interesting city. Established in 1727, Jaipur is one of the youngest cities in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It was founded by a member of the Kachchwaha family who ruled from their fort in the nearby town of Amber. One of the three cities in the tourist “Golden Triangle” Jaipur is the renowned for its textiles and jewelry. It seemed to be full of people, both Indians and tourists engaged in the export market.

Some estimate it as one of the world’s 25 fastest growing cities, which is apparent from its heavy traffic and urban sprawl. However, the old walled quarter is laid out in a grid format, which makes it visually appealing and easier to navigate. The streets are lined with bazaars selling the Indian textiles you see for sale in US stores. That being said, it’s the same stuff at every shop and the items marketed to tourists aren’t of great quality.

Kareem introduced me to the old walled quarter by taking me to Isar Lat, a narrow tower in the center of the old walled quarter whose summit offers amazing views of Jaipur, the surrounding hillside, and the old forts perched on surrounding cliffs. It was beautiful, especially in the late afternoon sun.

He then dropped me off at the base of a hill located just outside of the walled quarter that leads to the Sun Temple, and then further past that to Monkey Palace. Sun Temple is a modern Hindu temple perched on the side of a cliff overlooking Jaipur. I met some cute kids at the temple who had fun practicing their English with me, and posing for photos. I then continued walking away from town and further into the hills towards Monkey Palace. There were few tourists, but many, many monkeys on the path. They ignored me, even when I pulled out my camera. I was careful, however not to disclose that I was carrying cookies in my shoulder bag.

After about a 30 minute walk up and down winding paths that cut through the peaceful hillside, I came upon Galta, also known as Monkey Palace. The Rough Guide accurately describes Galta as “a picturesque collection of 250 year old temples squeezed into a narrow rocky ravine”. Many tourists find the more than 5,000 macaque monkeys who live there just as interesting as the temples themselves. I saw tourists hand feeding monkeys peanuts, and watched a large male monkey steal a plastic bag of bananas out of a tourist’s handbag. The entertainment was great, as were the white temples covered in brightly painted pictures of people, animals, and flowers but the real highlight was the location. The ravine and the surrounding hills were beautiful. I saw some peacocks perched on a rocky outcrop near the back exit to the palace, where tour buses were parked.

Funnily, I recognized a tour guide showing a small group of foreigners around Monkey Palace from my visit to the Taj Mahal. I asked, and he confirmed that he had been at the Taj two days prior. Funny. I am beginning to learn that tourists hire drivers and tour guides to take them around India by private vehicles. On my way back from the Bharatpur bird sanctuary in Agra, I met an Indian tour guide on the bus who works as a freelance guide for tourists visiting from French speaking countries. Indian tour operators with offices in Delhi and Agra call him when they need a French speaking guide for their clients. He was on the bus returning home after dropping some clients off in Bharatpur. He showed me his tourism license and explained the process for becoming a government-certified French speaking guide. It’s not easy. He looked after me, too – giving me a ride from the bus station back to my hotel. If you need a French speaking guide in India then I have a guide for you.

After visiting Monkey Palace, Shakeer took me to a jewelry store where I met a group of older Australian women who were on a fundraising trip for an orphanage in India, organized by an Australian woman who happens to be a jeweler. I didn’t buy anything but had fun seeing what the gem shopping “scene” looks like in India, and meeting the women.

I travelled from the hotel into the old quarter the following morning with a young Japanese Buddhist who was also staying at my hotel. He helped me find the entrance to City Palace before heading up to the forts that line the cliffs outside of Jaipur. City Palace was fun. Originally built in the 1720’s, it’s very well preserved, adjoins the residence of the current royal family, and is home to a textile museum with a beautiful collection of clothing and sporting gear used by past generations of the royal family. Exploring the textile museum is one of the best things I’ve done in India. I also really enjoyed the portraits of past rulers, arranged in chronological order inside of the City Palace’s Hall of Public Audience. They were beautifully done, as were two really lovely paintings on cloth celebrating the months and seasons, created in the late 18th century by artists from the Jaipur School. I also finally got to attend an Indian wedding. I was the first tourist in line at the City Palace ticket window, when it opened at 9am. When I entered City Palace I found myself in the middle of an early morning Indian wedding ceremony. The guests soon dispersed to a more private part of the palace for a reception, but the flower arrangements remained on display for the rest of the day, filling the air with sweet fragrances. I certainly picked a good day to visit the palace.

I then walked over to the Raj Mandir Cinema, a movie theater in Jaipur with a beautiful lobby and 1,000 plus seats to buy a ticket to the 3:30pm showing of a new Bollywood movie, Hasee Toh Phasee. The Rough Guide and the staff at my hotel advised arriving an hour early to buy my ticket because the shows are so popular. I waited in line in front of a teenage girl who has family in Seattle. She taught me how to buy a movie ticket – first, you select your price level. Next, you need to tell the box office where you want to sit in the theater because the movie theaters aren’t general seating – the box office employee will sell you a ticket for an assigned seat. I felt lucky to get a ticket.

The theater lobby was pretty, but not spectacular. The movie began at 3:30pm and ended at 6:20pm, with a short intermission about halfway into the movie. Everyone walked into the lobby during the intermission and bought snacks from the concession stand. It was an experience. The film was in Hindi, with limited dance numbers. The film was good but I will have to find a synopsis in English, online because it was hard to follow along. My Hindi vocabulary is limited to 2 words. I saw some groups of foreign tourists in the theater, and wonder what they thought of the movie experience.

I spent my final day in Jaipur exploring 2 of the sites, Amber Palace and Jaigarth fort. Both forts are dramatically perched on the rocky hillsides outside of the city. They are accessible from town by a public bus that winds up through the hills for 20-30 minutes along winding roads, passing a palace half submerged in a lake on the way up to the forts.

Amber was the capital of the Kachchwaha family, and their seat of power from 1037 until 1727 when they established the city of Jaipur. The architecture of Amber Palace is Rajput. The mirrored mosaics on the courtyard walls indicate that the fort’s designers were influenced by the art of the Mughal empire, creators of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. The Amber Palace is sprawling. I got lost exploring its many small rooms and corridors. I met two teen girls in one hallway who shyly asked me my name, and took turns giving me big kisses on my cheek, European style, completely unannounced. It was really sweet. The highlights of my visit to Amber Palace were the elephant pedestal heads carved out of marble and sandstone, all of the beautiful detail work throughout the fort, including two rooms with beautifully painted ceilings, a gorgeous door leading to the royal family’s private quarters, and inlay work in the private quarters halllway. Like Agra Fort, I also enjoyed the freedom to wander through dark hallways, poking into corners and trying to imagine what the spaces were used for, and wondering how past residents didn’t get lost while navigating the fort.
An underground hallway several stories high, lined with stonework and torches leads from the back of Amber Palace to nearby Jaigarth fort. Navigating the hallway was one of the highlights of my visit to the forts.

I met a 27 year old Belgian tourist named Bram, who is travelling southeast Asia mostly solo for 6 months. We made our way to Jaigarth fort together, explored the fort, and then found our way back into town via the city bus. It was fun to swap stories and advice.

Jaigarh fort wasn’t nearly as nice as Amber Palace, but is equally well preserved. Rumors of a large gold deposit underneath the fort kept it closed until approximately the 1970’s, so the Indian government time could excavate the property. No gold was found, but the process protected the fort, built in 1600, from visits by the public for many years. One sad thing is that with the freedom to explore the nooks and crannies of these sites, un-watched, comes vandalism. Many of the forts’ rooms contain carvings of visitors’ names. 

The highlight of my visit to Amber Palace and Jaigarh fort were the views of the surrounding countryside and Amber Palace. Once I experienced the hillsides outside of Jaipur, I understood why tourists come here – the hillsides are unlike anything I’ve seen in India, yet. Visiting them was a great way to end my stay in Jaipur.

I shared the hotel dorm room with a really nice young woman from China named Ma. She made sure I left the Jaipur hotel in plenty of time to catch my train on February 10 to Jodhpur.

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