JAIPUR - A drive of about four hours along eucalyptus lined roads took us to the Jaipur region of Rajasthan, on the eastern fringes of the Thar Desert. Studded with architectural gems - enormous hilltop and jungle forts, medieval palaces in the plains, and temples. The Rajput feudal tradition remains alive in Jaipur, with a code of loyalty to the local chieftains and immense pride in the past.
Most Indian cities have developed in a pretty haphazard way, but Jaipur was a planned city from its founding in the early 1700s. It long ago outgrew the confines of its ancient walls, with the Old City section remaining a fascinating and unique place. Although the color is actually pinkish-orange, Jaipur is known as the Pink City for the paint on its miles of exterior walls, originally coated with this ceremonial welcoming color in 1876 for a visit from the Prince of Wales. The street life has to be seen to be believed, a chaotic mix of entrepreneurs, pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses, trucks, camel and horse carts, cows and everything else you can name.
At first look, Jantar Mantar is a futuristic set of mighty stone sculptures. The individual pieces are parts of an observatory created by the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah in 1724 to measure everything celestial from altitude to time, and to map precisely the movement of the planets and stars for casting astrological charts. Each component is sufficiently huge and fixed to the site for it to be both exact and not prone to vibration. The largest has its hypotenuse parallel to the earth's axis; the sundials are each set for individual sun signs. After years and years of consulting and research, he first built a spectacular stone observatory in Delhi to satisfy his ruler, then this one for himself in his home city. Today the observatory lies obsolete, in the center of a pleasant park surrounded by high-rises.
The City Palace, once the principal residence of the royal family, is still in excellent condition but now hollow as a tomb. Its sprawling complex of Rajput and Mughal architecture, with open, airy public buildings and private apartments, are testimony to the opulence of the maharajas' lives and their lavish patronage of the arts. Today the palace is also home to a museum for textiles and costumes, miniatures, carpets and manuscripts, and arms and armor galore.
Among the things that stand out in my memory: the two giant silver urns used to carry sacred Ganges water on a state visit to London in 1901; the Court of the Beloved with its four delicately painted doorways representing the seasons; the 7-storeyed palace, each level for a specific function, that towers high above all else; our group-member Frances changing out of her too-warm jeans right at the front entrance, screened by My Sam's newly-purchased bedspread.