2nd day in Jaipur (elephants)
Jan 27, 2005
The fanciful 'Palace of the Winds', or Hawa Mahal, has the ornate facade of a palace with a profusion of windows and carved stone screens. An icon for the city, it is a 5-tiered baroque-like composition of projecting windows and balconies with perforated screens. Built out of lime and mortar and painted pink, its many windows let cool air (hawa) circulate easily while the purdahed women of the royal harem would sit concealed behind these screens to anonymously watch life in the city beyond the walls of the palace.
It was here that we encountered two real-life snake charmers, squatting on the sidewalk. This ancient entertainment has fallen on hard times lately, so they had staked out our empty tourist bus for a gig. As the musicians played on their flutes, the two coiled snakes rose slowly up out of their baskets, their heads waving on long bodies and nodding first this way and that. Charmed and charming! I happily paid a few rupees for the pleasure of watching and taking a photograph.
The streets of the walled city lead through bazaars with shops selling an enormous range of metal goods and kitchenware - brass, copper, and aluminum, as well as assorted hardware of other materials. Sellers of handicrafts, flowers, paper goods, silver jewelry, vegetables and cotton quilts jam in between the narrow storefronts in wild profusion, sometimes on moveable carts, other times on cloths laid out along the sidewalks or on the edge of the streets.
Before this trip I'll admit that I'd regarded most of the Indian items exported for sale at Cost Plus or Pier One to be gaudy and a bit tacky. Now that I've seen them on their own home grounds, I understand and admire them far more. Adornment is the rule of the day in India, whether the object is a building, necklace, bus, earlobe, or sari.
THE AMBER FORT
Eleven kilometers north of Jaipur is the Amber Fort, its massive ramparts following the contours of a natural ridge. We were carried to its main entrance on gently swaying elephants, each patiently ferrying four of us up an inclined series of stone-paved switchbacks. As I rode through the Suraj Pol ("sun gate") and into the humongous flagged courtyard, I tried hard to imagine this as the end of a month-long trek by elephant caravan for a visit to the maharaja in residence. Even with travelogues and documentaries swimming through my mind, it was hard to do more than begin to conjure up the opulence that would have surrounded us when the feudal system was fully in place.
The fort is an organized complex built of red sandstone, with three palaces and numerous halls, pavilions, geometric gardens, colonnades and temples. Its construction was begun in 1592 by Man Singh I on the remains of an 11th century fort, and was added to over the course of 125 years by successive rulers. In fact, it was in use by the ruling elite until Indian independence.
Many of the rooms were cooled by running water cascading over marble chutes and shielded from the sun by intricately carved marble screens. The water comes from Maota Lake, below the fort, in which two elegant and geometric gardens seem to float. The rooms most distant from the entrance constitute the zenana (women's quarters), where Man Singh I housed his 12 wives and concubines in separate apartments, strictly isolating them from each other. Many of the architectural elements were specifically designed and built to keep women out of sight: covered walkways, screened windows, back passages.
TEXTILE COOPERATIVE at ANIL EXPORTS
Jaipur is famous for its carpets and hand block printing, and we stopped in at a textile cooperative tucked away in a two-storey building on a narrow side street. A young man downstairs vigorously demonstrated the multi-step process for doing colorful block printing on bolts of plain cloth while a guide explained the history and chemistry of the art to us. Downstairs, too, was a fellow weaving a patterned carpet on a standing loom, another trimming the carpet face to make the yarns uniform in length, a third using a blowtorch to burn off wool fuzzies on the back, and a fourth squeegee-ing water out of a washed carpet on a concrete floor. Upstairs in the salesroom experienced salesmen and innocent tourist lambs meet face to face. They good naturedly protested as we painfully haggled the price down by one-third. Our resistance crumbled when we were told that 68% of the sales price goes to the cooperative's weavers, and we bought a 5' x 7' silk carpet, oh my goodness. It really is gorgeous, as it should be, and will certainly outlast the both of us. Wrapped up like so much laundry, it became "The Thing We Have to Protect" for the rest of our trip.
THE "ON OUR OWN" TIME
Beautiful silks and woolens are a specialty of the area, and we succumbed. Dave and I got off relatively easy, with a modest assortment of scarves bought at below-bargain-basement prices. That evening, ten of us went for a non-Indian dinner down the street, enjoyed on a fourth floor terrace. Good food, good company, a pick-up marching band in the street below, and fireworks above.