KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
After doing most of our travel in India by air, we decided to take the train from Jodhpur to Jaipur. Over the more than thirty years that we have been visiting India, the train has been our main mode of travel. Then, air travel in India was still in its infancy and, with the availability of an Indrail Pass, we were able to travel easily and fairly inexpensively. Many times, we found ourselves on an overnight train every third night during our three weeks visits, travelling from one family member’s home to another. On Adia’s first trip to India in 1991 she referred to our holiday as ‘the tour of the living rooms’.
The trains themselves were fairly comfortable, but the toilets left much to be desired. I never really minded the fact that when one flushed the toilet, it emptied onto the tracks below. This had been the case when I was young and travelled across Canada on the CNR, but there were signs asking passengers not to flush while the train was standing in the station. I don’t recall ever seeing such a sign on an Indian train and the stations were often pretty smelly places. The former Chief Minister of Bihar, Anil’s home state, now the Union (federal) Cabinet Minister in charge of Railways, recently announced that Indian trains will be environmentally friendly by fitting them with holding tanks. The plan is to separate the solid material from the liquid material and then recycle the liquids to use them to flush the toilets. Still sounds smelly to me!
This brings me to a recent newspaper article about the astonishing incident on an Indian train. A seven-months pregnant woman locked herself into a toilet and without realizing she was in labour, gave birth to a baby girl. The tiny baby slipped into the chute and fell onto the tracks. The woman passed out and it was only when people waiting to use the toilet alerted the attendant, that they were able to get into the toilet to assist the woman. The train was halted and a search was on for the infant. The baby girl was found unharmed, lying on the track some distance back. Both mother and daughter are doing well and the mother is planning to name the baby, Karishma (miracle). If the trains were already ‘green’ Karishma would not be alive today. Only in India!
Now getting back to our journey to Jaipur; we decided on the train because there was a convenient train leaving Jodhpur at 9:15 am and arriving in Jaipur about six hours later. This train did not have a chair car so we booked AC Sleeper seats. The seats are up for the day but can be lowered if someone wishes to rest on the upper berths. Our compartment was full when we left Jodhpur but the family across from us left after a couple of hours and we had the whole space to ourselves for the rest of the trip. It was wonderful to sit by the window and watch Rajasthan slip by. I always find it interesting to see the different homes people build, the small industries that exist along the railway lines and to see people waiting at the stations to say goodbye to loved ones or greet people arriving on the train. We read our books, dozed for a while, ate our packed lunch and before we knew it, we were pulling into Jaipur, The Pink City.
Jaipur was founded by the great Maharaja Jai Singh II (1693-1743). Previous Maharajas had established good relations with the Mughals and he continued the alliance. With this in mind, he decided to move from the hilltop fortress of Amber and build a city 11kms away. The entire city was laid out in large rectangular blocks according to an ancient Hindu architectural text. Towards the end of his reign, he built a remarkable observatory, the Jantar Mantar. In 1876, a later Maharaja had the entire city, the crenellated walls, and the gates, painted pink, a colour associated with hospitality, to welcome the visit of the Prince of Wales. The tradition of painting the old city’s buildings pink has endured to this day. The streets are lined with shady arcades where businesses are grouped according to the crafts they produce and sell. The Old City of Jaipur is so strikingly different than any other city in India that a visitor will hardly ever forget its distinctive colour.
We purchased a ticket at the pre-paid auto rickshaw stand and headed for the Bani Park area, outside the city walls. The Lonely Planet listed several attractive guesthouses near one another so we decided not to call ahead and just go and have a look at the rooms themselves. The first place we tried was completely full for the four nights we planned to stay in Jaipur, and the second, the Jai Vilas, only had rooms for our first two nights. We went to several other places nearby but all were full. It was then we learned that a big society wedding was planned and we would be lucky to get a room in a decent hotel or guesthouse for our final two nights. We scurried back to the Jai Vilas and checked in for a two-night stay, hoping they might get a cancellation at the last minute.
The Jai Vilas is a lovely twelve-room guesthouse, with large airy rooms and spacious bathrooms. It was a real treat. As there are few places to eat nearby, the Jai Vilas provides meals for guests. We weren’t up to a full buffet dinner so we walked several blocks to the rooftop terrace of the Jaipur Inn, where we had read in our guidebook that we would see a ‘spectacular’ view of the city at night. Note – this is the first time that I have found the Lonely Planet to be incredibly wrong. The view was nothing to rave about but there was a nice breeze on the terrace. We ate a simple meal on the ground floor of the Inn and walked back ready for bed.
We planned to start our sightseeing of Jaipur straight away the next morning, but I awoke with a migraine headache. We decided that the ‘foreign’ tonic water that we purchased in Jodhpur, so that I could have a gin and tonic, was probably made in India with whatever chemical they add to soft drinks that gives me headaches. It was a steep price to pay for a cocktail without ice. Anil wasn’t too disappointed because he was able to watch a great game of golf in which Tiger Woods played magnificently. Later that evening we spoke to the manager of the hotel, a retired Indian Army engineer and he assured us he would find us a suitable place to stay even if there were no cancellations. That was great, it meant that we didn’t have to use our precious time hunting for a place to sleep for our last two nights.
The next morning, we set off after a terrific breakfast at the Jai Vilas, to tour the Jaipur City Palace. As palaces go, it wasn’t special but there were a couple of things that made it memorable. When we arrived, we found the Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Hall) filled with a collection of royal costumes and other remarkable textiles. From there we passed through a gate to a courtyard containing the Diwan-i-Kas (Hall of Private Audience). Here we came upon a musical performance by a troupe of Rajasthani men. The sound of their drums and flutes echoed throughout the arches of the hall and brought the place to life. We wandered around the hall looking at some of the exhibits – the most remarkable ones were the 1.6m tall silver vessels used by one of the Maharajas to carry holy Ganges water to England when he travelled.
After coming back to the entertainment, we noticed an elderly gentleman in a modern grey suit watching the performers. He appeared to have bodyguards with him and when we asked, we learned that he is the current Maharaja. He looked so unassuming; too bad he wasn’t wearing some of the incredible clothing we viewed earlier. Actually, this would have been hardly likely because the garments we viewed were tailored for a Sawai Madho Singh I who was 2m tall, 1.2m wide and weighed 250kg. He had 108 wives so I guess there was plenty of him to go around. The current Maharaja has only one wife and one daughter. Unassuming, as I mentioned before.
We walked through to the last courtyard before the private residence of the Maharaja starts and admired the four gates there. Each is designed for one of the four seasons, but it was the winter gate, with its bas-relief peacocks that was our favorite. It was heating up as the day progressed so we sat in the shade for a while and admired the towering royal apartments from afar. Time to leave and visit the famous Hawa Mahal, nearby. As we left the City Palace, we succumbed to the temptation to have a kulfi from a roadside vendor. We had made a pledge not to eat street food, but the ice-cold frozen dessert looked too tempting. I checked that the kulfi was packaged properly, that it was completely frozen and found it was served by sticking a clean wooden stick into one end and removing it without touching the ice cream. We each had one, and they were delicious. Some risks are part of adventure travel, right?
We walked the short distance to visit the unique Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds). It is really Jaipur’s most famous landmark. We had seen it on our previous visit to Jaipur in 1991 and I remember feeling sad that it was in such a state of disrepair. As we walked closer, I could see that the front façade had been restored and that scaffolding was erected on the backside and repairs were ongoing. The five-story building was constructed in 1799 to allow the royal women to glimpse the activities and processions on the streets below. The building is extremely narrow, with tiny delicate honeycombed windows that maintain the privacy of the viewers watching from above. The pale pink sandstone façade, decorated with delicate white detailing adds an air of a fairytale to the towering building. We climbed to the top for a wonderful view of the city and the surrounding mountains and fortresses.
No luck with cancellations, but we were fortunate that a niece of the Jas Vilas owners had just completed renovations on her family’s home and was ready for the first visitors to her guesthouse. There are five rooms and we were free to pick our favorite. We chose the one with the bathroom we liked the best although all the rooms were charming. Our stay at the Laxmi Vilas included breakfast and we asked for dinner to be served as well. We really enjoyed our stay there and found it a little less formal, although we did miss the view of the swimming pool. The biggest treat of all was to find that a large number of peacocks had made the garden their second home and arrived every morning for a treat. Peacocks feature as a theme throughout the decorations used in the palaces of Rajasthan and it was fitting that we were surrounded by these magnificent birds as we wound up our stay and prepared to return to Delhi.