Travel stories from the pink city

Popularly known as the pink city, Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, is a comparatively quiet and traditional city of India. Not as urban as some of the other metropolitan cities of the country, it still has immense appeal, for it houses within itself, a strong and prosperous history, which make the city, a frequently travelled-to-destination. It has an aesthetic charm unique to the royal rule it has been a witness to. The city houses many forts, palaces, museums and temples, and other buildings of major historical and heritage value and significance that speak volumes of the many real stories, personalities and legends that make the city. Names like Nahargarh Fort, Jaigarh Fort, Amber or Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal, Jal Mahal, and various other such heritage sites, make for an eclectic historical journey through Jaipur, while one absorbs the cultural affluence of the city.

Many of the old city walls are painted a rusty shade of pink and hence the name pink city. The markets of the city are eloquent and will tell any traveller many stories about the culture and beliefs of the communities that live here. Many intricate fabric-work, cloth-work, gems and jewellery - from shoes, Rajasthani puppets to traditional clothes to other folk art, make Jaipur bazaars and fairs - colourful and beautiful places-of-exploration. They are crowded, many-hued-within, article-filled, with locals selling a variety of items - and these bazaars provide one an authentic look at the regional art and craft, traditions, and partially, a look into the soul of the city - because here reside the imperial and local flavours of the state, in myriad forms.

To see Jaipur up close, the following passages in detail elucidate the experiences of a couple travelling from the United States to Jaipur. Alan and Sonia have shared their wonderful stories from the city, taking us into their individual personal accounts of how they viewed Jaipur. It is interesting to note how even though they were visiting together; they still had different perspectives on the same city. From their varied experiences, one can only imagine how versatile the pink city of Jaipur is and how it can evoke wide-ranging storytelling from every single traveller.

Here is the first very absorbing, empathic and observant story from Alan:

“My girlfriend had been to India before and had read about interesting and beautiful places to visit. She recommended places in the land of kings, Rajasthan, so that we could see the glories that the powerful and rich kingdom of Samarkand had brought to India hundreds of years before. And, after meditating twice a day—once first thing in the morning and once before dinner—almost every day since the late 90s, I was excited to visit India, the ancient home of my transcendental meditation practice. We were in Jaipur three nights and two full days, arriving by air from Delhi and leaving by train to Udaipur. It was my first trip to India. On this trip, we decided to see some of Delhi, where Sonia had been in a weeklong education meeting and workshop, then Varanasi, one of the holiest sites for Hindus, and finally cities in the Land of Kings, namely Jaipur and Udaipur, where the history and architecture are known to be very rich.

Our first impression of Jaipur, on riding from the airport to the Haveli hotel is that it was larger than anticipated, with much of it newer, and lying outside of the old pink city. Then, on second glance, a little night walk through the gate next to a Hindu temple and a few blocks into the pink city revealed a lively place, full of sweets, milk and flower vendors (you will have to guess through which gate we entered). Our third glance, from a hillside fortress overlooking the city, revealed a pretty lake and a huge metropolis that has greatly expanded - and now stretches for miles in all directions away from the central pink city’s walls. A local guide told us how fast the city had developed—like all cities around the world—with continuously more people moving from the countryside looking for work and a better life; at the same time adding to the chaos consisting of people and traffic competing for a bit of space, peace and calm.

Powerful Mughal armies had, taking advantage of local Indian rivalries, invaded and brought riches from the Samarkand Empire to build their impressive architectural gems and culture here.

We could call Jaipur a “Place to stimulate all of the senses.”

The beautiful art and architecture of our Haveli hotel and large beautiful room was delightful, even if refurbished over the years. The combination art and architecture in the palaces, fortresses and the pink city layout are truly impressive remains of a wealthy and powerful past, and remind us of how predictably all empires grow and then fall. It is just a matter of time. This is akin to the universe’s inevitable construction or growth followed by destruction or loss of whatever was; also similar to the cycle of life, like the remnants and reminders of constant change at work.

Finding three or four Lassi Wallas next to each other was humorous, as one had justifiably become famous, followed by some “me-toos” who adopted or stole the same business name. Right next to the original one, the me-toos were trying to ride the reputation of the real Lassi Walla or Lassiwala. Many out-of-town customers likely knew the name, but not the difference between them (but our guidebook wisely pointed us to the original Lassi Walla business who had wisely responded to the “Lassi Walla Impostors” by putting his own name on his sign). Unique drink and good food were central to our visit to Jaipur.

Having our noses and taste buds stimulated by incredible Indian dishes, spices and flavours were other highlights of the trip.

One morning, when we learned what the “climbing fee” to some of the forts in Jaipur was, we agreed to pay it—we hired a tuk-tuk driver outside our haveli. Soon we found ourselves winding upwards, climbing along a road to the top of a big mesa overlooking the city. Our destinations: Jaigarh and Nahargarh Forts. When we arrived and entered the Jaigarh Fort, a large group of local schoolchildren were standing in a long line on their way to the famous giant cannon—the biggest in the world. As soon as the children saw us they lit into big smiles and started shouting “good morning” and “hi” while their ever-attentive teacher, guides tried to hush them—all the while trying their best to look gracious and polite to us. It was very humorous, and as we passed the long line, all the kids wanted to shake our hands, which drove their teacher, minders to distraction. One minute the minders would look kindly at us, and when we looked away, they looked admonishingly at the excited children. The entire scene and experience was even more interesting than the old but impressive cannon, inside the Jaigarh fort.

People here are very telegenic and most do not mind their pictures being taken. In fact, some people welcome it. While at Jaigarh Fort, we saw a group of Gujaratis, all in white outfits and turbans. When they noticed us taking photos of them, they all lined up for a group photo and kindly posed for us.

My advice and recommendation for travellers to Jaipur would be—If affordable, travel off-season or “shoulder season” the time between high and low seasons, and stay in a beautiful Haveli hotel. The extra beauty is well-worth it. This is one place to not go ‘on the cheap’ as it were—spend and enjoy.

The old but beautiful forts, palaces on the mesas overlooking the city are highlights not to be missed, climbing fee notwithstanding. Amer Fort and Nahargarh Fort are outstanding for their beauty, more like castles than fortresses. It is interesting that places designed to fight, defend and protect the local 17th-century populations—were so well ornamented in architecture and art. There is ‘art for defense and war’ here. Fortresses in other parts of the world were very utilitarian—simple blocks of stone and mortar, while these emperors of Rajasthan decided to adorn their fortresses with beauty.

Dive right in through the old pink city walls and walk the market streets for some local flavor and shopping. Take in the colorful sights and smells. Take photos to your heart’s content—people are not shy. Eat in local restaurants and enjoy the wonderful, authentic tastes like we can only rarely get in our home countries.

As a traveller, I would probably try to see other places and cities in India when I next come for a visit. Next stop will likely be in Kerala, this winter, for a lovely week of Panchakarma.”

-Alan Schroeder, originally from rural New York State where the Unadilla and Susquehanna Rivers meet, now resident of Virginia, works as an international agriculture and environment consultant.

The next story is from Sonia, who had her own beautiful and perceptive take on Jaipur:

“This was my second trip to India. I had visited Delhi, Agra and cities in the South of India before. I was interested in visiting Rajasthan as I had heard that the area was one of the most colorful destinations in India. The pink city came up in books and I had seen pictures of some of the places to visit. Coming from the airport into the city, at first, Jaipur looked big, modern and busy. As we approached the historic center, the city was more than I had expected: impressive architecture, the wall that surrounded the center gave it an inviting look and the bazaars were fascinating. I loved the diversity of people, the smells, the colors, the variety of textiles, spices, foods, flowers and the many activities people were involved in.

I do not know a whole lot about Jaipur’s history, but I have read that Jaipur was named after one of the Maharajas (Jai Singh) who was interested in astronomy. He planned the city and built an observatory. The city was painted pink to receive the visit of royalty from the UK. Jaipur was also a wealthy place where forts and palaces of incredible architecture were built. I found Jaipur a worthwhile place to visit. We stayed in a haveli and that made the visit even more interesting as I was able to imagine the people who lived there before, and the kind of lifestyles they had.

One of my favorite things in Jaipur was being able to walk inside the city and being surprised by events or unexpected things – like seeing an elephant walking in the middle of the road among cars, motorcycles or tuk-tuks.

I enjoyed seeing the food section of the bazaars and tasting the sweets and seeing the piles of spices, peppers and tea. Visiting historical sites such as the forts, palaces like the Hawa Mahal, and the observatory - the Jantar Mantar, and the museums were excellent to complete the experience.

The day we visited the Jaigarh Fort we ran into school children and their teachers visiting the area. The sight of a long line of children wearing uniforms along the old fort structures was incredible. The contrast of the colorful saris worn by the teachers was amazing. As we got closer to them, they greeted us and their faces lit up with smiles, and they said, “good morning auntie… hello auntie”. The children wanted to talk to us and say hello, while their teachers wanted them to be well behaved. They wanted to shake our hands and have their pictures taken. Their beautiful smiling faces were a sight I won’t forget.

The night before we left Jaipur we took a tuk-tuk to our haveli. The young man who took us (Shriniv was his name, as far as I remember) started talking to us and asked us how well we knew Jaipur and where we had been. We told him about the places we had seen, to which he responded, “You haven’t seen the real Jaipur. The real Jaipur is not in the guidebooks. It is where the people like me live. You can see how we live in the slums, how we share our lives in a community and then you will see the real Jaipur.” He told us he was a musician and then he burst into the reggae song Buffalo Soldier by the late Bob Marley. Suddenly I found myself joining him in song, and singing along with him as loud as possible, until we made it into our haveli. I wished I’d had enough time to see the real Jaipur with him.

Walking in the old city late one afternoon, we heard some music coming from nowhere. A crowd was approaching and then here was a corpse covered in colorful cloth and flowers being carried by a couple of men making their way through the crowd towards a temple. It was a funeral as I had never seen before. Walking in the old city we also heard a bell and then we saw people going in and out of a temple. As we stood outside the temple, a wooden cart was outside as if waiting for something. Then we saw people coming out of the temple bringing trays of food and putting them in the cart. We figured the food was being blessed before being taken away. I do not know if that was the real reason, but it was nice to think it was true.

We were in Jaipur for a few days. This was my first visit. I would like to return to see the “Real Jaipur.”

My advice for others travelling to Jaipur would be to take several days to first see the sights that every tourist sees, but then to also take time to see other things and relax and walk around more. I would also advise travellers to get on a tuk-tuk and ask the driver to take them to non-tourist sites for a couple of hours. The places they must definitely see are inside the city walls. I’d tell them to walk as much as possible, to get lost in the city and to try the local foods.

I loved the lassi at Lassi Walla served in a clay cup. I will always remember that flavor and texture and would like others to try it as well. We took the train from Jaipur to Udaipur and would suggest travellers to try the experience. It was unforgettable. It was hot (because there were no seats left in the AC compartments) and long, but it was wonderful to share food with Indian families, to try hot chai from vendors who sold it at a couple of stops, to see the countryside, to see musicians who came aboard and sang for tips, and to see how Indian families travel together.”

-Sonia Ortega, Biologist, originally from Nicaragua, currently living in the United States.

The pink city has an enigmatic pull and has thus enamored many enthusiastic travellers in the past and will continue to. Intelligent and experienced travellers like Alan and Sonia enjoy their travels, mainly because they also understand the diverse richness of different communities and cultures like those in Jaipur and are able to weave in and out of situations that occur.

Delineating the city would not be complete without mentioning its residents, who are generally quite helpful and their behaviour and mannerisms are steeped in tradition and culture. Apart from its local life, every fort, monument, temple, museum; bazaars like Bapu Bazaar, Johri or Johari Bazaar, Badi Chopad or Chopar, Chhoti Chopad; and several other traditional buildings are the highlights of Jaipur. Exploring the bazaars would be an adventure in itself. I would also personally suggest going to Nahargarh fort in the evening, if circumstances permit, to see the entire city lit up from a much higher vantage point. Every monument in the pink city has their own history and a story to tell, and they are always something worth further discovering when one is in Jaipur.

One can also see peacocks aplenty on the way to Nahargarh and Jaigarh forts, or peacocks perched on the top of some of the Jaipur residences if one keeps a watch. Apart from the sights and sounds of the city, also look for good food here. Rajasthani cuisine is delectable, and those who fancy spicy food, would do well to try out mirchi vada (fried large chilly doused in chickpea flour), pyaaj ki kachori (similar to an onion fritter), mawa kachori (sweet) and varied other such dishes. The list of food items of Rajasthan available in Jaipur could just go on.

Be it eating typical Rajasthani food, purchasing semi-precious jewels, artificial jewellery, colourful fabrics and clothes, folk creations; engaging in a variety of inexpensive or expensive shopping one wishes to do here, or the many other ethnic, urban or traditional experiences one wants to bring back as memories, the city has a lot to offer. On a final note though, before heading to Jaipur - learn about the places to see in detail, gather information from experienced travellers, know where to go and what to see, so that one can explore to their hearts’ content.

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Picture Credit: Photograph of Rajasthani puppets outside a bazaar in Jaipur, by Trisha Bhattacharya

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