A packed side street in Jaipur suddenly disperses and we see why. Coming our way is a herd of hefty and oblivious cows. I jump out of the way and press myself against the wall – a common reaction to a common occurrence here in India – my years of experience of living and travelling in this great nation have given me such animal-avoiding reflexes. We’re going to be here a while, I think to myself, turning to my boyfriend Thomas to gesture him to do exactly the same and be ready to wait. But he’s even more oblivious than the cows, tucking into an aloo paratha wrapped in local newspaper, beaming me a smile and a thumbs up, signalling just how much fun he’s having on his first trip to India. I smile back, relieved that my German man, a lover of order, minimalism and punctuality also sees the beauty of the chaotic country that I love so much.
Our decision to come to India started in London at the studio of artist Hormazd Narielwalla. It was a cold and dreary London day and as we entered the studio we were both drawn to a 12-panel artwork covering one of its walls entitled The Pink City, inspired by Jaipur. The work was delicately created in shades of pink and marble paper, creating a representation of the Hawa Mahal, the city’s infamous Wind Palace. Thomas was sold, but I wasn’t immediately sure. Having travelled India more than any other country, I was more than a little apprehensive about whether the man I love was ready to cope with the country that I love. India is not always an easy destination to visit – especially for those who expect trains to run on time.
Rajasthan is the heart of India with Jaipur as its capital, divided into the old city and new. The new city showcases where India is headed, with wide roads, perfectly manicured gardens and luxury hotels, constantly trying to maintain a veneer of order. In contrast, the old part of the city is fun, whimsical and somewhat like a crazy, hedonistic older brother.
Our driver drops us at the entrance to the old city where a majestic yet faded archway is our gateway into the unknown. We bid farewell to any idea of orientation as we enter, allowing ourselves to get lost. We wanted to breathe in the city, taste it and let it intoxicate us with all it had to offer; after all, India is all about the senses. As we walk through, it starts to happen – sight, smell, hearing and taste are all immediately stimulated as we are bombarded equally by the most beautiful and horrific smells that merge into one heady scent – one minute an explosion of florals, next the cheap red diesel of the rickshaws. The mouth watering aroma of street-food fights the stomach-turning smell of the fish market in just a short walk. Incense blows in from the local temple, like an aphrodisiac, pulling us deeper and deeper into the city’s dark and ancient side streets. Cumin, anise and turmeric embrace us as spice sellers start to line the streets and hawk their goods, the air so thick with the smell of cinnamon, yet it’s paprika that lingers on our palates.
Throughout this muddled chaos, there is some sense of order. Whole areas of the city are given over to selling the same thing, with each of the ubiquitous stalls claiming to be selling the best cinnamon in India, for example. Another road sells only sewing machines, vintage ones that have been around for decades, but are still fit for use. In India, nothing is ever thrown away, especially not when it can be mended and sold on. An army of young men are hammering away at the traditional pedal-powered machines – with so many people throughout the country still living without electricity and basic utilities, such tools from a bygone era are still highly prized.
The next street reveals what looks like more spices, except they’re vividly coloured. But spice it is not, these powders are used for dyeing fabrics – unless of course you happen to find yourself in this very street during the Hindi festival of Holi, the festival of colours, also known as the festival of love. Holi is famous for people taking to the streets spraying each other with water and coloured powders and anyone there is fair game. It’s a magical festival and the streets are filled with laughter and colour.
We turn a corner and go even deeper into the city, where the noise and banter of trading gets louder with each step. Suddenly I’m hit by the smell of sandalwood, on a narrow road flanked by buildings blocking out the light apart from a single narrow beam, like a follow-spot. We stumble upon the courtyard of a temple basking in the spotlight and before us stands an intricate stone carving of an ancient Hindu goddess. We look up and towering over us, climbing up far above the otherwise dark streets, stretching into the sky as if escaping the chaos that lies around is the rest of the temple, with every inch of stone hand-carved with the images of gods. Our ears fill with the rhythmic chanting and ringing of bells and we both fall into a hypnotic lull of calm and peace.
With calm restored, so is our appetite. In Jaipur, you’re never far away from great street-food. We happen upon yet another sunlit square, packed with hawkers selling all kinds of mouth watering snacks. Huge cauldrons bubble over fires, peanuts are tossed in iron pans, dough is kneaded and samosas fry in hot sizzling oil. The food here is unlike anything we have ever tasted and we fill ourselves with samosas, paratha breads and stuffed potatoes, washing this down with cool, creamy lassi. Leaving the square, we find a stall selling slices of potato fried in chilli powder, giving Pringles a run for their money – but once we popped, we couldn’t stop. We fill our bags with little, beautiful, tamil-newspaper-wrapped packets of snacks and head off for more exploration.
The Amber Fort is our destination, a gorgeous palace sitting in the middle of a lake, once the only source of water for the city. Within the walls of the fort, the architecture is different to the rest of Jaipur – here it’s more Islamic, hinting at its Moorish past. Paintings give way to intricately carved marble and inlaid patterns. The humdrum of the city dispersed somewhat and we have just monkeys for company. In a hilarious attempt to get a good monkey photo, we chase one into a great stone chamber, once home to a royal bath. Steps lead to more steps that lead to nowhere, and everywhere gradually and gracefully meets the water. It is an optical illusion much akin to the famous Escher painting.
Back in the old city, we’ve become pros. We were now easily navigating what was previously a warren of confusion to us. We pass and wave to the peanut man who tells us his nuts are the best in Jaipur, he waves back as if we were local. We turn left at the road selling flower garlands for temple-devoted pilgrims. We head straight down the road of the now closed, but still pungent fish market, dodging the puddles of fishy water. We take a shortcut past a man selling saffron, teetering carefully not to knock any of his bags over, bearing in mind that the spice is more valuable than gold, weight for weight.
Back on the main road flanked by men with bicycle rickshaws, we find the very thing that started our journey to Jaipur in the first place. There, surrounded by honking horns of cars, the screeching of Bollywood music from their speakers, in all its pink glory is The Palace Of The Winds. In this very instance, our story comes full circle. It’s even more magnificent than we had ever imagined and we stand staring at it in awe. Built just as the 18th century drew to a close, it is a great example of Hindu and Mughal fusion architecture.
The Maharajah Sarai Pratap Singh who commissioned the building insisted on its architectural features – majestic domed canopies supported by fluted pillars, so to form the perfect image of Hindu god Krishna’s crown. Surfaces are embellished with exotic lotus designs and floral patterns, romantic expressions of Hindu folklore, but a closer look reveals wide arches of geometric designs and fine filigree that is distinctly Islamic. Lattice worked windows are meticulously carved out of the structure, revealing nearly a thousand small casements and an ingenious honeycomb design, meaning that each window is essentially only a small peephole. Why? Practicality – because of a strictly enforced Purdah system at the time of building that prohibited royal Rajput ladies from been seen by strangers or appearing in public – these miniscule windows allowed them to look out onto the streets surrounding the palace and enjoy the royal processions as they passed, but never be spotted by mere commoners. But beyond the religious reasoning, there is also another functional aspect – ventilation. It allows air to freely circulate within the closed rooms of the palace, making this sanctuary a cool but secluded haven from the outside heat.
The flamboyant and eccentric exterior of the palace is a stark contrast to what lies inside. While the outside is like a heavily embellished and intricate sari worn by the Rajasthani women, its interior takes on a pure and unpretentious beauty with no need for over-the-top finery. I take this as a fine metaphor for what Jaipur is all about. Through all the fine and colourful street scenes, grand architecture and absolute beauty, it is what lies beneath it all that really captures my heart and creates long lasting memories for me. In Jaipur, people have a beauty and warmth that is both innocent and proud. The pride that the locals have for their city is electric – strangers will come up to you and strike up conversations about its past and present, vendors at streetfood stalls eagerly await your verdict as you tuck into their wares and will happily list every spice and ingredient used. Children will run up to you eager to show-off their English language skills. Rickshaw drivers will rattle off the history of every building you whizz past in their sputtering vehicles.
Jaipur is the warmest of hosts, she feeds us well on a diet of culture, architecture, spirit and samosas. But it is the warm smiles and enthusiasm of her people that is absolutely contagious and is what I shall take home with me. For me, the Palace of the Winds writes a lesson in the wind – to never ever underestimate the enormous power and beauty of a simple smile.
David was a guest of the luxurious ITC Rajputana.