Jaipur, the Jewel of Rajasthan, a magical city of palaces, architectural marvels and Regal treasures. Well that’s what the travel guides imply, but the reality is that this place is in quite a state. After the five hour drive from Delhi (passing the almost nonstop development of IT cities serving Europe) I was highly expectant of the sights this city was to reveal.
Yet from the outskirts, the scenes that greeted us were more reminiscent if the post tsunami devastation of north east Japan than the magical kingdom of the unimaginably rich Maharajas. Falling down buildings, scrap cars, rusting buses, piles of rubble, huge amounts of rubbish and miles of filthy workshops and kiosks lining the road were the reality. Cows crazed amongst the steaming piles of refuse whilst old plastic bags and other litter blew in the breeze. It was a shock; a sad introduction to what was once one of India’s most magical cities. So I really tried my best to see the best in this city.
During the 19th century to mid 20th century, Jaiphur was the epitome of style, luxury and extravagance. Viceroys, European aristocracy, World-Class polo players and artists were the guests of the Majaraja; enjoying the unprecedented luxury of palaces that dotted the Pink City. The city was an architectural delight, built in the early 18th century by Royalty, India’s first planned and designed city, it was a the marvel of northern India. A flavour of this golden era remains, although mainly as crumbling facades, of dirty terracotta. I am told the High Society remains – Polo players, famous cricketers and Royalty, but I have to scratch below the surface to see that!
The distinctive colour of Jaiphur dates back to when Prince Albert visited Rajastan’s capital, when the once yellow city was repainted in a warm welcoming terracotta pink as a gesture of welcome to the Prince Regent.
Today, the City Palace in the centre of old town whets ones appetite for this period of history, but the surrounding government and military buildings are a disgrace; a filthy decrepit indication of the region’s poor local governance. The iconic Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal) just about remains standing, facing a intensely crowded and contaminated thoroughfare, it’s delicate beauty eroded by the cruel reality of daily life in India.
The narrow streets of old town hold few glimpses of beauty, more the daily grind of the poor, desperately trying to survive in environment that seems to trap people in poverty and menial labour. A few scenes offer colour and smiles.
The flower workers prepare petals and sashes for the resorts and hotels, whilst an enthusiastic, opportunist worker hoping for a tip calls me over to share some of his intoxicating, floral perfumes, stored in heavy cut decanters.
Outside the city is the stunning and majestic Amber Fort. The location is inspiring, built on steep rock overlooking the lake. The classic way to arrive is to take an elephant ride up the steep cobbled lane to the main gate, with it’s striking image of the elephant god Ganesh. It’s an inevitable tourist trap; even in low season the hawkers are aggressive, prodding you and thrusting tacky carved elephants in your face and shouting prices.
Climbing aboard the elephant provides a welcome escape although one tinged with compassion and concern for these majestic and intelligent animals, reduced to providing slave labour transport for tourists. I try and enter the spirit of things and smile for the camera, but it is not until we arrive at the fort, and I escape the crowds that I really start to feel the magic of this place. It’s a fascinating mix of architecture, reflecting the influence from Moghul invaders.
It’s about 42 degrees, the hottest day of the year so far, but it’s dry with a breeze and it actually feels much more comfortable than the earlier humidity of Thailand. However, without doubt our hotel offers a calming respite from the heat of the city.
It’s the Rambagh Palace, oozing vintage glamour and Royal extravagance. Peacocks parade through the landscape gardens, as royal horseman guard the entrance. Although a genuine Palatial residence, it’s now a hotel and has been run by Taj Resorts and Palaces for almost 40 years.
It is impeccable; with a flutist playing in the courtyard as the sun sets and doves and wood pigeons fly off to roost; and guests enjoy cocktails on the terrace as turbaned butlers stand at their beck and call. I think this is the closest we’re going to get to the royal magic of Rajastan.