India Backpacking 2017-18
Jaipur and Rajasthan
24 Oct. Jaipur
Security forces in Bangkok have been in high gear to look after
the huge crowds expected for the late king’s cremation two days from now. So it’s
probably best for me to head out today. I arrived early at Bangkok’s old airport,
Don Mueang, and hung out at the relatively quiet observation room until check-in.
Air Asia’s Flight FD130 on an A320-200 headed into the night sky a little after
8 p.m. for the four-hour flight to Jaipur. It seemed a bargain at $99.26 including
checked luggage even though seating is a bit tight on knee room and no free meals
or entertainment screens are provided.
Jaipur is the capital of India’s
western state Rajasthan, a vast land of deserts and mountains with lots of wonderful
palaces, forts, temples, and stories of chivalry. I cycled here extensively on my
first visit to India in 1984 and again in 2011, when I took in the huge camel fair
and festival at the sacred lakeside town of Pushkar—camels to the horizon in every
direction! I also made shorter visits in 1993 (backpacking) mainly to see the bird
sanctuary at Bharatpur and in 2010 (cycling) to see the fantastic Jain temples and
other sights atop Mount Abu. Jaipur is an unlikely entry point for India, but the
air fare was a deal and the city makes a good starting point for this trip. I’ve
made plans to journey east to Kolkata and visit many monuments and sacred spots
on the way. I’m backpacking now as this route wouldn’t be good on a bicycle.
My flight turned out to be the only one to arrive in Jaipur this late at night,
so getting through immigration was quick and easy. A temperamental ATM eventually
coughed up 10,000 rupees, the maximum. Then I bought a 450-rupee pre-paid taxi ticket
to Chitrakatha “A Story per Stay” guesthouse
www.chitrakatha.co.in/ but on arrival
the person at the desk couldn’t find the reservation that I had made with hotels.com.
He summoned the manager who eventually found the reservation that had come from
Expedia, not hotels.com, hence the confusion. At $30.93 for three nights I got a
modest little single room with hot water and fan. It’s a good place in a quiet location,
and I recommend it.
25 Oct. Jaipur
I had a leisurely breakfast on
the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, then got an autorickshaw (3-wheeler) through thick
and ferociously honking traffic to the City Palace, which stands in pink majesty
in the center of the pink-walled old city. The elaborate Mubarak Mahal (Welcome
Palace) holds a textile museum with incredibly finely woven and embroidered robes
of the maharajas along with saris, shawls, and carpets. Similarly fine metalwork
fills the Armoury, full of swords and blunderbusses. Ceremonial knives with jade
or crystal handles were very popular in the old days! The next courtyard centered
on the open-sided Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) where the maharajas conferred
with their ministers. Here I turned north into the inner courtyard, Pitam Niwas
Chowk, famed for its four painted gates that correspond to the seasons. The white
Chandra Mahal, residence of royal descendants and only open on very expensive tours,
towers above. Next I had a look at a lineup of old royal carriages, then swung through
the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences) with its portraits of Indian and British
Across the road I explored the finely crafted astronomical
instruments of Jantar Mantar, begun by Maharaja Jai Singh in 1828. Signs explain
how observations could be made from each of the sculpture-like structures.
Rajasthani people turn out lots of colorful paintings, textiles, puppets, and other
creations. There’s a huge shop in the City Palace and I got many an entreaty to
come inside as I walked along Siredeori Bazaar. When I cycled through Jaipur in
1984, relatively few people owned motorcars, making it a far more pleasant place.
Now traffic barely moves at commute times. I walked a little ways, then took a cycle
rickshaw to Nataraj, a vegetarian restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
The silver-haired rickshaw wallah was probably older than me, but he managed to
negotiate the traffic safely. Only a small number of cycle rickshaws still operate
in the city and I imagine that when his generation is gone there will be none to
replace it. The use of bicycles also has declined now that almost everyone feels
the need for a motorbike if they cannot afford a car. The Natraj happened to be
closed today, but I found nearby Surya Mahal and got a very tasty and rich North
Indian vegetarian thali along with a fresh-lime soda and bottle of water—I had gotten
very thirsty as well as hungry from the sightseeing.
26 Oct. Jaipur
With an earlier start, I had a porridge breakfast, then hired an autorickshaw for
the day (600 rupees). We first went to Central Museum—a collection seemingly frozen
in time from the late 19th century—in the flamboyant Albert Hall south of the old
city. It’s full of arts and crafts from India, other parts of Asia, and England.
Ceramics and brassware fill much of the lower floor, and there’s a gallery of carpets
including an immense and beautiful ‘Persian garden’ that has a pictorial design
reminiscent of a Mughal garden with trees and flowers divided by water ways. Upstairs
I especially like the superbly detailed miniature paintings among the textiles and
Back into the heavy traffic, we maneuvered north
to Hawa Mahal, easily Jaipur’s most iconic structure. A maharajah had the magnificent
five-story pink honeycomb facade built in 1799 so that ladies of the court could
discretely watch processions and city life through small openings. Colored glass
adds beauty to the interior. Multiple courtyards provided areas for the women to
stroll outdoors yet out of sight. The heights also offer good views west to Jantar
Mantar and City Palace, north to hilltop Nahargarh Fort, and east to Siredeori Bazaar
and beyond. On the way out I happened upon a gallery of ancient stone carvings that
depict musicians and dancers.
A drive about 13 kilometers northeast
climbed into a countryside of rocky hills to the entrance of Amber Fort, begun in
1592 and easily the grandest palace complex in the Jaipur area. Oddly the name has
nothing to do with the fort’s pretty pastel yellow color; rather the fort takes
its name from the town of Amber, which honors the goddess Amba. I hiked past a formal
garden, then up a stone-paved road to Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) and entered Jaleb Chowk,
the first of four large courtyards. The expensive combination ticket I purchased
yesterday at Jantar Mantar for 1000 rupees also included Amber Fort as well as the
Central Museum and Hawa Mahal, so I didn’t have to wait in a ticket line today.
A stairway led up to the second courtyard and Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience),
which had been taken over by a filming crew. More steps led up to the beautifully
painted Ganesh Pol gate and the third courtyard. Here dazzling inlaid mirror work
shines in the two-story Jai Mandir (Victory Hall). On the other side across a formal
garden, stands Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure), which once held a cascading stream—now
dry—running across it.
The Zenana, apartments of the maharaja’s many
wives and concubines, surround the fourth courtyard. Passageways and entrances here
enabled the maharaja to make nocturnal visits to his choice of partner without the
neighbors being aware. I climbed up to the heights for great views all around, then
descended into the depths of one of the large water reservoirs, now nearly dry.
On the way out I happened to see a sign for a tunnel, said to be a common feature
of forts from this period. The route descended into relative darkness, then inclined
upward toward the 1726 hilltop fortress Jaigarh. Farther along the passage way opened
to the sky, though remained hidden in a trench. Steps then led to a gate on the
stone-paved road, still far below Jaigarh. An electric cart offered to shuttle me
to the fortress gate for 100 rupees return, and with the afternoon getting late,
I hopped on along with several other tourists.
Jaigarh spreads over
an immense area on the flat-topped hill, and the 500-rupee ticket that I purchased
yesterday for City Palace also covered this fort. I first went to a cannon foundry
to see old plaster molds and the four-oxen-driven drill that bored the cannons.
Nearby I got a fine view of massive Amber Fort far below.
A guide attached
himself to me and led the way through the palace area, far simpler than those of
Amber Fort, but featuring better views. A path led past royal quarters, then high
above a formal garden to a pair of pavilions and even better panoramas. The guide
pointed out two reservoirs below and the path that camels and elephants trod to
bring up water. As we neared the second pavilion, the guide pulled out his belt
and vigorously chased off the langur monkeys, saying they had a bad habit of jumping
onto visitors. Next we passed the dining halls, separate for men and women, and
Another fellow encouraged me to visit the giant cannon
‘Jaivana’ at the southern end of the fort complex. Cast in 1720, the cannon is 20
feet long, weighs 50 tons, and has a range of 22 miles. It’s probably one of the
reasons why invaders never conquered this fort!
A ride down in the
electric cart and a long walk past Amber Fort led back to the main road and my autorickshaw
driver. On the way back he stopped at a lakeside park so I could have a look at
the 1799 ‘floating’ Jal Mahal (Water Palace) in the midst of Man Sagar reservoir.
The Natraj restaurant on MI Road was open today and I had a super tasty vegetarian
North Indian thali.
Jaipur’s weather felt pleasantly cool at night,
warm and sunny by day, completely different from Bangkok where the monsoon season
has lingered with a shower or thunderstorm most days along with lots of heat and
humidity. A perpetual haze lingers in the winter sky, and I assume that it’s caused
by a mix of dust and coal-fired power plant fumes.
27 Oct. Jaipur
A few high clouds drifted overhead, though the chance of rain stayed at zero. The
guesthouse manager arranged a railway ticket through an agent for the 3.5-hour ride
to Agra early tomorrow morning, saving me from having to go to the station and wait
In the afternoon I ventured by autorickshaw into heavy traffic
for a ride into a little rocky valley just north of town to visit the Royal Gaitor
(Gatore ki Chhatryan), cenotaphs of the maharajas. Beautifully carved stone pavilions
of white marble and fine-grained pink or white sandstone—all very well preserved—honor
the deceased rulers. A few structures also have carvings of musicians and dancers.
Nahagarh (Tiger Fort) towers high above and stone walls course across the hillsides.
Back in town, I swung by Surya Mahal, this time going for South Indian
cuisine—a masala dosa and uttapam, followed by a banana split—all divine! A
couple days ago a newspaper had announced the Kaharwa Fusion band tonight at
Jawahar Kala Kendra, an art center in the south of the city, and I headed there
for the free 7 p.m. performance. The 11-member group combined Indian classical
music, Rajasthani folk music, and Western styles and instruments for an
entertaining program of mainly vocals plus instrumental interludes. Afterward I
found an autorickshaw for the ride back to the guesthouse, but this one was
electric and a bit slower than the high-polluting normal machines.
On to Agra and the Taj Mahal