India Backpacking 2017-18

CONTENTS
Jaipur and Rajasthan (This page)
Agra and the Taj Mahal
New Delhi
Lucknow
Allahabad
Varanasi
Kolkata

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 nobility.
 
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 musical instruments.
 
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 kitchen areas.
 
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 line.
 
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