INTRODUCTION TO JAIPUR & RAJASTHAN
Rajasthan – the land of royal trappings, chivalry and romance – is a feast for the senses.
It has the largest concentration of monuments of historical and architectural interest in India: magnificent royal forts on high mountain tops towering protectively over ancient living walled cities, exquisitely painted and carved palaces, cenotaphs, victory towers, royal pleasure gardens and hunting lodges, and mansions of aristocrats and merchant princes.
Bazaars brim over – with beautiful handicrafts nurtured by centuries of royal patronage and secure trade routes, and the dramatic colour and fragrance of spices.
The royal courts and feudal fiefdoms sustained distinctive urban traditions of classical music and dance, as well as rural communities of bards who recorded the exploits of the aristocracy through poetry and music. The courts also spawned the art of fine miniature painting on silk – of gods, humans, animals, and abstract themes such as musical raagas – in luminous colours extracted from precious stones and other minerals.
Rajasthan’s western desert districts have been home to India’s largest concentration of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. Historically breeders of fine horses, camels, milch cattle, sheep and goats, these tribes are a rich repository of folk culture – haunting music that rings across the sandy wastes, mesmerising dances, colourful wool-based weaves, brilliant embroidery on fabric and leather, and much more…and folk knowledge about local animal and plant forms.
THE PINK (WALLED) CITY
Given that Rajasthan is the size of a large European country, where does one begin to explore it?
Jaipur is the acknowledged gateway to the region. Historically, by virtue to its proximity to Delhi, it was the most responsive to the cultural influences of Mughal rule and, later, British colonial rule. Today, it has the state’s only international airport. Until recently an unspoilt 18th century experience, Jaipur is today one of India’s fastest growing city. Along with Delhi (250 km) and Agra (230 km), Jaipur makes up the ‘golden triangle’, offering probably the single largest concentration of places of tourist interest in northern India.
Jaipur – the ‘Pink City’ – was built in the early 18th century as a planned city with seven gates, to replace Amber as the capital of the Kacchawa kings. The Kacchawa Rajputs trace their ancestry back to the sun, hence the Sun God as the symbol of Jaipur. Maharaja Jai Singh, its founder, was India’s greatest astronomer king, who opened his court to scientific knowledge from all over the world, sponsored the translation of scientific treatises, and designed the Jantar Mantar, the world’s largest stone and marble crafted observatory with 17 large instruments.
Essential viewing of historical monuments in Jaipur are: Amber fort, the City Palace (and museum), Ram Niwas Bagh museum, Hawa Mahal, and the Jantar Mantar observatory. No trip would be complete without handicraft and jewellery shopping.
For the leisurely and discerning traveler, there are more monuments: Sisodia Rani ka Bagh (Mughal-style pleasure garden), the ancient springs and temples of Galta, the cenotaphs of Gaitore, the Govind Devji Mandir (Krishna temple, personal temple of the royal family since the establishment of the city) and the ancient craft bazaars. At some distance from Jaipur in neighbouring districts, are the step-well –Chand Baori – at Abhaneri,the ancient temple town of Pushkar, and the 13th century shrine of the Sufi saint Chishti in Ajmer, and the national bird sanctuary at Bharatpur.
AMBER, CITADEL OF THE KACCHAWA RAJPUTS
Amber (pronounced Aamer, as in the French mer meaning sea), 10 km outside of Jaipur, was established in the 16th century as the first capital city of the Kachchawa kings. The imposing Amber Fort houses an enormous complex of palaces, zenanas (women’s residences), royal halls of audience, temples, army barracks, and Mughal style gardens. It runs across one of the high hills of the Aravali Range that provided the natural fortification for the later and more settled city of Jaipur that Maharaja Jai Singh commissioned in the 18th century.
Today, the ancient city of Amber outside the fort complex is in ruins, but makes for dramatic viewing from the fort and from close-up. The present municipality of Amber has a dense presence of workshops where artisans continue to make the traditional handicrafts for the modern luxury market – carpets, quilts, miniature paintings on silk, block printed sheer cottons, colourful silk and cotton textiles in tie-dye and embroidery, marble and stone sculpture, and leather craft.
When the Kachchawa capital moved to the new city of Jaipur at the foot of the hills, the kings built two more forts on nearby hill-tops – Jaigarh and Nahargarh – to form a ring of fortification for the new capital. A trip to Amber should ideally include these two unmissable forts, which also contain their own distinctive palace complexes besides offering unforgettable views of Jaipur city spreading out in the distance.
The road to Amber from Jaipur also consists of a magnificent stretch with once-beautiful but now old and crumbling buildings running along one length, and a promenade-fronted lake along the other. In the center of the lake sits the exquisite Jal Mahal (‘Palace of the Waters’, recently restored) against a background of gently rising green hills. From here, the road rises into the starkly dramatic Aravali Hills, and leads on to the Maoti Lake that mirrors the stunning view of the Amber Fort.
CLASSICAL AND FOLK ART & CULTURE
Jaipur has a rich tradition of north Indian classical music – the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana (or school of music) – whose roots are ancient. Jaipur is also one of the homes of the Dhrupad style of north Indian classical vocal music. These arts that once thrived under royal patronage, today look to the market for sustenance.
In the field of north Indian classical dance, Jaipur has been a major center for the kathak form. The expression of romantic love to the accompaniment of elaborate and intricate footwork that brings alive scores of tiny tinkling bells attached to the dancer’s ankles, is the hallmark of this dance form. The Jaipur dance tradition combines, both, Hindu themes depicting Krishna the god of love, and the more performative or entertainment genre as practiced in the Mughal court of medieval Delhi.
Rajasthani folk music – rich baritones trained to waft across desert wastes unaided by microphones to the accompaniment of a range of simple musical and percussion instruments – has acquired an international following. Musicians are of all ages, dressed in colourful and attractive traditional attire, the men universally sporting impressive moustaches. Whole communities of Muslim rural-based musicians were once supported by Hindu princes and merchants. The themes recall great wars and valiant heroes, the agony of the lovelorn, religious devotion, as well as the colours and beauty of the desert, and the interdependence of humans, animals and trees. Today, progressive government policies regularly bring these music troupes out of their villages to perform in entertainment venues in cities both within the country and overseas.
The various royal houses of Rajasthan also spawned schools of miniature painting. Depicting religious, musical and royal themes – gods, lovers, hunting scenes, court audiences, personification of musical raagas (frameworks of musical notes), and more – on scrolls of silk and paper, and using colours extracted from precious and semi-precious stones and other minerals, several of these schools were influenced by the Persian artistic traditions introduced into India by the Mughuls. The Kishangarh style – Kishangarh is a former small kingdom, a two-hour drive away from Savista – is one such distinctive school of miniature painting.
CRAFTS AND ARTISANS
Rajasthan has an ancient and varied craft tradition.
Jewellery-making is one such craft. Traditional styles of hand-made jewellery that used to be patronized by the royalty and that are unique to the region are: precious and semi-precious stones set in gold (kundan), enamel painting on gold (meenakari), and gold embossed on coloured glass (thewa).
There is today a thriving modern designer counterpart that includes work in precious stones set in precious metals, semi-precious stones set in silver, and inexpensive stone-based costume jewellery.
Rajasthan’s heavy tribal silver jewellery – the state is home to the country’s largest tribal population, and these nomads wear all their jewellery on their person – is also famous for its range of designs and functionality.
Other crafts typical of Rajasthan are: textiles – block printing and tie-and-dye (bandhini, laheria) on cotton, silk, georgette and chiffon; hand-made embroidery on cotton using mirrors and silk thread; quilting; bangle making using lac, glass, wood, silk that are embellished with mirrors, sequins, beadwork, and metal wires; stone and marble sculpture and fretwork; embroidered and embellished leathercraft (bags, shoes, sandals); hand painted and glazed blue pottery; unglazed terracotta folk crafts; religious paintings on fabric; among others.
The biggest attractions of Rajasthan are its ancient monuments – forts, palaces – which are architectural masterpieces. Added to these are eco-sites such as elaborately embellished stepwells, lake temples and lake palaces.
The most famous heritage sites are the Amber, Jaigarh and Nahargarh Forts, the City Palace, Hawa Mahal, Jal Mahal, Janta mantar observatory, the cenotaphs of Gaitore, the perennial springs and temples of Galta, and the Sisodia Rani Gardens.
Temples and mosques could also be included here. These religious shrines not only represent distinctive architectural styles but also provide insights into different religious beliefs and practices. Among the most notable in the Jaipur walled city are the Govind Devji Temple and the Jama Masjid mosque and Sarka Suli Minaret. But equally charming and quaint are the literally hundreds of tiny Hindu and Jain temples in virtually every nook and cross-roads of the walled city, part of the way of life of the traders who dominate the demographic profile of the city.
JAIPUR AND AROUND: AJMER, WHERE WISHES COME TRUE
Ajmer has a 1300 year old history, and is the quintessential symbol of India’s syncretic culture: an amalgam of Hindu, Islamic and Jain cultures and traditions that survive even today.
Founded in the 7th century as ‘Ajay Meru’ (‘the invincible hill’), by Maharaja Ajay Pal of the Chauhan Rajput clan as the capital of his kingdom, it yielded to Islam at the end of the 12th century, when the Turkish invader Mohammed Ghori defeated Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the last Hindu king of Delhi. After a turbulent 300-year old history, it became an integral part of the Mughal empire in the mid-16th century, when the Emperor Akbar made it his base for his conquest of Rajputana. In the 19th century, the city came under British rule, a little pocket of British India with an important military base, while the rest of Rajputana remained under the rule of autonomous Rajput kingdoms, albeit under benign British supervision.
Today, the ancient quarter of Ajmer has well-preserved architectural remains – forts, Hindu and Jain temples and cenotaphs, Indo-Islamic architectural monuments such as tombs and palaces, now converted into museums – from all these phases in its history.
But Ajmer is most visited for its 13th century Dargah Sharif, one of the holiest Muslim shrines in south Asia and final resting place of the Sufi saint and mystic Kwaja Moinuddin Chishti (also spiritual mentor of the Mughal emperor Akbar). The shrine is visited by thousands of pilgrims – including Hindus – from all over the world, who come to make a wish before the ‘Bestower of Boons’, and then again, to thank him after the wish is fulfilled. The tradition is to tie a little red-and-yellow thread to one of the marble filigree windows of the shrine when making your wish, and to untie any one thread when you return in gratitude.