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AGRA - JAIPUR (Day 7)

We set off early for the pink city of Jaipur, so called because its most prominent buildings are washed with this colour. We are told that it is the Shah who, every two years, determines exactly when this happens and the precise shade of pink.

Today we are to be on some of Rajasthan's increasingly modernised network of roads. On some, our driver has to pay tolls while entering a new district. There is little traffic, but there is a mixture of cars, lorries (especially military as we are relatively near the fraught border with Pakistan), motorbikes with side-saddled woman often with baby and other children, tractors, camels and even pedestrians!  Only we are fazed with the style of Indian commuting - even when something on our side of the road is going the wrong way!

Our toilet stop near Maya also gives me another opportunity to indulge in my new love of masala chai with cardamon and ginger. It goes down suprisingly well with a cheese toastie and samosas. VJ, our driver, declines to join us as he is fasting before a Feast Day. He is a devout member of the Brahman Hindu sect, the only sect from which one can become a priest.

Some more driving on the impressive main Indian highways, passing a huge number of schools and colleges on the way. India seems to be a place on the move!

After the longest drive of our tour, the sight of our hotel is welcome. Our windows look onto the Man Sagar Lake with its Jal Mahal water palace. Both were built in the mid 18th century when King Madho Singh the First wanted something to remind him of his childhood in Udaipur. Today it is a haven for waterbirds and becomes a wonderful backdrop for camera-loving Indians in national dress. It is a beautiful stroll along the long promenade, being swept up into the holiday mood of visiting families, exploring the side stalls and photo booths and savouring the many sights and smells. The Indians know how to party!

JAIPUR - (Day 8)

Our local guide this morning makes us feel under dressed. Resplendent in blazer, flannels and cravat, he explains that he has been the guide for various members of the British Royals who, to this day remain friendly with the Maharajah and his family. We are in no doubt that our names will not run off his tongue as easily as Prince Charles and Camilla, Prince William and Kate! While all titles and main privileges of the ruling classes were officially banned by Indira Gandhi in 1972, the titles of ‘maharajah’ and ‘maharani’ remain in common use and there is no doubt that the ex-ruling families are still held in high esteem.

On our way to the old capital of Amer or Amber, we stop by the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds as it is famously known. This ornate pink facade has become an icon for the city. While it is 5 storeys high and only one room deep , its 953 latticed windows allowed the royal and purdahed women to watch unnoticed as the ceremonial processions and street life on Siren Deori Bazar carried on below. I wonder if they were entranced as much as we are with the snake charmers at the side of the road .

Now we are off to visit Amber Fort a  palace-fort first established in 1592  and built over an even earlier one of the 11 century . We stop on the road below to take our tourist photos of the Fort, high up on its ridge and also the crenelated guard walls of the fortresses of Nahargarh and Jaigarh  standing guard over Amber and Jaipur and the vast manmade lake below Amber Fort. Except it isn't a  lake but a vast arid expanse which should fill up during the monsoon season but which our elderly guide has never seen filled. Rajasthan has a real water problem and even only a little water remains in the large step well of the old Amer village. We see many of these amazing structures in our tour and are happy to find that many are now being restored throughout Rajasthan. It is fascinating to learn that archaeological survey and restoration began in the 16th century by  European travellers and scholars. 

Unlike many tourists we decide to drive the narrow road up to the fort rather than riding in an elephant procession - wonderful to take photographs of, but not amazing for the elephants we don't think.  I'm also not sure how comfortable it would be! 

Entry to this stunning building is through the shimmering marble Ganesh Pol (Sun) gate inlaid with semi-precious stones. I cannot begin to  describe how beautiful  the rooms are in the palace - a veritable feast of glass, mirrors, marbles, carvings and inlays of semi-precious stones. You have to see this for yourself ! To have lived here amongst such beauty, to have walked around the pleasure garden of Aram Bagh, to have looked out and seen the saffron growing in the star-shaped beds of Kesar Kyari Bagh garden below the high walls and to have entered secret corridors known only to the Maharajah and his concubines, this surely must have been wonderful for the lucky few.

After a delicious lunch in a very pleasant open-air restaurant in the Fort, our guide leads us to the Shila Devi Temple with its ornately carved silver doors and pillars of green marble shaped to resemble banana leaves. We walk through the vast spaces for public audience and the colonnaded Sattais Katcheri where the scribes once sat to record revenue petitions. In the torrid heat of summer, today's civil servants would probably prefer this airy setting.

Sightseeing is tiring and we sink gratefully back into our car - but only till we arrive at the City Palace, the home of the rulers of Jaipur since the early 18th century. For an extra fee you can visit the palatial state apartments, but we restrict ourselves to the museum complex where some of the royal and  historical memorabilia are housed . These include rare manuscripts, paintings, luxurious carpets, textiles and costumes. Once again we are overwhelmed by all the magnificence, but have to mention the spectacular  life-size elephants, carved out of a single block of marble to celebrate the birth of a much wanted male heir.  We also saw the world's biggest silver urns which were used for water. When Maharajah Madho Singh the Second visited London in 1901 they were taken with him and filled with Ganga Jal (Ganges) water. No doubt the water travelled separately in flagons - one can only hope!

Before leaving we gaze up at the royal apartments, still home to the current family and finally we enter the Durbar Room with its thrones and pictures of Rajasthan rulers, statesmen and British royal visitors and viceroys before India's independence. It is fascinating also to find two things personal to me; photographs of the British viceroy in 1943 who came from my home town and one of the current head of the "ruling" family who went to the same Somerset school where my grandsons now go! Can I claim a link to royalty and impress our guide ?

There's so much to see here in Jaipur but obviously on this visit we cannot see it all so, the last stop before a welcome drink in the hotel, is to one of the five observatories commissioned by Sawai Jai Singh11 in 1728. A keen follower of astronomy he sent his scholars out of India to study those already built and only then were these stone and marble instruments built. All 16 of them. Each has a specific purpose including the position of stars, their altitudes and the timing of eclipses. Perhaps the most astounding is the sundial of Rashivalaya Yantra with its 27 metre rod and 12 zodiac pieces aligned to angles and constellations and still, we are told, used by today's astrologers in making horoscopes. Others too are still used to forecast the weather events and their duration but I must confess that to fully understand how these instruments work, I leave to others.

JAIPUR - (Day 9

Today we begin by driving south of the walled city where only pleasure palaces and hunting lodges existed before the early 20th century. As  Jaipur expanded and modernised under the enlightened rule of Sawa Ram Singh11 these old buildings blended into the modern outskirts and  good roads and street lighting were built. We are on our way to visit  a Ganesh temple and the modern Hindu temple complex of Lakshmi Narayan funded in 1988; by the current head of the TATA vehicle empire in memory of his mother and father. 

But before this, VJ asks me if I would like to visit  a small local temple revered for its frescoes and golden statues.  Crossing  the busy street and removing shoes we enter this packed little building, noisy with cymbals and trumpets and here, by accepting a sugar lump, I am blessed by the gods.  Local worshippers seem not at all fazed that I am taking part. No idea why I should be so surprised as we find Indian people so tolerant and welcoming and happy that we appreciate their culture.

Next stop is the modern white marble temple complex, busy with families strolling around the gardens, making their way to the temple or taking photos of the statue to  Ganesh the elephant god. It seems we have arrived at the right time to witness the "homage to the gods" ceremony in this magnificently carved temple. Although it is thronged with people, our place at the front means we can clearly see the curtains opening to reveal the priests, the drummer, trumpeter and bell ringer, all glorifying the gods and the final  reverent  offering of food and water. As the curtains shut again all seems eerily quiet and before leaving, we are blessed by Ganges water .

Now for something entirely different as we go to Sanganer village some 10 miles south west of Jaipur. Although mostly known world over for hand-blocked textiles, paper and blue pottery, this old township has, amongst other antiquities, some beautiful Jain temples. Regrettably our visit to temples belonging to this sect would be for another day and place . 

As we are guided around a handmade paper factory, we are not only impressed by the beautiful papers produced, but also a bit uncomfortable at the obviously hard and monotonous work. Women sort and cut up discarded fabrics and pull apart plants used in the natural dyes while two men nearby labour at the heavy lifting of wet paper from the water vats. Others load the paper frames onto presses and finally onto racks for the drying process. Many are the colours and patterns of the paper finally being turned into bags, lampshades and other paper items. No longer will I query the cost of handmade paper!

And now for another change of scene as we walk around the village streets where in every doorway sit skilled workers chiselling the intricate and traditional blocks. These we will shortly see being used to print textiles in the traditional way. Yours truly blocked a three coloured elephant motif but I think that superior textiles will be found in adjoining  shops.

Nearing the end of yet another amazing day, we head back again towards the Amber valley making our way up the tortuous road to the ‘victory fort’ of Jaigarh. This towers  above the old capital and has crenelated outer walls of 2 miles marching along a sharp ridge. Never captured, this spreading 18th century complex contains two temples, a palace, an armoury, a theatre, a pleasure pavilion, baths and an intricate system of  underground reservoirs. Most visitors come to marvel at the never-fired 50 ton Jayvana cannon, standing on two wheels and supposed to be the largest in the world. At the height we are, and with the clouds lowering by the minute, we cannot give the Fort the justice it requires and shivering with cold, we head back to our nice hotel.

Maybe I am not the hard core traveller I thought I was...

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