Tuesday, 31 March 2009

India: Amber Fort

One of the most spectacular sights in India, just outside Jaipur, is the Amber Fort. Former palace of the maharajas, it was abandoned by Jai Singh II when its water sources dried up and he began to build his fine new vision at Jaipur.
We have hired an auto-rickshaw to take us the 11 km. there and back. Ravik, the driver, speaks good English and takes us first on a winding route through back alleys of Jaipur. "You have seen the pink city," he says, "Now I will show you the "pig city." Sure enough, pigs are everywhere. These are not pretty little pink porkers like Babe, but large, hairy boars that, according to Ravik, are food for a very low caste of Hindus. Muslims too, we suspect. As elsewhere, goats also abound.

Along the road to Amber, we pass elephants and camels decked out for tourist rides.

When Amber Fort comes into view, sprawled on its hilltop, the sheer size of its golden sandstone walls and cupolas is breath-taking. Only a panoramic viewfinder, which we don't have, could do the scene justice.

At the base of the hill, we hire an elephant for the steep climb up to the gate. This is a controversial move, as there are concerns about the welfare of these animals and the lack of facilities to provide them with water, veterinary care, etc.

Our reasoning is that, with the money we pay, the owners have a strong interest in keeping their charges in good health. There is also an organisation which works for better facilities for the elephants, but when we go later to make a contribution their office is closed! We do, however, get a good look at the elephant house and are pleased to see food, water and shade provided there.

As it turns out, the ride is not that pleasant. It is slow, there is no canopy above our heads so it's hot, and we are seated sideways on a wide cushion that means my short legs stick straight out. We do, however, get a good view down onto the terraced gardens below, once surrounded by water but now by a dry gulch.

When we reach the fort, Michael finds a convenient terrace to paint the view, soon accompanied by onlookers. His impressions, verbal and visual, are on his website.

He takes time out to oblige an Indian family who want a group portrait.

Meanwhile I wander in the vicinity, admiring the decorated portals,

and a lone drum,

and observing activity in the vast courtyard where several of the cupolas that crown the walls are being repaired.

After descending from the fort under our own steam, we head for the Anokhi textile museum, recommended to us by Val and Sue, whom we met in Delhi. Housed in a restored old haveli (mansion), it has a warren of rooms displaying fabrics from different time periods and for different occasions. They do not permit photographs, which is a pity as both building and costumes are beautiful. We do, however, manage to take a photo of the Amber fort from their windows.

Anokhi employs young women from poor villages in the district and teaches them the ancient arts of block-printing fabric, but they are not on view to visitors. Instead, a man demonstrates the process to us. Michael attempts a sample which we can take away with us.

In their small gift shop, I look for a modest purchase to contribute to their enterprise and find a handprinted handkerchief.

It's been a hot day, and tiring, so we are glad to trundle back to our hotel for beer, lime soda and fried peanuts in our cool, quiet room.

Monday, 30 March 2009

India: Jaipur - Royal Palace

The main gate to the Royal Palace is just around the corner from the Hawa Mahal, but only the maharajah may enter through it. We lesser mortals must detour through an alley and along a dusty road to a servants' gate at the back.
By the time we arrived, it was at two in the afternoon and we were feeling hungry, so began by having a snack in the pleasant courtyard cafe, watched by monkeys on the roof above.

Having already seen the impressive palace at Fatehpur Sikri, we were drawn less to the buildings themselves than to some of the details, such as this huge beaten-silver jar (which incidentally gave us an opportunity for an unusual mirror shot.) The Maharajah of Jaipur had two of these jars made to carry holy water from the Ganges for his daily bath during his visit to England for the coronation of Edward VII in 1901.

In a deserted courtyard, we came across four exquisite doors representing the seasons. The monsoon door, by which we entered, had a design of peacocks:

The summer door had lotus flowers:

The winter door (obviously preferred by the pigeons) had roses :

And the spring door, the best of all, was sculpted in to green ripples:

- simple and lovely.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

India: Jaipur - the Hawa Mahal

Jaipur's most photographed building is its Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. This pink meringue is little more than a facade, just wide enough for a narrow passageway allowing the women in purdah to look down on the activity of the streets through the many carved jalis (fretwork screens)without being seen.

Now both Indians and foreigners traverse the passages, photographing each other in the elegant archways...

...or crouching to gaze out into the bright sunlight.

There are fine views over the old city from this vantage point:

In the opposite direction, beyond the courtyards that fill the space behind the facade, looms the staircase-like structure that is the largest sundial in the world, the centrepiece of Jaipur's remarkable collection of early eighteenth-century astronomical instruments known as Jantar Mantar.

Before leaving Jaipur, we will visit Jantar Mantar for a closer look at its wonders.

India: Jaipur - The Pink City

One of the world's first planned cities, Jaipur was laid out beginning in 1727 by the ahead-of-his-time ruler Jai Singh II on a geometric grid. In 1853, when the Prince of Wales visited the city, all the buildings within the old city walls were painted pink as a welcoming gesture, and this tradition has continued ever since. It's not cotton-candy pink like our hotel, but a mellow rose-red which is very attractive.

Today, most of the heavy traffic is confined to broad streets entering through gates in the old wall. Crowding the traffic towards the centre of these roads are produce merchants with their wares spread out along the verges.

The remaining streets are narrow and house a number of bazaars, each specialising in particular merchandise. Although off limits to cars, they are awash with a medley of motorbikes, tuktuks, camel carts and an occasional white horse in jewelled trappings with a proud rider sitting very straight in the saddle.

Shops line the sides of the streets, bright with saris, blankets, shawls, bedspreads and rows of glittering bangles. Salesmen greet us as we pass: "Pashmina, madam?" "Only look!" "Come inside, just looking only!" We were amused to see several shops displaying their wares on vintage, very blonde mannequins

We step around small children cavorting on the high but narrow walkways outside these shops, over squashed fruit or dribbles of unidentifiable liquid, tin pots, cardboard boxes, old men in dhotis with shoeshine equipment, piles of men's shirts in cellophane wrapping, banks of multi-coloured fabrics.

While most of the activity happens at street level, the upper storeys reveal glimpses of more leisurely, often more domestic pursuits.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

India: The Road to Jaipur

Our "deluxe" bus from Agra to Jaipur had the usual dents indicating its prowess in Indian traffic negotiations and an almighty crack in the front windshield. It was supposed to be air-conditioned. At some point, presumably when the air-conditioning failed, small fans had been attached above the side windows, but those didn't appear to be working either. Fortunately the windows could be opened and, although it was hot and sunny, the breeze remained relatively cool. The seats were much more comfortable than on our previous bus journey, a good thing for a 5-hour journey.

On arrival in Jaipur at dusk, we phoned our hotel and were told to wait for a driver with a card bearing my name and a secret password. On no account were we to go with anyone else. (No-one else approached us so there was no problem.) The tuktuk driver who arrived with the card hurtled out of the bus station right into the path of an oncoming bus, which caused Michael to wince, but apart from this initiation we had an uneventful ride to our hotel.

The candy-pink Pearl Palace, an amazing bargain at about $15 a night, is tucked into a dusty alley in the warren of streets surrounding the old city. It's a little way from the centre but transport is never a problem during our stay as there are always a few tuktuks and taxis outside, anticipating the steady flow of guests.

Our room, though small is nicely decorated: there's a frieze of red, green and gold flowers on the ceiling, a scalloped arch above the bed, and a bay with side windows overlooking the quiet courtyard of the adjoining building. High on both the outside and inside walls are a pair of small, semi-circular arches set with coloured glass in jellybean colours. there a mirror in an ornate wooden frame and two paintings of women in saris, one smoking a hookah. To hang our clothes there's a set of hooks; two inner ones which are simple knobs, two outer ones which are elephant heads, their trunks forming the hooks.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

India:Fatehpur Sikri

There are few options for accommodation in Fatehpur Sikri, but we were lucky to choose the Goverdhan Tourist Complex, a well-run place separated from the busy main road by a stretch of lawn and garden. Our motel-style accommodation opened onto a terrace overlooking this courtyard, where we could relax in comfy chairs with some cool drinks.

In the distance, the minarets of the huge mosque, part of the palace complex we had come to see, rose above the town.

When we left our table briefly to explore, we returned to find a monkey, a large male mandrill, trying to drink Michael's beer. Michael swiped at it with his sketchbook and it wasn't at all intimidated, merely snarled and lunged at him. The owner hurried up to see what the commotion was about, shrugged his shoulders and said philosophically, "It is the way of the monkey."
Nevertheless, he sent an underling with a stout pole to drive it away.

The room itself, which the Lonely Planet guide snobbishly describes as "odd" in its decor, delighted us with its walls painted in bright sari colours of saffron, red and lilac. The restaurant served excellent food, all washed and cooked in filtered water. The owner and his cook/right-hand man were charming.

Mid-afternoon we climbed the small hill towards the imposing red-sandstone mosque. It sits on a high plinth with very steep steps leading up to the entrance.

We decided not to climb these and skirted around to the right up a more gentle incline towards the palace itself. Also of red sandstone, it was built by Akbar the Great, who occupied it for a scant 15 years before moving on: he had inadvertently chosen a site without access to water.

Forgotten for the intervening time, the palace is remarkably intact. There are several buildings separated by spacious courtyards...

...and elegant colonnades.

The Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) has intricate screens carved from single slabs of stone, each one a different pattern. From behind these screens, the maharajah's wives and concubines could look down on the activities in the courtyard below without revealing themselves to the public gaze.

The whole complex effectively combined powerful massing with delicacy of detail and airy open spaces. It remains one of the highlights of our visit to India.

Akbar was a learned and curious man, tolerant of all religions. In his hall of audience he liked to engage in discussions with scholars and foreign visitors, who sat on the floor of the hall while Akbar himself sat on an ornately carved "pulpit" reached by bridges from the four corners of the room.

With few visitors, the palace had a contemplative, slightly melancholy air. By contrast the mosque, which we then approached through Akbar's Gate, a short, level walk from the palace, was a hive of activity. Leaving our shoes in the care of man at the gate, who already had quite a pile of them in his keeping, we entered the courtyard to find ourselves approached by hawkers of postcards and persistent would-be tour guides. It seemed somehow inappropriate that this place of worship should be such a marketplace. Pausing only to admire the carved marble screens (but not the electric light configuration) around the tomb of a local saint ...

...we beat a hasty retreat, regaining our shoes only by payment of a small fee.

When we returned to our room, we found our chairs on the terrace occupied by a couple of American boys who had arrived while we were sitting there earlier. Despite other chairs and tables being available, they had moved our clean laundry, which the maid had left on the chairs for us, in order to sit there. Taking our cue from the owner, we shrugged and told ourselves, "It is the way of the American."

The following morning we set off for the bus station, or rather, the dusty yard that served as such, to return to Agra. Although this was going to mean retracing our steps, it would allow us to get a "deluxe" bus for the 5-hour journey to Jaipur instead of continuing on a slower and less comfortable bone-rattler. Michael filled in the wait by sketching the Fatehpur Sikri market scene around us. I managed to get a couple of photos before he attracted the usual small crowd of curious passers-by.