JAIPUR, Rajasthan— After a short 45 minute flight, our bus driver and his assistant from Delhi met us at the Jaipur airport. The desert landscape — short shrubs, rocky terrain, dry and dusty soil — became visible as we ventured to Sanganer, a village close to Jaipur.
Sanganer is known for its handmade paper industry and pottery, and first on our touring list was a handmade paper manufacturer. From the actual paper making where two men lift a strainer through loose pulp to create the paper to the folding of paper bags and boxes at incredible speeds, the workers did everything by hand except grinding the recycled paper into pulp and pressing the paper.
After our tour, we visited a handmade pottery producer where we witnessed the making of the famous Jaipur blue pottery from molding to firing to selling.
As we made our way to Jaipur proper, the arching gates of the city welcomed us, and the distinct muddied-pink sandstone buildings appeared. The desert city is known as the Pink City as the Maharaja (a title for an Indian king) of Jaipur ordered the city painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales during his visit to Jaipur in 1876.
Outside our hotel in the middle of the lake was the Jal Mahal, or “Water Palace.” Built by the Maharaja in the eighteenth century, the fifth story of the palace is visible while four more stories sit beneath the water level.
This evening, we explored Jaipur’s bazaars. Personal selling was on full display and would have made any marketing professor proud. Except, this type of selling was so aggressive that it warded off most Western travelers who prefer a shopping experience without several sellers hounding them. The stores with set prices received most of our tour group’s money. If you do decide to bargain with Indian street side vendors, the go-to mathematical formula and acting are to ask for 25% of the asking price, shake your head at their rebuttal price, and walk away. The vendors will come running and make a special price accommodation, supposedly “just for you.” Hard bargaining truly transcends borders.
The next day, we traveled to Jaipur’s outskirts to Amer Fort. Transiting through the hilly desert terrain, we saw large walls stretching into horizon in every direction. Prior to receiving the trip itinerary, we had never heard of Amer Fort. Upon arrival, we realized it was a secret gem.
Situated behind a small lake so a cool breeze would enter the fort as wind passed over the lake, the imposing yet opulent Amer Fort housed the Maharajas of Jaipur and their families.
Situated above Amer Fort is a connected fort called Jaigarh Fort which is where the royal family and their associates (wives, concubines, soldiers, servants) retreated via an underground passage if enemy forces overtook Amer Fort. As we hiked up the stone walkway towards the fort’s courtyard, we joined intricately painted and decorated elephant caravans carrying tourists to the fort’s courtyard. Entering the spacious courtyard, boisterous drums that normally welcomed dignitaries welcomed tourists.
With Rajasthan’s stifling desert climate, fort architects engineered innovations and accommodations to make the Maharaja of Jaipur and his guests comfortable. For example, the fort’s architects utilized downward pressure to create fountains so that desert wind turned into a cool breeze as it passed over the fountain water. At the Hall of Private Audience which is where the Maharaja received dignitaries, fragrant grass known as khas was draped along the room’s entrances so an aromatic fragrance filled the Hall’s air.
After a short hotel break, we visited the Jantar Mantar. Built by the Maharaja during the eighteenth century, this large astronomical observatory includes one of the largest sundials in the world. The observatory remains intact today, and the sundial is accurate to the second.
As we drove through the city to visit a Hindu temple, countless kites dotted the pink, dusk sky as they competed for height and fighting primacy. Children will utilize crushed glass and adhesive to create a kite line that is capable of cutting down an opposing kite. When in the air, two kites will battle each other with each kite operator attempting to encircle the other’s kite. He or she will then attempt to tighten the noose of the kite line at such a speed and fashion that it cuts the string of the other kite and splits the kite line in two, destroying the opposing kite.
From Jesus Christ to Confucius, various historical figures are etched into the Ram Mandir temple’s outside walls. Anyone can enter the temple, but people must observe silence and shoes must be removed. Fortunately, we visited the temple during a service. The Brahmin priest performed ancient hymns and rituals as loud music blared from scratchy speakers.
Three rules for crossing an Indian street: (1) move as a group, (2) move slowly, and (3) hold your hands outstretched towards oncoming traffic.
Our tour group was then split into groups of four and sent across the city for a home-hosted dinner with a local family. The home that we visited included two grandparents, their two sons, two wives, and two children. As is common with arranged marriages, the wives of this home moved in with the husband’s family. At dinner, our tour group and the males of the house ate first, and then the women waited to eat until we left. The family was incredibly welcoming, and the Rajasthani food was delicious.
The next day, we visited City Palace, the Maharaja of Jaipur’s royal residence. The current Maharaja of Jaipur is only 19 years old, and a quick Google search displays many articles on the world’s most eligible college student. When he is back at the residence, the flag of the Maharaja flies.
That night, we explored the streets of Jaipur, and as a group, we performed our most daring crossing of a busy street ever. According to our guide, there are three rules for crossing an Indian street: (1) move as a group, (2) move slowly, and (3) hold your hands outstretched towards oncoming traffic. The concept of moving as a group is that the car will not hit you because it is impossible for a car to only hit you. His rules of surviving an Indian street crossing proved true.
Tonight accompanying our dinner of thali — a round platter with various dishes — was live music and reluctant dancing from me and a few other travelers. We returned to our hotel late in the evening and prepared for our early departure the next morning.
Jaipur completely shatters the Westerner’s preconceptions of India as a humid, crowded, ramshackled place. The desert opulence, pink sandstone buildings, bright Rajasthani sarees gave Jaipur a fairy tale aura, and the Maharaja of Jaipur’s luxury amongst the Rajasthani desert displayed the richness of Indian culture and history.
Prior to the trip, I constantly read about the scale of poverty in India; however, it has been minor in all the cities that we have visited. Nevertheless, Som assured us that on our travels the next day, we would see the “real India.” Next stop: Ranthambore National Park.