Words by Belinda Jackson
Early morning and the paved streets are already filled with mountains of vivid orange marigolds, hills of sweetly scented pink roses and great pillowy mounds of fragrant white jasmine. Flower shoppers run a scathing eye over these hills of beauty, ready to find a flaw that will save a few rupees before they string the flowers into fragrant temple offerings, on sale to devotees. The scent rising from the footpaths is a welcome change to the fug emanating from Jaipur’s famously dense traffic.
Blue, yellow, pink: what’s your favourite colour? Chances are Rajasthan has it covered. Jodhpur is the Blue City; painted indigo by high-caste Brahmans following the deity of Lord Shiva, he of the blooming blue cheeks. The sandstone fortress and homes of remote Jaisalmer, on Rajasthan’s far western fringe, give it the romantic title of the ‘golden city’. And pink? That’ll be Jaipur, the most visited of the Rajasthani cities.
“Actually, it’s not pink,” says my guide and Jaipur local Jai, with a touch of exasperation. “It’s more a terracotta. It’s just those English papers said it was pink when Maharaja Ram Singh painted it for visiting British royals back in 1876.”
Terracotta, candy pink, dusty rose. Whatever the hue, Jaipur’s Old City frequently gets a wash of paint to retain its pinkness, and its confectioners even have a sweet named after its signature colour: the lurid Pink City barfi, that to Western palettes is a solid block of milky sugar.
There’s no sweet tooth like an Indian sweet tooth, and Jaipur’s residents gleefully pit the city’s makers against each other for the sweetest. Elbows out, this is a blood sport for the title of top street chaiwalla (tea maker), serving sugar-laden, cardamom-infused tea drunk on the street in front of the little stands. Sahu Restaurant is the reigning chai champion, while LMB Restaurant fends off its competitors in the sweet stakes, including barfi king Rawat Kachori, known for its syrupy jalebi pastries, deep-fried in hot ghee. At Pandit Kulfi, you can counteract the heat with its hyper-sweet cashew and saffron flavoured kulfi (ice cream), and the best lassi in town, say the locals, is from the oldest vendor, simply called Lassiwala. Its sweet, cool curd is set in rough clay cups that are smashed on the ground when the last sugary drop is drained.
Don’t sniff at the sugar, it’s fuel for a day spent tripping between Jaipur’s bazaars – Johari for gold, Tripolia for handicrafts and brass, and Bapu for saris and Rajasthan’s traditional leather slippers, mojaris. The city is a hotspot for gems, silverwork, pearls and Rajasthan’s famed block-prints, all bargained over with chai in hand, while slender monkeys swarm across the bazaar’s rooftops, cavorting to the soundtrack of a thousand beeping auto-rickshaws.
“We can drive without guests, but not without horns,” shouts my rickshaw driver over his shoulder as we dash back to my hotel, the exotic Samode Haveli, a minute before a monsoonal torrent of rain swamps the streets.
The city’s rickshaw drivers will happily let you in on Jaipur’s other obsession, lineage. In short, you’re nobody if you’re not a warrior in this town – or the son of a warrior, a warrior’s grandson, and so forth. Jaipur’s got the history, and the forts,
to prove it.
On the city’s edge stands the vast Amber Fort, where some tourists trek up its long ramparts on gaily-tasselled elephants, unaware that jaguars prowl on the edges of the hills. The former capital, Amber was a fortress city with ceremonial gates, ornate temples, halls for receiving and intimidating diplomats and their envoys, complicated Persian-style gardens and the maharaja’s private quarters, where he was accompanied by his many wives.
Jaigarh Fort, a former soldiers’ garrison, overlooks Amber, and is by comparison all military intent and no pomp. Further around the hills that surround Jaipur is the haunted ‘Tiger Fort’, Nahargarh, where you can join the locals with a cold Indian beer and deep-fried snacks while watching the sun set over the city.
The latest fortress in the headlines is Alila Fort Bishangarh, an hour north of the city on the frenetic Jaipur-Delhi highway. After seven years of hard labour, the 230-year-old fortress is now a 59-room luxury hotel; yet its feet are grounded in a very traditional village that falls in its protective shadow, where many women veil their faces in public and foreigners are rarely seen.
Bishangarh is a fresh breath from the bustle of Jaipur, but the song is the same – the petulant call of a peacock, the beep of an overflowing school bus and the chime of empty tea glasses congratulating the drinker on a day well spent exploring
Jaipur and its surrounds.