Our train's name was a little disconcerting ("Dee Garib Rath"), because "garib rath" means "chariot of the poor", and I must confess we did have visions of hundreds of people clambering onto the train without tickets and forcing us to share our berths with them. Fortunately, the name turned out to be just populism on the part of India's former railway minister, the rather clownish Laloo Prasad Yadav. The train itself was air-conditioned and the journey was quite comfortable. It's a bit like a budget airline in that you have to pay extra for blankets, but at 25 rupees per person (about 50 cents), that wasn't a consideration at all.
The chief guest at each Pravasi Bharatiya Divas function is a person of Indian origin who has attained a position of eminence outside India. This year, the chief guest was the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Her name itself is fascinating, showing how Indian names gradually morph away from their original Sanskrit roots ("Kamala Prasad Vishweshwar") through generations spent in foreign lands. The former Mauritian prime ministers Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam (could that be a hybrid Sanskrit-Arabic name "Shivsagar Ram ghulam"?) and Sir Anerood Jugnauth ("Aniruddh Jagannath") are other favourites of mine.
Much as we might like to preen about Pravasi Bharatiya Divas being about "us" (i.e., today's NRIs) and to downplay its association with Mahatma Gandhi as just cynical tokenism by India's venal political class, the fact remains that the status we as Indians enjoy today and are likely to enjoy in greater measure in coming years owes an immeasurable debt to that one man's courage. Independence for India, won by peaceful and non-violent means under his leadership ("We've come a long way with the British. We must see them off as friends"), laid the foundation for a country that has been moderate and responsible in its role and will hopefully continue to play a positive role in the world. Disdain for Gandhi was a common attitude of our youth, but in my mellower years, I realise that modern India and its children would not be where they are but for this man. I doff my hat to the Mahatma.
More pictures of Jaipur and its surrounds are here.
History continued to remind me of its powerful echoes when we visited the fort of Amer (built 1592) outside Jaipur (for some strange reason spelt "Amber" in English).
One of the first curious sights that struck my eyes was the gate called "Ganesh Pol" (Ganesh Gate). Do you see anything curious about this?
I wondered a lot about this, then subsequently read up on the history of Amer fort. It turns out that this fort belonged to the Hindu Rajput king Raja Man Singh (1550-1614). I had read about Raja Man Singh as a child in the popular comic-style illustrated story from Amar Chitra Katha on Rana Pratap Singh (1540-1597).
The story talks about Raja Man Singh at the palace of his peer Rana Pratap Singh, who at one stage, refuses to eat with him. On being asked why, Rana Pratap answers, "because you have sold your soul to the enemy". Raja Man Singh then leaves in a huff and war ensues between the Mughal empire of Akbar the Great and Rana Pratap. Raja Man Singh, as the Mughal emperor's brother-in-law, fights on his side against his fellow Rajput king Rana Pratap.
It then made perfect sense why an image of Lord Ganesh would adorn an arch built in the Islamic style. The Rajputs who chose to ally themselves with the Mughal empire (such as Raja Man Singh) were Hindu, but adopted the architectural style of their Muslim overlords. It always gives me a thrill to see cultures and civilisations influence each other. History generally records the clash and tumult of war when worlds collide, but the deeper, longer-lasting effects of cultural cross-pollination are subtler and harder to dig up, yet our world is what it is on account of such blending. I like to call this "When Worlds Collude".
And like I did in Baroda, I began to muse about the relative merits of fighting invaders versus cooperating with them. In Baroda, it was Maratha king Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III working under the British to bring prosperity to his people. In Amer, it was Raja Man Singh owing fealty to Emperor Akbar's Mughal empire to similarly give his people a peaceful life. In contrast, Rana Pratap Singh, hailed as a great Indian hero, personally suffered and also put his people through suffering by his unrelenting war against the Mughal enemy.
It does take two to tango, though. Indian history reveres Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) for his wisdom in instituting a federated empire with semi-autonomous fiefdoms like Raja Man Singh's Amer. The satraps and the empire both benefited from the arrangement, and there were very few wars and rebellions after the initial years of Akbar's long reign. Religious tolerance was also a notable hallmark of Akbar's reign. But Akbar's great-grandson Aurangzeb (1658-1707) executed a complete U-turn in policy. His reign saw a nominal expansion of the Mughal empire's borders, but his autocratic and centralised style, with no tolerance for religious diversity, saw the empire constantly embroiled in revolts and rebellions, which kept him fighting until he died. His empire swiftly crumbled after his death.
[Interestingly, while Indian textbooks idolise Akbar the tolerant, I'm told Akbar is held in disdain in Pakistan for hobnobbing with Hindus. Pakistan's favourite historical hero of the Mughal era is Aurangzeb, who put the kaffir Hindus in their place. Pakistan seems to be the Bizarro India, and the widely divergent trajectories of the two countries that were once one is only to be expected.]
There is a lesson in the results of Akbar's and Aurangzeb's governing styles. Large, diverse countries like India cannot be governed in a centralised and autocratic manner. A federal system is the only workable one, and it has taken India three and a half centuries after Akbar's death to once again achieve a stable and sustainable polity as a federation of quasi-autonomous states in 1947.
Back on earth after our philosophical ruminations, here are a few more photos of Amer fort.
I had an opinion (probably unfair) of Rajasthan as a state that kept women under purdah, but Jaipur and its surrounds seemed quite normal in that there were lots of women out and about in public, many in uniform like this one.
So that was Amer fort, and you can see more photos of it here - lots of breathtaking views.
We also visited the Albert Hall museum in Jaipur city.
More shots of Albert Hall are here.
There is a City Palace within Jaipur itself. One of the kings of Amer, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, established a city in the plains beneath Amer fort. This city was named after him and became - what else? - Jaipur. The royal family lives in a part of the City Palace even today. Sections other than their living quarters are open to the public and the royal family lives on the tourist revenue that it shares with the government.
Something about the way the City Palace presents itself to tourists strikes me as being dishonest. There is a fee for cameras (still and video) at the point where one buys tickets, and this creates the impression that photography is allowed everywhere within the palace. However, there are three halls within the palace (small museums) where photography is not permitted. I wish they had made that clear at the ticket counter itself. I wouldn't have felt so cheated when I came upon the No Photography signs inside.
My photos of the City Palace are here. These are just a small sample.
More photos of the City Palace are here.
One evening, we went to an open-air fair that was inaugurated just that day.
One of the tourist attractions in Jaipur that features in all the brochures is the Hawa Mahal ("Palace of Winds"), an extension of the city palace. This structure is actually just a thin façade rather than a solid building. Its purpose was to allow the ladies of the palace to view street processions without being seen in public themselves. That's purdah in action.
When one steps inside, not everything is well-maintained. India's centuries-old historical treasures lie shamefully neglected and in a terrible state of disrepair. I felt very sad at this because countries like the US and Australia, with barely three centuries of history (neglecting native American and Aboriginal cultures) are able to preserve, package and showcase those few years in a highly effective manner to tourists. India with three millennia of rich history and culture is unable to do anything comparable, except for one or two favoured destinations like the Taj Mahal. Heck, we even destroy our own archaeological treasures that are half a millennium old, in the name of politics!
Those who have seen the Bollywood movie Paheli (Riddle) know that it was set in Rajasthan. Two characters who appear as commentators at intervals within the movie are ghosts in the form of local puppets.
It gave me a thrill of recognition to see the same style of Rajasthani puppet in a shop inside the Hawa Mahal.
Like the puppets, Rajasthani mirrorwork is distinctive and famous. Across the road from the Hawa Mahal was this shop selling ethnically styled umbrellas and other items.
More photos of the Hawa Mahal are here.
We had been advised by friends not to miss the restaurant at the Laxmi Mishtan Bhandar (a sweet shop). The food was very pricey by Indian standards (405 rupees a plate, just about 8 dollars), and wasn't that great - definitely not worth the price. In contrast, an Indian Chinese lunch we had at the Four Seasons restaurant was extremely tasty and reasonably priced.