Thursday, 9 February 2012

India Trip 2011-2012 - Jaipur

From Baroda, we took an overnight train to Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan ("The Land of Kings").

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.

Virtually all middle-class Indians have grown up knowing what overnight train travel feels like. The rocking motion of the train is wonderfully relaxing, the dim blue night lights in the compartment letting you see just enough to keep an eye on your bags. The faint sounds of tea vendors on the platform when the train stopped at stations along the way would only vaguely puncture our sleep, and we would drift off to the gentle rocking of the train as it got underway again. I have fond memories of my father rigging up an elaborate cocoon for me on the top berth using a bedsheet, tying it to the grill to keep it (and me) from rolling off in the middle of the night. As children, we used to fight for the top row berths, while our parents indulgently took the middle and lower berths. That's one of the uniquely Indian experiences my son has never had the good fortune to have, so this trip was an opportunity to fix that.

My son (top row) and wife (middle row) read themselves to sleep  on board the Chariot of the Poor

We stayed with a relative in Jaipur. On our evening walk the very first day, we came across the unusual sight of a peacock walking across the road in front of us, stopping at the gate of a nearby house, then hopping onto the gate and then onto the roof. I suppose the locals must be used to this kind of sight, but it was a new experience for us.


Another common sight around Jaipur is that of brilliantly caparisoned camels. Much of Rajasthan is desert, hence the popularity of camels.


There seemed to be some event on at every city we visited on this trip. In Ahmedabad, it was the IIM alumni reunion (although it's not fair to count that because that event was the very purpose of our being there). In Baroda, it was the 150th birth anniversary of Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III. And in Jaipur, it was Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, - the very first time the event was being held in this city. "Pravasi Bharatiya" means Non-Resident Indian (NRI), and this is the day India honours its diaspora. The date (9th January) marks the return of Mahatma Gandhi, arguably India's greatest and most famous NRI, to India after his stint in South Africa, where a series of incidents turned him from a loyal servant of the British Empire to its deadliest nemesis.

Jaipur was decked up for the occasion, with most government buildings lit up like fairytale palaces.

The Jaipur Vidhan Sabha, the state legislative assembly

The gates of the Vidhan Sabha

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to be in town during our time there, as this welcoming hoarding reveals. We never saw him, though.

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).

The main courtyard of Amer fort, and in the misty background, another ridge with battlements

Amer affords many picture-postcard views like this one.
My complete album is here.

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?

Ganesh Pol (Ganesh Gate) - An arch doorway built in the Moghul/Persian style with the distinctly un-Islamic image of the Hindu god Ganesh at the top!

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.

The intricate patterns in the architecture of Amer's buildings are breathtaking

Entrance to the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors), probably not a patch on Versailles, but nevertheless quite nice

A view of the courtyard from a lattice window above

Sweeping women posing invitingly for photographs. Foreign tourists readily obliged.

Elephants carrying tourists pass under a historical guard tower

Maintenance work being done on the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors)

Tourists get the local experience, complete with headgear

What an idea, Sir ji! Pay toilets maintained in very good condition, and only 5 rupees (10 cents) a person

Another picture-postcard shot of elephant rides along the fort's periphery

A langur and her baby - I couldn't get a shot of the little one's face. A guard chased them off with a stick.

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.

A policewoman and her friend

Tourists disembark after their elephant ride

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.

A view of one of the canopies (chhatris) from a window inside Albert Hall

I wonder what the Buddha has to do with industrial art.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares?

Another example of cultural cross-pollination:
A scene from the Hindu epic The Mahabharatha, with text in Persian

Stonework - Lord Vishnu resting

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.

Note the intricacy of the artwork of this column...

...and this door.

Detail of the door

These guys have Rajasthan written all over them

More photos of the City Palace are here.

One evening, we went to an open-air fair that was inaugurated just that day.

A vendor with handicrafts

Standard wooden handicrafts...

...and less conventional woodwork

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 fa├žade 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.

The classic view of the Hawa Mahal

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!

Rubble on the inside of one of Jaipur's major tourist landmarks

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.

The puppet-ghosts discuss the wisdom of Shah Rukh Khan (background) revealing his identity as a ghost to Rani Mukerjee thereby presenting her with a paheli (riddle)

It gave me a thrill of recognition to see the same style of Rajasthani puppet in a shop inside the Hawa Mahal.


These two looked almost like the ghosts in Paheli

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.

I wouldn't have the heart to expose this umbrella to the rain!

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.

The thali at LMB - looks better than it tastes

The next leg of our journey took us to Mumbai, and I'll cover that in my next post.
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