Jaipur

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A flamboyant showcase of Rajasthani architecture, Jaipur has long been established on tourist itineraries as the third corner of India’s “Golden Triangle”, along with Agra and Delhi. At the heart of Jaipur lies the Pink City, the old walled quarter, whose bazaars rank among the most vibrant in Asia, renowned for their textiles, jewellery and Rajasthani handicrafts. For all its colour, however, Jaipur’s heavy traffic, dense crowds and pushy traders make it a taxing place to explore, and many visitors stay just long enough to catch a train to more laidback destinations further west or south. If you can put up with the urban stress, however, the city’s modern outlook and commercial hustle and bustle offer a stimulating contrast to many other places in the state.

Jaipur’s attractions fall into three distinct areas. At the heart of the urban sprawl, the historic Pink City is where you’ll find the fine City Palace and the Hawa Mahal. The leafier and less hectic area south of the Pink City is home to the Ram Niwas Gardens and Central Museum, while the city’s outskirts are dotted with a string of intriguing relics of royal rule, most notably Nahargarh Fort, the cenotaphs at Royal Gaitor, and the temples (and monkeys) of Galta.

Accommodation in Jaipur

Jaipur has a wide range of accommodation, mostly found west of the city centre, along (or close to) MI Rd and in the upmarket suburb of Bani Park. It’s a good idea to book ahead, particularly around the Elephant Festival (first half of March). Almost all the hotels in Jaipur offer free pick-up from the bus or train station, so it is worth enquiring. Be aware that commission-seeking auto-rickshaw wallahs can be a problem.

Eating in Jaipur

If you’ve overloaded on curries and need a respite, the veggie-friendly Anokhi Café is the perfect tonic; it's attached to the Anokhi boutique, on KK Square Mall. There’s real coffee, fresh juices, terrific cakes and cookies, plus sandwiches, falafels, bean burgers, pizzas and amazing salads. The city’s most appealing rooftop restaurant is the Peacock (in Pearl Palace hotel, Hari Kishan Somani Marg), with quirky original decor featuring cute metal chairs and a striking peacock canopy – particularly pretty after dark. There’s a big menu of veg and non-veg Indian options, all well prepared, with flavoursome sauces, crisp breads and cold beers, plus Chinese, pizzas and the usual Western snacks. For a blowout try Suarna Mahal at the Rambagh Palace, Indian fine-dining in a superbly over-the-top Neoclassical-style dining room.

Shopping in Jaipur

If you come across an Indian handicraft object or garment abroad, chances are it will have been bought in Jaipur. As a regular tourist, you’ll find it harder to hunt out the best merchandise here, but as a source of souvenirs, perhaps only Delhi can surpass it. In keeping with Maharaja Jai Singh’s original city divisions, different streets are reserved for purveyors of different goods. Bapu Bazaar, on the south side of the Pink City, is the best place for clothes and textiles, including Jaipur’s famous block-print work and bandhani tie-dye. On the opposite side of town, along Amber Rd just beyond Zorawar Gate, rows of emporiums are stacked with gorgeous patchwork wall-hangings and embroidery; these places do a steady trade with bus parties of wealthy tourists, so be prepared to be hassled; haggle hard. For old-style Persian-influenced vases, along with tiles, plates and candleholders, visit the outlets of the city’s renowned blue potteries along Amber Rd or the workshop of the late Kripal Singh.

Jewellery and gemstones in Jaipur

The two best places for silver jewellery are Johari Bazaar, the broad street running north of Sanganeri Gate in the Pink City, and Chameliwala Market, just off MI Road in the tangle of alleyways behind the Copper Chimney restaurant. The latter also has the city’s best selection of gems, though it’s also a hard place to shop in peace, thanks to a particularly slippery breed of scam merchant, known locally as lapkars. These young men – usually smartly dressed and speaking excellent English – will regale you with beguiling tales about how you can buy gems in Jaipur and sell them back home for a massive profit. This is nonsense, of course, but by the time you realize this you’ll be thousands of kilometres away with a handful of worthless cut-glass “gems” wondering where all the mysterious entries on your credit-card bill came from. If you’re paying for gemstones or jewellery with a credit card in Jaipur, don’t let it out of your sight, and never agree to leave a docket as security.

There’s a government-sponsored gem-testing laboratory at the Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council, Rajasthan Chamber Bhavan, MI Rd near Ajmeri Gate, where you can have gemstones tested for authenticity. The cost is ₹1000 per stone, with reports delivered the following working day (or ₹1600 per stone for a same-day report if you deliver the stone before 1pm).

The Pink City

At the heart of Jaipur lies Jai Singh’s original city, popularly known as the Pink City, enclosed by walls and imposing gateways. Though certainly not all pink, many buildings here are painted a distinctively rosy colour – one that was actually intended to camouflage the poor-quality materials from which they were originally constructed. Chromatics aside, one of the Pink City’s most striking features is its regular grid-plan, with wide, straight streets, broadening to spacious squares (choupads) at major intersections – a design created in accordance with the Vastu Shastra, a series of ancient Hindu architectural treatises. To make the most of your visit, buy a “composite” city ticket

The City Palace

At the heart of the Pink City stands the magnificent City Palace, originally built by Jai Singh in the 1720s and having lost none of its original pomp and splendour. The royal family still occupies part of the palace, advancing in procession on formal occasions through the grand Tripolia Gate on its southern side. Less exalted visitors enter through a modest gate on the eastern side of the palace that leads into the first of the two main courtyards, centred on the elegant Mubarak Mahal. Built as a reception hall in 1899, the building now holds the museum’s textile collection, housing some of the elaborately woven and brocaded fabrics that formerly graced the royal wardrobe. On the north side of the courtyard, the Armoury is probably the finest such collection in Rajasthan, a vast array of blood-curdling but often beautifully decorated weapons.

Jantar Mantar - the observatory in Jaipur © Skreidzeleu/Shutterstock

Jantar Mantar

Immediately south of the City Palace lies the remarkable Jantar Mantar, a large grassy enclosure containing eighteen huge stone astronomical measuring devices constructed between 1728 and 1734 at the behest of Jai Singh, who invented many of them himself. Their strange, abstract shapes lend the whole place the look of a weird futuristic sculpture park. The Jantar Mantar is one of five identically named observatories created by the star-crazed Jai Singh across north India, including the well-known example in Delhi, though his motivation was astrological rather than astronomical.

It’s a very good idea to pay for the services of a guide to explain the workings of the observatory, which was able to identify the position and movement of stars and planets, tell the time and even predict the intensity of the monsoon. Probably the most impressive of the observatory’s constructions is the 27m-high sundial, the Samrat Yantra, which can calculate the time to within two seconds. A more original device, the Jaiprakash Yantra, consists of two hemispheres laid in the ground, each composed of six curving marble slabs with a suspended ring in the centre, whose shadow marks the day, time and zodiac symbol – vital for calculating auspicious days for marriage.

Hawa Mahal

Jaipur’s most instantly recognizable landmark, the Hawa Mahal, or “Palace of Winds”, stands to the east of the City Palace – Built in 1799 to enable the women of the court to watch street processions while remaining in purdah, its five-storey facade, decked out with hundreds of finely screened windows and balconies, makes the building seems far larger than it really is; in fact, it’s little more than a facade. Once inside, the top storeys have no stairs but ramps, to enable the royal ladies to be carried on their palanquins easily. To get inside the palace itself you need to walk for five minutes around the rear of the building, following the lane that runs north from Tripolia Bazaar. Once inside, you can climb up the back of the facade to the screened niches from where the ladies of the court would once have looked down, and which still offer superb views over the mayhem of Jaipur below.

History of Hawa Mahal

The original palace received an extension in the form of Hawa Mahal in 1799, ordered by Sawai Pratap Singh. The purpose was to allow the ladies of the palace to view the street for people-watching whilst in purdah, a strict rule that prohibits religious women from being seen by males. The location also allowed the ladies to participate and watch street-festivals from up high.

Hawa Mahal architecture

The Hawa Mahal has a total of 953 windows (although small and more similar to peep-holes than windows to prevent the public from viewing the women), each with lattices and balconies. The top three stories are named Vichitra Mandir, Prakash Mandir and Hawa Mandir. Krishna is worshipped at the Vichitra Mandir level.

The palace was built in the shape of Krishna's crown, the Hindu God whom Sawai Pratap Singh was fond of.

When To Visit Hawa Mahal

Jaipur is a fascinating city that lures visitors for its many historical monuments and culture. The best times to visit are during the winter months between November and February as the Summer months reach unbearable highs. To visit the Hawa Mahal, you can purchase a Tourist Pass that enables you to visit other gems in Jaipur if you wish.

Hawa Mahal opening times

The palace itself is open from 9 am to 4.30pm, which includes the Hawa Mahal itself however it’s best appreciated from the outside during the early morning when it glows orange-pink in the rays of the rising sun. If you wish to see the inside of the Hawa Mahal and the palace grounds, which is quite spectacular in itself then a ticket will be needed to enter. Individual tickets can be bought onsite from official vendors for Rps.50 if you do not plan on buying the Tourist Pass ticket.

Getting to the Hawa Mahal

The Palace is in Bad Choupad and is fairly centrally located, so easy to get to. From Jaipur Railway Station, take the bus number 1, 2 or 3 to Bad Choupad. Many hotels encourage tourists to visit the Hawa Mahal as it is the main site of interest in the city, something locals are very proud of - for reasons of demand, many hotels organise group drop-offs for guests to the palace, so be sure to ask. From the Amber Palace, you will need to take a taxi. Be sure to run the taxi meter whenever getting cabs in Jaipur, as many take advantage of unknowledgeable tourists. If you are having a cultural day and coming from Albert Hall Museum, you will need to walk to Ram Niwas Garden and take the number 12 bus.

Outside the Pink City

Immediately south of the Pink City, the wide road leading out from New Gate is flanked by the surprisingly lush Ram Niwas Gardens, named after their creator, Maharaja Ram Singh (1835–80). Standing sentinel in among these gardens is the florid Albert Hall, while pressing on south again you’ll get to the Museum of Indology. The Pink City is bookended to its north by the looming Nahargarh, while some distance to its east, and over a little rise, is the hugely enjoyable “Monkey Palace”.

Albert Hall, Jaipur © Taras Shchetinin/Shutterstock

Albert Hall

A prominent city landmark, the Albert Hall was built in 1867, exhibiting a whimsical mix of Venetian and Mughal styles (Italian below, Indian on top). It today houses the city’s Central Museum, with the bulk of its collection focusing on regional and Indian themes, including fine displays of Jaipur pottery, Hindu statuary and Mughal and Rajasthani miniature paintings, supported by an eclectic array of artefacts from around the globe – everything from Egyptian antiquities to decorative tiles from Stoke-on- Trent, with forays into Japan, Myanmar and Persia.

Nahargarh

Teetering on the edge of the hills north of Jaipur is the dramatic Nahargarh, or “Tiger Fort”, built by Jai Singh II in 1734 and offering superb views of Jaipur, best enjoyed at sunset. The fort’s imposing walls sprawl for nearly 1km along the ridgetop and envelop a step-well among other features, but the only significant surviving structures within are the palace apartments, built inside the old fort by Madho Singh II between 1883 and 1892 as a love nest in which he kept his most treasured concubines away from the disapproving eyes of his courtiers and four official wives.

Vehicles can only get to the fort along a road that branches off Amber Road, a 15km journey from Jaipur. It’s simpler to walk to the fort along the steep path that climbs up from the north side of the city centre, a stiff fifteen to twenty-minute walk, although the path is a bit tricky to find, so you might want to take a rickshaw to the bottom. Try to avoid going up too late in the day or returning after dark – the fort is popular with delinquent teenagers and other unsavoury types, and the atmosphere can be a tad seedy at the best of times. There are a couple of cafés in the palace complex; the RSTC Padao Restaurant has the best views.

Royal Gaitor

On the northern edge of the city centre, the walled funerary complex of Royal Gaitor contains the stately marble mausoleums (chhatris) of Jaipur’s ruling family. The compound consists of two main courtyards, each crammed full of imposing memorials. The first (and more modern) courtyard is dominated by the grandiose twentieth-century cenotaph of Madho Singh II (d. 1922), a ruler of famously gargantuan appetites, whose four wives and fifty-odd concubines bore him “around 125” children. The second, older, courtyard is home to the elaborate tomb of Jai Singh II (d. 1743), the founder of Jaipur and the first ruler to be interred at Gaitor.

On the ridgetop above Gaitor (reachable via a steep set of stairs) lies the Ganesh Mandir, the second of the city’s two major Ganesh temples – a huge building instantly recognizable from the huge swastika painted on its side.

Galta Ji “Monkey Palace”

Nestling in a steep-sided valley 3km east of Jaipur, Galta comprises a picturesque collection of 250-year-old temples squeezed into a narrow rocky ravine. Galta owes its sacred status in large part to a freshwater spring that seeps constantly through the rocks in the otherwise dry valley, keeping two tanks full. Surreally, these ponds are now the domain of more than five thousand macaque monkeys, which have earned Galta its nickname of the “Monkey Palace”. For many tourists the sight of the splashing monkeys outstrips the attraction of the temples themselves, though the assorted shrines, dedicated variously to Krishna, Rama and Hanuman, are attractively atmospheric. It’s also worth walking up to the spectacularly situated Surya Mandir, perched above the tanks on the ridgetop, which boasts dramatic views of the city below.

East of Jaipur

The area east of Jaipur, interspersed with the forested slopes of the Aravalli Hills, holds an inviting mixture of historic towns and wildlife sanctuaries. To the northeast is the fortified town of Alwar, convenient for the Sariska Tiger Reserve and National Park. Further east are the former princely capitals of Deeg and Bharatpur, and India’s finest bird sanctuary, Keoladeo National Park. The wildlife sanctuary at Ranthambore, in idyllic scenery southeast of Jaipur, offers the best chance in India of spotting wild tigers.

Bharatpur

The walled town of Bharatpur is just a stone’s throw from the border with Uttar Pradesh – a mere 18km from the magnificent abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, and also within easy swiping distance of Agra. The town itself has an interesting mix of bazaars, palaces and temples, but the real reason to come here is to visit India’s most famous bird sanctuary, the Keoladeo National Park, on the town’s southern edge, one of India’s – if not the world’s – top ornithological destinations.

Other than the moated Lohagarh at the centre of the city, and the aforementioned park, there’s not all that much to see in Bharatpur. If you’re bored, try tracking down the unusual Ganga Mandir, a large Hindu temple dedicated to the proprietary goddess of India’s most sacred river (though the elaborately carved sandstone building looks a bit like a Neoclassical French chateau); the imposing Jama Masjid; or the finely embellished Laxman Mandir, dedicated to the family deity of the maharajas of Bharatpur. All three are somewhat neglected and of little interest, but on the plus side they’re an easy walk from each other.

Keoladeo National Park

Keoladeo National Park is India’s premier birdwatching sanctuary – an avian wonderland that attracts vast numbers of feathered creatures thanks to its strategic location, protected status and extensive wetlands. Some 385 species have been recorded here, including around two hundred year-round residents along with 190-odd migratory species from as far afield as Tibet, China, Siberia and even Europe, who fly south to escape the northern winter. Keoladeo is probably best known for its stupendous array of aquatic birds, which descend en masse on the park’s wetlands following the dramatic arrival of the monsoon in July. These include the majestic Saras crane and a staggering two thousand painted storks, as well as snake-necked darters, spoonbills, white ibis and grey pelicans. There are also various mammals in the park, including wild boar, mongoose, antelope, jackal, jungle cat, chital, nilgai and sambar. Keoladeo National Park is the proud owner of a UNESCO World Heritage Site title.

Visiting Keoladeo National Park

The best time to visit the Keoladeo National Park is following the monsoon (roughly Oct-March) when the weather is dry but the lakes are still full and the migratory birds in residence (although mists in December and January can hinder serious birdwatching). Rajasthan’s decade of drought finally came to an end in 2012 with an unusually long monsoon. Consistent rainfall combined with a series of three new permanent irrigation channels – designed to keep the water level in the lakes consistent – replenished Keoladeo’s waterways which had all but dried up during the drought. During the winter months, the park can be quite cold, with temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius. The desert climate means that temperatures reach highs and lows depending on the months. If you visit in winter, be sure to look out for the Indian Pythons bathing out in the sun.

Getting around the park is fairly easy, although vehicles are prohibited 2km into the park. Well-defined footpaths making walking easy, and bicycles can be hired to cycle around quite pleasantly. The most advised form of seeing the park is to hire a rickshaw, the drivers are trained by the park and are very knowledgeable about the birds - so ask your questions!

The park is open all year round, from sunrise to sunset. During monsoon season when the waters are high, it is possible to hire a boat with a well-clued up oarsman who will educate you on the birds and provide a relaxed way to travel around the park and see the wildlife up close and personal.

Places to visit around Keoladeo National Park

The park itself is quite spectacular, but you will be happy to know the surrounding area also holds some gems that are worth seeing. Nearby is the Government Museum, Bharatpur Palace and Lohagarh Fort. About 35km away is the impressive Deeg Palace, made up of multiple palaces and gardens.

Leopard at the Ranthambore National Park © Sourabh Bharti/Shutterstock

Ranthambore National Park

No Indian nature reserve can guarantee a tiger sighting, but at Ranthambore National Park the odds are probably better than anywhere else: the park is relatively small and the resident tigers are famously unperturbed by humans, hunting in broad daylight and rarely shying away from cameras or jeep-loads of tourists. Combine the big cats’ bravado with the park’s proximity to the Delhi–Agra–Jaipur “Golden Triangle”, and you’ll understand why Ranthambore attracts the number of visitors it does.

Best time to visit Ranthambore National Park

With more than ninety thousand visitors a year, Ranthambore is one of India’s most popular national parks and can get ridiculously busy throughout the cool winter months, especially around Diwali and New Year. The summer months from April to June are a lot quieter, but obviously very hot. There are currently around forty adult tigers in the park, plus healthy populations of chital, nilgai, jackals, leopards, jungle cats and a wide array of birds. The original core section of the national park is flanked by three buffer zones, designed to provide space for the park’s ever-expanding number of young territory-seeking tigers.

Alwar

Roughly halfway Delhi and Jaipur, the large, bustling town of Alwar sprawls across a valley beneath one of eastern Rajasthan’s larger and more impressive forts, whose massive ramparts straggle impressively along craggy ridges above. The town is mostly visited as a jumping-off point for Sariska National Park, though it has a number of fantastic attractions in its own right, including a fine palace, a string of colourful bazaars, and the gorgeous waterside Moosi Maharani Chhatri.

Alwar City Palace

Alwar’s principal attraction is its rambling and atmospheric City Palace, or Vinai Vilas Mahal, a sprawling complex of ornate but slightly dilapidated buildings, covered in crumbling ochre plaster and studded with endless canopied balconies. Most of the palace’s innumerable rooms are now put to more mundane use as government offices, while the courtyard in front provides open-air office space for dozens of typists, lined up behind clanking old antique metal machines, and lawyers, who prosecute their business under the trees.

The palace’s time-warped museum, on the top floor, has extensive collections of weapons and miniature paintings, alongside a medley of objects belonging to former maharajas ranging from musical instruments to stuffed animals.

Steps at the left-hand end of the main facade lead up to a large tank, flanked by symmetrical ghats, pavilions and a terrace on which stands the delicate Moosi Maharani Chhatri, built in memory of Bhaktawar Singh’s mistress, who immolated herself on his funeral pyre.

Bala Qila

Perched high above Alwar is Bala Qila fort, whose well-preserved walls climb dramatically up and down the thickly wooded hillsides that rise above the town. There’s not much actually to see inside the fort – besides a temple and a few old cannons – but it’s a pleasant walk up from town, with fine views and fresh hill breezes. It takes about two hours to make the return trip on foot up to the fort’s outermost gate, or about twice that to reach the topmost point of the fortifications. If you don’t want to walk, you’ll have to arrange for a taxi through your hotel or the tourist office – the road up is too steep for cycle rickshaws.

Top image: The City Palace of Jaipur in India © hecke61/Shutterstock

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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