Given my experiences in and around Bangalore, I'm justifiably leery of road trips in India. Even so, when we were faced with the choice of waiting in an Indian Airlines at the New Delhi airport lounge for six hours for a delayed flight or getting in a taxi and driving to and reaching Jaipur within five hours, we chose the latter.
Everyone (including the Indian Airlines customer service desk attendant who was happy to refund us the air fare rather than have us wait for the flight) assured us the roads were good. They were.
The roads were wide, very well paved, well maintained, and devoid of traffic. Suffice to say, it was one of the best drives I've had in India (the drive from Jaipur to Ajmer to Pushkar and back is equally good).
As we entered Jaipur around 2 pm, we caught our first of many glimpses of Amber Palace sitting majestically on top of a hill to our right.
An elephant gets ready to ferry people back down from the palace.
There are three ways to get to the top of the hill – walking up a winding path, by elephant, or by car. With the April sun beating down on us and with me less than two months away from having a baby, we decided trekking up the hill was not the best option. And apparently, the elephants are mighty popular. They were all taken by 9:30 am – all twenty-five of them!
Amber Palace is a wonderful combination of brute strength and delicate beauty. The kings and queens paid incredible attention to art and architecture within the walls. The walls and the exterior of the palace are themselves foreboding and somber. The road leading up to the palace is lined with imposing, ancient houses in which ministers and courtiers lived.
Once inside the palace, you will find the structures are a marvelous coming together of form and function. There is an intricate, latticed vent through which air and water flowed to keep things cool – a sort of an ancient cooler.
Lawns are laid out in the design of a carpet for the viewing pleasure of palace residents.
Mirrored and bejeweled ceilings and walls retain warmth or render a room cool as the season demands.
Yes! That is a ceiling!
Latticed fronts serve to shield the women folk from the men, but at the same time allow the women to witness all the action outside.
The eldest queen sat at the window in the center to throw flowers at the king as he entered the living quarters.
There is one courtyard, a rather large one, flanked on all sides by what appeared to be separate apartments (each section was walled off from the other) with a rather fantastic story that our guide took enormous pleasure in recounting. The king who built the courtyard, one of the Mansinghs, had twelve wives. Yup! You'll have to use your toes, too, for that one.
He did not want any of his wives to talk to the others (even though some of the women he married were cousins), so he built this elaborate apartment complex around that courtyard, three apartments to each side. There were also watch points "manned" by eunuchs to enforce that rule and to make sure they didn't pass notes to each other. (This photo was taken from one such watch point.)
See what you can accomplish with inexhaustible resources? Why, you can even keep all your wives apart!
The Mansingh Courtyard
This outdoor hall used for musical performances brought on a sudden, intense longing for scallops. Wonder why.
As you may have noticed, nature seems to have painted much of Rajasthan with a single palate, which is why I think the thing we most associate with Rajasthanis is – color. It is everywhere. It is painted onto the buildings, and it's most definitely an inextricable part of Rajasthani couture.
The ultra-famous Hawa Mahal (another elaborate latticed front to hide the women folk)
Umbrellas used in Rajasthani weddings. I thought they'd make cool parasols.
The other thing that catches your eye is how ubiquitous camels and elephants are. Camels are like what cows are in south India. The elephants, we were told, are a vital part of Rajasthan's tourism and film industries. In fact, the day we visited the palace, there was a shooting going on with a few elephants thrown in (see the lawn carpet photo).
Can you imagine this rush hour? Traffic jam!
I must say the Rajasthan tourism department has done some wonderful things to encourage tourism. The roads are worth mentioning again. At the palace, we could hear local guides jabbering away in German, French, Japanese, and Spanish to their wards. Our guide went out of his way to arrange an elephant ride for my son.
We ventured out of Jaipur, by road again, to Ajmer to visit the Dargah and to Pushkar, to visit the only Brahma temple in the world.
The Brahma Temple
I must say, the most striking thing about Pushkar was the clothes available for sale. They were many, many shops dedicated to clothes, almost all of them selling western fashions. It was obvious they were targeting the insane number of foreign tourists Pushkar gets every year and not only during the annual Camel Fair.
Even as I appreciated this "know your market" attitude, I was totally unprepared for this: