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City of Palaces

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City of Palaces

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The long line of Rajput kings who ruled the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan from the 12th century until the country’s independence in 1947 enriched its capital city Jaipur with grand palaces renowned for their visual beauty and architectural intricacies.

Words: Arundhati Hazra    Images: Getty & 123RF

I have been in Jaipur for scarcely an hour, and I’ve already seen two palaces on the way to my hotel. My cab driver points out City Palace to me, constructed in 1732 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh when water shortage caused him to move out of his palace in Amer, located 11km from Jaipur. I stop my cab to catch a glimpse of the beautiful floral frescoes on the Virendra Pol, the arched gateway leading to City Palace, and the delicate fluted pillars and arches of Mubarak Mahal museum, one of the areas within the palace complex open to the public (a part the palace is occupied by the Maharaja’s descendants and is therefore a restricted area). Adjacent to the palace, amidst the bustle in the narrow lanes of the Old City, I stare up at the majestic honeycomb façade of Hawa Mahal, twinkling like a bride’s veil in the evening light.

The honeycomb facade of Hawa Mahal is still awe-inspiring today. The latticed windows, which act as a natural air-conditioner for the palace, is a brilliant design feature.

 

Rajasthan literally translates to ‘Land of Kings’, so it isn’t surprising that its capital is considered the City of Palaces. Red, pink, and yellow sandstone were the materials of choice for building most of the palaces, giving them a bejewelled look.

Fortified Splendour

After a restful night’s sleep, I am ready for my excursion to Amer, where one of the royal abodes is located. My rental jeep trundles up the road to Amer Fort, built in the 16th century by Raja Man Singh I, who reigned from 1589 to 1614. The Raja was one of Mughal emperor Akbar’s trusted generals and among his Navratna (nine gems) – the emperor’s courtiers who were renowned for their artistic abilities or intellect. In the morning sunlight, the fort is a regal sight, like a golden throne seated on a hill overlooking Maota Lake. Excitement and awe swirl inside me as I approach the stunning structure, and I am eager to explore the architectural beauties within the monumental fort.

Along with a walkway and a motorway leading up to the fort, there is also a path for transportation of a different kind, and I watch as a long line of liveried elephants make their way up the snaking road.

I enter through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate), constructed from pale yellow sandstone. The gate once served as the main entrance for royal cavalcades and dignitaries. The Suraj Pol has a belvedere-like balcony, and is topped by two dome-shaped pavilions called chhatri, which served as lookout posts in olden times. There is another gate, the Chand Pol (Moon Gate), which used to be the entrance for commoners seeking an audience with the king. Both lead into the first of four courtyards, the Jaleb Chowk, where royal guards once assembled for inspection by the king. Even today, a simulation of the original ceremony occurs every morning, with a marching band dressed in white coats and colorful Rajasthani turbans.

Elaborate frescoes, with floral motifs and depicting Hindu gods, adorn the interiors of Amer Fort.

 

I climb a set of steep steps into the second courtyard, which houses the Diwan-i-Aam, the hall of public audience, where the king once granted audience to his subjects and met with his officials. My eyes are immediately drawn to the latticed galleries that ring the courtyard, which are supported by colonnaded arches, and ornamented with sculpted elephant heads and creeping vines. Until that point, the fort had seemed to me rugged and imposing, geared towards its primary function of protecting the palace. It is in the palace courtyard that the regal artistry makes a spectacular display.

The latticework, or jaali, is a distinctive feature of Rajput architecture; massive windows and even entire walls that function as screens and partitions, are characterised by the intricate geometric patterns. While the jaali helps filter the sun’s rays and reduce glare, in the olden days, it had another purpose: to shield the palace’s womenfolk from the public eye. Hidden from view, the women of the royal household were able to watch proceedings, such as public meetings and musical performances, in the Diwan-i-Aam through the latticework.

The inner courtyard of Amer Fort has a landscaped garden, modelled after the Charbagh layout of Islamic architecture.

 

The Ganesh Pol, at one end of the Diwan-i-Aam, stops me in my tracks. Named after the Hindu god Ganesha, who is worshipped as the remover of obstacles, it was the gateway to the private chambers of the erstwhile royal family. The structure is embellished with colorful murals and frescoes of flowers and vines painted with vegetable dyes, and topped with latticed windows and multiple small domes. I walk through the gate into the third courtyard, and am greeted by a landscaped garden, with a star-shaped marble parterre (level space occupied by an ornamental arrangement of flower beds) that forms the focal point. The garden is modelled after the Charbagh garden layout in Islamic architecture, where four sections of the garden are divided by walkways or flowing water.

On either side of the garden are two distinctive sections of the palace: the Sheesh Mahal and the Sukh Mahal. As the story goes, the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), covered with thousands of small mirrors in geometric and floral patterns and inlaid with precious stones, can be illuminated by the light of a single candle in a corner. It was reportedly built by the Maharaja to simulate a spellbinding starry sky for his queen, who wanted to sleep beneath the stars but couldn’t due to constraints of her role as royalty. I am awestruck by the effect of the mirrors, as well as by the creative mind that designed it.

The exquisite Sheesh Mahal in Amer Fort is studded with thousands of mirrors in intricate geometric and floral patterns.

 

In contrast, the Sukh Mahal (Palace of Joy), the private chambers of the king, is more sedate, with embossed walls and doors inlaid with ivory, a marble cascade where water once flowed, and latticed marble windows to provide a natural air-conditioning effect. The upper galleries of both mahals (palaces) offer panoramic views of Maota Lake and the city, and I spend significant time admiring the geometric landscaped gardens in the middle of the lake.

Solitary Beauty  

After a full morning spent exploring the fort’s palaces, I head back to the city for lunch. I stop on the way to look at the Jal Mahal (Water Palace), in the centre of Man Sagar Lake. It is a five-storey building constructed of red sandstone, originally conceived as a hunting lodge by Maharaja Madho Singh I, who ruled between 1750 and 1768. The later construction of a dam across a nearby river led to the creation of the lake, causing all of the Jal Mahal, except its topmost floor, to become submerged. Though the palace itself is not accessible, as it rises from the lake like a portal into a bygone era, its location with the picturesque Aravalli Hills as a backdrop, makes it an irresistible stop for the Instagrammers. I am told by my driver that seeing the palace lit up at night is an almost surreal experience.

Nestled among the Aravalli Hills, Jal Mahal, which sits in the middle of a lake, with only the uppermost floor visible while its lower four storeys are submerged.
Palace of Winds

The Hawa Mahal had been calling out to me ever since I glimpsed it the previous evening; it is my first stop after a traditional Rajasthani lunch of gatte ki sabzi (dumplings of chickpea flour in a spicy curd gravy) and missi roti (gram flour flatbread). The beehive façade, built of red sandstone, captivates me as much in the bright afternoon glare as it did in the light of dusk – its 953 jharokhas or overhanging enclosed balconies come together in a five-storeyed honeycomb layout. It was built by Maharaja Sawai Singh I in the late 18th century so that the women of the royal household – the queen and her companions – could observe festivals and events that took place on the streets below. It was the custom of the times to have women in purdah, a practice where women were kept out of view of male strangers.

The palace is a network of interconnected courtyards, lined with corniced balconies and latticed windows. Each floor has a different name and purpose; the first floor houses the Sharad Mandir (Temple of Spring), which features a fountain-lined courtyard where royals once celebrated Holi, the springtime festival of colours, while the second floor houses the Ratan Mandir (Temple of Gems), with its colourful glasswork on the doors and windows. The Vichitra Mandir (Unusual Temple) on the third floor was the venue of the Maharaja’s place of worship, while the open terraces on the fourth floor, called Prakash Mandir (Temple of Light), were ideal spots to enjoy the morning sunshine. The top floor is Hawa Mandir (Temple of Wind), where gusts of wind cool one down on a hot summer day. There are no stairs between floors, but ramps, designed for the royal ladies’ palanquins. I can almost see a queen and her train of palanquins making their way up the floors; I follow their path to peer through the jharokha at the bustling street below.


Coloured glass panes from Belgium that stud the windows of Ratan Mandir (Temple of Gems) in Hawa Mahal lend the place its name.

 

Each jharokha is a small balcony jutting out of the wall, which served as a window to the world and a natural air-conditioner, filtering and cooling hot summer breezes. The jharokha of the lower storeys are studded with coloured Belgian glass, while the top two storeys have delicate jaali work. What I find fascinating is the multitude of architectural elements in close proximity – a single window could have a base painted in delicate floral motifs topped with a coloured glass arch and embedded with geometric latticework, each of which had a function – the lattice design helped cool the interior of the building, while the coloured glass aptly reflected light and provided added illumination.

Museum of Grandeur

You would think that after three palaces in a day, I would be suffering from palace fatigue, but I have the capacity for one more.

The Albert Hall Museum is not a traditional Rajasthani palace; it was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style in the late 19th century by an Englishman, Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, who built other palaces around Rajasthan. Its collection is extensive and varied, but two things capture my attention: Jaipur’s blue pottery and intricate miniature paintings.

Famed throughout the world, Jaipur’s blue glazed pots and vases are made not with clay but with quartz, powdered glass and multani mitti (fuller’s earth), with animal and plant motifs painted from a blue dye made of cobalt oxide and edible gum. Some of the artefacts here are more than a century old, yet they look as fresh and bright as if they were created just yesterday.

Domed pavilions called chhatri are a distinctive feature of Rajasthan architecture, as can be seen at the Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur.

 

The paintings, on the other hand, are miniatures, depicting tales from Indian mythology, from the Panchatantra – a collection of ancient Indian fables – to stories of Krishna, the Hindu god of love and compassion, and his love Radha. There are four schools of miniature painting – Mewar, Marwar, Hadoti and Dhundhar – corresponding to the four erstwhile provinces of Rajasthan. Each school has its distinct characteristics, but common within all are the use of bright primary colours – bold shades of red, blue, green and orange – and the sharp outline of the characters, as well as the level of detail within the miniatures. I am lost amidst the collection until a guard informs me that the museum is about to close.

As the sun goes down, the words of the 19th century English poet, Sir Edwin Arnold – “A vision of daring and dainty loveliness… Aladdin’s magician could not have called into existence a more marvelous abode,” – reverberate in my mind. He was describing Hawa Mahal, but this sentiment rings true for the city of Jaipur as well. Even with the march of modernity, Jaipur retains its royal aura, its elegant palaces affirming that beauty and functionality can go hand in hand.

Curved arches, a fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture, are a characteristic feature of palaces in the Pink City.
Toast of the Pink City

Jaipur is also famously known as the ‘Pink City’, after Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh beautified much of the city centre by painting the buildings terracotta pink (symbolising warmth and hospitality) to impress the Prince of Wales when he toured India in 1876. Aside from its magnificent palaces, the Pink City is home to a variety of spectacular architectural attractions and museums.

Jaigarh Fort Overlooking Amer Fort on Cheel ka Teela (Hill of Eagles), Jaigarh was a strategic fort, and also served as a cannon foundry. It houses the Jaivana cannon, the world’s largest cannon on wheels (a test shot from the cannon reportedly travelled 35 km), and its water tank is rumoured to have secret chambers containing 15th century buried treasure.

Jantar Mantar Constructed in the early 18th century by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, a strong promoter of science, this is the largest of the five open-air astronomical observatories he built across India. It houses 19 massive instruments – sundials, astrolabes and gnomon dials to measure latitude, longitude and positions of celestial bodies – notably the Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest stone sundial that can measure time to an accuracy of two seconds.

Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing Dabu, ajrakh, sangaaneri – these are but a handful of textile block printing techniques in Rajasthan, practised for nearly 500 years. The Anokhi Museum, which showcases the rich heritage of the craft, is the ideal place to watch artisans at work and learn about block printing – tools, natural dyes and embellishment work using gold and silver – as well as to try your hand at creating a hand-printed scarf or stole.

Rajasthani Flavours

The local cuisine of Rajasthan makes for an unforgettable dining experience. Check out these venues in Jaipur that serve up gastronomic delicacies fit for a king.

Chokhi Dhani Meaning ‘Special Village’, Chokhi Dhani is a concept restaurant that showcases rural Rajasthan. Visitors can view kathputli (puppet) shows, and folk dance and musical performances, then partake in a 10-course traditional Rajasthani meal including the popular daal-baatichurma, baked hardened balls of dough dipped in lentil soup and eaten with sweetened crushed doughballs.

Rawat Mishtan Bhandar Jaipur is dotted with sweet shops or mishtan bhandar, offering delicacies made of mawa (thickened milk), such as ghewar (disc-shaped sweet cake), malpua (pancake in sugar syrup) and doodhiya kheech (wheat porridge). Rawat is a must-try for its sweets as well as the spicy pyaaz kachori, a fried pastry stuffed with onion and potato.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Jaipur from Kuala Lumpur. airasia.com

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