In 37 years of being married to my best friend, we’ve only taken time off once to visit a historical location in India. That was back in 1996 when we went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal with family. Our kids were tiny and we had a blast.
Then, life intervened.
Parents got frail, business took off, and time in India became a regimented series of days in Bangalore, Delhi, Patna and Calcutta. Our trips were ten days or fewer; sadly one trip was 2 days. In lieu of traveling within India, we visited remarkable places in Europe and the US.
In 2018, after much planning, Tarun and I decided to add two days to our India itinerary for much needed rest and relaxation. In the weeks leading to our visit, thanks to youtube we traveled to Sikkim, Bhutan, the backwaters of Kerala, Shimla, Jaipur, and Goa. We spent hours researching sites, hotels, foods, and flights.
Goa seemed blissful.
Our favorite hotel chain, the Taj Hotels, had seaside properties that looked attractive. Almost ready to buy our flights from Delhi, we excitedly discussed the trip with our friend, who had just arrived from India to the US. He looked at us incredulously and then implored us to reconsider. If we hadn’t traveled for pleasure in India, then Goa should not be our starting point he offered. Of our choices he said, we must start with Jaipur. His compelling argument influenced us.
Soon after, we find ourselves landing in Jaipur amidst brown hills as far as we could see.
Within minutes, we are in a car being whisked away to the hotel. It didn’t take too long to notice the wide boulevards and the clean curbs. The brown vistas from the airplane are replaced with greenery and vibrant colors on the ground. Our knowledgeable driver rattles off statistics at the speed of light: Jaipur is India's first planned city; 3M people; 85% Hindus, 10% Muslims; 5% other. He tells us about a chronic shortage of water because of the proximity to the Thar desert. Instinctively, I reach for the little bottle of water in the arm rest as if to buffer myself from an imaginary sandstorm.
The Taj Jai Mahal Palace hotel is not the most luxurious in town but you can’t exactly call any Taj hotel “un-luxurious”. True to its palace designation, the hotel is situated on an 18-acre property, with a grand two storied house with large wings, a house that belongs to the royal family of Jaipur and is on lease to the hotel chain. We came to rest. Instead we find ourselves bouncing between playing croquet, table tennis, pool, and walking on the property, breathing crisp and clean air.
Early the next day we head to Amer Fort through the marvelous old city. Excited to see the pink city, we drive through a large gate and are surprised to be confronted with a terracotta city. Sensing our incredulity, the driver offers the story that Prince Albert, Victoria's son, mistakenly exclaimed, "Pink City!" upon seeing it the first time and the name has stuck since then.
Before settling in Jaipur, the royal family lived in Amer but a water shortage drove them to start a settlement in Jaipur. The homes in the old city are 350 years old. Each and every one has a terracotta façade. All the storefront signs are black-on-white. The scenes in the old city are at once peaceful and incongruous. While the order is striking and calming, the thought that order can be imposed in India at such a grand scale, is mind boggling.
The local government spends money to repaint the homes every few years. But how? This is India. Not possible I think. Yet, it is true. Tourism pays the bills and keeping the homes painted for the wide-eyed, hapless, tourists with full wallets is essential. And I must say, it is done extremely well.
Talking about incongruity, the old city is undergoing a seismic transformation. The subway system is burrowing its way under the old streets. Historic and modern in the same gulp. When the construction is done, I want to go back to the old city to get a true sense of the wonder.
Mosques sit beside temples, flower shops beside clothing stores, SUVs zip past tiny little Suzukis. Everywhere you look there is a place to eat, street vendors lined up in neat rows alongside the road, and despite the construction, traffic moves freely around large circles.
Our car takes a turn and we come upon, to our left, the Hawa Mahal. A large edifice of 950-odd windows. At first it looks like a movie set, two dimensional. Is there really anything in the back, I wonder. I crane my neck in all directions from the car and get a glimpse of the palace behind it. Rather, in front of it. The structure we can see is the back, the palace in the front!
The royal women observed daily life in the old city through these windows, jharokhas, without letting the world see them.
Magnificent architecture, beautifully preserved. A sight to behold!
Along the streets of the old city and on the way to Amer, we are in a shopper's paradise. The colors transport us into the midst of a rainbow, the textures awaken our senses, and the smells of the foods make us hungry like never before.
Rajasthani food is unique because it assumes a lack of water. The dishes are cooked with buttermilk, milk, and ghee. You can just imagine how that combination promises to make your taste buds dance! Not-to-miss dishes include: laal maas (red meat) which is mutton (goat) cooked with spices and chilli peppers; gatta curry and ker sangri are vegetarian dishes to die for; they have many types of parathas (type of roti) as well. We opted for the Rajsthani thali (plate) at the hotel and it did not disappoint.
More in the next post about Amer Fort.
In the meantime, here are some travel tips for you.
Travel to Jaipur: The highway from Del to Jai was under construction and a 4-hr journey was expected to take upwards of 6 hours, so we flew Indigo airlines from Delhi.
Hotel: Taj Jai Mahal Palace (ask for a garden-facing room)
Transportation from the airport: Arranged by hotel
Transportation to Amer: Our room package contained a 1/2 day tour. You can extend the car for a longer duration. You need the car for at least 6 hours to do a quick tour of Amer and to shop on the way down from the fort.
Shopping: Rajasthalli Cooperative was an amazing and well-priced shop. No need to haggle and they take credit cards. More on this in the next post.
Food: Lal Maas, Gatta Curry, Ker Sangri, Missi Paratha and much, much more.
Restaurants: we ate at the hotel. Giordano's the Italian restaurant has delicious paninis; Cinnamon, the Indian restaurant, is where we had the thali; Marble Arch, the 24-hr coffee shop, has a terrific breakfast buffet and a la carte choices.
Best time to go: Ideal time to visit Jaipur is October through March. Temperatures start to soar in April. And boy, does it get hot there! 48-49 degrees C is toasty.