The state of Rajasthan, India, is filled with history, legends and architectural opulence.
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The Toshakhana (Treasure House) at Amber Fort in Jaipur.
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Woman shopping in market, Jodhpur.
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Washing clothes on Ghat steps by Lake Pichola.
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Peacock courtyard at Mor Chowk, Udaipur.
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Brahma Temple, Pushkar.
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View of the fort from Lake Pichola, Udaipur.
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Corn vendor, Udaipur.
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City Palace complex, Udaipur.
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Holy man at temple outside City Palace, Udaipur.
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Jain Temple, Ranakpur.
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Sundial at Jantar Mantar.
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The Jai Prakash Yantra at Jantar Mantar, Jaipur.
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Religious school, Galta.
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Blue houses, Jodhpur.
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Food at the Jodhpur market.
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Drummer near Meherangarh Fort, Jodhpur.
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Flower petals in marble vessel, Bharat Mahal Palace Hotel, Jaipur.
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Elephant entrance to Amber Fort, Jaipur.
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Closet of damaged gods, Galta Temple.
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Galta Temple in Jaipur.
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Woman shopping in market, Jodhpur.
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Trekking junkies, my kindred nomad Sigrid and I had hiked three weeks over high mountain passes along the border with China in India’s region of Ladakh atop the Tibetan plateau. While there, we arranged a little southern icing on our India layer-cake, an excursion to Rajasthan, where the culture is saturated with the arts, architecture, religious temples and village and palace traditions of India’s former grandeur.
When the British left India in 1947, the 22 Rajput-ruled princely states merged to form the largest state in independent India: Rajasthan. Yet many maharajahs (ruling princes) and their descendents continued living in the splendor of their palaces as aristocratic landowners, farmers and soldiers and still enjoy elevated, almost godly, social status. Some converted their properties into luxurious palace hotels, while the most prestigious became successful tourist magnets.
Sigrid and I wanted to explore a few of these opulent extravagances, where extreme wealth was channeled into elegant, pivotal structures whose design, craftsmanship and use of materials now define the region.
Driving south of Delhi on National Highway 8, we could have been on the New Jersey Turnpike apart from the occasional wayward holy cow and truck cabs peaking out from their smothering loads that looked like giant mushroom caps. Once off the toll-road, however, the atmospheric crush of camel carts, motorbikes and auto rickshaws inched us toward the terracotta-colored fortified walls surrounding the city of Jaipur. Motoring through the New Gate arch into the din of the old city conjured the giddy refrain from Borodin’s “Kismet”: “Play on the cymbal, the timbal, the lyre; Play with appropriate passion. Fashion.” We saw women draped in layers of color, lilting dancers in mirrored and beaded fabrics, marble palace walls embedded with precious gems, harems and the mystery and magic of the enormously wealthy and exceedingly brave Rajput princes, the maharajahs. We pressed on through the late afternoon market chaos to our lodging, a “palace” hotel near the train station.
Steering through an opening in the high wall across from the railroad tracks, we drove onto the manicured lawn carpet of the Bharat Mahal Palace Hotel, a modest structure by palace standards, but quite an elegant edifice for a hunting lodge! Romantic triple-arched jharokas—flamboyant hanging balconies—jut out under the dainty chajjas or slope-roofed bays of this two-story white and pink relic. Almost stumbling over the resident lop-eared rabbit, we made our way under the scalloped arches of the portico, flanked by large carved petal-bordered marble bowls filled with orange, yellow and pink blossoms. As it was off-off season and we were the few guests, the manager joined us in the garden for tea, “This family is wealthy, just look around you.” We glanced up at their new multi-storied condominiums. “Yet, they all served in the Army and were sharpshooters. They are brave men.” The man was close to tearing up, but quickly rose from the wicker chair, as young descendents of Thikana (Lord) Bhagat Singh—the palace patriarch—strolled onto the lawn, their Rottweiler puppy following. Gone with the Wind meets Kipling’s Kim.
The next morning, we were off to Amber Fort, which is anchored along a distant hillside overlooking the city of Jaipur. This massive palace-fort was commissioned by Maharajah Man Singh in 1592. Hailing from the Kachhawa family, devout Hindus of the warrior caste who trace their mythic genealogy to the Sun Dynasty, Man Singh rose to the rank of a trusted general for the Islamic Mughal emperor, Akbar. Most of this region’s Hindu princes co-opted Muslim invaders in order to keep and expand their riches. Singh heroically defended the Mughal Empire on numerous occasions and was rewarded handsomely with the spoils of war. These riches built Amber Fort, an architectural benchmark for what would emerge as the Rajput style: a fusion of Hindu elements, such as heavily-carved piers, shallow arches and chatris (domed pavilions), and Mughal or Muslim design characterized by spacious palace-in-fort blueprints, cusped arches and inlaid sandstone and marble walls.
Making our way into the courtyard, we watched as tourists dismounted from their pricey elephant rides while locals queued up for blessing inside the Kali Temple. It’s hard to fathom how such an austere fortress could conceal such a graceful, spectacular palace, but a short flight up the stairs into the maharajah’s apartments reveals walls shimmering with repeated panels of inlaid semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli. The Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) is the most stunning enclosure. In daylight, this cave-like room twinkles like fluttering eyelashes, its walls and ceiling covered with undulating niches of minutely carved stone and marble symmetrical floral patterns, all inset with reflective foil and mirrored glass. The harem apartments were cleverly designed along a private corridor, so the maharajah could make his nightly tryst with one without the knowledge of the others. In the early 18th century, Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II enlarged the Amber Fort just prior to constructing a new palace in what became the city of Jaipur, and that was our next stop.
Jai Singh’s palace in the city center is an organic complex that expanded over two centuries, the last addition made at the turn of the 20th century. We followed the crowd through the marble elephant gate into a vermillion-red courtyard featuring the Diwan-I-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), a majestic open-air pavilion housing two giant sterling silver vessels storing holy water from the Ganges. Another passageway, this one crowned with stylistically-rendered peacock feathers, led into the final square in front of the seven-story Chandra Mahal Palace. Massive in size, it seemed more like a towering, flavorless wedding cake in contrast to the refined richness of its outer courtyards and doorways.
Across from the Palace lies the Jantar Mantar, the largest and most complex of five astronomical observatories built by Jai Singh II between 1724 and 1727, consisting of 20 monumental measuring constructions. The ochre-colored stone gnomon of the Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest sundial, is a platform rising 73 feet from the base, flanked by two curvilinear structures looking a bit like skateboard ramps. These capture the sun’s shadow, casting up to a 45-foot arc, and are accurate to within two seconds. I was in awe of their scientific preciseness and blown away by their simple grace and sculptural lines.
Before heading to our next stop, Udaipur, we visited two of Rajasthan’s most sacred holy sites, Galta and Pushkar. Dedicated to the Sun God, Galta is a cascading series of temples, pavilions, shrines and pools tucked into a steep gorge outside Jaipur. Originally built by a courtier of Jai Sing II, the temples boast elaborately carved colonnades, domed roofs and painted friezes. We ventured first into a hall devoted to the elephant-god, Ganesh, before encountering a class of saffron-swathed, droopy-eyed kids chanting Hindu verse. Monkeys dove in and out of the water like bullets, offering up a frenzied performance. Higher up the complex, teenage boys jettisoned off the top staircase rail into pools way below where white draped holy men washed their robes and devotees bathed.
In Pushkar, we promenaded with crowds of colorful pilgrims to the Brahma Temple, only one of few devoted to Lord Brahma, the premiere God of the Hindu trinity, then motored on, arriving in Udaipur as the sun set over Lake Pichola. Known as the Venice of the East, Udaipur’s pulse revolves around the lake. The City Palace, begun by Maharajah Udai Singh in 1559 and the largest in Rajasthan, rises from behind a canopy of bougainvillea along the lakeshore up to the crest of the hill. Built of white marble, its flamboyant cupolas, balconies, colonnades and towers form an amazingly homogeneous complex, even though it was enlarged by successive maharajahs for almost 300 years.
Put on your shades for Udaipur’s City Palace! Intense whiteness and glitter may cause blindness. Touring its extravagantly appointed rooms, such as one festooned with silver, red and gold chevron-patterned mirrors, courtyards like the Mor Chowk built around giant peacocks dressed in 5,000 pieces of green and blue glass, and dramatic moldings, such as the carved marble railing portraying elephant fights using bulldogs, a vestige from the time elephant cavalries were fierce legions of battle, took the better part of a day. A 1951 photograph documents the palace’s last elephant fight—two elephants on opposite sides of a low white wall, mounted by fist-pumping turbaned drivers or mahouts, trunks locked, long tusks piercing each others jaws, mouths wide open in agitated screams, cheering hordes hanging from palace balconies.
On Lake Pichola, water taxies ferry guests to the Lake Palace Hotel, the former pleasure palace Jag Niwas, now the ultimate in lavish accommodations. A second island palace, Jag Mandir, is a mid-1600s extravagance where the young Shah Jahan, before becoming emperor, took refuge during a conflict with his father. Legend says this palace was his inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
The last stop on our Rajasthan caravan was Jodhpur. Founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, king of the Rathores clan, it is located at the edge of the Thar Desert. Kipling eloquently describes Jodhpur’s Meherangarh Fort: “The work of angels, fairies and giants ... built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun ... he who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain gorges.” The approach to this citadel roused this sensation.
Exterior walls hint at the fortress’s complex history—pockmarked dents of cannon balls and 15 handprints—“sati” marks—of the widows of Maharajah Man Singh who threw themselves on his funeral pyre in 1843. Administered by the current Maharajah of Jodhpur, galleries exhibit the extensive palace collections—silver elephant howdahs, palanquins and wall paintings, as well as military hardware. The old walled city of Jodhpur lies in the shadow of the Fort. Narrow streets are lined with many cobalt blue painted houses—to denote Brahmins, the highest caste—with the clock tower the focal point of the Sadar Market, a daily elaborate staging of food and dry goods.
Our last evening, we drove out to visit the Bishnoi, a 500 year-old casteless tribe famous for their 29 religious tenets promoting the sacred equality of plant, animal and human life. Welcomed by men in white turbans and women wearing heavy gold ear and nose rings, we were first treated to the opium tea ceremony, a greeting ritual performed by a seated elder in front of a carved wooden distillation apparatus (think Tinker Toys). The Bishnoi are historical eco-warriors, from the 1730 massacre of over 350 tribespeople hugging trees—a tree is worth more than a chopped head—to the more recent indictment of a Bollywood star who shot a blackbuck. Prospering in the harsh desert environment, these vegetarians foster animal populations—women nurse orphaned fawns—plant and well-water sterile lands. Lazing in the sun-setting desert beside a cluster of thatched dwellings, munching yummy millet chapatis, was a soulful counterpoint to the excessive wealth of the last few days. These Rajasthanis reap a moral fortune from the desert. Adding this contrasting cultural layer to our Indian cake seemed the perfect Rajasthan farewell. •