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Magical Rajasthan

One Saturday last October, with winter just around the corner, I started on my long-awaited tour to discover the colours of India in Rajasthan. I timed it primarily for Pushkar’s Cattle fair and started my journey in Jaipur, before going to the golden Jaisalmer. Jaipur, the City of Victory, is chaotic and congested, though it still has a habit of tickling travellers pink. 

Stunning hilltop forts and glorious palaces fit like footprints from a rich royal past, candyfloss-bright turbans blaze a trail through brilliant bargain-filled bazaars, and fluttering tie-dye saris catch the eye like butterflies. As the gateway to the desert state of Rajasthan, however, it’s also a city permanently under siege. Package tourists are captivated by (and offloaded on) the bustling bazaars, world-class hotels and clammy sophistication, while camel carts and cows waddle through diesel-soaked streets, rampaging rickshaw drivers hustle and burn past businessmen and tourists, and scores of street children beg outside huge jewellery shops and palatial hotels.

The historic palaces, forts, the sun-tanned faces of its people, bright local costumes all around, offer great opportunities to any photographer. Hawamahal, City Palace, Jalmahal, Amber Fort, Nahargarh Fort and above all, the magical colours of Jaipur, are a complete feast for any photographer. With my limited ability I tried to capture at least its essence, but fell short on many accounts. Jaipur beams boldest at dusk – when it’s well worth walking to Amber fort – and, much like its founder, Jai Singh II, the Pink City is both proud and resilient. Try to visit during the numerous colourful festivals on show. There’s the Elephant Festival in March, Gangaur is celebrated in March/April and Teej celebrations occur in August.
 
My first day was spent inside the city palace and in Jal Mahal. A complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, the impressive City Palace is right in the centre of the Old City. The outer wall was built by Jai Singh, but within it the palace has been enlarged and adapted over the centuries. There are palace buildings from different eras but despite the gradual development, the whole is a striking blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The Kachhwaha Rajputs were patrons of the arts and took pride in their collection of valuable artefacts which can be viewed in the museum here, which became a public museum under Man Singh II. His successor, Maharaja Bhawani Singh, took a keen interest in its development. The price of admission also gets you in to Jaigarh Fort, a long climb above Amber Fort. Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark, the Hawa Mahal, is an extraordinary, fairy-tale, pink sandstone, delicately honeycombed hive that rises a dizzying five storeys.  The palace is part of the City Palace complex. It was constructed in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh to enable ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city. Inside it’s barely a building at all, only around one room deep, with narrow, delicately scalloped walkways. It’s still a great place for people-watching from behind the small shutters. The top offers stunning views over Jantar Mantar and the City Palace one way, and over Siredeori Bazaar the other. Adjacent to the City Palace is Jantar Mantar, an observatory begun by Jai Singh in 1728, which resembles a collection of bizarre sculptures. The name is derived from the Sanskrit yanta mantr meaning ‘instrument of calculation’, and in 2010 it was added to India’s list of World Heritage Sites. Jai Singh liked astronomy even more than he liked war and town planning. Before constructing the observatory he sent scholars abroad to study foreign structures. He built five observatories and this is the largest and best preserved. Near the beautiful marble cenotaphs of the maharanis of Jaipur, on Amber Rd, is the red-sandstone Jal Mahal, built in 1799 by Madho Singh as a summer resort for the royal family – they used to base duck-hunting parties here. It’s beautifully situated in the watery expanse of Man Sagar lake, whose water level varies seasonally. I started again on the second day at 5-30 am to catch the Forts in the morning light. My first stop was Amber Fort. Although it was my second visit to this beautiful Fort, the grandeur of the architecture and its size left me awestruck. This fort was constructed by Raja Man Singh I in 1592 and was completed by Mirja Raja Jai Singh and is a beautiful fusion of Hindu and Mughal architecture. Made of red sandstone and white marble, it is a classic, romantic palace with a magnificent aura. The fort houses a famous temple called Amer Kali Temple. Raja Man Singh recovered a statue of Devi Kali from the sea in Jessore in Bangladesh and built this temple. Elephants carry enthusiastic tourists up the Fort’s steep path on their back, and the place gets lively with activities and the beat of drums with their arrival. The elephants tirelessly climb up the stairs & put tourists down on a platform. 

My next stop was Nahargarh Fort.Built in 1734 and extended in 1868, sturdy Nahargarh overlooks the city from a sheer ridge to the north. An 8 km-long road runs up through the hills from Jaipur, or the fort can be reached along a zigzagging 2 km-long footpath, which starts northwest of the Old City. The views are glorious – it’s a great sunset spot, and there’s a restaurant that’s perfect for a refreshing drink. The story goes that the fort was named after Nahar Singh, a dead prince whose restless spirit was disrupting construction. Whatever was built in the day crumbled in the night. He agreed to leave on condition that the fort was named for him. The fort was built in 1734 by Jai Singh to increase the Amber defences, and was adapted in 1868 to its present form by Maharaja Ram Singh, to house the maharaja’s numerous wives. You can visit the Madhavendra Bhawan, which has the nine apartments of Maharaja Ram Singh’s nine wives, and view his bathrooms, boudoirs and kitchens. A spooky notice at the gate says no one should be inside the fort after 5-30 pm. 15 km away from Amber fort, there is Jaigarh fort, which was built between 15th and 18th century A.D  to celebrate Victory. The biggest Cannon on wheels in the world is preserved in this Fort. This Fort is one of the few military structures of medieval India preserved almost intact, which contains palaces, a granary and a well-planned cannon foundry and several temples.

On my last day I went to the Galta temple, perched between sheer cliff faces in a rocky valley and home to hundreds of monkeys. The temple houses a number of sacred tanks, with water ‘several elephants deep’ fed from a spring falling through the mouth of a sculpted cow, into which daring souls jump from adjacent cliffs. On the ridge above Galta is the Surya Mandir which rises 100m above Jaipur, offering hazy views over the humming city.  
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