Editor’s note: The Taj Mahal is located in Uttar Pradesh and is outside the scope of this travelogue. If you want to read about the Taj, check out Bombay Jules’ great photoessay: http://bombayjules.blogspot.in/2012/10/the-unforgettable-taj-mahal.html
Rajasthan, the land of kings. Home to the Amer (Amber) Fort in Jaipur; Pichola Lake in Udaipur; and palaces, high deserts, and mountains all around. This India is the India of the guidebooks. Most foreigners who visit India will tour Rajasthan. The traditional Golden Triangle circuit (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) includes Jaipur, the Rajasthani capital. Most visits also include Udaipur and a few other locations throughout the state. The route from Jaipur to Udaipur is so well travelled by tourists that we saw the same couple from the our stay at Chhatra Sagar (a midpoint stopover) while we were at the City Palace in Udaipur.
When you come to the land of kings, you are treated like a king (or, in my case, a queen). On the advice of Brian’s boss, we decided to stay at Rambagh (Ram’s garden) Palace in Jaipur.
Upon arrival, we were escorted from the front gate to the palace in a vintage 1936 Ford convertible, once owned by the maharaja. After the smog and scum of Agra, Jaipur’s beautifully lit palace on a hill was a welcome change. When we arrived at the palace entrance, we were showered with rose petals. Just as the maharaja would have been greeted on arrival.
The palace is owned by the Taj hotel group. Like many other Taj hotels, it is a historic building that has been repurposed to serve the public. Built in 1835 as a garden getaway for the maharani’s favorite handmaid, the palace was converted to a hotel in 1957. The gardens are spectacular. We enjoyed dinner in the garden both nights of our stay.
The city of Jaipur is known as the Pink City.
Its most popular attraction is the Amer (Amber) Fort.
In keeping with the regal feel of the city, the traditional way to enter the fort is in true maharaja style on the back of an elephant.
Or, if you are an intrepid traveller, you can walk up to the fort, following the elephants. But, I would not recommend that route.
We mounted the two-person seat from an elevated platform. Riding on the back of an elephant is like, well, riding on the back of an elephant, about as bumpy as you would expect. If you relax and move as the elephant moves, the ride is a little less bumpy.
The beauty of the 15-minute ride comes from looking out over the magnificent landscape.
The fort itself is like many forts here, both military installation and home. Inside, we see the harim, where up to 5,000 women lived.
The fort is beautifully decorated with mirrors and tiles, so it is hard to imagine battles being fought there.
While in Jaipur, we stopped for the requisite visit to see and buy local handicrafts. Jaipur is famous for its block printing. Wooden blocks are used to layer colors and patterns on cloth whether cotton or silk.
While we were at the City Palace, a tour group from the Maharaja Express arrived for a special dinner.
For Brian and Deb, Jantar Mantar observatory was a highlight of our time in Jaipur.
It features the world’s largest sundial, which is still used by local astronomers and is accurate within two seconds.
As we wandered the vast halls of Rambagh Palace, we encountered this lovely sitting room.
From Jaipur, we travelled to Nimaj, a little town about halfway between Jaipur and Udaipur. There, we stayed at Chhatra Sagar, a reservoir created in 1890 by Thakur Chhatra Singh of Nimaj, “a powerful noble of the desert kingdom of Marwar (Jodhpur).”
Don’t you love that description? India is one of the few places in the world with nobles of the desert kingdom.
Shri Singh hoped to change the dry scrub into a flourishing agricultural region, and by the early 20th century had achieved that goal. Today, his great-grandchildren operate a maharaja-style tent camp.
The camp of twenty tents sits atop the reservoir dam, which makes for a nice, flat surface.
The current camp captures the romance of the Rajput mobile palaces. These tents are not your standard Coleman or Boy Scout tents. They are fully furnished with cement floors, bathrooms, and electricity.
The tents are up from October to March and packed away during the rainy season. Tranquil and serene, the location is a far cry from the 4.5 million people who live in Jaipur. We were greeted with fresh lime sodas and arrived just in time to see the sun set over the valley.
The next morning, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise and drank masala chai that was delivered to our tent.
Finally, after a lovely breakfast, we took a guided tour in a jeep through the countryside and to the nearby village.
Many crops, including cotton, are grown nearby.
As we entered the village, we encountered local women cleaning their house decorations in time for Diwali.
The village children were quite happy to pose for photos. Although they do not have iPhones, they clearly had seen them before as they used their fingers to enlarge the photos.
The village school is conducted in Merwari, the local language. While attendance is compulsory until 8th standard (8th grade), most children do not make it that far. Unlike English medium schools elsewhere in India, here English is a language the children learn, not a language in which they are taught.
Health care in the village is nonexistent, so a traveling nurse visits the village weekly. She is responsible for ensuring the children are vaccinated and encourages pregnant mothers to go to the local hospital for delivery. As an incentive, the women are paid a small stipend and a free shuttle service is provided between the village and the hospital.
The village economy still operates largely on a barter system where goods like pottery are exchanged for services like kitchenware repairs.
The only exception to that system is the silversmith. He operates strictly on a cash-and-carry basis.
Rajasthan is emblematic of the stark contrast that exists between rich and poor in India. Perhaps that is why it has taken me so long to document that journey. I was overcome by the heights of the palaces in Jaipur and the depths of poverty in Nimaj. Even now, looking back on these photos, the luxury of the palace (and even the tent) in which we stayed is in violent opposition to the one-room concrete house that we saw just days later.
But, I know, too, that these houses are quite solid compared to what awaits the many migrants who travel from the villages to find a better life in Mumbai.
But, there is hope for these migrants, too. Hope in the form of NGOs like Apnalaya that work tirelessly in the slums of Mumbai to help migrant workers reach the upmost limits of the Maximum City.