Jaipur's blend of chaos and beauty
It takes a brief but blistering row with my daughter to make me feel comfortable in India.
We're in a bustling street in Jaipur, Rajasthan's Pink City. Pony carts are trotting past unfazed by motorbikes buzzing alongside carrying families of five. Swarms of ancient black bicycles loaded with impossible towers of goods weave through brightly clothed pedestrians, wandering cows, manic chickens and slinking dogs.
Nearby, milk is ladled from big churns into customers' jugs, a blacksmith squats on the pavement hammering red-hot metal while his helper sweats over the bellows he's working, and stallholders sweep the packed dirt around their pitches, vainly fighting a tide of litter.
I say something apparently stupid, she sneers, I snap back, she glares and then flounces off along the pitted roadway, almost into the path of a hand-cart stacked with round-bottomed terracotta urns. I catch the eye of a man sitting cross-legged on a platform, peaceably hand-feeding three goats with bits of greenery from his basket. He smiles, shakes his head, shrugs: Teenagers, what can you do?
I roll my eyes and heave a theatrical sigh: She drives me crazy! We both laugh, and I hurry after my daughter, suddenly feeling that this place is much less alien than it seemed moments earlier.
For India in a nutshell, Jaipur fits the bill. The streets are crammed with all the mad chaos of livings scratched from virtually nothing, with dirt and finery, ragged beggars and pampered cows, loin-clothed labourers and neatly uniformed school children. Crumbling mud- brick buildings with peeling paint flank the elaborate fantasy of the Palace of the Winds, its five storeys of domed bay windows a deceptive pink and white facade, a viewing platform for the past's cloistered ladies within to gaze out at real life below.
At the extraordinary Jantar Mantar observatory, a soaring sundial throws an amazingly accurate shadow, visibly tracking the passage of time for 300 years; and odd, Heath- Robinson contraptions of marble and brass make sense of the moon and stars.
Inside the City Palace, the King's flag is flying but there's no sign that he lives in ostentation in these more egalitarian times.
Not so for his predecessors, however, to judge by the gold, silver, silk and jewelled embroidery inside these fairytale court rooms.
Outside the city, up in the hills where a dragon's back wall humps along the ridges, Amber Fort looks over the arid plain, approached up a cobbled switchback by hurrying elephants with painted faces. Their minds are busy with mental arithmetic, counting down to their last trip of the day: five and they knock off, and it's a foolish mahout who tries to persuade them otherwise. Sitting awkwardly sideways, we sway up to the gate where, back in the glory days, showers of rose petals greeted the Maharajah.
Inside the walls is a feast of delicate decoration in stone, paint and mosaic. There's the Hall of Pleasure where a perfumed fountain played for the delight of Man Singh's 12 wives and 365 concubines. In an intricate knot garden are ramps for the wheelchair needed by the Maharani whose gowns were so heavy with jewels that she was unable to walk. In the Hall of Mirrors, glittering with inlaid patterns, only a single candle was needed to light the space.
My 21st-century daughter peers through carved stone screens set in place 400 years earlier to protect the modesty of women just like her.
It's fitting to finish the day by checking into the Raj Palace, our arrival signalled by a trumpet blown by the doorman in his turban and dazzling white coat. Inside is another world: shady courtyards with tinkling fountains, cool marble floors and bowls of floating orange marigolds, fine velvety grass set about with croquet hoops and topiary. T
here are silver swan taps in our bathroom and gold embroidery on the cushions, and we're deeply impressed - until we're shown the Presidential Suite's gold leaf, fine glass, deep rugs and silver furniture. The bathroom taps there are gold, and we gasp to hear that the Middle Eastern sheikhs who rent the whole hotel have a taste for champagne jacuzzis: that's to bathe in, not to drink.
I lie by the pool thinking that in India the extremes are both closer together and further apart than perhaps anywhere else on Earth; and right on cue, a family of monkeys pops over the roofline and scrambles past the windows of the fancy suites. Case proved.
Pamela Wade won a trip to Jaipur, provided by Cathay Pacific and Adventure World, as Travel Writer of 2009.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies to Delhi through Hong Kong.
Getting around: Adventure World will arrange individual or group tours: this was part of a Golden Triangle route including Delhi and Agra, by car with driver, and guides provided in each city
Where to stay: Get a taste of the maharajah lifestyle at the Raj Palace, Jaipur. No-one lived bigger than Sawai Madhosingh, a giant in all dimensions, whose voluminous pyjamas are on display: it took a lot of fabric to enclose 250 kilogrammes of royal flesh, especially at a time when normal skirts used more than 30 metres of material embellished with thousands of tiny, hand-drilled seed pearls.
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