June 30 - Jaipur

Amber FortToday we'll visit Jaipur, the pink city, and some of its most famous buidings and places. Among them, the Amber Fort (some 10 kmoutside Jaipur on the road to Bikaner), the Palace of Wind (Hawa Mahal, a landmark of this town), the City Palace where the lastdescendant of the Maharaja dinasty still lives and the Jantar Mantar nearby, a peculiar garden where the passion for astronomy of Maharaja Jai Singh took the shaape of complex, huge structures built for the observation of the sun, the stars and for complex calculations on the earth's movements in the space. After the visits we'll dive into Jaipur's streets, to enjoy thebusy life of this wonderful city with its pink palaces and walls. After a rich breakfast in our hotel at 8:00 sharp, the car shiny clean Gajju is ready for duty. Aboard our Toyota, fresh and perfumed, without a single grain of dust, we reach the foot of the small hill where the Amber Fort is built.

Amber Palace-Fortress has an imposing and severe façade, the interiors are sumptuous and elegantly Elefantaxydecorated. Gajju leaves us with a guide (included in Karni's offer) who should speak Italian. After some words we understand that the guide is much more comfortable with english, so we spare hime the effort to speak a poor italian, and Franco translates when I don't understand. The elephant ride was also included in Karni's fee, so we prepare to board our elephantaxi. The number of elephants waiting for customers tells us that usually there's much more people here waiting for them, now the situation is reversed and they are waiting for the very few tourists hanging around. Someone tells us that during the tourist season the elephants have brightly coloured trunks, but with so scarce customership painting the animals' trunks isn't worth the cost... There's a special structure for boarding elephants: you climb over a platform which leads you at elephant back height, then you simply walk in the saddle. Once on elephantback we begin our slow ascent to the Fort. It's really a short ride, and it would have been simple for us to walk up the hill, but, you know, when you've paid for something you're just too tempted to get it anywayssmile, and, after all, we'll probably never get again the opportunity of trying an elephant ride the way Maharajas did when chasing tigers in the indian jungle. The ride is quite uncomfortable due to the heavy rolling of our coach, making us grasp to the saddle's bars, so we're happy it's just a short ride. During the climb som people insist making us photographs. Franco waves his camera, yelling we're well self-equipped for photos, but they shoot anyway. We take a firm resolution of refusing to buy any photo afterwards, even if we KNOW it will be a hard fight (but we can't yet imagine HOW hard this time...)

We enter the Fort through Suraj Pol, the Sun Portal, facing East. In the courtyard we rejoin our guide and go up a flight of stairs to Shila Devi Temple, a magnificant little shrine dedicated to Kali, with wanderfulli carved silver doors and a beautiful statue of the Goddess. Unfortunately we are not allowed to take pictures, not only within the temple, but also of the silver door. We enter the temple respectfully, and they give us a small cardamom cake, a flower necklace and the red dot on our forehead (the "third eye"). After visiting the temple we cross the main portal and enter the public audiences hall (Diwan-I-Am), immediately after we find ourselves in the Sattais Katcheri, a hall with 27 elephant-head capitals pillars, the place for Maharaja clerk to scribble account books. After that, the Gsnedh Door leads us into the three Palaces, one after the other, in three different styles: Hindu, Persian and Muslim, like the Maharaja's three wives. First one is the Shees Mahal (the mirror Palace), a really amazing place where walls and ceilings are covered with decorations made by semiprecious stones and little mirror pieces. The effect is really stunning, Franco never gets enough of taking pictures (even if when we get home we realize most of them don't give even the faintest idea of what this place is, because mirrors are one of the most difficult subjet to take pictures of). From this palace, the usual lacework windows open on the Maotha Lake view at the foot oth the hill where the Fort is built. It's a real pity that the lake is almost dry because of the drought which in the last few years brought too little water with the monsoons. Amid the lake there's a beautiful garden called the saffron garden, with a lacework of flowerbeds where the saffron flowers (Crocus sp.) were grown. We then proceed to the other two Palaces, passing through the wonderful garden with its marble white flowerbeds, which unfortunately is being restored. A stairs-and-corridors maze leads to the Zenana, the place reserved for women (The Maharaja's wives and concubines). From the Fort there's a beautiful view on Jaigarth Fort ramparts which run over the hills around the Fort.

Jal MahalAround 11.00am we get out the Fortress, and Gajju is waiting for us at the car. We can't enter the car, though, because we are blocked by the two guys who took pictures of ourselves, trying to sell their stuff for 200 rupees. We keep faithful to our purpose, and refuse very strongly to buy anything. We HAVE our pictures, after all, and we don't need any more. We eventually make it to enter the car, and Gajju starts the engine and goes away. The two guys don't give up, they jump on their motorcycle and what follows is similar to an american movie car chase. Gajju drives and the motorcycle comes alongside, with the price of the photos going down by the kilometer. We strongly keep our position and refuse to surrender. Aftersome kilometers ride they eventually seem to give up, and we proceed towards Jaipur. On the way we stop to watch teh beautiful Jal Mahal, a Palace coming up from a Lake's waters somewhat reminds me of Venice. It's really a nice view. Gajju tells us it's being festored and transformed in a luxury Hotel, like many other ancient palaces around here.

Jantar MantarWe are now heading to Jantar Mantar, (see also here) the astronomical observations complexbuilt by Sawai Jai Singh II around year 1700). This is a majestic collection of astronomical devices built in stone, iron and concrete. Among the other instruments the Samrat Yantra stands out as the biggest one. It's an imressive piece of work: a sundial with a theoretical precision of 2 seconds. Other instrument measure the moon, planets and stars position, the constellations and so forth. The site is really impressive, even if we don't understand completely the meaning of the instruments, and the way they work.

We now head to the City Palace, a beautiful huge palace finely decorated, still inhabited by the descendant of Jaipur Maharaja. While we exit Jantar Mantar, anyway, there's the last episode of the Photo Men Saga: The two poor guys didn't give up, and they chased us up to Jaipur. Knowing the normal tourist routes, they were lurking at the garden's exit, and they tried their last chance of getting some rupees from us. This is their lest trial, we keep our position and they finally give up! City PalaceWithin the Palace's enclosure there's a lot of buildings, including an interesting museum collecting old maharajas' stuff like clothes, saddles, jewels and the like. Inside a wide courtyard there's a huge open ballroom lighted by gigantic chandeliers. There are also two huge silver jars where a man could easily fit without crouching! Crossing Riddhi Siddhai Pol,we then visit the Pritam Niwas Chowk, the peacock's courtyard. If you don't want to go to the photos' page just be warned that you miss the pictures of beautiful craftsmanship materpieces representing the four seasons in four peacock- decorated doorways. The courtyard stands before that part of the Palace where the current Jaipur Maharaja lives. Near the Palace there's also a big handicrafts store where the craftsmen work in their ateliers, and you can watch them painting with their squirrel-tail one-hair brushes, skecthing in just half-a-minute a camel, an elephant or a dancing girl.

Before getting back to our Hotel, we have a quick look to Hawa Mahal, the winds Palace. Hawa MahalBuilt in pink sandstone, its façade has more than a thousand niches and windows, everyone of them is a lacework masterpiece. It was used by court ladies to watch the city centre life without being seen. It is wonderful (like the whole city, anyway) but it looks a bit too much restored, it simply lacks that halo which makes you understand old things are relly old. It seems to have been built two days ago...

OK, now we have had enough, we come back to the hotel and restore and refresh ourselves with an afternoon tea with cakes in the swimming pool. The "best before" date of the biscuits, bought in a small shop along the road, is probably passed by, but we don't mind and we enjoy our rest. Real luxury! At 5 pm Gajju, as instructed, comes to get us for finishing the official Jaipur tour. We know we have to undergo some duties, and we just endure our commercially-oriented visits. It's not bad, anyways, we visit a hand-printing fabric factory, where we are shown the printing techniques. It's a very old technique, they have some wooden stencils they plunge of vegetable coloured inks and then serially prjìint the cloth. In this way the pattern is fixed, but there are small variations which let you know the work is handwork and not machine automated. After that, naturally, we have to visit the attached shop, where they try to sell you their stuff. Apart from handprinted fabric (I'm not interested in this kind of stuff) I find a wonderful light-blue bellydance twin set (top and skirt). Roberta (our daughter) woud be delighted with that, she attends a belly dance course and this is real perfect! After long bargaining I get the twin set and an additional silk scarf for just 1200 rupees (less than 18 euros). Really happy, in Italy I would have spent at least five times more.

Here we need a small ethno-cultural digression to describe a typical indian touris shop. It's generally a large shop, you enter and sit on long benches wher you'll get a tchai (oversweet tea with milk) if you wish, and then you will be required to attend a little show. You just cannot step in, ask "how much for that pillow there" and go out, you're simply sucked in and enchanted to your bench. The shop owner will then start to open up every drawer in its shop, covering you with clothes, rugs, sheets, sarees, pillows, batiks, blankets, paintings, dolls, jewels, wooden handicrafts, and everything he has got in his shop. When you are waving a white flag, trying to show it over the stuff they threw at you, they start putting away anything for what you said "naahh", but they keep anything you seemed to like. After this accurate selection, they go over the reduced set, and they try to undesrtand what you really like. Only after this you can get an idea of the prices, and start to bargain. Usually you get to pay more or less half what they ask. Strange thing, if you really like the stuff youìll pay more than a half, if you don't like it very much but end up buying it, you'll pay less then half. It's a bit tiring, but it's fascinating, too (ask Franco for a secon opinion on this matter). After the cloth factory we get to the jewels one, where we get a beautiful earrings and pendant garnet set for just a bit more than 35 euros. Well, now we're done with our duties, the official Karni tour is finished, and we can ask Gajju a small extension.

We've read in our guide about this monkey temple, outside town, and we've been intrigued. GaltaSome people in their Internet travel reports say it's very difficult to get there, just because when they asked their local guide to go there the answer was some excuse like "never heard about it, I don't know where it is", probably because the detour was not included in the travel package. That's not Gajju! His motto was "the car is yours, and I'll drive wherever you wish". So, he perfectly knew that we were speaking about the Temple at Galta (it's called the monkey Temple and in a while we'll understand why). So we get off Jaipur and get on a winding road which climbs to the Sun Temple, in a place called Galta. It's almost sunset time, and there's noone on that road. Even at the Temple there's really a bunch of people, and no tourist at all. We pay our 30 rupees for possessing a camera (they release a regular receipt for that!) and are allowed in the Temple space. There is more than one Temple, there. The main one, and the most beautiful, is on the left after the entrance. It has an old, charming look, it has not been heavily restored like the ones we've seen till now, and we hope it will remain so. The walls are covered with beautiful miniature-like paintings. While we visit the Temple and the one which is in front of it (less decorated, but interesting anyways for the interiors, which are really used by people for worshipping), an old loudspeaker spreads the prayer of a monk. This drone-like litany adds to the magical of that point in place and time. We enjoy lazily strolling through the temples, even if sometimes it's difficult to avoid the monkeys, there's really a lot of them around!

The Monkey Temple is the last one you see. The place is closed by two steep hills which form a ravine between them. The ravine is literally "filled". by a Temple, which rises following the hills' outline. The gorge has water in it (probably an underground river comes up at the end of the crevice), and the Temple collects this water, forming two basins, sort of small pools. Some say the water comes from Ganges. While this is geographically highly unlikely, we remember we are in India, and many unlikely things happen here, so we think "maybe" ... Both of the pools are used for bathing by people (they say it's ritual bathing, what we've seen is people enjoying themselves plunging in the water and chatting and laughing while bathing. A good ritual indeed!) The upper one is smaller, deeper, and is used by men, the lower one is more like a regular swimming pool, and they say is used by women for ritual bathing scimmieduring ceremonies and celebrations. No celebration today, so the monkeys are the owners of the lower pool, and it's really an amazing show! Franco gets mesmerized by the monkeys which run one after the other and dive in the waterfrom the wall surrounding it, with big splashes. It's like seeing kids playing at the beach or in a pool. And there are families, the mothers look after the smaller cubs, they sort of skate on the slippery ground, swim, and also play splashing each other. Really Incredible show.Over the hills, other small shrines, other monkeys (they are everywhere) and other praying people. The overall athmosphere is so pleasant, the drone litany continues while the sun is setting, monkeys and people (separately) bath and play and laugh and enjoy themselves. I find the green slimy water a bit filthy, but apart from that the place is really mystical and fascinating. We really enjoyed this off-program detour and thank Gajju for making it possible. Now we can get back to Jaipur.

We get to the town centre, date Gajju for tomorrow morning (he insisted he would have carried us to the hotel after our town stroll, but we prefer to feel free and get a rickshaw or a tuc tuc to go back) and dive into the town market streets. We immediately get our Mercatosuite of beggars and vendors trying to sell puppets, toys, necklaces, shoes, sarees and everythig on earth you can buy. Sidewalks are so crowded with people and booths that sometimes is really impossible for us to get by,so we have to go down the street. Here the crowd is made up by other people, other booths, bicycles, cows, rickshaws, motorcycles, rats and other unidentified objects. Rising our eyes to see what's around us, we see the once beautiful pink palaces which are often so dirty that you can't tell they are actually pink... electric power and telephon wires make up a real jungle of tangled webs, ad plackards over your head seem to be ready for detaching and falling down, everyhing is dusty, well, in a word, India is around us and we are happy. You just have to let the atmosphere stun you, the heat and the smells get you numb, and enjoy being there, among a flood of colorful people. Franco takes som pictures of the market, I am sucked in a clothes stock shop where at least the prices are written over the stocks, so they are the real ones. After a long research I get two really beautiful sarees for as little as 650 rupees. The vendors try to teach me how a saree should be worn, so wearing one each themselves. They're really funny with the sarees, they joke, laugh and accept Franco to take a picture. Now the dusk is making room for the dark, and it's time to come back to our hote. We get on the first available tuctuc and go.

We decide to haveour dinner at the hotel, it seems a good place to eat. In fact we get to the Cenarooftop restaurant, personnel is very kind and the meal is delicious. We get our Malai Kofta, Thalis and Raita and don't miss our kingfisher too. While we dine a small group with tabla drums, sitar and an harmonium is playing traditional music and we have also a puppet show (a popular entertainment here) and two young dancers performing traditional Rajasthani dances. OK, today everything was perfect, the restaurant bill is perfect, too, and we happily go to sleep in our fairy-tale canopy bed.

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