If we had come here first, like everyone else looking to explore the romance of Rajputana, maybe, just maybe, we would have liked Jaipur better. But as it is, we came here from Jodhpur, and Udaipur before that, and we perceived a more jarring urban version of the famed Rajput culture and hospitality. We missed the gracious greeting with bowed head and hand on heart, and the soft spoken grace and warmth that we had come to expect.
Rajasthan or the ‘land of the kings’, epitomises everyone’s fantasy of India. Even ours! The land of hilltop forts and ornate palaces, of legendary kings and bejewelled princesses, of camels and elephants and colour….most of all brilliant vibrant colour.
The kings have been reduced to wealthy landlords, after their royal entitlements and privy purses were abolished. But they still command fierce loyalty from their former subjects.
Founded in the 17th century by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II – hence the moniker – Jaipur is the gritty, bustling capital of the state of Rajasthan, and the gateway to this fabled region. This is one of the few Indian cities built to a plan. Laid out in a grid apparently based on the ancient architectural treatise of ‘Shilpa Shastra’.
Wide, straight avenues divide the city into sectors, nine in all, reflecting the nine divisions of the universe according to Indian astrology. Each sector was dedicated to a commodity and named after the caste that traditionally traded in it, based on the rigid caste system. The street and market names haven’t changed, and the caste system has – at least on the surface -been abolished. But Jaipur’s congested, filth strewn streets are far from the orderly place its founder envisioned.
Jai Singh II ascended the throne of Amber at 13, and his clan’s astute alliance with the Mughals was rewarded by Emperor Aurangazeb, who bestowed upon him the title ‘Sawai’, meaning “one and a quarter” with reference to his exceptional intellect. His descendants claimed the title as part of their hereditary inheritance.
The present ‘king‘ is yet another minor, the 13 year old grandson of ‘Bubbles‘ (after the gallons of champagne that flowed to celebrate the birth of a male heir in 100 years since 1835!) Bhavani Singh. He too died without a male heir, the little boy being the son of his only daughter and anointed ‘king’ despite accusations of foul play by his stepbrothers.
Jaipur has its fair share of fabulous landmarks, the old royal residence at Amber fort and the City Palace in particular. And splendid crafts like hand block printed textiles, the exquisite uncut-diamond encrusted Jadau jewellery and much, much, very much more.
But for the incurable romantic that I am, the defining symbol of Jaipur and Indian royalty can only be the pearl and chiffon clad Rajmata (Queen mother) and last Maharani of Jaipur, the gorgeous Gayatri Devi!
The princess of Cooch Bihar and third wife of the last reigning king (before abolition of monarchy in 1971) Sawai Man Singh II, Gayati Devi was a stunning beauty who was celebrated by Vogue in her prime as one among 10 most beautiful women in the world, and who dared to reject the purdah, mandatory for royal ladies of the time!
Their romance and lavish lifestyle is the stuff of legend. Her win, by the largest margin against the ruling party candidate, in the 1961 elections ensured her a place in the Guinness Book of Records! The feisty dowager continued to ruffle feathers, including her stepson the king’s, right up until her death in 2009 at the grand old age of 90.
Until next time…..happy travels, no matter where life takes you!