Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

India: Tickled pink in Jaipur

Detail inside the Amber Fort in Jaipur. Photo / Audrey Young
Detail inside the Amber Fort in Jaipur. Photo / Audrey Young

Rajasthan capital Jaipur is known as the Pink City, which makes it sound a bit prettier than it actually is.

It looked more reddy-brown or Mexican red than the ruby pink I had imagined.

Its streets are not as spruce as they must have been in 1876 when the city literally painted itself pink to honour the visit of the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria.

But they are alive with other colours. Simple enterprises like portable fruit trolleys, displays of opened umbrellas, cabinets of bangles, walls of fabric, women in saris on trucks or bikes, are part of everyday life in Jaipur and India, but so arresting for the visitor.

The city is growing fast but the past hangs on stubbornly. Camel-drawn drays compete for road-space with the big Tata cartage trucks, commuter buses and tuk-tuks.

It was 25 years after the Prince of Wales' visit to Jaipur that he finally took the British throne in 1901, acquiring the title of Emperor of India.

And it would be 46 years after that before the British Raj ended under the last Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and India gained its independence.

Actress Cate Blanchett has signed up to star as Lady Edwina Mountbatten in the film Indian Summer, about her close relationship with India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Jaipur's pinkishness is, shall we say, maintained today as a point of difference for the city, and is a quirky link to the days of the British Raj.

The prettiest building by far is the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds built in 1799 for the "ladies of the royal household" which means a mixture of wives and concubines.

Architecturally, it is probably the closest thing they have to our own Beehive. It is a honey-combed five-storeyed facade behind which the ladies were able to watch the goings-on on the street without been seen themselves. The building has 70 balconies.

The present maharaja, Bhawani Singh, has a palace in the centre of the city which is partially open to tourists. The flag still flies when he is in residence even though he has no powers and princely titles are no longer recognised. Instead he is a businessman as well as a maharaja, having converted one of his palaces to a hotel.

The most impressive display at the city palace is a former residential apartment that has been converted to an armory museum.

It holds an amazing array of daggers and other weapons of death. Think of a horseshoe with an inside edge as sharp as a razor, mounted on a poker for maximum thrust against the neck of any enemy.

The present maharaja's father, Sawai Man Singh II, was by all accounts extremely popular.

He died while umpiring a polo match in England in 1970 and some of his polo gear is on display in the former guest house of the palace.

The maharaja had three wives - the last of them, a celebrated beauty of India photographed by Cecil Beaton, died in July this year at the age of 90 - another link to the era of the maharajas now gone.

Known as the Maharani Gayatri Devi, she stood for Parliament in 1962 and won three elections.

But she and her stepson, the present maharaja, were imprisoned for five months under Indira Gandhi's state of emergency in the mid-70s.

She helped to entertain JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip when they visited Jaipur.

In a famous photo, the royal couples posed with each other and their kill following a successful tiger shoot.

Tigers no longer roam the area but elephants do. And one of the must-dos in Jaipur is a visit to the nearby Amber Fort for a 15-minute elephant ride up the hill to the fort.

Never mind if the small Japanese ladies on their elephant overtake the milk-fed Kiwi sheilas, it's still a lot of fun.

The hawkers and photographers there are so persistent that the best way to treat them is as part of the tourist experience.

"My name is John. Remember me," one photographer commanded repeatedly from his perch on a rock, hoping that when we returned to base we might haggle with him over his pictures.

Tourists might feel some concern as to how the elephants are treated, but an enterprising member of our party went and checked out where the elephants go at night and was reassured by what he saw.

The fort itself is palatial in parts and neglected in others.

Our guide, Pushpendra Singh Ratlam, is a recognised stained glass expert and had restored some of the windows voluntarily.

A guide is essential in place like this to translate what you are seeing into life as it was under the old rulers.

Jaipur is famous for its gemstones and its astrology and palmistry, so it seemed not too bizarre that one of the high street jewellers known to our driver read palms - for free - in the back of his shop.

He said he was self-taught and that became obvious. He told me I was "almost satisfied", a "spiritual" woman and a "perfectionist" (wrong, wrong and wrong).

He also warned of potential ill-health in the next few years. But luckily he had a cure.

The best way to avoid ill-health, it seems, is to wear a two-carat ruby set in silver.

Elsewhere it might sound absurd. But in the Pink City it seemed entirely appropriate.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

Touring in India: Adventure World organises individualised tours with your own driver, including the six-day Golden Triangle tour covering Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Phone 0800 238 368.

History: Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, which became an independent state in 1949 soon after independence from Britain. It was formed by the merger of the princely states of Jaipur, Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.

Further information: See incredibleindia.org.

Audrey Young visited India as guest of Cathay Pacific and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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