Sunday, June 8, 2008

India: Jaipur, Chittaurgarh

Our first stop after leaving Jaipur station was the Palace of the Winds. This is really just a wall - a facade (but some wall!!!). This is where the ladies of the Palace could look out on the doings of the town without being seen themselves. Build in 1799, the five-story building looks out over the main street of the old city. Its pink sandstone windows are sem-octagonal in shape and delicately honeycombed.

There were a couple of snake charmers sitting on the pavement. One of the snakes escaped and managed to get himself well woven into the wheels of several bicyles that were parked alongside. We went back to the bus at this point; escaping cobras are not my idea of fun!

Across from the City Palace is the observatory. Jai Singh built this observatory in 1728. His passion for astronomy was even more notable than his prowess as a warrior and before starting construction he sent scholars abroad to study foreign observatories. At first glance the observatory appears to be a curious collection of sculptures, but each construction has a specific purpose, such as measuring the positions of the stars, altitudes and azimuths, or to calculate eclipses. The most striking instrument is the sundial with its 30 metre high gnomon. This casts a shadow which moves up to four metres an hour. It is accurate within two seconds(!) - on Jaipur local time.

We then went to visit Jaipur City Palace. In the heart of the old city, the City Palace occupies a large area divided into a series of courtyards, gardens and buildings. The palace is a blend of Rajasthani and Moghul architecture, the former Maharaja still lives in part of the palace. Outside there are two very large silver vessels which a former Maharaja used to take drinking water with him to England. Being a devout Hindu he could not drink the English Water, because the water in England would be "unclean". These two huge pots are the biggest single pieces of silver in the world and much bigger than the man who was cleaning them. There is a magnificent Peacock doorway, highly colourful, and very beautiful, the door was faced with gold.

We had lunch at the Rambagh Palace Hotel. After lunch we felt pretty tired and went to sleep in the the sun on the lawn and felt more alive after that.

We took an elephant ride up to the fort. The elephant takes three or four people. It feels very high up on top of the elephant, and there is a bar across your middle to stop you falling off!! The mahout sits on the back of the elephant's neck and steers with his feet. Off we went, one plodding foot in front of another plodding foot. There is a steep hill up to the fort. The mahout produced - from goodness knows where - a mahout's stick, which after suitable haggling, I duly bought. We later found that most people came back to the coach clutching a mahout's stick. Some of them two, or more!

When we got to the fort, the mahout gave me a ride with me sitting in front of him on the elephant's head! It was very scary; there I was sitting on the crown of the elephant's head with nothing to hold on to in front, and it looked a long way down. I decided that I don't think I would like being a mahout. But I did enjoy being around the elephants and talking to them.

Tearing ourselves away from the elephants, we explored Amber Fort and the Palace. This Fortress/Palace was constructed in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, the Rajput commander of Akbar's army. The fort is a very good example of Rajput architecture, stunningly situated on a hillside overlooking a lake which reflects its terraces and ramparts. The place was huge. Some of it was quite interesting, but we were getting pretty tired by this time and the group were all starting to flag a bit.

We ended this long day at Tiger Fort which stands at the top of a high and precipitous bluff overlooking Jaipur city. To get up there the mountain road was very twisty. This road is described in the guide book as "jeepable". Seemingly, nobody told our driver that his luxury coach wasn't a jeep! Just about every hilltop in this part of India seems to have a fort on it. Obviously a nation with a pretty warlike past.

By this time the evening was getting distinctly chilly, but in the courtyard there was a big roaring fire which helped to keep us warm. We also managed to get hold of some blankets to wrap ourselves in to watch the show we had come to see. The culture show was very good. Lively dances and colourful costumes. Dinner was set out in the courtyard. After dinner we went down the twisty mountain road (in the dark) to Jaipur station to get back on the train.

It has been a very full day - we were up at 6.30am, and we are back on the train at 9.15pm. No wonder I feel tired.

After a very good night's sleep we are out before breakfast to visit the famous Rajput fort at Chittaurgarh. The fort was huge, the biggest in Rajastan, we would have liked longer here

This was the first example we met (there were others later) of the Rajput genius for totally ineffectual heroic gestures:

Padmini was evidently a most beautiful lady, married to an uncle of the Maharana of Chittaurgarh Palace. But Ala-ud-din, the then King of Delhi, caught sight of her reflection when she was in her Water Palace at Chittaurgarh. He promptly fancied her. So he laid siege to the fort, to get his evil way! But Chittaurgarh, although an enormous fort, had then about 60,000 people living there. It simply couldn't either produce or stock enough food for that sort of population. So - equally simply - it was vulnerable to siege. And doomed. The old Rajputs had a Code of Practice for when they were doomed. All the warriors rode out, weakened by siege and starvation, but resplendent in orange robes, to fight and meet certain death in battle with the superior enemy. All the women, meanwhile, remaining in the fort, "... built a huge funeral pyre and marched into the flames in the form of ritual suicide know as jauhar." Padmini amongst them!

But the lesson wasn't too well learned. Chittaurgarh was sacked on two more occasions after this, and the whole heroic procedure was gone through again each time - orange robes for the men, bonfires for the girls. On the last occasion, the fort fell to Akbar.

The Maharana (who seems to have survived the chivalrous carnage), decided he'd had enough of Chittaurgarh, and set up shop in Udaipur.

Back to the train for a hearty breakfast. We travelled across the countryside which is very flat and arid, with small square areas of about half an acre which were in cultivation. We passed the occasional village where dogs, sheep and goats were much in evidence. As well as hordes of people.

We arrived in Udaipur, a fairy-tale city of lakes, fountains and palaces, set in a landscape of hills. We went for lunch at the Lake Palace Hotel - a beautiful palace in the middle of the lake. We went in a boat which was dressed overall with garlands of flowers. As we landed we were greeted with more flower garlands. This is the first palace we have been to that looked as good on the inside as it did on the outside. We were shown a very clever and funny puppet show, I wish it could have gone on longer. We weren't allowed to video this, of course!)

After lunch we visited the City Palace. Each palace seems to be bigger and grander than the one before. This one was enormous, it towers over the lake, and is the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. The palace is surmounted by balconies, towers and cupolas, and there are fine views over the lake and the city from the upper terraces.

It was once a custom for Maharanas to be weighed under the gate and their weight in gold or silver to be distributed to the populace.

We then went to the Garden of Fountains. This is a quite beautiful garden, with five or six different areas with different kinds of small lakes and fountains. My favourite was where there were fountains shaped like elephants, with water coming out of their trunks. The flowers and shrubs were beautiful too.

There was a big cultural festival on the outskirts of Udaipur. This wasn't on our itinerary, but it was a special day in celebration of the first anniversary of a big local cultural park. We had about an hour and a half to wander around. It was great to drift along on our own for once and not have a guide spouting facts and figures and dates at us.

The festival was great fun and highly colourful. There were lots of dancers and mummers from different parts of India, showing how the different regions and cultures vary in their styles of dress and dance. We watched craftsmen making and painting all sorts of things, spinning, weaving, and carving. We watched a young man painting a picture of Ganesh on silk with a brush of just one hair. What patience!

Back to the train and a chance to ride up in the cab. The driver and his mate were nice and welcoming. Their English was not too good, but they managed to get their meanings across with a little English and a lot of hand signals. I drove the train and blew the whistle. You have to blow the whistle every time there is a bend in the track , or if you see people or animals on or near the track ahead.

We went across a big bridge spanning a river, and at the other side was a large sign saying "PHOTOGRAPHY TOTALLY PROHIBITED." So, leaning out of the cab I took a shot of it. Ralph says that one of these days I will surely get arrested!

We travelled through mountains, the track twisting and turning, the train diving in and out of the tunnels. At times you could see both the front end of the train, and the back, turning in a great wide arc. It was great fun and quite the most interesting countryside we have seen so far.

There are lots of bushes by the side of the tracks of bright yellow gorse. I opened the door at one point, when we had stopped, to photograph them. Umish got very worried in case I fell out. I guess it would be a bit difficult to explain how he had managed to lose me.

Little children run to the side of the track, waving. If we stop, they ask our names. I think they must be taught the phrase, "What is your name?" When I say "Julia" they repeat it. Then, when you ask their names, they give you something quite unpronounceable!! and giggle.

The train is travelling across the desert tonight, a goods train is sent ahead, about 20 minutes ahead of us, in case there is sand or camels blocking the line. There is a full moon over the desert. Last night there was a total eclipse of the moon. Sadly it was too cloudy to see it.

During the night I was quite sick. I know what caused it. At dinner last night I had some fish coated in batter. It looked nice, but with one bite, I realised it was raw inside. I didn't eat any more, but obviously one bite was enough. I was sick several times in the night. In the morning I felt pretty rough.

Everybody was going off to Jaisalmer this morning. This medieval city sits remotely out in the desert, and used to be an important staging post on the old camel caravan routes between India and Asia Minor. Consequently a place - then - of rich merchants, and houses to match.

The houses, rich and beautifully carved "havelis" are still there, but the rich merchants have gone, along with the caravan route. What now keeps the city alive is what should have killed it - the closure of the rather hostile border with Pakistan. So the main local activity is now military.

Jaisalmer is the only one of the old Rajput forts which is still a living city, with quite a large population still living and going about their business in the narrow streets, all inside the city walls.

After a day taking things easy we went into Jaisalmer for dinner. Before dinner there was a colourful firework display and a cultural show. When we got back to the train Umish told us about his married life. When he got married he rode a white horse, and his bride was picked for him. She then came to his home, and is now living with his family. She is not allowed to take meals or to sit with the family, and the only time when they are together and can talk is at night. Umish is on the train for six months of the year, and during that time he only gets to see her for four hours a week when the train stops at Jaipur. In the household, Grandmother's word is absolute law. The women in the family are not allowed to work. A very different culture from ours.

The next day we arrived at Jodhpur. This Rajput city was founded in 1459. Built around and totally dominated by the Mehrangarh Fort, which stands high up on an isolated rock, 400 feet above the surrounding plain. This is probably the most massive of all the old Rajput forts, and very impressive. There was so much to see here, we would have liked more time.

This fort was a very formidable fortress, especially against elephant attack. Apparently, one of the techniques for forcing entry was to breach the gates by driving elephants at them.

First they used to ply them with booze until they were "crazy with drink" and then drive them at the gates. But at Jodhpur, each of the seven gates is at the top of a steeply sloping approach, which gets steadily narrower as it goes up. Then, at the the top of the slope, the gates are placed at right angles to the line of approach. This makes it impossible for drunken elephants to get a good run at the gates, and by the time they had turned towards the gates, they would have lost whatever momentum they had. Then, to discourage the poor elephants still further, several of the gates were fitted with outward-facing rows of iron spikes, just at elephant head level. These spikes we had seen at several other forts.

To discourage human breach of the gates, each major gate had a small gate built into it, with the top rather lower than human head height. When the main gate came under pressure, they would open this small gate - an invitation to the invaders to come through. But, in coming through, they would have to duck. Just inside the gate - concealed - was a mighty man with a mighty sword. The first one to duck through the gate would be guaranteed to have his head cut off!!!

One of the gates still has the marks of cannon balls on the wood and surrounding stonework. This, we were told, dates from yet another example of Rajput military futility! Apparently the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Jaipur went to war over a woman that both of them fancied. Jodhpur, our guide said decisively, was the winner! So, did he get the girl? No. She poisoned herself. Neither of them got the girl!

We also saw the imprints of a group of female hands. These were the wives of one of the old maharajas. After he died, they imprinted their hands into the wall. Whereupon they all committed "suttee" - all throwing themselves onto a bonfire. The palace itself was magnificent - beautiful walls and ceilings in super colours. And splendid artifacts, silver-plated houdas, and so forth.

No comments: