Monday, 22 February 2010

Forts, palaces, temples and a slight detour

The following morning I met up with Babalu (the Sundar Palace rickshaw driver) who was going to show me around Jaipur. Our first stop was the city palace in the heart of the pink city. Away from the glitzy shopping malls near where I was staying, the old town was India in its truer form with rampaging rickshaws, hardworking stall holders and a plentiful scattering of mangy dogs and bloated cows. The city was founded by and named after Maharajah Jai Singh II when he decided to move abode from the congested city of Amber.

In 1876 Maharajah Ram Singh had the entire city painted pink – the traditional colour of hospitality – to welcome the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Today, at dusk, the city glows pink in the fading light.

The city palace in the heart of the pink city is a fantastic maze of courtyards, Islamic style arches and a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. Successive Maharajahs have made additions to the palace over the years and today it stands as a fantastic museum of regal textiles and impressive armoury. I spent a good hour visiting the palace with an audio guide.

Babalu was waiting for me outside the gates and we made our way to the rickshaw. Yanking at a lever the rickshaw roared to bone-juddering life and I got in. We pulled away but, just as we did, the rickshaw jerked, there was a loud clunk and the rickshaw suddenly lent over to one side. help him out. One guy immediately handed Babalu 500R (a day’s wages!) so that he could afford to get his rickshaw fixed.

A few minutes of lively discussion, head scratching and general poking about and it was decided that a mechanic was required for the job. I was asked to sit on the side of the rickshaw that hadn’t sunk, and we limped lopsidedly through the old town to find a rickshaw mechanic.

We arrived at a small bustling square where sickly looking buses marooned on jacks were being tinkered with by men blackened with oil. On one side of the square was a row of shiny new green and yellow rickshaws next to the crumpled carcass of a rickshaw that had come there to die. Nothing was wasted: every little bit of scrap that could be used had been stripped from the rickshaw carcass leaving just the clean bones of its shell. From those parts, other rickshaws were given a new lease of life.

In a small hut men tapped, prodded and drilled away at rickshaws whilst others took a welcome break at the chai stall next door. Babalu got into negotiations and a group of men gathered to assess the extent of the damage. The verdict was out: it would take four hours.

Whilst Babalu finished arranging for his rickshaw to be fixed, I had a wander round. I watched as a man and woman sat in amongst a large pile of rubbish, carefully sorting it out into piles. There was a pile for plastic items, a pile for rubber shoe soles and a pile for cardboard. Forget recycling plants, here it is all done by hand!

Directly opposite them was a flower stall selling sacks of flower heads in every colour of the rainbow – their flowery scent overpowering that of the rubbish. I wandered back to the mechanic hut and got chatting to one of the men at the chai store who very kindly offered me a seat. After the obligatory ‘Where you from?’ conversation, I asked him how much a sparkly new rickshaw would cost and he told me that they cost 25,000R (349GBP). This is a substantial sum for rickshaw drivers who, on a good day may earn 500R taking tourists sightseeing but only take home 100R on a bad day.

Babalu had arranged for his uncle to lend him his rickshaw so we had a chai and waited. I asked him how he got the job for Sunder Palace and he explained that one of his uncles worked there and had got him the job. Babalu’s English was excellent but he explained that he had never been to school and had only learnt English through his work with tourists. It really makes you realize how lucky we are in the West to be offered education as standard when you sit across a table from someone who had never set foot inside a school. I asked him about the guy who’d lent him money and he explained that he lived in an area where lots of rickshaw drivers live and they all help each other out when they need it. There seems to be a real sense of community here that we could really learn from in the west.

We were soon on our way again in Babalu’s uncle’s rickshaw. We headed out of town then took a left onto a smaller, quieter street. Babalu asked if I wanted to drive the rickshaw. I explained that I’d never ridden a motorbike nor did I have my glasses on thus making me a risk to our health but he was fairly insistent. Perched next to him on the driver’s seat he explained how to change gear and how to accelerate. Worryingly, he kept control of the brake. We set off and I dodged cows and cycle rickshaws, narrowly missed head on collisions with cars and was over taken by smoky buses. At times, our way was blocked by a cow and there would be a car heading straight for us. My instinct was to brake but Babalu had other ideas so we would swerve violently with a hair width to spare between us and the car. After 10 minutes and the loss of 8 of my 9 lives I decided that I would take to the back seat once more.

We headed out of town towards the hilltop town of Amber and its magnificent fort. On our way we passed the mystical water palace set in the centre of a lake and casting a perfect reflection.

Amber fort stands tall on a hilltop overlooking the old city. It was once the abode of Jai Singh II before Amber got too congested and he decided to move the city to Jaipur, which he designed and named himself. The fort is magnificent structure with the noteworthy Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) that is beautifully designed with a mosaic of mirrors and beautifully carved marble pillars.

After a couple of hours of getting lost inside the fort, it was time to head to Galta – the temple of the Sun God. Here, monkeys converge at dusk. We headed there and Babalu dropped me off to walk up the steep hill to the temple. A man was feeding the monkeys bananas so they were absolutely everywhere. At one point I came across a car where four monkeys, with the guilty look of sly vandals, were trying to chew and rip off the windscreen wipers and the plastic edging of the car’s windows. Each time, they would look around to make sure the coast was clear before attacking the plastic.

The Galta temple is unremarkable in its design but does have commanding views of the city. It would be a great place to watch the sun set; unfortunately, I was a couple of hours too early but I soaked up the view for a while, watched a group of people in the centre of the temple worshiping, before retracing my steps into the throng of begging children at the bottom of the hill. In front of me were three friends from Estonia (I heard them trying to explain where Estonia was to a young boy who asked them where they were from) and I watched as one girl took a photo of a cow that was in the process of giving birth, only for a man who happened to be stood nearby demand money from her for the photo.

It was 4pm and I decided that I’d reached my sightseeing limit for the day and that I’d head back to the hotel. On our way, we passed by a sweet shop called Rawat Kachori, which is famed for its kachori (flat dough that puffs up when fried and is stuffed with dhal or onion) and its fantastic array of artisan Indian sweets. Babalu picked up a couple of kachori for us both and I virtually inhaled mine having had only a small snack for lunch.

Just as I was getting out of my rickshaw in front of the hotel, Gavin walked passed and asked if I’d like to go sweet shopping back at Rawat Kachori. I had no other plans so I took him up on his offer and we walked back. He was buying sweets to take back for friends and he seemed to have a better idea about which to get so I asked if he could get another box made up with the same set for me. We also bought some thick lassis which were flavoured with rose water before returning to the hotel.

We sat outside and I hit WiFi as he wrote his play. When it got to 7pm he asked what I was doing for dinner. I said I had no plans but that I was secretly very tempted to return to the restaurant frequented the night before for another dose of tandoori chicken. He had been thinking the same and, as it was Valentine’s Day and we were both away from our respective partners, we decided to have dinner together again. We ended up at the same table, in the same restaurant and ordering the same food as we had the night before.

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