India’s famous pink city Jaipur is home to the equally colourful Amber Palace. AMY MACPHERSON reports.
Convinced I’m about to plunge to my death, I avert my eyes from the stunning view and focus on the gradually approaching walls of Amber Fort instead. Our elephant is walking a little close to the edge of the wall for my liking – the wall that’s the only barrier between me and a steep drop down to the valley below. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but old Nelly seems to enjoy scaring the crap out of me. To add insult to injury, she periodically swings her trunk back in my general direction and releases a fine mist of water and elephant snot.
It’s possible to get to the gates of Amber Fort by foot, but taking an elephant ride up the zig-zag path from road level is the preferred mode of transport for most visitors. Indeed, everyone else seems to be having a grand old time on their caparisoned steeds (a caparison is a sort of padded frame, tied saddle-style to the elephant’s back). Like many vehicles in India’s desert state of Rajasthan, the elephants are awash with colour, their faces daubed with elaborate patterns. These are similar to the neon swirls I’ve seen on the backs of trucks out on the highway, along with the painted instruction “blow horn”. In contrast, the fort itself looks a little drab, its sepia-coloured walls blending in to the surrounding hills.
Once inside, though, all thoughts of drabness evaporate. The fort’s walls enclose the Amber Palace, a 16th century blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture. Its external surfaces may look as weathered as an elephant’s hide but its interior, while rundown in parts, still contains a wealth of richly detailed frescoes, carved marble and semi-precious stones. One example is the Hall of Mirrors, the walls and ceilings of which are inlaid with tiny pieces of mirrored glass – just one candle can light the entire room, as the reflective surfaces multiply it a thousand times over.
The fort/palace was started in 1590 by the Rajput Maharajah (or king) Man Singh I, and finished by his descendent Sawai Jai Singh. The Rajputs were a group of warrior clans who ruled over Rajasthan (which itself means ‘land of the kings’) for close to 1000 years. Their legacy lives on in the many Rajput forts scattered across Rajasthan. Far from just defensive outposts, these combine function with architectural beauty, and Amber is a particularly ornate example.
Wandering through the courtyards, corridors and palatial chambers gives an idea of the opulence of courtly life in medieval times. There is even an early form of air-conditioning – intricate lattice screens carved from a single slab of marble allow lake breezes to circulate through the rooms, while strategic channels of breeze-cooled running water help keep the temperature comfortable in the royal quarters.
The inner sanctum of the fort contains the zenana, or women’s quarters, where individual chambers were connected by a long corridor for the sake of giving the women some privacy. Not too much privacy, though – the members of the harem could only mingle together in a central courtyard, and the maharajah reportedly kept tabs on what the women were gossiping about by having his scribes record the conversations that took place there.
Above the maze-like network or corridors, colonnaded walkways and steep staircases is the roof terrace, complete with open-air theatre and turreted vantage-points. There’s that view again – a stunning panorama of craggy hills, the lake-garden at the foot of the fort and beyond it all, the city of Jaipur in the distance. With solid sandstone underfoot and no elephants in the area, I can finally take it all in.
In 1727 Sawai Jai Singh decided to move his state capital from the hilly vantage point of Amber to the plains below, where he founded Jaipur. The city is renowned for its pink-hued walls and buildings. Originally yellow, they were first painted pink for a British royal visit in 1867, pink being the colour of hospitality in Rajput culture. Jaipur is famous for its jewellery and handcrafts, and also has a few historical attractions well worth a visit.
Not only was Sawai Jai Singh a respected warrior-king, he was also one of the top astronomers of his time. The Jantar Mantar is an open-air observatory, one of five built by Jai Singh throughout India and full of massive stone objects. They might look like an assortment of weird modern sculptures, but these are highly accurate instruments – the large sundial tells local time to the nearest minute.
City Palace and Museums
The City Palace complex is still home to some descendents of Jaipur’s royal family. Its public spaces include museums where visitors can peruse an impressive collection of textiles, art and royal armoury – the centuries-old royal costumes are fascinating. The buildings themselves are in the classic Rajput style and include the elaborately painted Peacock Gate, a favourite with snap-happy tourists.
The poetically-named Palace of Winds is Jaipur’s most recognisable landmark. Part of the City Palace complex, it’s actually not a palace at all but a towering facade of pink sandstone with an elaborate ‘honeycomb’ of 953 windows. Hawa Mahal overlooks one of Jaipur’s busy roads and was built to allow the women of the palace (who were not allowed out in public) to discreetly watch the goings on of the outside world.
? Amy Macpherson travelled to India with Hands Up Holidays (www.handsupholidays.com; 0800-783 3554), a company that combines high-comfort travel and sightseeing with a taste of community development work. The 12-day Taste of India tour starts at £1400 (flights not included) and includes four days’ volunteer work with approved charities in the slums of Delhi, a Delhi city tour and travel to Agra, Jaipur and Fatehpur Sikri plus a tiger safari. Quote ‘TNTHUH06’ when you book online to receive this special price, valid until November 20.