In February 2009 we travelled to India and saw so much that the account is split into several articles.
This is the second part covering the elephant city of Jaipur, its vibrant streets and fascinating observatory, the magnificent Amber Fort, especially the beautiful Sheesh Mahal, and Bikaner with its impressive fort palaces and extraordinary havelis.
The road to Jaipur (we were travelling from Fatehpur Sikri) is quite decent most of the way. Tolls were being put in place and one was already operational with a charge of 40 Rp. Camels are very much the beast of burden here and there are many carts on the road drawn by these snooty beasts.
In Jaipur we stayed at the wonderful Samode Haveli, the 150 year-old manor house of the Samode Royal Family and converted to a heritage hotel in 1988. It has beautiful period decoration, a fine painted dining room and an elephant ramp to the entrance. The lovely courtyard is cool in the heat of the day with fountains, and pomegranate trees. We ate by candlelight in the courtyard every night of our stay here, with huge log fires (and strategically placed heaters) to ward off the chill. The food was excellent - we ate curries almost every evening during the holiday and had some really great meals.
The hotel also has a fabulous outdoor pool with a large bar and three enormous canopied "beds" with cushions and shady draperies. Surrounded by bougainvillea, palm trees and colourful plants it is a great place to relax in the later afternoon after a day's sight-seeing.
Our suite was fabulous with traditional architecture and a huge bathroom. We knew that there were two original rooms in the haveli and asked if we could see them. One was unoccupied and so we were able to take a look. The decoration is really amazing, with lots of mirrored walls and painted pillars.
Jaipur is the capitol of Rajasthan, the home of the Rajputs - the "children of kings" and named after its founder, the great warrior Jai Singh II who ruled from 1688 to 1744, coming to power at the age of 11. The Rajputs, the warrior clans, successfully resisted the Mughals and were never ruled by them. When Mughal power began to decline the Rajputs allied themselves with the British. Following independence the 22 states of Rajputana eventually joined to form the new state of Rajasthan. Since 1856, when its buildings were given a coat of pink to welcome Prince Albert, Jaipur has been known as the Pink City, and the wash is regularly reapplied.
Monkeys roam freely in Jaipur, along with the ever-present cows. The streets are extremely noisy, mostly due to the traffic - horns are used with enthusiasm in India and the backs of all trucks are decorated with "Blow Horn" or something similar.
From our hotel we walked right through the centre of town to the fabulous covered bazaars - I particularly loved the amazing array of colourful sari materials, embroidered with mirrors or beads or decorated with traditional Rajasthani block-printed patterns.
We saw quite a few elephants on the roads. They all had their trunks painted and were probably returning from their morning work at the Amber Palace. It's a long walk for them - 11 kms there and back.
All through our walks around the city we saw many fine buildings with beautiful carved stone tracery but in a neglected state.
One evening in Jaipur we had dinner with a local family, arranged by TransIndus. The family lived in the Indra Market area - it was still very lively at 7pm. On the way we saw a procession of decorated horses and elephants, musicians and dancing girls - this was a wedding and looked great fun. They were holding up a good deal of traffic but that didn't seem to bother them!
Unfortunately this turned out to be rather a strained evening. The lady of the house was very nice and showed us all her different types of saris and her husband demonstrated how to make a turban from a 9.5m length of cloth - a kind of winding and twisting motion which completed the turban in about 20 seconds, creating a very sturdy structure of starched muslin.
Her husband also showed us the chart of his family tree. Heritage, and astrology, are very important in India, especially in marriage. His chart went back to the sixteenth century at which point it merged with the Maharaja's chart. Apparently a priest comes every year to note who is living in the house. Unfortunately the husband left before dinner to deliver a present at the wedding of a friend so we were only three at dinner. The head of the household was the grandfather, his seat in the living area was a very splendid special high sofa with cylindrical cushions.
On returning to our hotel we saw two more weddings and could hear fireworks from several directions - these lasted well into the night.
On Siredeori Bazaar heading south into the city is the Palace of the Winds. This most beautiful of pink sandstone buildings was created for the ladies of the palace. Unable to go out in public, it allowed them to see what was happening on the streets.
It is a narrow structure, with windows on both sides which have coloured glass in them. The larger apertures have shutters which can be opened, allowing the cooling breeze to blow through.
The palace architecture is a fusion of Mughal and Rajasthani. Though the surrounding wall was built by Jai Sing, the complex has been added to over the centuries. The Tripolia Gate is closed to the hoi poloi - entrance is via Virendra Pol, near the Jantar Mantar observatory.
The museum does not allow photography so no pictures here of the wonderful intricately embroidered textiles, all hand-made, including dresses, shawls, and the magnificently over-sized clothing of Madho SIngh I. These are housed in a delicate two-storeyed building, the Mubarak Mahal, made from white marble.
The beautiful Rajendra Pol, a gateway leading into the courtyard of the Diwan-i-Khas, is flanked by marble elephants complete with mahouts.
Filming was taking place in the palace (as in many places we visited) and the Diwan-i-Khas (the Hall of Private Audience), an elegant colonnaded building, was decked out with carpets and draperies which looked magnificent and gave some idea of how the palaces might have looked in the summer months in centuries past.
Inside the Diwan-i-Khas are a pair of immense silver urns, said to be the largest silver objects in the world.
The Pitam Niwas Chowk is a beautiful small courtyard with fabulously decorated gates - in particular the Peacock Gate is stunning. The gates represent the four seasons: Peacock for autumn, Rose for winter, Green for spring and Lotus for summer. From this courtyard can be seen the Chandra Mahal, the residence of the Royal Family (we saw the Maharaja here!).
Within the complex is a weapons museum full of fearsome daggers, swords and guns - the "welcome" sign is formed by daggers over the entrance! There is also the opportunity to see local craftsmen at work: miniature paintings, carved wooden objects, etc., and to buy if you wish.
We were both really looking forward to visiting this observatory and it lived up to the intriguing photographs we had seen of it. Maharaja Jai Singh built five astronomical observatories, this one in Jaipur between 1727 and 1733. Fourteen types of instrument made from stone and marble can measure the time, predict eclipses, and study astrology.
Astrological calculations are very important for determining auspicious days for weddings and other important events.
On the left as you enter is the Laghu Samrat Yantra, a red sandstone and white marble sundial, inclined at an angle of 27° - the same as the latitude of Jaipur. On either side are two quadrants - one for measuring local time in the morning, the other in the afternoon.
Nearby is the Nadivalaya Yantra: two sundials, one for summer, when the sun is in the northern hemisphere, and one for winter when the sun is in the southern hemisphere. It can give the time to within one minute accuracy.
In front of the Nadivalaya Yantra is the Jai Prakash Yantra: two hemispherical bowls with cutout curved marble slabs. A ring is suspended above the centre of each bowl allowing calculation of the day, time and positions of the zodiac.
Twelve small instruments form the Rashi Yantra representing the twelve signs of the zodiac. The angle of inclination and orientation are particular to each sign.
The most impressive instrument of all is the immense Brihat Samrat Yantra. Also inclined at an angle of 27° it can give the time to an accuracy of two seconds. It can also give other astronomical information such as the sun's declination.
Amber, 11 km north of Jaipur, was a Rajput stronghold and capital of the Kuchwaha Rajputs from 1037 to 1728. The magnificent fort was built in 1600 and stands high above the town of Amber.
We ascended to the fort on an elephant. I had mixed feelings about this, with some concern about how the elephants were treated. This is not the right environment for these wonderful animals - the Indian elephants prefer a much wetter climate and lush vegetation. In particular their feet must suffer on the hot road surfaces, some of them live in Jaipur and do the return journey every day.
They didn't look too bad, but there is no water for them here which can't be good for them. They are restricted to five trips up to the palace complex every day, and do not carry tourists back down, working only in the morning. I did see one mahout whack his elephant quite hard on the head with a stick but didn't get his number so couldn't make a complaint - in any case I'd hesitate, perhaps he'd take it out on the elephant if he was penalised.
With these reservations we did ride the elephants to the palace and it was a wonderful experience. You mount from a platform at the level of the elephant's back and sit sideways on cushions. It is a very sedate ride with a good swaying motion.
After our visit we went to the animal aid office in the courtyard where the elephants start their walk up to the fort, to make a donation. The people who run the office try to look after all kinds of animals here, including the elephants.
The palaces and fort are encompassed by an eighteen km wall known locally as the "little wall of China" and it does look remarkably like it with spurs coming down off the hillsides.
The palace complex has four main areas, each with its own courtyard. The first courtyard, Jaleb Chowk, is a vast space entered via the the Suraj Pol, the sun gate, which faces east. Before going through the Singh Pol - the Lion Gate - into the second courtyard we were taken by our guide into the small Hindu Temple dedicated to Kali in her goddess of war aspect, Sila. No cameras are allowed inside the temple where we were blessed and had our foreheads smeared with red paste.
Through into the second courtyard is the Diwan-i-Am - the Hall of Public Audience with wonderful pillars topped by elephant capitals.
The Maharaja's apartments are reached through the exquisitely painted Ganesh Pol which leads into a lovely courtyard with Islamic style gardens with fountains and geometric flower beds. These were being renovated at the time of our visit along with quite a lot of the buildings.
Women were employed to do much of the labouring - carrying water in flat bowls on their heads, sometimes right to the top of the palace, then returning with the bowls filled with rubble.
The highlight of the fort is in this courtyard: the magnificent Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Palace. The columns of the arcade surrounding the hall are equally beautiful, being carved with high relief insects. Our guide revealed various creatures in one carving simply by covering various bits of it with his hands.
The walls of the Sheesh Mahal are studded with patterns in fragments of mirror and coloured glass. The lower walls are carved marble reliefs of flowers in vases.
The most amazing room we saw in all of the forts and palaces that we visited in India.
Below the Amber Fort gardens were being renovated. These are beautiful geometric beds with symmetric water courses running through them.
As we returned to Jaipur from the Amber Palace we stopped to look at the beautiful eighteenth century Jal Mahal or Water Palace. It still looks lovely though it is in bad shape sitting in the middle of a polluted lake.
All of the drives between locations seemed to pass very quickly. We had an excellent driver and usually made one short refreshment stop. The five hour drive between Jaipur and Bikaner was no exception. Soon the predominant mode of goods transport became camel-drawn cart. The lorries look hugely overloaded - fat-bellied tarpaulins stuffed and hanging over the sides and back. Mustard fields soon gave way to a much drier landscape and eventually desert-like conditions with scrub and what looked like thorn trees that the camels eat. Eventually we started to see small round buildings with conical straw roofs which one of our guides later told us are for storing hay, though I was sure I'd seen a bed in one.
In Bikaner we stayed at the beautiful Laxmi Niwas Palace. Built in 1902 it was the principal residence of the Maharaja Ganga Singh. It's architectural style is a combination of Indian and British revivalist Gothic. We had a huge suite (though I believe all the rooms are large), very traditionally furnished in an English style.
The hotel has a wonderful fully enclosed courtyard with fountains where we ate in the evening, and also huge reception rooms, including a huge games room with billiard table and rather too many heads and skins of tigers and deer for my liking.
The red sandstone glows warmly in the late evening or early morning sun and it is a peaceful and very atmospheric place to stay.
We had some of the best curries of our trip here - one Korma chicken and coriander was so good we ordered a second serving!
In the evening traditional dances were performed - these were the most impressive performances we saw in India, the main female dancer danced with bowls of fire balanced on her head and, for one dance, on crushed glass and knives. The dances with bowls of fire were so incredible I wondered whether they were designed specifically for tourists but later I asked our guide about them and he said that they were very special traditional dances, not often performed and that we'd been very lucky to see them.
In the video the graceful dancer is amazing, she moves her hips and shoulders making beautiful hand and arm movements, all the while keeping her head perfectly steady and balancing an immense tower of fire bowls. Towards the end she dances while balancing on a metal ring, making it slap on the floor from side to side in time to the music.
Bikaner was founded in 1488 by a Rajput prince Rao Bika, a son of the founder of Jodhpur Rao Jodha. James Tod, a British officer and historian of Bikaner, says that the second part of the name "Bikaner" comes from a Nehra who had title to the land. He allowed establishment of a settlement only if his name was linked with it - hence Bika - ner.
Situated on a major trade route the city prospered and over many centuries the wealthy merchants built their beautifully carved havelis, mostly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Our guide took us by tuk-tuk into the narrow streets of the old town - it's very difficult to get a car down into these streets.
The havelis we saw seemed to be in excellent condition, locked and guarded, and one converted to an atmospheric hotel - the Bhanwar Niwas Haveli. They are all built in red sandstone and richly carved with delicate stone latticework.
It was late afternoon when we were wandering these streets and the children were returning home from school. Everywhere we went in India the children were fascinated by us (or our cameras!) and wanted to have their photographs taken and then to look at the images on the screen.
Jainism was founded in 500BC as a reaction against the dominance of priests in Hindu society. It rejects the caste system, avoids ritual and believes in reincarnation. Jains are strict vegetarians and revere all forms of life.
The Bhandasar Temple was commissioned by a wealthy merchant in 1468 but he died before it was completed in 1514. It is dedicated to the fifth Jain tirthankar or pathfinder, Sumitnath. Inside the temple is completely covered with colourful carvings and paintings. Legend has it that ghee was used in its construction!
The fort was constructed between 1588 and 1593 by Raja Rai Singh, a general in Akbar's army and the first Raja of Bikaner, ruling for over 40 years from 1571 to 1612.
Many palaces have been added by subsequent Maharajas. It is unusual in that it does not occupy a hilltop position.
Though Bikaner was involved in many battles with the Mughals the fort was never conquered. Its moat is now dry but the wall and bastions are intact.
It's hard to keep track of all the beautiful palaces here within the fort. They have some of the most exquisitely decorated rooms of any we saw in India: wonderful painted doors, gilded ceilings, mirror work and tiles.
Dutch tiles, particularly Delft tiles, were the height of opulence.
One beautiful room had a Maharaja's throne complete with large manual ceiling fan known as a punkah.
The tiny detail in the paintings is amazing - this Indian art is called miniature painting because of such fine detail, not because they are small - which they generally aren't!
This palace has the most exquisite wall paintings. We had to pay a little baksheesh to see this but it was absolutely worth it.
Through these sets of rooms in the Moon Palace we eventually came to the Flower Palace. Though it seemed not to be fully open to visitors we could see some of its beautiful decoration.
The Phool Mahal was built during the reign of Maharaja Gaj Singh (1745-1787). Its walls are covered with paintings of flowers. It has many stained glass windows patterned to look like flowers.
Built by Raj Anup Singh, eldest son of Karan Singh and the tenth ruler of Bikaner from 1669 to 1698.
It has the most beautiful delicately carved white marble courtyard with more amazing latticework..
This lavishly decorated room is a private audience chamber for honoured guests and visitors. The red-cushioned throne is set in a niche studded with mirrors and coloured glass. It is quite dazzling!
The carpet is said to have been made by prisoners in Bikaner jail.
Named for the beautiful fresco paintings of clouds on its walls this is a uniquely decorated room - at least in all the palaces we saw we didn't see anything else like this.
The clouds are beautifully stylised. In some frescos rain falls. In others red and orange lightning bolts weave like snakes between the clouds.
There is a celebrated painting of Krishna and his consort Radha in the midst of a thunderstorm!
The cavernous Diwan-i-Khas was built by Ganga Singh who ruled from 1898 to 1944. every inch of the red sandstone walls is carved with with foliage, flowers, birds, animals and human figures.
We finally came to the museum, to be met by the incongruous sight of a First World War biplane presented to Ganga Singh by the British Government.
This is a really magnificent fort with an incredible amount of beautiful art and architecture to see - a highly recommended visit.