India Revisited: Jewels of Jaipur

The drive from Udaipur to Jaipur (again a pesky 1 hour flight that no longer exists) passed without incident which was a small miracle given my condition the night before. The group got started at 9 AM and my friend, Nancy, hung back with me to make sure I was up for the drive. We arrived at the Rambagh Palace with a “royal welcome” amidst rose petals and an umbrella bearer. Adjacent to the City Palace of Jaipur, it was built in 1835 and later refurbished as a guest house and hunting lodge for the Maharajah. It became the residence of the Maharajah and his beautiful queen, Gayatri Devi (whose autobiography, “A Princess Remembers,” I highly recommend). Feeling like a queen myself (albeit a tired one), I tucked into my Palace Room and fought off the last of the bug I was fighting.

I awakened to birdsong or shall I say, “bird chatter” and relieved to be feeling more myself. I later learned that there are over 90 peacocks on the palace grounds, and they make distinctive cat-call type of sounds. Flocks of pigeons also dominate the area and several members of staff have a specific role to beat a piece of cloth with a long stick to ward them away from the building—a thankless job in my opinion and not terribly effective! We had a private tour of the City Palace including a beautiful Lalique crystal dining room table which was illuminated from underneath (sadly, by fluorescent light bulbs). The sprawling City Palace has been home to the rulers of Jaipur since the 18th century (the city was created in 1727). My favorite was a blue room – decorated with white like Wedgewood — that used to contain a swing suspended from the center which had a lovely cross breeze. We all enjoyed taking off our shoes and lounging like royalty in the bolstered receiving hall. Traditionally, the only furniture used in an Indian palace was a low bed and small low tables; everything else took place on the floor. It was not until the European influence came later that other pieces of furniture came into fashion.

From there we walked to the “Jantar Mantar,” the largest of five astronomical observatories built by the Maharajah in the 18th century. The instruments in this open air park could be mistaken for a contemporary art installation, but actually are incredibly precise sundials and gadgets for predicting how hot the summers will be, and the angles at which planets and stars can be seen in the night skies.

We visited a textile merchant specializing in wood block printed fabrics for which Jaipur is well known, and he supplies material to various US brands of note such as Pottery Barn and Roberta Roller Rabbit to name a few. We saw examples of block printed, hand stitched quilts and some of the prettiest fabric patio umbrellas I’ve ever seen with contrasting fabrics lining the underside. Lunch was at a small café in the shop Anokhi, which was founded in Jaipur and now has branches all over India with block printed home linens and apparel designed supposedly for the international market. I’ve had luck there in the past, but this season’s colors seemed a bit dour to my eye, and the patterns more tribal than I remembered.

The gents split off and returned to the hotel, but the die-hard ladies’ contingent carried on with a series of quick stops at small boutiques that were great little finds in Jaipur:

  • Neerja for colorful pottery produced in the region—they had wonderful umbrella stands, serving pieces, lamps and drawer pulls.
  • Suprint – next door to the pottery shop and specializing in ladies apparel and home furnishings – the store was a rainbow of color, but styles more designed for the Indian market – I found two cute scarves for $10 each.
  • FabIndia – I liken this to the “Gap of India” – great place for tunics and scarves in every shade imaginable at great prices – they also had attractive little fabric evening bags, gift enclosure cards, little notebooks, etc.
  • Hot Pink – besides loving the name, I also love their clothes!

We returned to Rambagh and had an outstanding meal in Suvarna Muhal, the hotel’s fine dining Indian restaurant. Our gallant waiter guided us through the four regional menus on offer, and I had the finest grilled prawns in my life followed by delicately seasoned, pan fried sea bass—also delicious.

Our second full day in Jaipur started off with a morning dedicated to jewelry, and as Negendra aptly observed, this was the most uniformly enthusiastic he’d seen the group!! Jaipur is a major center for stone cutting and one out of every two stones from all over the world are cut in Jaipur. Some of our group had brought stones hoping to have them set, others were looking for loose stones and some like me, just planning to browse. At any rate, this is what I call “big game hunting,” and, as Negendra reminded us, bargaining is a natural part of the process in India and very much expected. We went to three different jewelry stores, ending at the famous Gem Palace, a “temple” to which every movie star and figure of state who has set foot in India has paid homage to. We tried on fabulous one-of-a-kind Indian princess-type of pieces like 28-carat diamond earrings and 50+ carat emerald necklaces… so fun. I think everyone had a bit of luck and picked up a bauble or two!

Our outing this afternoon was to the Amber Fort, a former citadel dating to the 1500’s, it became the capital in 1727. Its massive ramparts follow the contour of the escarpment, and like Jodhpur, appear impregnable. The afternoon light was gorgeous, and we explored the public audience hall with its distinctive “elephant-brackets,” a Hindu touch to the otherwise Islamic style. We looked down at the Mughal-style garden, a patchwork of small beds which appeared to float in the lake. We drove a short distance to Dehra Amber and our arrival was met with great fanfare: a 12-piece marching band, which included bagpipes, playful elephants trumpeted and camels lolled about with keepers. We snapped a few photos, cocktails magically appeared, and we then had a demonstration of camel polo! Next, it was our turn to try, and needless to say, this was a much slower paced version vs. the traditional horse version with hooves pounding the sod. Connecting with the ball and actually getting it through the goal posts is easier said than done, but a good time was had by all, and it was well documented!

By this time it was dark and we exchanged our steeds from camels to elephants, fitted with square platforms called “howdahs” and plodded off in the moonlight to our candle-lit dinner venue in the distance.… one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.

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