Friday, 2 October 2015

A DOLLOP OF JAIPUR AND MORE

A DOLLOP OF JAIPUR AND MORE
By Biswadip Mitra

Like a very large picture book the entire Jaipur city opens up in front of our eyes suddenly. The buildings look like toy houses that have been strewn all over, with hints of greenery here and there. As the sun gets ready to bid adieu for the day, Jaipur too gets ready for a dazzling evening right in front of our eyes.  Far away, the hill on other side of the city basks in the fading sunlight. The sky changes colours quietly — light blue, orange and crimson — before the day gets over.  

Jaipur city from Nahargarh Fort. Photo by Biswadip Mitra

We are on our way to Nahargarh Fort that overlooks the Rajasthan capital like a guardian from the edge of Aravalli Hills. The road to the ridge-top fort with its hairpin bends winds through thick vegetation. Our driver Mohammad Munir Mansoor negotiates the road with √©lan as he has been doing for years. And as he drives, Mansoor tells us stories about the fort and the city. Pankaj and I are attentive listeners, but we are keen to reach to that top spot from where the entire city becomes visible. That moment arrives in a while after we pass through the gates and security check. We reach a bend where the vegetation is thin and the slope of the hill is steep. All of a sudden the city beckons us in its full glory. Down there it’s like a wave of white — the colour of most of the buildings, unless one looks carefully to spot the pink shades. That’s the Pink City — the walled part of Jaipur which boasts of grand old havelis, markets, temples and the City Palace, besides structures such as the Hawa Mahal, Ishar Lat and Jantar Mantar.

Nahargarh Fort was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734 as a place of retreat and hunting. The fort was extended by later rulers of Jaipur, notably Sawai Ram Singh and Sawai Madho Singh. Mansoor aka Munnabhai tells us how the construction of the fort in the 1730s got hampered several times till it was realised that the spirit of Nahar Singh Bhomia haunted the area. “To pacify Nahar’s spirit, a temple was constructed in his name. The fort gets its name from that,” Munnabhai says.

We drive past a palace — one of the many built by Sawai Madho Singh — and climb up further to reach the topmost viewing point of the fort. The thick stone railing of the roof terrace stands like a dark wall between us and the city. It’s the vantage point from where several enthusiasts train their cameras to capture the city that has slowly started to twinkle. From here Jaipur resembles a large carpet of stars that you can touch with your fingers from high above. I spot the Jal Mahal Palace which shines in the middle of the lake on which it has been built. 

Somewhere few singers are performing Rajasthani folk songs; the tune is earthy and strikes a chord even though I don’t understand the language. It reminds me of the Rajasthani folk tunes I heard in the Bengali film Sonar Kella by Satyajit Ray. It isn’t surprising; a part of the film was indeed shot at this Nahargarh Fort. Photographer Pushpendra Singh, who introduces himself to me, says his father still narrates stories about how “several Bengali actors and director Satyajit Ray with many cameras had been at the fort to shoot a famous film about rebirth”. He says Aamir Khan-starrer Rang De Basanti also featured this fort.

Pushpendra says that the fort was not involved in any major battle, but during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, “British women and Europeans stayed at this fort under the King’s protection”. The fort once housed the state riches but in the year 1940 they were shifted out by Man Singh II to Moti Doongri inside Jaipur, says Pushpendra.  

We walk to the Madhavendra Bhawan which was constructed especially for the women of the royal household. “There are 12 identical suites built in European style for the women and one for the Maharaja which were constructed on the sides of a rectangular quad. The suites are connected with each other,” Pushpendra informs. “It’s also called Zenana Deorhi and every suite is adorned with splendid sculptures.” We learn that the King used to visit one of his many queens in her suite at night while others remained unaware who the King was visiting that night.

It’s time to leave Nahargarh Fort and move to another one — the Amer Palace, which is also called the Amber Fort. We take the same winding route through thick vegetation to exit. It’s a dark evening except for the moon which is showing us the way. Munnabhai tells how several times tigers have been spotted on this road. “They come from the forests of the hill and go to Maota Lake adjacent to Amber Fort for water. I have seen them many times while driving back,” Munnabhai says with nonchalance. I am a tad excited to hear about tigers. Being from Bengal I somewhat feel an affinity towards the big cats who are royal in every sense of the term.

Pankaj decides to shoot some photographs of the city from a point on the road from where Jaipur looks alluring. A nice idea, except that he’s worried about tigers. “Sher na aa jaye,” he says as he arranges his camera. I look around, hoping to meet a tiger. I hear some noise from one side of the road and turn back. For a fraction of a second I spot two burning eyes staring at me from the forest along the road. But then in a whisker the “eyes” vanish. I wonder whether it was a figment of my imagination or there was actually a tiger watching three of us. Or was it just me?

We drive slowly, negotiating our way through herds of wild cattle and Neel Gai. They seem to be annoyed and decide to block our way. Finally they let us move, but not before making their displeasure known with loud calls that break the quietude of the evening.

HUES OF AMER

Out of the Nahargarh Fort complex, we are on the Amer Road on our way to Amer Palace or Amber Fort where the light-and-sound shows go on every evening. Just next to the lake, the large silhouette of this grand fort appears before our eyes as if straight from a blockbuster. But for the Rajasthani ambience all around, it can very well be the setting of a Shakespearean play like Romeo and Juliet, I feel.

Lights play on the wall and ramparts of Amer Palace in the evening.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
A range of colours sweep the walls, gates and large ramparts of the fort; they turn pink, golden, green, blue and red with the rhythm of a traditional song that rings in the air. A male voice narrates the fort’s history once the song gets over. The lake’s water reflects the lights and tourists try to soak in as much as they can. The shutterbugs stay busy while some youngsters wonder how much time it took to build the fort.

History book tells us Amer was a small town that was built by the Meenas. The town was consecrated to Goddess Amba, hence the name Amer. Later, the fort was built by Raja Man Singh, the Kachwaha King of Amer, around 967 CE. Jai Singh I later expanded the fort. It was the seat of administration till Sawai Jai Singh II shifted the capital to Jaipur, about 11 kilometres away. That was in the year 1727.
    
Munnabhai says that Amer Fort was connected through a tunnel with the Jaigarh Fort which is located above Cheel ka Teela. “The tunnel acted as an escape route for the rulers who could send away their families to Jaigarh Fort nearby. I have heard that the tunnel still exists and the spirits of kings and queens live there,” he says, perhaps to regale me with interesting stories. 

The Amer Palace has four main sections with separate entry gates. The main gate is Suraj Pol or the Sun Gate. Dignitaries and cavalcades once entered the palace through this gate. The paths in the palace are cobbled. Inside, several palaces with latticed windows overlook the Jaleb Chowk where the King’s army used to display its might after a hard-fought battle. The queens used to witness the military parade through the windows. Who knows maybe some young soldier caught the eyes of some princess back then and there was a whiff of romance. Centuries later I can almost smell it.

But soon my imaginative mind takes a break as tourists from around the world applaud after the light-and-sound show gets over. The road in front of the fort is abuzz with other visitors who throng the shops that are selling textiles and varieties of handcrafted articles. Young Rajasthani men ask me who I am and what I am writing in the notebook. On learning that I am a “patrakar” they look at me curiously, as if I am a rare specimen they have come across on a cool evening.

MAGIC IN LAKE

We decide to head back to Jaipur and see how the city goes about in the evening hours. We take the same Amer Road and on our way we pass by the Jal Mahal. It’s an interesting structure, built in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, just north of Jaipur. The bright lights of Jal Mahal dazzle like jewels in the crown. Cool breeze blows over the glinting water of the lake.

It’s like a magic to see an entire palace floating in the water. Built with red sandstone, Jal Mahal is a fine example of Rajput and Mughal architecture. We hear that there are hallways and chambers in the palace and even a garden. What I notice though is the chhatri on the roof which is typical of Bengal. The Bengal connection is possibly not surprising, considering Jaipur was built under the guidance of architect Vidyadhar Bhattacharya who hailed from Naihati in Bengal.  

CITY IN EVENING

After driving through city outskirts dotted with newbie hotels and restaurants, the Jeep takes us to the walled city. The sound and the sight change dramatically. It’s a shade of pink all over, with the signage in black and white everywhere. Centuries-old buildings house the shops and the markets. Wide roads are packed with people and sleek sedans. It’s a blend of history and modernity. After driving through the roads, we park the Jeep at Johari Bazaar. We walk past Hanumanji ka Mandir, air filled with the aroma of incense sticks and fragrance of flowers, and bells ringing loudly. Chants of temple priests and devotion of the faithful make me feel that we are perhaps in one of the most devout cities of the country. Except for the honks of the sedans and autorickshaws, and the shoppers who flock the business establishments to buy what they need in the best price. Bargaining is important here, especially if one is looking for exquisite materials.

BAZAAR BUSTLE

Our first stop is Ramganj Bazaar which is famous for its Rajasthani shoes. It is here we meet Abdul Hanif who owns a shop. He’s busy with the customers who are planning to buy leather jootis. “It takes about four days to make these leather shoes,” he tells me. “The slippers for ladies are much in demand, especially the ones with intricate design,” he adds and asks whether we want to buy some. “I can offer good discount if you buy more than one.”

But we are not typical tourists here to source such souvenirs. We are curious journalists who are keen to know how these special Rajasthani jootis are being made. We are joined by Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat who knows a thing or two about the markets in the old city. So we venture into the alleys, just behind the brightly-lit shoe shops, where workers are busy making the shoes. 

In a tiny workshop about five to six young men skilfully cut, paste and stitch the shoes. This evening most of them, however, are busy with shoes made out of foam. A young Mohammad Arshad wonders whether we are from the “sarkar” and whether replying to my questions will help him and his colleagues. Once he’s convinced that we are indeed journalists, Arshad and his colleagues tell us how they work — the process of making these shoes; the hardships they face; and the paltry money they make while the shops earn the “maximum profit”.  They tell us that it takes five people to make a shoe and that they “make it fast”. The shoes sell throughout the year, “though during the tourist season the demand goes up”. These shoes last for a very long time and no one in India can match the hardiness of these shoes, they claim.

FANTASY IN PINK

We move out of the area and walk past the Chhota Rehmani Masjid to reach the Badi Chaupar — a large crossing. And suddenly I realise that we are standing near the iconic Hawa Mahal from where once the women of royal households witnessed the spectacular parades and festivities on the street below. To me Hawa Mahal appears like a large pink crown, with numerous windows and colourful glasses that have been brightly lit. There are about 953 such jharokhas in this five-storey structure that are decorated with intricate latticework. I keep wondering about the skill of those artisans who designed the ornate layers of the structure.

Hawa Mahal in the evening.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
Hawa Mahal is one of the top tourist attractions and not surprisingly there are many of them this evening. One such visitor is architect Alexander Hammond from the US. As he trains his large camera on the structure, I ask him what he thinks of Hawa Mahal. “It’s like a fantasy in pink,” he says. “I haven’t seen such an interesting structure anywhere else except perhaps the Coliseum in Rome.” I am thrilled to hear that: after all, Hawa Mahal was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh and the Coliseum is much older.

Just opposite Hawa Mahal the shops at Hawa Mahal Bazaar are packed with buyers of all ages and nationalities. There’s a constant traffic flow and it’s not easy to cross the road if one needs to reach the market or the Rajkiya Uchha Madhyamik Vidyalaya across. But the rush hour traffic cannot match the enthusiasm of tourists who are keen to get their hands on the best of what Jaipur has to offer. They scamper to the market, ignoring the honks of the cars.   

Away from the Hawal Mahal we reach the Johari Bazaar. We amble down the pavement and walk past a popular sweet shop-cum-restaurant. On one side of the road stands the glittering Jama Masjid, while on the other side are the shiny shops. It’s a similar scene of hectic shopping and bargaining. Everyone seems to be buying bags, bangles and junk jewellery, if not the textiles for which there are other famous markets.

Further down, we come across yet another temple thronged by the devout lot. The sound of evening traffic gets drowned by loud chants of the priests. Like other temples of Jaipur, the fragrance of flowers wafts in the air. Even if one is not religious, he or she is bound to stop and try to fathom what drives an ancient faith.

Soon we are past the arched gate of Sanganeri Pol, leaving behind the markets and the bustle. But we make a promise to come back here to witness more of the old walled city.

A BRIGHT ISLAND

Beyond the wall of Pink City, Jaipur is trying to catch up with modernity. There are bright shopping malls and stores, branded food outlets everywhere and the city is climbing high. You shall see the highrises here and there in the middle of double-storey buildings with jharokhas, designed walls and arches. There are flyovers, clean roads and of course the Jaipur Metro Railway. The entire Mirza Ismail Road or MI Road is bustling with plush stores that are offering high-end articles. But amid all this there are those buildings and spots that have history attached to them. One such precinct is the Albert Hall Museum or the Government Central Museum which stands at Ram Niwas Garden, opposite the New Gate of the walled city.

It’s a cool evening and the entire museum has been lit up. “It’s much calmer now. If you come during the day, this place is abuzz with activity. And there will be lots of pigeons,” says Kuldeep who has decided to accompany us the entire evening.

To me the Indo-Saracenic structure of the museum appears like a bright island in the middle of the road. Ornamentation of the jharokhas and terraces are clearly visible: they combine both Rajput and Mughal styles. The corridors inside are decorated with murals. There are paintings reproduced from the Persian Razmnama of Emperor Akbar. There are also those murals that depict the civilisations of Europe, Babylon, Egypt, China and Greece.

Albert Museum, Jaipur, in the evening.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
Munnabhai fills us with information about the museum, and the arms, pottery, metal sculptures, paintings and crystal works that are on display here. “Its foundation was laid in 1876 by the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, during his visit to Jaipur. Construction of the building was completed in 1887 by architect Samuel Swinton Jacob. Writer Rudyard Kipling was so much impressed with this museum that he wrote about it,” Munnabhai says with a clear sense of pride. Indeed Kipling did write that this museum “is now a rebuke to all other museums in India from Calcutta downwards”.

LAKSHMI NARAYAN TEMPLE

Driving further down the Jawaharlal Nehru Road we reach a spot where suddenly a castle appears on top of a small hill. “It’s Moti Doongri or Hill of Pearls,” Munnabhai tells us. “Maharani Gayatri Devi once lived here,” he says. As the shadow of the fort’s rampart plays with flickering lights on the wall, the structure looks grand — just like a Scottish castle. “Everyone here in Jaipur will tell you that King of Mewar was returning with a large Ganesha idol on a bullock cart. He had decided that wherever the cart stopped he would build a temple there. The bullock cart stopped at Moti Doongri and a Ganesha Temple was built which is revered by all here,” adds Kuldeep. 

But that Ganesha Temple is different from the modern Lakshmi Narayan Temple, popularly known as the Birla Mandir which stands just below the fort. Built in the late 1980s with white marble, the Lakshmi Narayan Temple itself looks like a pearl. The precinct is sprawling with wide steps leading to an elevated ground embellished with a lush garden. We walk past the souvenir shops, take the steps and reach the temple where visitors from all over the world gather every day. We meet several such visitors, including local journalist Baljeet Singh. “This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. I come here every week because once I had a major problem in my family and I believe it got solved only because I prayed here at this temple,” he asserts.

Lakshmi Narayan Temple in the evening.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
We look around: the stained glass windows depict scenes from Hindu scriptures; just above the lintel is Ganesha; other deities too have found places here. We see figures of Buddha, Christ, Zarathustra, Confucius and others on the wall. It feels like a grand assembly of great personages from around the world.

STATUE CIRCLE AND ASSEMBLY

Time to move on and we drive through the city, to the Statue Circle. It seems to be a popular spot for the young ones who possibly frequent the place at the junction of Prithviraj Road and Bhagwant Das Road. The white marble statue of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II stands right in the middle of the circle, hence the name. While tourists, a lot of them Japanese and Chinese, shoot photographs of the dazzling statue, the locals relish snacks sold by the vendors. We hear giggles, laughter and conversations, telling us that in the evening Jaipur is a happy city.

Further down the Bhagwant Das Road, past the Amar Jawan Jyoti, there’s the august Vidhan Sabha building. It’s a recent structure which was completed in 2001. Even then the building has incorporated the best of age-old Rajasthani architectural styles, from Jaipur to Mewar. There are jharokhas, arches, baradaries and todies, made of Jodhpur and Bansi Paharpur stone. The eight-storey building has a dome at the centre; it all looks as mighty as Rajasthan. It’s awe inspiring no doubt, more so when I consider that all legislative decisions of this region of Kings and forts are taken here.

While the night is still young, we decide to call it a day and follow up our bonding with old Jaipur the next day. It’s been a long day after all since we reached the city from Delhi on Delhi-Ajmer Shatabdi Express. The journey was fine --- the train being one of the best in the country. But then we need to conserve our energy for the days that are yet to come.

MORNING IN OLD CITY

Ajmeri Gate, Jaipur. Photo by Biswadip Mitra
It’s a rather warm morning, unlike the cool evening that we enjoyed the day before. However, the heat cannot discourage us in any way. So we head straight to the walled city, past the Ajmeri Gate, towards the Chhoti Chaupar. Our first destination is the Ishar Lat or Swarga Suli at Tripolia Bazaar. It’s a white minaret with intricate ornamentation. But there’s a story attached with it. “Sawai Ishwar Singh was in love with the daughter of his Prime Minister Natani who lived on this road with his family. And just to watch that girl from a high point, Ishwar Singh built this minaret in 1749,” says senior journalist Anupam Mishra who had earlier directed me to this structure. However, Munnabhai disagrees with this story. He tells us that Sawai Ishwar Singh had built this minaret to commemorate his victory over Madho Singh in Bagru war. Whatever may be the real story, the minaret is part of Jaipur’s rich heritage.  

Ishar Lat, Jaipur. Photo by Biswadip Mitra
Below the minaret, however, no one seems to be much worried about our curiosity. They possibly think we are just another group of tourists. So the shops of almirah, water tanks, furniture and paints carry out their business as they do round the year. People are just not keen to answer our queries. I once again note that all the signage in the old city is in black and white. Even the branded shoe store has given up its famous red-white signage, to respect the local tradition. The motifs on the pink walls of the buildings exemplify the superb skills of Rajasthani artists.

At Tripolia Bazaar we meet Rajendra Kumar. He sells brass utensils for which Jaipur is famous. However, even though he claims that Bollywood film stars buy brass utensils from his 120-year-old Shree Radha Govind Bartan Bhandar, I want to find out how these utensils are being made. And once again we reach another extremely narrow alley across the road. The famous craftsmen here, the Thateras, are known for their skills to make the utensils of all shapes and sizes, and design them. Here we meet yet another Rajendra — a Thatera — who is busy hammering the pots. 

Rajendra Thatera designing the brass pot.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
As we ask him to show us how he designs it, Rajendra Thatera puts a pot on a thick iron rod and begins to rotate the pot. All along he hammers the pot with such ferocity that it seems he’s extremely angry. In the process, he designs it with dark marks in circles. Won’t the pot get damaged, I ask him rather naively. “Not at all. I am designing these pots for the last 40 years,” he says. And where he gets them from? Rajendra directs us to the workshop of Mahesh Thatera, in another alley few blocks away.

An artisan burning the brass pot in fire. Jaipur.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
For Mahesh, it’s a “pleasant surprise” to see journalists from Delhi at his doorstep in the morning. He narrates the process — how he joins the parts of “Tamba ki Matki” with Taka or a paste; burns the pot with Bati or fire to harden it; and then puts it in cold water, only to hammer it once again. Once he’s done, he sends the pots to Rajendra Thatera who designs them before sending them off to the stores in Tripolia Bazaar.  “They are sold wholesale for Rs 650 per kilo. It takes three people to make each matki, and we work as a team,” he says. His son chips in soon and allows some break to Mahesh who then sips tea from a plastic up. He offers us tea, which we politely decline. We have other places to visit.

Next stop is the Maniharon ka Rasta which is known for the famous Jaipur bangles. It’s a narrow stretch off the Tripolia Bazaar, but the shops look bright with dazzling bangles of all shades. They are all made of lac and they attract buyers from all across the world; the number of foreign tourists thronging the road proves the point. We leave them to their thrill of buying the famous Jaipur bangles and head to the workshops where these bangles are actually made.

Jaipur lac bangles on display at a store.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
After enquiring a bit, we cross the main road to reach the Aatish Market behind which the lanes house the bangle workshops. At one such workshop, Ikram is busy with a thick pole of molten lac. He rolls it on a metal slab and cuts out small lac strips. “It has been coloured as you can see. What we do is simple. We melt the lac, mix it with powder and then add colour to it. We prepare the pole and then cut pieces from it. These pieces are then shaped into rings by Ismail,” he says, pointing at his colleague who is busy with a wooden roller where the rings are taking shape of bangles before being placed on burning charcoal in a pit. “We make about 1,000 bangles every day,” he adds and smiles. “Centuries ago the King of Amer brought my family from Manoharpur which is now in Uttar Pradesh. They were among the several craftsmen who were brought here. My forefathers decided to settle here and we all learn to make bangles from our childhood. It’s in our blood. If you are a patrakar, then please write that Jaipur bangles are the best in the world,” he says. We can’t agree more.

Bangle makers at work. Jaipur.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
A question now pops in my head. At Maniharon ka Rasta I have seen bangles with stones and gems attached to them. These stones are gems are extremely small, yet they are shaped with precision. Who are those craftsmen who shape these stones and gems, and polish them? “Valid question,” says Pankaj who has been painstakingly shooting photographs all along. Ikram tells me that we need to go to Shilavata area where there are workshops of gem cutters and polishers. Munnabhai, who has become part of our group, says he knows the place and will be able to locate the craftsmen.

And in no time, after rushing past the havelis and markets, we are in front of a workshop. The lane is a bit shabby, and the workshop looks ordinary. But inside the craftsmen are busy with their work. They are cutting the stones and polishing them with precision that looks perfect to us.

“We place a stone or a gem on the tip of a lac stick and then cut them with a wheel that runs on electricity. Similarly, we polish each stone or a gem with yet another wheel,” says Najimuddin, who interestingly is not from Rajasthan but from West Bengal. “I am working here for the last four years. I was earlier in Mumbai,” he informs. His young colleagues, who all were born in Jaipur, say these stones and gems are being sourced by top shops in Jaipur that sell saris, chunris, bangles and other ornaments. “It’s always busy for us,” Najimuddin says. “There’s no time to look at the sky. I have so much to do.” He almost reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Indeed, Najimuddin has come many miles away from his home in Bengal and he has many miles to go.

AWAY FROM JAIPUR

Call it ‘Najimuddin effect’ if you may, we decide that we need to go miles away, on a long drive. We are keen to see the countryside in these parts of Rajasthan and possibly chance upon something interesting. We wish to see the large vistas from a highway and watch the Rajasthan sky. That afternoon we spread the map on the table at our hotel room and zero in on a small town called Kuchaman which is about 138 kilometres away from Jaipur in adjacent Nagaur district.

It’s around 9 am when we start off from Jaipur. The morning traffic is light and we drive through the city easily. We take the Sawai Jai Singh Highway and then the Jhotwara Road. Soon the shopping malls and apartment blocks fall behind, giving way to single-storey buildings that mostly house grocery stores for the hamlets on the city’s outskirts. The colourful signage and advertisements on these buildings indicate that Jaipur is expanding its city limits: the realtors are trying to attract prospective buyers with promises of designer apartments and penthouses in Jaipur city region, plus other facilities.

The road is smooth — well almost, except for a few patches where I guess they need to do some repair work. The setting on both sides of State Highway 2C looks a bid arid, despite Khejri trees and tall grass. Once in a while a group of camels cross the road and we slow down or stop completely to let them pass. Sunil Singh, who is accompanying us on this drive, says Khejri trees are found everywhere and “people still prepare a delicious dish from the fruits of this tree”.

We cross the toll gate manned by Rajasthan State Road Development and Construction Corporation personnel. And once again we begin to move through a similar setting. However, it keeps changing gradually. The hamlets are now few and far between. There is not much traffic, except an occasional tractor of a farmer. Or a sedan packed with tourists from some foreign country. Dirt tracks from the undulating highway lead to different villages far away; the highway itself branches out and heads to different localities. 

And soon we see the rising outline of small hills — or “doongri” as they are called here — that emerge from the horizon. They keep growing as we head towards them, looking majestic and rugged at the same time. We drive past several points where the road has cut through such hills; it feels like travelling through a plateau — the kind I came across in Maharashtra where I lived for several years. 

As we near the Jaipur-Nagaur border, a structure begins to take shape far away. It’s a fort. “That’s Jobner Qila,” says Sunil. “Jobner was once ruled by Hameer Devji. The dynasty is Kachwaha and the clan is Khangarot. Now the fort lies vacant,” he adds. And then he tells a strange story. “Several drivers have told me they have seen horsemen galloping on this vast stretch of field and moving towards the fort on dark nights. But just the way they appear from nowhere, they vanish into thin air as well. People have also sighted flaring lights from the qila up there, even though it has become a khandar now,” Sunil tells me as we stop for shooting some photographs of the fort. I try to imagine fighters in uniform on horseback on a dark night heading towards the qila and flicker of light from the fort. But under the blazing sun such an imagination doesn't come easily. 

We drive past the SKN College of Agriculture; its campus looks sprawling and the fenced fields indicate students here have been busy. Soon the road gets divided — one goes towards Sambhar Lake also known as Shakambari Jheel; the other towards Nawa on way to Kuchaman. Earlier on the road we had come across couple of cement factories. Now we see salt factories that have sprung up on both sides of the road. In fact, truckloads of salt are being carried out of these small factories towards Jaipur where they will be packed and sold. The road on this stretch is often white — covered with salt — and in the sunlight it shimmers. Sunil says that people in these parts are landed. “But if it doesn’t rain then land becomes useless. So salt is the major driver of economy here. Otherwise, people do cultivate the land for moong, moth and bajra.”

Driving past Lohrana, Govindi, Nawa and Mithri we are now closer to Kuchaman which is a very small town and its claim to fame is a small fort up on the cliff. Few Bollywood films were shot here, including Drona and part of Jodhaa Akbar.

As we enter Kuchaman limits — a signage of the local municipality welcomes everyone to “Siksha Sahar” — I notice billboards of several defence academies. I prod Sunil who tells me that everyone in Rajasthan wants to be part of the Army or the Navy or the Air Force and residents of Kuchaman are no exception. “That’s why there are such defence academies here as well where young men are supposed to be trained on their way to the three services,” he says. I look around but don’t see any tough young man, but people going about their busy life, buying stuff from the shops. 

The buildings here look simple, even though there are motifs on some of the walls, typical of Rajasthan. The shops sell a whole range of items — grocery to clothes, utensils to furniture. But as their numbers grow, the main road turns into a narrow street, which branches out into very narrow lanes inside the town.

We keep driving through the narrow main street, asking people about the way to the fort which is now somewhat visible in between decrepit havelis in Shekhawati style and concrete buildings. It seems the town is in a cusp — tradition is jostling for space with the all that is recent. Rajasthani folk music is competing with the latest Bollywood hits that are blaring from the loudspeakers; Rajasthani mirchi vada is selling alongside “Angrezi burger”. Unlike Jaipur, there seems to be no such clear divide between the old and the new here. The cloth stores are packed with both traditional dresses and denims. The old folks with colourful Rajasthani headgear stand next to young men wearing tee-shirts, bargaining with the shopkeepers.

Further enquiry leads us to the narrowest lanes I have ever seen. We negotiate these lanes slowly, moving up and down as we climb towards the fort which overlooks Kuchaman town from about 1,000 foot. Past some havelis and couple of small temples, we finally reach the gate of the fort.

We learn that the lime-and-stone fort is getting renovated because it is now a heritage hotel. Giriraj Singh, who is manning the fort, shares some facts about the fort with us. “The fort is about 1,100 years old and it was constructed by Rathore ruler Zalim Singh. Over the centuries the region was ruled by the Gurjar Pratihars, the Chauhans, the Gaurs and the Rathores,” he says. High atop the fort a flag flutters. “Its five colours are that of Marwar,” Giriraj says. “There are temples of Shiva, Natwarlal, Hanuman and Kali Maa inside. We are trying to restore everything just the way they all were… even the fresco paintings in the fort,” he says. “The fort was known for the inlay works of precious stones and it will take quite some time to restore them,” he claims. He also refers to the Lok Dev Temple which houses paintings of lok devtas, like Sant Gogaji and Sant Kabir.

Giriraj then directs us to the Meera Mahal which houses miniature paintings on the life of poet-saint Meerabai. There’s also the Sabha Prakash, a hall where public gatherings were held centuries ago. The walls here are elaborately designed with coloured glasses and doorways with round arches. Next to it two cannons stand guard, reminding us of the royal past of this fort, even though it was not involved in any major war.

Out of the fort, we head towards the village behind it. We soon reach the Narsinghji Mandir. It is here that we meet three youngsters — Vikas, Rajesh and Rajpal — who tell us that Kuchaman fort is haunted. “We never go up there, not even from this side,” they say, pointing at the fort. We are a bit amused, hearing yet another ghost story that seems to be a common theme at all such old places here. The boys, all students of Tagore Valika Vidyalaya, take us around the temple and share a bit of its history, whatever they know.  

It’s past 1 in the afternoon and we realise that we need to locate a dhaba somewhere. Sunil suggests a few, and soon we are on the highway to Jaipur. After halting at Shri Ram Dhaba briefly, we move on to reach the capital city around 3.30 pm.

BACK IN JAIPUR

Jaipur old city street. Photo by Biswadip Mitra
The next day is reserved for the walled city in Jaipur one more time. It’s like an addiction: Pink City will attract anyone who wants to imbibe history and rich heritage of this region. And that’s quite a lot. However, this time we are precisely curious about the textiles available here. So, soon we find ourselves in the famous Purohitji ka Katla at the crossing of Tripolia Bazaar and Johari Bazaar. 

It’s a riot of colours here. And it’s noisy. The place is crowded and it’s not easy to stand still. Women of all ages have descended at Purohitji ka Katla to source the best of textile — a lot of them being block-print materials that are supplied by the factories in Sanganer. While women and men bargain, the shopkeepers do everything they can to sell the textiles. Amid all this, British tourists Paul, Jeremy and Laura look a bit lost. “It’s absolutely incredible,” Laura says. “No doubt why India is known as the most colourful country in the world,” says Jeremy who is a student of designing. They bargain a bit before picking up exquisite embroidered Ari Tari cloth for their families back in the UK.

While Pankaj gets busy in picking up his share too, a curious Yash Karan Singh approaches me. On learning that we are journalists, he invites us to his haveli nearby which he is turning into a hotel. “It’s the same story here for most of the old havelis. We need to keep the show running and tourism is the most important source of income for these havelis,” he says. We learn that his ancestors served at the court of Jaipur King.

The haveli near Ramganj Chaupar is about 280 years old and it is getting renovated. Yash Karan says he has been trying to restore the haveli as it used to be. “Earlier royals visited this building. Now for us the guests are the royals and we want to make them feel so,” he says. Indeed, the ornate interiors of the haveli — chandeliers, paintings, designer doors and teak wood furniture — give us the feel that we are inside a palace of yore.

Our final stop, as we had decided, is a famous sweet shop in Johari Bazaar. The sweet shop has been running since 1727 and is known for varieties of Rajasthani sweets, especially the famous Ghevar. While this traditional disc-shaped sweet is associated with the festival of Teej, there can be no reason not to relish it at other times of the year. And if one is interested to explore beyond the sweets, there is the option for trying out the typical Rajasthani meal comprising dal, bati and churma.

A Rajasthani Thali at Laxmi Mishtan Bhandar, Johari Bazaar, Jaipur old city.
Photo by Biswadip Mitra
Soon we learn how to combine the three and feel satisfied. But then that story of gastronomic delight is to be kept for another day.