As the lid was lifted off the basket, the serpent's head wove upwards, beady unblinking eyes cautiously alert and hood flaring out in a defensive display. The head continued to weave in time with the haunting tones of the pungi, a curious wind instrument made from a gourd. The snake charmer was clad in a garish orange shirt with carefully coordinated orange, red and green material coiled around his head in a photogenic turban. He lifted the venomous snake from its basket and proceeded to wrap it around his neck, a seemingly daring stunt until he confided in us that the cobra was in fact completely harmless.
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is also the western point of the Golden Triangle, a popular tourist route linking the city with Delhi and Agra. Founded in 1726 by Maharajah Jai Singh II, who gave his name to the new development, Jaipur is now best known as the Pink City after the old walled city was painted pink in honour of the Prince of Wales who visited in 1876. Although the old town retains its characteristic colour, it's more terracotta than pink. The Pink City is the focus of most tourists' itineraries, however the hills around Jaipur also offer some interesting distractions.
The Pink City
Entering the Pink City, you'll pass through a triple arched gate, covered in the swirling designs and leafy plant motifs common on many historical Indian buildings. Renowned for its shopping opportunities, you'll find the shops carefully divided into distinct areas. In the bazaars you may see clusters of shops full of bangles, with no other jewellery in sight; neat piles of spices; or overflowing sacks of dried red chillies in such quantities to make passersby cough and sneeze, while the shopkeepers remain unaffected. On the street of repair shops you'll see mechanics up to their elbows in grease surrounded by piles of spare parts, whilst steaming cauldrons of dye are carefully tended outside the row of textile shops.
“Can I ask you a question?” is an opening line you will hear a lot, rapidly followed by “Why won't foreigners stop and talk to us?” The obvious answer is because any friendly chat inevitably ends with a sales pitch. After insisting that this is definitely not their intention, you will almost certainly be invited to peruse their wares.
Jaipur's City Palace
The cluster of buildings forming the City Palace sport scalloped arches and intricately carved marble screens. Many house museum collections including previous Maharajahs' clothing and an armoury. Over 14,000 coins were melted down to produce the two enormous urns on display in the central pavilion. With a capacity of 4,000 litres each they are the largest silver objects in the world. The Maharajah used the urns to bring holy water from the Ganges with him when he visited London.
Peacock Door, City Palace
The highlight of the City Palace is Pritam Chowk, a courtyard with four elaborate gateways, each representing a different season. The small brass doors are surrounded by marble frames and colourful flowing patterns of leaves and flowers. Each lintel is topped with a small statue of a Hindu deity. The Vishnu statue on the autumn gate is surrounded by three dimensional royal blue peacocks, their tails fanned out behind them in a grandiose display. From the courtyard, you get a clear view of the non-conforming yellow building that towers over the rest of the complex. The Rajasthani Royal family still reside here with the rooftop flag indicating when the Maharajah is at home.
Next to the palace, you'll find an impressive sandstone structure, with each of the 5 storeys adorned with rows of tiny windows, jali screens and layered domes. The Hawa Mahal, Palace of Winds, was built purely as a facade so the ladies of the palace could watch what was happening in the street below, without being seen themselves. Venture inside to appreciate the stained glass that bathes the rooms in a rainbow of colour.
Take some time to explore nearby Jantar Mantar, a bizarre collection of gigantic astronomical measuring devices built by Maharajah Jai Singh II. One of five identically named observatories in India, the garden is filled with multiple sundials and instruments designed to measure the exact positions of celestial bodies. The most impressive, probably due to its size, is the Samrat Yantra, a 27 metre tall, narrow wedge shaped structure, complete with decorative arches and dome, which rests across the centre of a semicircular base forming an unusual but extremely accurate sundial.
Where to Eat in Jaipur?
If you're feeling hungry, leave the Pink City through the Ajmeri Gate and head west along MI Road. You'll find several decent restaurants interspersed with the ever popular lassiwalas, who specialise in lassi, a refreshing creamy yoghurt based drink usually available in sweet or salted varieties. Some are made with ice though so be sure to check before ordering. Mohan's Classic Restaurant behind Ganpati Plaza shopping centre serves a good selection of vegetarian meals and reassuringly large naan. Their Dum Aloo Kashmiri, potato stuffed with Indian cheese and smothered in a spicy tomato sauce is particularly good .
Sundial, Jantar Mantar
The locals you'll meet in Jaipur are a very mixed bag. Standing on the kerb studying several lanes of tuk tuks, carts and camels frantically vying for every available space, you may be joined by friendly old men, happy to chat or lament about the difficulty of crossing the road as you achieve this daunting task together. Young kids on the other hand may open with “Hello! Give us chocolate.” Refuse and you may receive a childish punch before they run off. Despite the variable encounters with the locals, the historic centre of Jaipur is packed with interesting sights, sounds, smells and even the odd snake charmer.
How to Get to Jaipur?
By Train: Jaipur is well served by trains from Delhi, Agra, Jodhpur and a number of other Indian cities.
By Bus: It is possible to take a bus from Delhi or Agra to Jaipur. Bus travel in India is notoriously risky due to the number of accidents.
By Plane: You can fly to Jaipur from several Indian cities. There are also international flights from Abu Dhabi, Bangkok and Singapore. Jaipur Airport is around 15 km from central Jaipur. From the airport take a bus, taxi or auto rickshaw into town.