Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
The peacock is the national bird of India, and our hotel, the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur, has several of them running around freely on the property. They are not only beautiful, even though it is early in the year and their annual “plumage” has not grown yet, but, as I found out quickly, they are quite chatty and do enjoy a good conversation, sometimes right outside the window of our ground level suite. Good thing we have an ample supply of ear plugs with us.
Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, the biggest state in India and a state which did not exist before the independence of India in 1947. The “land of the kings” (translation of Rajasthan) was put together as a state by the merger of 22 kingdoms of the Rajputs, historically a clan of famous warriors, as part of a negotiated deal to bring these legally independent states into the new India. More than 560 such kingdoms existed in India at the time of independence. As part of the deal made with all those kingdoms across India, the ruling families, the “maharajahs”, were allowed to keep their titles and property and moreover became entitled to receive an annual stipend from India commensurate with their status.
That arrangement lasted until 1971 when Indira Gandhi helped pass a constitutional amendment which abolished the titles, the stipends and most of the property rights of the former maharajahs, save for a few grand-fathered exceptions.
While the maharajahs of Rajasthan lived in incredible luxury, the same cannot be said of the rest of the population. The status of the women in Rajasthan was and is known to be an issue. We were able to see that for ourselves when I asked our guide why all the road construction crews we passed by were made up entirely of hard-working women being supervised by an idle man. Moreover, the literacy rate in the state, which stood at a hard-to-believe 8% at the time of independence (it has improved significantly since then), still stands below the average for the country.
Jaipur, called the “Pink City” since its inhabitants painted the town pink to welcome the Prince of Wales in 1878 and forgot to wash it off after he left (?), is an excellent city to admire the wealth of a maharajah.
Our first step was to get an “overview” (pun intended) of Jaipur by taking an early morning hot air balloon ride over the city. The balloon ride company was at least as professional as the one we had used to fly over the Serengeti in Tanzania, and our flight captain, a Spaniard with more than 17 years of experience, inspired total confidence as he maneuvered his balloon for more than an hour over the magnificent landscape of Jaipur.
The balloon flight allowed us to get an unbeatable view of Amber fort and what I call the “Great Wall of India”, the protective ring of walls in the hills surrounding Amber Fort.
We went back to Amber Fort later that morning, using a totally different mode of transportation, an elephant.
Amber Fort proved fascinating to visit to learn about the life of a ruler, who had actually started life as a slave, and the magnificent palace fortress he built for himself. The last major section of the fort, protected by eunuchs and accessible only to the king, is subdivided into 12 separate residential areas, one for each of the king’s 12 queens and each queen’s 12 attendants (concubines). Our guide informed us that, when the king entered that section, each of the 144 women had to retire to her bedroom and stay there until the “all clear” was sounded. Who had received the king’s favors was undeniably the subject of conversation and speculation for the rest of the day.
We next toured the opulent City Palace in the center of Jaipur, part of which is out of bounds to commoners like us as it is still used as a residence by the ex-royal family.
We also visited Jantar Mahar, the king’s impressive personal astronomical observatory.
To divert our minds from all this wealth, we ended the afternoon with an exhausting and fruitless search for the right thing to buy in the bazaars of Jaipur.
Another facet of India to add to our voyage of discovery.
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