Jaipur assaults. Perhaps an unworthy remark considering I voluntarily return to the city time and again like a bad but rolling penny, but it is impossible to not be jolted at the teeming masses thronging the narrow roads of the old city — the once carefully planned pink city, which of course didn’t anticipate either the boom in population or its citizens’ capacity to acquire numerous large cars to jostle alongside buses, auto rickshaws and 3,500 cycle rickshaws (number supplied by disgruntled taxi driver after a close shave — no claim on accuracy), besides, of course, the pedestrians that spill well off the pavements into the roads.
And yet, I return, willingly sucked back into that vortex of humanity — there are after all reasons for the masses thronging there, living there, tourists flocking there...
On my first visit and a few subsequent visits to Jaipur, I did what good tourists do, and should do — I did the textbook tour of the city and a grand city it is...from fort to palace to haveli to shop...and so on. Most people know the list, many have trodden the same paths, but frequent trips back have taught me that there is always something more, waiting to be discovered, or something new.
I asked a bunch of Jaipurians (some by birth, several by choice) whether they thought Jaipur or Joypur (to borrow from a friend who would not elaborate his reasons — each one has his own I guess) was a small town or a big city. Big city with small town values was the closest summing up in their books...but still a city that could surprise.
If you’ve been there, you’ve done the Amber fort but in the recent past, there is a wonderful light-and-sound show — at 7pm in English and 8pm in Hindi. And if you are in the area, it would be a shame to not venture into the sleepy Amber village past a silent, old stepwell and visit the Anokhi museum, a testament to the art of block printing.
Further behind the Amber hills is Dera Amer, which provides off-the-beaten-track activity — elephant, horse and camel safaris in the jungle — they also cater group meals and provide tented accommodation but all this obviously comes at a price. And in the keenness to get to Amber, the Kanak Brindavan gardens and Krishna Temple on the Delhi road often get bypassed. Just as the Sisodia Gardens and the Galta Monkey temple do, on the Agra highway.
Past the Amber, Jaigarh and Navalgarh forts, across from the Trident Hotel is the Jal Mahal, that for many long years lay abandoned and neglected in a dirty and rather smelly lake. Well, the lake stinks no more and the pleasure palace shall once again please — it will shortly (within the next three months) open to the public. I got a sneak preview — my lips are sealed — but it will be well worth the row across the lake!
Further down the road, just past the Zorawar Singh gate, is one of my preferred jewellery shops — Jewel ‘n’ Arts — in this city that can boast of hundreds, probably thousands, besides the obvious grand Gem Palace, established Tholia’s and innovative Amrapali, all on M.I. Road. This most principal of roads is also where you will find the famed old Lassiwalla (the lassi is delicious but practically a meal by itself), the famed Nero’s restaurant with as good a roast chicken as a rogan josh, Handi, that grew from a popular dhaba into a trendy city restaurant but still serves the same seekh kababs and various other shops and eateries.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To get to M.I. from Amber, you would first have to cross the old city, the City Palace and museum and several gates. Don’t just drive past the Albert Hall Museum as I sadly did — it’s also had a facelift recently and has a completely eclectic collection ranging from a donated Egyptian collection (including a real non-live mummy) to figurines by local artists including a ‘Rajasthani woman fending off robbers’ featuring an enraged woman with a sword and several beheaded louts, and other such gems. I believe the museum also has a sweet little café now to provide respite from all this gore. Pay attention to the pillars — each one is individually crafted and somewhere, as due credit, the artist’s name has been engraved, a first in a city where artisans were generally just clubbed into a working group. Kudos, Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob.
If it’s your first visit to Jaipur, a visit to Hawa Mahal is mandatory but you can also seize the moment to stock up on your camel leather jootis and lac bangles in the adjoining shops. Also mandatory is a stop at LMB in Johri Bazaar for a good, solid Rajasthani meal or the much-touted sweetmeats. If your tastes incline towards Jaipuri churans and suparis, you should beat your way to J.D. & Sons, where you could also stock up on your bandhni collection at Bapu Bazaar.
Mind you, besides the old, famed, original and by appointment to the Queen establishments that are a standard, the ‘where to do what’ is always a personalised recommendation and not everyone agrees — it might initially seem odd that market streets seem devoted to rows and rows of one kind of goods only — hardware, silver, household ware, etc. But they all have booming business because they’ve cultivated their preferred and preferring customers. Friends living in the same area each have their favourite vegetable stand or butcher.
All the brand shops that either originated or sourced by expanding on the local arts and crafts and designed them into new, innovative must-have ‘ethnic chic’ are aggressively present in Jaipur and with the largest spread of choice, like the well-loved Anokhi with its signature designs (with a delightful Anokhi café next door with vegetarian, mostly organic, mainly western, light meals, snacks and gob-smacking desserts). Anokhi aside, there’s of course Fabindia, Cottons, Soma, Suruchi, Nayika...
The much famed blue pottery of Jaipur was invented by Kripal Singh — he passed away last year but daughter Meenakshi runs the residence and studio, with its kilns in the yard, where you can also buy original designs.
If none of this whets your appetite, back to food — Four Seasons for pure veg multi-cuisine meals, Spice Court on Jacob’s Road in Civil Lines for great locale of sprawling lawns and its kheema bhatti and junglee maas, Mohan Bagh in Narain Niwas for its lal maas, Chokhi Dhani for the complete Rajasthan tourism experience replete with performers and artisans...
One of the small town aspects of the city might seem to be its lack of cool hangouts or watering holes but it is not entirely bereft of choices. While the once booming Steam nightclub in the sprawling Rambagh hotel grounds may have become a sedate and somewhat expensive cocktail and dinner place (with still great wood-fired pizzas), B2B at Country Inns & Suites is still reeling in the younger, spirited souls on to the dance floor, and Tablu, the open rooftop restaurant and bar at the hotel Clark’s Amer not only has great layout and ambience, it often has live music and music festivals. And there’s always loud old-timer familiar music and louder conversation at Henry’s in Park Prime.
Jaipur gets tourists — in droves, by and large in the winter season. And oversold as it may be as a destination, there seems to be room for more. Besides all the fancy and super-fancy hotels, are the mushrooming guesthouses which are, more often than not, family-run concerns. It’s a little difficult to believe that Bani Park, home to many of these converted havelis, was a hunting ground for deer a mere 60 years ago and that most of the converted villas were ‘country’ homes to royalty.
Not too difficult to believe if you take a leisurely walk in Central Park with its broad walking avenue skirting the perimeter, around undulating lawns where you often have open-air free concerts, or the polo field which obviously draws many enthusiasts — all of it once playgrounds for erstwhile royalty.
While you often have bunches of havelis jostling each other in popular neighbourhoods, they each have their signature differences or quirky tenor. Umaid Bhawan and Mahal — sister properties — both have a profusion of colour and reference to every kind of art, sculpture or memory of anything remotely Rajasthani to the point of gaping astonishment, but the same exuberance in décor is repeated in the unflagging enthusiasm and energy of the family towards sustaining their hospitality. In the many-roomed mansion of Shahpura House, with its grandiose darbar hall, I had the felicity of sleeping in a four-poster bed that had once bedded kings — I slept extremely well. Madhuban is a more sedate and contained guesthouse, charmingly tucked away into a verdant garden with neatly built up floors and terraces and an enclosed pool, a quiet and most comfortable getaway. And entirely different in character, in Civil Lines, is Barwara Kothi, an old stalwart-of-a-distinguished-past colonial villa, also family-run, with only seven, but large, tastefully appointed rooms looking out on to expansive lawns.
There are, of course, myriad more choices, old favourites — there’s Narain Niwas where you also get a lovely, large pool, a fully kitted spa and the colourful ‘Hot Pink’ shop with local designer label wear, there’s Diggi Palace whose lawns and darbar are also host to the Jaipur Literature Festival and several other joyous seasonal events (and there are many in the year), the reasonable, practical Arya Niwas, the charming Loharu House, the delightful Alsisar Haveli, but you finally have to stop somewhere for the night — and once you have, most regular visitors, after a bit of dabbling, choose their abode and swear allegiance, much like other visitors choose the carats and facets of glittering diamonds, pretty much like the local resident chooses his sabziwala.
Antique value any car enthusiasts? Would you like an in-depth guided tour of a vintage car workshop? By appointment only — write to jaipurvintage email@example.com at least three days before you plan to visit. Once the appointment is confirmed, the organisers send a map for the location and coordinate time and meeting place. Genuine enthusiasts are preferred; groups are of maximum five people. Rs 500 for a tour of approximately one hour.
By train: The Ajmer Shatabdi from Delhi is your best bet (Rs 494 on CC) — it leaves at 6am in the morning and gets you there before 11am, so you have the rest of the day to explore the city.
By road There are daily buses from Delhi run by Rajasthan State Road Transport from Bikaner House (011-23383469) near India Gate. The 4.5-hour trip from Delhi to Jaipur on NH8 costs about Rs 500 (for deluxe buses).
By air: All major airlines including Kingfisher, Air India and Jet Airways have flights on the Delhi-Jaipur circuit (from Rs 2,500). There are regular flights from Mumbai as well (from Rs 2,500).
It’s easy to get around in Jaipur. Rickshaws and autos ply short distances, but remember to fix the fare before you take one. A 1.5km ride from the railway station to Bani Park (that has a clutch of mid-range hotels) costs about Rs 25. For sightseeing, ask your hotel to arrange a taxi for you (Rs 1,200-1,500 for eight hours).
Where to stay
Jaipur has several well-run heritage hotels and havelis, and not all of them have prohibitive tariffs. Shahpura House (from Rs 3,500; 0141-2202293, www.shahpurahouse.com), the family home of the erstwhile rulers of the Shekhawat clan that now doubles up as a hotel, is an excellent place to book into. Other heritage options include Narain Niwas Palace Hotel (from Rs 3,600; 2561291, www.hotelnarainniwas.com), Barwara Kothi (from Rs 3,500; 2222796, www.barwarakothi.com), Loharu House (from Rs 3,600; 2225251), Alsisar Haveli (from Rs 3,025; 2368290, www.alsisarhaveli.com), Diggi Palace (from Rs 1,700; 2373091, www.hoteldiggipalace.com) and Hotel Umaid Bhawan and Mahal (from Rs 2,400; 2316184, www.umaidbhawan.com). Also consider Hotel Madhuban (from Rs 1,600; 2200033, www.madhuban.net) or Arya Niwas (from Rs 800; 2372456, www.aryaniwas.com).
Where to shop
Jewellery: Take a rickshaw ride to M.I. Road and ask for directions to Amrapali (2362768), Tholia Gems and Jewels (2372790) or The Gem Palace (2363061). Or head to Jewel ‘n’ Arts (2633708) on Amber Road, near the Zorawar Singh gate. FABRICS For Sanganeri-print or tie-and-dye clothes, duvets or linen, make your way to Riddhi Siddhi Textiles (2633134), Neerja International Inc. (2224395), Anokhi (4007244/45), Ratan Textiles (2222778), Soma (2222778) or Hot Pink (5108932). The Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing at Khedi Gate, Amber (2530226) is another great place to shop for textiles. Also explore shops in Bapu Bazaar. OTHERS For souvenirs, visit Kripal Kumbh between Collectorate and Shiv Circle, to buy pieces of glazed blue pottery. For supari and churan, head to J.D. & Sons, Bapu Bazaar. Pick up jootis and lac bangles from the rows of shops next to Hawa Mahal, and silver and precious stones from Johri Bazaar.
Where to eat & drink
Tourists and locals jostle to fill their plates with theth Rajasthani fare, including a large variety of sweetmeats, at LMB or Lakshmi Mishtanna Bhandar in Johri Bazaar. Four Seasons for vegetarian multi-cuisine (in C-Scheme area), Little Italy for vegetarian Italian dishes (in C-Scheme area), Nero’s for roast chicken (on M.I. Road), Handi for seekh kababs (M.I. Road), Talk of the Town (Bani Park) for takeaway roomali rolls, Lassiwala (M.I. Road — the locals are divided over the two Lassiwala shops on the same road, but we think they are both equally good), Rawat for pyaaz kachoris and mirchi vada (Station Road) and Kallu’s dhaba (Ramganj) are the other places to try. The Anokhi Café (Civil Lines) and Mohan Bagh (Narain Niwas Palace Hotel) where they only serve dinner, also come well-recommended. If you’re a first-time visitor to the city, you should certainly set aside an evening to drive to Chokhi Dhani (www.chokhidhani.com).
And while there’s practically no nightlife in the city, things are changing, thanks to the steady stream of tourists who look for a watering hole after a long day in the sun. Tablu at the Clarks Amer Hotel, B2B at Country Inns & Suites in Bani Park, and Henry’s at Park Prime Hotel near Statue Circle are three places you can unwind in.
What to see & do
Unless you absolutely must (because you’ve seen it a million times already), don’t skip the trip to Hawa Mahal. This rather unusual, five-storey palace with honeycombed, sandstone jharokhas, domes and roofs, has a windblown charm about it.
Also, watch Jaipur spread itself out from Amber fort. It’s a steep climb up, so if you’d rather not walk, either take an elephant ride (bargain hard, though) or drive up from the rear side of the fort.
Explore the winding lanes of the walled city on foot and do a tour of the City Palace with its sprawling lawns and gardens. Follow through with a visit to Johri and Ramganj Bazaars, to pick up jewellery and leather merchandise.
The quirky Jantar Mantar — the largest and the best-preserved of the five observatories that Sawai Jai Singh II built, with its utterly fascinating collection of complex astronomical instruments, could be your next stop.
You could also visit the Albert Hall Museum in Ram Niwas Garden that was modelled on the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
You could also do the rounds of the various havelis, especially the Nattani ki Haveli with its seven courtyards, overlooking Chhoti Chaupar.
Take an elephant or camel safari at Dera Amer (2228468, www.deraamer.com) — a camp at the foothills of the Aravali. In fact, the Rajput family that runs the property even organises elephant polo matches that you can watch; or if you’re feeling brave, swing a polo club too.
If you are a hoarder of block-printed Jaipuri duvets, and are interested in the history of textiles, you must go to the excellent Anokhi Museum (2530226, 2531267, www.anokhi.com) in Amber village (near Bihariji Temple).
Take some time out to visit the Kagzis or papermakers in Sanganer (14km from Jaipur). While you’re there, you could also see the 10th-century Digamber Jain Temple.