I first visited Jaipur in 2014. It was that once-in-a-decade family vacation, and we trekked across the city’s legendary monuments armed with baseball caps and a million water bottles. The pack leader was my mesho (maternal uncle), who ensured we were shuttled from one spot to the other in quick succession. After all, multiple locations meant greater bragging rights. Cut to six years later, and the idea of planning an itinerary beyond the royal circuit was making me chew pen caps. Like many other Indians, I drew a blank when it came to being able to suggest a path for alternative tourism in the city. And so, we took a small trip in December to find the new (or underrated) kids on the block.
Jaipur was one of India’s earliest planned cities, but, as many locals pointed out, it hasn’t required ultra-cosmopolitanism to expand and pull crowds. The monuments were the obvious draw, but since modern-day tourists cover more ground in less time, guides and operators are focusing on niche-yet-cultural experiences that can unravel the Pink City’s many shades—from swanky to solitary to the grassroot arts. Entrepreneurs, too, have begun to funnel the city’s essence into small-yet-perfect buys. If Rajputana was the electric guitar performance, this is the stripped down, acoustic encore.
First-time visitors to Jaipur tend to stick to a 9-to-5 schedule. Might we suggest you start at 7am instead, at the Chandi ki Taksal flower market? A wholesale bazaar of local flowers—some in wild bunches, others in dutiful bouquets—it’s an overwhelming mix of textures and fragrances. Walking through and photographing the blooms is the natural instinct, but do take a closer look at the pieces of cloth they’re carried around in. Lehariya, bandhani, mirror work and bagru prints playfully spar with orchids, lotus and chrysanthemums for attention. Next, dig into breakfast near the Tourist Police station, and start walking towards Hawa Mahal. Your goal? Spotting Teekam Chand Pahari and his 160-year-old ‘memory box’ camera on the footpath. Chand has been making black and white portraits of tourists and royalty since 1977 with his antique Carl Zeiss, a family heirloom and one of the last of its kind in the world. Pick from three image sizes (from INR 200) and watch as Chand gets to work. Want a circular frame? A little more hair on your pate, or a debonair moustache? All that and more is possible with the man’s ingenuity and FX skills. Find him opposite Kadar Bux (before sunset) for an intriguing and historic souvenir.
Nahargarh Fort has seen some experiential updates, the most prominent being the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park. The first of its kind in India, the palace’s nine rooms—one for every queen—and courtyards are now dotted with contemporary installations from around the globe. There’s no directory or recommended path, as you’re meant to meander through the place and discover every piece amid the colourful frescoes. Most of the exhibits are rooted in assertive sociopolitical thought, and you can even hear some from a few metres away. The Jaipur Wax Museum and a modern Sheesh Mahal—with over 2.5million mirrors, we heard—are other new entries.
When in Amer, try and find Sagar Lake. Not the Man Sagar, but a 17th-century reservoir beyond the Anokhi Museum. Most guides from the city will not have heard of it, but locals in Amer (and Google Maps) can point you in the right direction. The lake was once a crucial site, supplying water to forts and connected stepwells. Today, it’s a solitary picnic spot, where visitors stroll the fortified boundary that’s dotted with chhatris (pavilions) and temples. We’re told Sagar dries up now in the summer. Depressing news, but it could make for a curious walk across its bed.
Miniature paintings, with their production time and puritanical specificity, wouldn’t have survived without noble patronage, and the lack of everyday visibility even in 2020 makes it difficult for the best of artists to thrive. In looking for workshops that teach you the craft, our top pick as guru was Ajay Sharma, an award-winning and widely-exhibited painter who specialises in Rajasthani and Mughal miniatures. Sharma is a fierce guardian of the craft, insisting students not just mimic the classical form, but understand every step so that the knowledge they pass on is positively archival. His studio borders a surprisingly distracting location—the railway crossing of Kartarpura Phatak—but once inside, its old tunes and instant zen. See liveminiature.com
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then the tradition that’s received the most praise from this region must be block printing. You can find the design style all across India, sprawled across dupattas, button-ups, curtains and bedsheets, but did you know the original came from just outside Jaipur? Sanganer (30 mins) and Bagru (45 mins) are two villages on the outskirts whose block printing legacy—now GI-tagged—is still going strong. We visited two workshops in Sanganer and watched the Chhipa maestros mixing pigments and imprinting pinned swathes of fabric at assembly-line speed. Purushottam, a veteran, told us that each multi-colour motif—there’s floral, geometric, Mughal-inspired, wild animals—needs specific blocks carved for every shade, and that a large chunk of older villagers are still invested in the trade. The Calico Printers Co-Operative Society is one of the most well-known groups working to organise and honour the craft in Sanganer. If you’d like to visit, learn and pick up some fabrics, call them at +91-9314883127.
Sanganer’s story is part of the current exhibition at the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing. Set in the shadow of the Amer Fort, the museum building was once known as Chanwar Palkiwon ki Haveli, its crumbling skeleton rebuilt (dare we say, block by block) to become a hub for the conservation of regional hand block printing. The permanent galleries showcase processes, patterns, dyes and complex blocks from across India, alongside use in apparel, both modern and vintage. But most entrancing are the demonstration areas (printing plus carving), where indigenous artisans let you have a go. “It’s not as profitable any more, but the company treats us with great respect, much more than the locals. It’s what keeps me going,” said an old printer, as he went back to stamping a pink dupatta.
The Room on the Roof
If 1135AD (make that CE!) is the maharani watching over her kingdom, Baradari is the third-generation princess partying it up in style. The former (INR 2,500 for two) is an opulent old-world restaurant atop the Amer Fort serving North Indian and Rajasthani fare; we went nuts over their goolar kebab (minced lamb, chillies, poppy seed). Eight crests rest alongside select menu items, so you know which royal kitchen to thank for your candlelight dinner. Baradari (INR 2,200 for two) is on the ground level of Jaipur’s City Palace. The new sundowner central, its black-and-gold decor blends two worlds—industrial-style architecture with turbaned staff, thumping bass meeting tasteful furnishings, and laal maas co-existing with quinoa.
Fresh Young Things
The craving for North Indian begins to fade when you realise most restaurants in the city are vegetarian. We didn’t last more than two days, and began the search for trendy new joints that offered experiences beyond the food. Caffé Palladio on JLN Marg is a lovely and laid-back afternoon pick. Intricately designed, the pastel décor is delicate yet vibrant, with vaulted salons opening up to a breezy courtyard and gardens. Try the ‘Palladio Peach’—shaped roughly like a bath bomb—if you loved Call Me By Your Name. Another restaurant that’s quickly rising is Map of Seoul, a BTS and Korean pop culture-themed joint in Nirman Nagar. We had no idea that Hallyu struck Jaipur hard enough for the concept to take off, but since November, the restaurant and café has pulled in fans by word-of-mouth alone. Inquisitive walk-ins stick to European and Indian, while fans go straight for Korean classics like jajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce) and kkwabaegi (twisted doughnuts). For a fun detour, check out The Yellow House next to Raj Mandir Cinema. It’s one of our few robot restaurants, and the ‘server’ Ruby has an amusing Indian accent.
Ethical x Experiential x Elephant
Hathi Gaon was a small village set up by the government so that Jaipur’s many elephants—and their marginalised caretakers— could have a quiet home away from tourists. Most of its 100-plus Asian elephants live in stone enclosures and are still made to ferry tourists, but Elefantastic is an ethical farm that’s trialling something different. All 24 of their gentle giants are rescues who have been given sanctuary three kilometres inside the nearby forest—no visitors allowed—with the animals brought in only for activities like feeding, providing drinking water (you direct a hose straight into their trunk!) and learning the language used by mahouts.
Escape the grit and bustle of the city with two atmospheric properties that are a world of their own. Drive to Civil Lines and ring the bell at 28 Kothi, a five-room guesthouse with meditative gardens, mural-decked reading corners, latticed windows and modern desi accents. Airy and elegant, it’s straight out of an art curator’s Pinterest. The refurbished mansion is connected to the serene Café Kothi outside, where we polished off filter coffee and lamingtons. Anopura is another secluded gem, set an hour outside the main city. Built in the indigenous style with thatched roofing, it offers four individual suites and a villa, private pools, organically-sourced fine dining and local immersion.
For a royal experience that’s authentic yet understated, Srinivas in Kukas is a farmhouse-style private residence owned by the royal family of Jodhpur. Since they still visit this country home, each of the seven large bedrooms are decorated with personal curios. Maharaja Karan Vijay Singh has a fondness for polo, so Srinivas doubles as a stable for their prized thoroughbreds.
A Religious Experience
Galta Ji is an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site built into the Aravallis, famous for its natural springs and constant colony of rhesus macaques. But if you’d rather avoid the crowds, continue the trek up the complex’s hill to reach the white-and-stained-glass Surya Mandir at its summit. A 15-minute hike with an easy incline, reaching the top will reward you with a panorama of Jaipur that’s second to none. No pesky tree branches or telephone wires, and plenty of crisp winds. We did the hike during a gorgeous sunset, the sky turning from lavender to periwinkle as unbothered monkeys, dogs and cows peppered the stony road to the top. You can visit the Surya Mandir—built by Rao Kripa Ram, a royal envoy of Maharaja Jai Singh II—till 7pm everyday.
Something Old, Something New
If you want quality buys that don’t scream ‘souvenir’, then you’ll be pleased to know that many local entrepreneurs now cater to this middle ground. Imlee offers unisex mojaris that integrate traditional art forms like gota patti, zardosi and jaali work, with newer designs bearing soft pashmina vamps and comfy ridged backs to avoid shoebites. And the devil, today, is in the details, as the best-sellers at Kanak Kriti (+91-9929488664; visit by appointment) can tell you. Operating out of a home studio, Vibha Shekhawat’s wildlife-inspired buttons, cufflinks and brooches fuse Rajput and Persian motifs. The most unique piece? A pair of hath phool that can be detached and worn as studs, rings, bracelets and a necklace. If fashion’s not your thing, try finding the building blocks for your kitschy home at Artychoke. This line of furnishings and home décor—from pillow covers to funky trunks—comes with colourful motifs of parrots, lotuses and more.
Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about finding that one decisive moment to make photographs that last a lifetime. But at the Khazane Walon ka Rasta—a sculptor’s lane dedicated largely to fine marble statues—unique subjects keep popping up in every nook and corner. We spotted renditions of austere Jain monks next to mischievous wraiths, stoic maharajas beside sneaky lions, and, we kid you not, a Gandhiji with abs. There seems to be a weird sense of humour and an elegant irreverence floating in the air as the artists hammer away on wide patios.
Our driver, a long-time local, enlightened us that Jaipur’s seen several ‘kachori trends’ where each attempts to outdo the other with one-of-a-kind innovations. After Kota, hing and pyaaz variants, the ankurit (germinated) kachori has been the delicious trendsetter since mid-2019. No one’s sure who created the dish, but we took our first bite at Ankurit Kachori in C Scheme. For INR 12 a pop, this new icon comes topped with sprouted moong, and is served with three sauces: mint-pudina, something chilli, and a sweet, glazy tamarind. Pack at least two per person.
Safari in the Sky
At least half of those visiting Jaipur hope for life-changing royal encounters a la Khoobsurat. Well, here’s the second-best option to slake a flair for the dramatic—hot air balloon rides! Usually setting out at the crack of dawn or right before sunset, these ‘sky safaris’ can last up to three hours. They offer blissful and guided views of the Pink City, forts, palaces and the muted arid landscape, intercut with patchworks of fields and grazing herds. If you’re in town very briefly and need to pull out all the stops (read: in-laws), this is pretty hard to beat. Sky Waltz remains one of the most popular operators, followed by Adventure Nation and Gautam and Gautam Group. Book rides in the winter months for mellow sunlight, pleasant weather, and a postcard-perfect sky.