Arriving in by an early train I had the chance to experience fully the Indian rail network. With such a large population and a railway craze no doubt inherited from the British the network covers the length and breadth of the country and all administered by 1.4 million employees of one of the world’s biggest employers – Indian Railways.
As a Maharaja what length does one go to impress a visit from the future king and Prince of Wales in 1876 – well by painting the entire centre of town pink. From this we get the pink city and the effect is striking to this day.Walking through the centre of town there is nothing but a riot of colour, noise and sensation – from cows down in the bicycle shop area getting spare chapatti bread from the owners or the neon-red dye for marking forehead, it’s all ablaze.
In the centre of town is the city palace where the Maharajas to this day live in a separate quarter of the compound. Before independence India was a hodge-podge of kingdoms and areas ruled by the British in one form or another. That these royal families managed to hold on to their fiefdoms, if not the executive power, after the declaration of the Republic and all the way up until 1971 is remarkable.The current Maharaja is 18 and studying in England at Millfield school – an expensive fee paying institution which focuses on sporting excellence. I had played chess there as a teenager and their facilities were second-to-none. He enjoys playing polo which goes to show that as times move on some things change and some just don’t!
The maharajas of old really did live a life of spendour and luxury in complete detactment from the lives of ordinary folk at the time – two enormous silver vats were made to carry Ganges water on a visit to London so that the ruler could bathe and use Ganges water even far from home!Just next to the palace is Jantar Mantar which looks like some skateboard cum theme-park. What look like surrealist sculptures are actually 300 year old astronomical and time measuring implements such as solar clocks and observatories for deriving horoscopes.
Unfortunately such a place necessarily is completely exposed to the sun and in the middle of the day we didn’t have that much ability to scrutinise the workings of the various instruments but did manage to verify the timings on the solar clock to know it was 13.39 and far too hot to be out much longer.Myself and Leire, who I met in Delhi nipped into a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant Ganesh for some delicious veggy food. Up in the hills behind the city sits the old royal home in days gone by where security was paramount – the Amber fort. Perched atop a craggy bluff in the landscape with snaking walls on the ridgetops all around it was designed to be functional but also palatial. Myself Leire and Noah, an aussie on his way to do NGO work in Hebron hopped on the 29 bus with the locals and were there a bumpy 20 minutes later.
Our guide whisked us around the mirrored and intricately carved audience halls, through the steam bath hammam and then to the courtyard where the Kings 12 queens each had an apartment adjoining.
The layout was such that the King could visit any of them without the others knowing. The guide mentioned that the central courtyard was where the women would mingle and/or fight and casually tacked on ‘because women being women’. Leire had to take a deep intake of breath and put it down to a translation difference!
Around the corner was a lovely find which we could have easily missed had we headed straight back to the city – an ancient step-well where local men were swimming in the heat of the day.
It was tempting watching them jump from a 10 metre high platform into the cooling water until one completely belly flopped with a loud bang – adding one more hue to the pink city!