When seen anew - Jaipur. Published in 'Sunday Herald, Deccan Herald' on 11th December, 2016

Why Jaipur? It’s hot, crowded and repetitive. Everybody has been to Jaipur and Jaipur has been to every city with its bed sheets, handlooms, puppets and mirror-embroidered bags. We were in Jaipur to confirm our belief that done-to-death destinations could still be enjoyable and throw up many pleasant surprises.

Like the Chand Baori at Abhaneri — one of Rajasthan’s hidden gems. Both, the taxi driver and the hotel desk, were surprised by our desire to visit Chand Baori. “You will have to leave very early. There is not much to see. You must leave from there by 3 pm. The place is haunted.” Much was said to discourage us, but a photograph that was seen ages ago provided the impetus. 

Driving on the very impressive Jaipur-Delhi highway, through a state-of-the-art tunnel, we almost missed the turning to Abhaneri, a tiny village, 95 kilometres from Jaipur. A kaccha road, no broader than a strip, brought us to a stone threshold, which we entered with some skepticism. Before us was Chand Baori, one of the most beautiful and spectacular stepwells (baori). A quadrangle chiselled out of stone, going to a depth of 20 metres (64 feet), Chand Baori was built almost a thousand years ago by Raja Chand of the Pratihara clan.

A total of 3,400 steps on three sides of the quadrangle run in the most symmetric geometric design in a play of light and shade, to make diamond-shaped patterns. The fourth side of the well, which presumably held the pulley, is embellished with jharokhas and ornate designs that are typical of Rajasthan. The well was initially used to store and replenish groundwater in the arid climate of Rajasthan. Much later, the raja had cornices and chambers built along the fourth wall from where he could enjoy the full-moon nights, since the reflection of the moon in the water deep was said to create an ethereal effect. 

Stepwell on screen

Chand Baori is sheer poetry in stone and a lasting testimony to human ingenuity and perseverance. It left us quite dizzy and speechless. Sadly, Chand Baori’s claim to fame come not from its spectacular architecture and aesthetics, but from the fact that some of the most disturbing scenes from the movie The Dark Knight Rises were shot there, as also some portions of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Bhool Bhulaiyaa!

The Amber Fort, another done-to-death tourist attraction, threw up some great ‘I-never-knew-moments’ thanks to Sharma, an articulate and well-informed government-certified guide.

From telling us that the traditional offering during aarti in the Shila Mata Temple (around which the fort was built) is a bottle of wine to the revelation that the marble walls and columns inside the fort were not made out of marble, Sharma hit the ground running. So, what hordes of tourists down the ages assumed to be marble was actually an amalgam of rice flour and Bengal gram dal fermented in water that’s drained from vegetable dyes. More evidence of the ingenuity and skill of the artisans and craftsmen came from the paintings on the walls and ceilings that were coloured with dyes made by crushing precious and semi-precious stones and gold dust. These paintings looked like inlaid designs and shone not when light fell on them, but when light did not fall on them!

The rooms of the fort were air-conditioned by a simple arrangement of water falling on a sloping gradient that had vents on either side that let in air. This air, cooled by the water, blew into the chambers of the palace while the water emptied into a glass-covered channel, from where it flowed out into the garden to water it. That is environment-friendly air-conditioning with nary a trace of a carbon footprint and optimum use of water. 

The Diwan-E-Khas, also known as Sheesh Mahal, was constructed because the ladies were not allowed to go out into the open, but one of the queens wanted to see the stars. So Raja Man Singh imported Belgium glass, which his artisans cut and laid on the ceilings and walls in such a way that a single flame would light up a 100 tiny images that looked like stars.

Adjoining the Sheesh Mahal was the maharaja’s winter room, a chamber that had a second set of doors positioned in such a way that when lamps were placed at the four corners and the inner doors shut, it was enveloped in warmth. Lofty ceilings in the bathroom ensured adequate ventilation when roaring fires in huge pits boiled water in gigantic copper pots. Similar lofty ceilings ensured adequate circulation and ventilation in the secret tunnel that went from Amber Fort to Jaigarh Fort.

Artistry blended with functionality and physics in the kitchen in the form of huge spider-shaped stands that supported cavernous cauldrons. The fort was meant to be a trip down history, but it ended up being a class in physics, chemistry and geography. Yet, all this is not common knowledge. What is common knowledge is the fact that K Asif filmed the famous song ‘Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ on Madhubala (Mughal-E-Azam) in Sheesh Mahal, Jodha Akbar was shot here, and Jackie Chan was shooting there right now.

Historical monument 

The sight and show at Jantar Mantar, although a bit tacky, provided a wealth of insight into the foresight, intelligence and prudence of the Jaipur rulers, who chose to call a truce with the Mughals and yet retain their identity, following their own customs, traditions and culture. It spoke of an enlightened astronomer king who went beyond elephants and palaces, and invested a lot of time and effort in town planning and citizens’ welfare.

There were many more revelations, some legends, others, hidden facts — like the reason behind Jaipur being called the Pink City. When King Albert and Queen Victoria came on a visit, Sawai Man Singh painted the city pink — the colour of hospitality, prompting King Albert to name it so. Even today, the government gets the city painted pink during Deepavali.

Jaipur did not disappoint. The heat, the colour, the crowds, the vibrancy, the vitality, the handlooms and handicraft, the good-natured conning by shopkeepers who effectively badger you into buying things you don’t need, the food and the thali feasts that you succumb to, the history and the heritage — Jaipur has it all, neatly packed and brilliantly presented. And yes, for those who scratch the surface, there is another Jaipur — ancient, enduring, and maybe even scientific.

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