The capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur is not only the gateway to the state, it is also the most natural place to begin a discovery of Rajasthan's multifaceted attractions. For visitors unfamiliar with its history, a little explanation may be necessary, since it will aid their understanding of one of the most fascinating cities of India.
As a city, Jaipur is fairly young, less than three centuries old. It was laid out by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of the Kachchawaha dynasty from Amber which, less than 10 km away, was the former capital of the state. Markets and residential areas have bridged this gap so that, for all practical purposes, Jaipur includes Amber within its sway.
Like most Rajput kings, the Kachchawahas claim descent from the noble line of Shri Rama, the prince-hero whose exploits are the subject of the great Hindu epic, the Rama-yana. If one were to zip through history to arrive in the 10th century, it would bring us face to face with DholaRai whose throne at Narwar (close to Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh) was usurped by his uncle. However, the royal prince was welcomed as a bridegroom into the feudal principality of Dausa, close to Amber, and he soon made himself at home, even claiming the right to rule. His son, who accepted the hospitality of the Mina tribesmen of Amber, betrayed it similarly and established the foundations of a dynasty that was to become renowned for its power and wealth. In more recent times, the Jaipuris, as they were called, came to represent the glamorous face of princely India, and were the cynosure of the media in Western society.
Having won themselves their kingdom, the Kachchawahas strengthened their stronghold through strategic matrimonial alliances with the Mughals who ruled over much of India from their forts at Delhi and Agra. Though their faiths were different, it established a sense of kinship between the more powerful Mughals and the valiant Kachchawahas, and laid the foundation for a similar relationship with other Rajput states.
The Mughals still occupied Delhi when Jai Singh, hardly a man yet when he was anointed maharaja of Amber, was taken to meet Emperor Aurangzeb who, as a conservative Muslim, had spent little time befriending his Hindu neighbours. Grasping Jai Singh's hands in his own, Aurangzeb asked him: "How do you expect to be powerful with your hands tied thus?" Jai Singh was quick-witted, and replied: "Just as a bridegroom takes his bride's hands following their betrothal, in a sacred vow to protect her, so you, Sire, have held my hands. What do I fear now that the Mughal himself has taken my hands in his?" Aurangzeb was pleased and immediately granted the young prince the hereditary title of 'Sawai' placing the Kachchawaha family a 'quarter' above the other Rajput families.
But the Mughal was ageing. He had no strong successors. Towards the east, the British were eroding the existing power structure from their capital in Calcutta. The north, however, after several centuries of invasions and rife, was quiet. Jai Singh seized the opportunity to pamper himself with a new capital. Moving out of the hilltop Amber, he descended to the plains below, and planned a modern capital with a Bengali architect, Vidyadhar, whose instinct for planning he trusted implicitly.
Jaipur has been laid according to the conventional nine-grid pattern that astrologers believe to be lucky, and which has been recommended in the ancient Indian treatise on architecture. Each grid consists of a square, and these have been planned so that, at the heart of the city is the City Palace. Spread around it, in rows, are public buildings, the residences of noblemen, the living and trading quarters of merchants and artisans. Straight, wide roads run through the city, while a high, crenellated wall that forms its defense is pierced with seven gateways that serve as entry points. Today, these walls may be more difficult to spot since the city has grown far beyond its original plan, but they are still there, proof that though Jaipur saw no great siege, it was more than adequately prepared for it.
Vidyadhar was a strict planner and even the drawings for private residences and trading establishments had to be submitted to his stringent gaze, and meet with his approval. This is the reason for the striking similarity in the facades of the buildings in even the bazaars of the old city, though it is a myth that he was also responsible for the uniform colour, labelled Indian pink. This has given Jaipur its euphemistic name, Pink City. However, the reason for the autumnal colours on the facades of all old city buildings was a forthcoming trip by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1876 for whom the capital was being decorated. It was decided to paint the entire city white for the occasion, but eventually the pink was chosen because it came closest to the colour of sandstone which many of the buildings were made. To date, the tradition of painting the buildings pink has continued, though with the highlights picked out in white.
Having outgrown the original nine grids, Jaipur has spread in all directions, but its market areas are still characterised by streets and areas where work of a certain kind is found. For example, there is a separate street for marble-workers, and another textiles, or for jewellery.
Jaipur's architectural planning may have been ancient, but its execution was definitely modern. Best represented by the City Palace complex, it brought together all that was excellent in Rajput and Mughal architecture, creating a new tradition that found wide currency over much of north India. As in the Mughal tradition, the durbar or court areas became much more open, characterised by a series of arched pavilions held on delicately crafted pillars. Ornamentation had always been a part of the state's architectural heritage, now it became much more opulent. The private wings of the family also extended their entertainment areas. Since defence was no longer a primary concern, larger, more ornamental windows were built to over look the streets or courtyards outside these wings. Gardens were no longer planned within the internal courtyards only, but were added to the external vistas, and water, a basic feature of Mughal palaces and gardens, was utilised in a similar fashion, in canals and fountains.
Some of these experiments had begun at Amber itself, in the palaces that were its more recent additions. A major distinguishing feature of the Mughal palaces was the use of marble and pietradura inlay. Amber and Jaipur used marble more judiciously, but were able to achieve the same effect on polished wall surfaces using a mixture of lime and eggshell, in a style that was referred to as araish. Rather than stone inlay, it preferred the delicate art of painting, especially religious and historical sequences, the depiction of which is forbidden in Islamic art. The concept of the Sheesh Mahal or 'Palace of Mirrors', however, was equally favoured in both architectural traditions: it consists of small, even sized mirrors used to embellish all surfaces so that, when a match is lit in the darkened room, its flame bounces off then giving millions of reflections.
Such ostentation, however, was usually limited, and good taste was evident in the manner in which the walls were painted, or the pierced windows placed. Amber represents the early phases of Kachchawaha architecture. The foundations of the fort were laid in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh. Seen from the outside, the fortifications are impressive. Coming upon it when entering or exiting Jaipur, it makes one gasp, but it must have sent a chill up the spine of its foes. A steep ramp leads to Jai Pol, the Gate of Victory, named after Jai Singh I. Today, elephants carry tourists up the ramp, but it is not difficult to imagine pennant carrying armies setting off on horseback along this majestic path.