From Fatepur Sikri to The Pink City

We left behind the dazzle of Hotel Dazzle (just joking), heading for Jaipur, the Pink City. Immediately we enter the modern state of Rajasthan, named after the fierce warrior clans, the rajputs, who rose to prominence around the 10th century with serial conquests of much of India, and persisted in power as vassals through the Mughal and British empires. The origins of the rajputs are in dispute, but they are probably indigenous to the Rajasthan-Gujart region, descended from the distinct Gujara-Pratihara tribes dating perhaps as far back as 500 AD. One rajput ruler appears to have been the first to assume the title maharajadhiraja in 780. Except a brief detour to Delhi, we will be traveling in Rajasthan, through the many J-cities (Jaipur, Jaiselmer, Jodpur) for a couple of weeks.

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After a couple of hours on country roads we arrived in Fatepur Sikri, the hill fortress built by the powerful Mughal emperor Akbar, in celebration of the birth of his son Jahangir in the small town of Sikri in 1569. Concerned about producing an heir, Akbar had sought the intercession of Shaikh Salim Chisti at Sikri, and it was there by chance that Jahangir was born. So in 1571 he began the construction of a new capital in red sandstone, renaming the site Fatepur (city of victory) Sikri. Reflecting Akbar’s deep interest in Indian culture, the extravagant design owes much to Hindu and Jain temple architecture, especially that of Gujarat which Akbar happened to be conquering at that time.

At Fatepur Sikri Akbar plunged into an eclectic investigation of a wide range of contemporary religious thought and practice- the Quranic arguments of Sunni, Shia and Ismali factions, the mystical Sufi, Saiva and Vaishnava sects, the beliefs of wandering ascetics, even Portuguese priests. His search for spiritual perfection evolved into the Din Ilahi ( divine faith), an ideology centred on himself, if not as a god , at least a great visionary.

Akbar’ s transcendental aspirations are perhaps reflected in the spectacular beauty of the fort and palace. As we traveled across India, each temple, palace or fort seemed to outdo the last; certainly Fatepur Sikri was one of the most memorable of all the sites we visited.

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Fatepur Sikri gate, looking down on the town

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The Buland (Lofty) gateway, suggesting a Persian influence

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We pass through to the extensive central courtyard

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to a dais where the Emperor to receive couriers and other visitors

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Some modern visitors

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Details of the elaborate decoration, all in sandstone

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Entrance to the palace proper

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Interior detail, more carved sandstone

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Detail of wall trim

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A massive vault with remains of its mural

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Another badly faded mural

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A mosque, in imported white marble

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Mosque detail

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The rooms of the harem

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A walkway

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Fatepur ‘tank’, an internal reservoir to preserve monsoon rainwater, gathered in a network of drains, through the dry period. A ‘tank’ of some sort, usually quite massive, was a necessary feature of all the forts and palaces, insurance against the dry season and siege as well.

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An adjacent garden

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Lunch at Fatepur, a typical Thali plate with a mix of dal, vegies, etc., before we hit the road again…

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…the road to Jaipur. Along this stretch and others further on, we passed impressive stone-works obviously creating stone decorations for sale. Usually there would be a dozens of these emporiums in a single stretch, handsome stuff.

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And to our hotel, the fabulous Bissau Palace, greeted by the current Rawal of Bissau. The hotel was developed in the 1920s by the then Rawal Raghubir Singhji, from the palace of his ancestor Thakur Shyam Singhi (1772-1830), a regional potentate who reputedly personally murdered three rivals at a feast…we watched our backs in the charming dining room.

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Nestled in a green oasis amid a rundown area of Jaipur, the wonderful décor authenticates the date over the entrance: 1785

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One would expect a stuffy mustached British Bigadier to appear for tea at any moment. Breakfasts were great, the pool wonderful, the bedrooms mindful of a room where a member of the harem would await a visit from the Thakur.

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Not that I have ever been in such a room…ours was more modest, but mindful of a Persian hideaway

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The street just outside the oasis surrounding the Bissau Palace.

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Morning market. Typically the vegetables on display were magnificent in local markets. Here, some fine oriental radishes.

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Other neighbours. These cows are obviously being maintained. It turns out the cows wandering the streets and highways are owned by locals. Sometimes they have prominent brands documenting this ownership. Often the cows (and dogs and pigs) on the streets are part of the local garbage management system. In the morning garbage guys collect stuff into piles in the street for the garbage-eaters to munch on. Sustainable recycling.

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Just around the corner, one of the gates of the Pink City, so called because in 1876 the current Maharaja Ram Singh had the whole town painted pink, traditionally the colour of hospitality, in honour of a vist by the Prince of Wales. (Pinkness is still mandated by municipal law).

In fact the Pink City is the Old City, the original Jaipur, the first planned city in Northern India, begun in 1727. It is named for its founder the rajput Raja Jai Singh, who had earlier donated the site for the Taj Mahal. Its marble came from the Kacchwaha quarries in Rajasthan. His ancestor, the Kacchwaha raja Man Singh, a loyal ally of Shah Jahan, built the nearby Amber Fort. Jaipur remains the capital of the modern Rajasthan state

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Early morning on a main pink street.

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Elaborate pink architecture.

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More pink. The ‘star of David’ at the right is in fact the Shatkona a symbol used in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism that represents the union of  the male and feminine form. Like the Swastika, adopted in a reverse orientation by a more odious bunch, this is a symbol appearing widely over space in time, in varied cultures. Stylistically, it is identical to the Jewish Star of David and the Japanese Kagome crest.

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The ‘Window Palace. It fronts the ancient harem. The windows allowed the otherwise sequestered concubines to look out onto the street, for festivals, or just to alleviate the boredom of it all.

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Mid-day, the pink streets are busier.

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Off we go to the Amber Fort…

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…briefly glimpsed from an alleyway enroute.

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Amber Fort, begun in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, a very successful commander in Akbar’s army, as the capital of the Kacchwaha rajput, a regime that lasted for over 800 years. It was extended by the Jai Singhs before they moved downhill to their new city of Jaipur.

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We entered this massive edifice through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate)…

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…leading into Jaleb Chowk (main courtyard). Here I exercised my great bargaining skill, honed in the horse market at Kashgar on the Silk Road, to beat the price of my fine elephant shoulder bag down to 850 rp. (the boy subsequently offered two for 750 each). The elephants themselves are apparently not well cared for, alas.

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The fine elephant bag, still in regular use for my sojourns Montrealward.

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Off another square, the entrance to the maharaja’s apartments,

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the Ganesh Pol decorated with wonderful frescos. At Amber we had probably our best ever guide, a school teacher ironically filling in for the scheduled guide. In front of this Pol, out of the blistering sun, she tutored us in all sorts of Indian lore, as well as the history of the fort. At one point she interrupted herself to admonish a local boy who ventured too close to our space with his cellphone camera, literally dragging him off by the ear. Must be a great teacher.

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A temple, perhaps the Siladevi.

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A magnificent internal garden in the maharaja’s palace…

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…viewed from the walls above.

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Harem rooms in the background, overshadowed by hopeful clients who arrived much too late.

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Décor detail.

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Silvered ceiling near the harem

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A view of the Jaigarh fort, above the Amber, built by Jai Singh in 1726. It is part of an extensive wall that stretches for many kilometers along a ridge towering above the Amber and the nearby villages.

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A view of the village below, the wall stretching along the ridge and a corner of the huge ‘tank’, Maota Lake.

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Life in the village beneath Amber walls.

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Unlike the cobras on the street below, we were not charmed enough to cough up cash.

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On the way back to Jaipur we stopped to view the Jal Mahal, a summer resort built in 1799 by Madho Singh as a regal summer resort in the lake-like Man Sagar. Being refurbished as a tourist venu.

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Then we toured at length the amazing Jantar Mantar observatory begun by Jai singh in 1728, one of five he built across India to express his passion for astronomy, with expertise gleaned from Europe by his agents. The name is derived from Sanskrit , meaning ‘instrument for calculation’, and this indeed what these remarkable blocks of sandstone do.

This one is the smaller of two Samrat Yantras, sometimes called “Supreme Instrument”,  an equinoctial sundial of enormous proportion. Although one of the simpler instruments, and not too different from sundials which had been developed hundreds of years earlier, the Samrat Yantra is important because it measures time to a precision that had never before been achieved. The larger Samrat Yantra at Jaipur, for example, is capable of measuring time to an accuracy of two seconds.! (jantarmantar.org The Astronomical Observatories of Jai Singh ).

This smaller one is only acurate to 20 seconds. Really!

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Rasivalaya are instruments for measuring the celestial latitude and longitude of the celestial bodies. There are twelve instruments which represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, one for each measurement to be done when the corresponding sign of the zodiac transits the meridian.

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The Jai Prakash may well be Jai Singh’s most elaborate and complex instrument. It is based on concepts dating to as early as 300 B.C. when the Greco-Babylonian astronomer Berosus is said to have made a hemispherical sundial. The smaller Kappala Yantra at Jaipur is an example of such a dial.

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The Jai Prakash is a bowl shaped instrument, built partly above and partly below ground level. The diameter at the rim of the bowl is 17.5 feet for the Jaipur instrument, and 27 feet at Delhi. The interior surface is divided into segments, and recessed steps between the segments provide access for the observers. A taut cross-wire, suspended at the level of the rim, holds a metal plate with circular opening directly over the center of the bowl. This plate serves as a sighting device for night observations, and casts an easily identifiable shadow on the interior surface of the bowl for solar observation. The surfaces of the Jai Prakash are engraved with markings corresponding to an inverted view of both the azimuth-altitude, or horizon, and equatorial coordinate systems used to describe the position of celestial objects.

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The Rama Yantra and Digamsa consists of a pair of cylindrical structures, open to the sky, each with a pillar or pole at the center. The pillar/post and walls are of equal height, which is also equal to the radius of the structure. The floor and interior surface of the walls are inscribed with scales indicating angles of altitude and azimuth. Rama Yantras were constructed at the Jaipur and Delhi observatories only.

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The Rama Yantra is used to observe the position of any celestial object by aligning an object in the sky with both the top of the central pillar, and the point on the floor or wall that completes the alignment. In the daytime, the sun’s position is directly observed at the point where the shadow of the top of the pillar falls on the floor or wall. At night, an observer aligns the star or planet with the top of the pillar and interpolates the point on floor or wall that completes the alignment through the use of a sighting guide.

The instrument is most accurate near the intersection of floor and wall, corresponding to an altitude of 45 degrees. Here, the markings are at their widest spacing, and give an accuracy of +/- 1’ of arc.

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These last two instruments are puzzling. Websites incomplete or clueless on these ones.

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Lest you think all we did was sink deep into history and astronomical technicalities, we did enjoy a lot less drier fun…

Well, in another sense, not  dry. For a start, the Bessau Palace pool was delightful, welcome respite after long days touring. I continued to practice my favorite stroke, the arduous butterfly. Doug, duly impressed, was determined to emulate, to the point of challenging me to a race. Steve the referee called the start, and Doug took off in a violent thrashing of arms. I have to admit that seeing him splash forward I choked, completely lost the rhythm that is so essential to the butterfly. Humbled, I don’t recall what Doug exacted as his prize- except I dropped two caste levels and had to sweep the bedroom.

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Less demanding, an evening in a great roof-top restaurant, the ‘Kalyan’, listed as one of the ten best in Jaipur, quite believably the case. The atmosphere was wonderful, the food great, the drinks memorable,

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and the live band quite charming.

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On our second evening we ate at a sort of officer’s club, in an open courtyard attached to a room full of ancestral portraits. It might have been ‘Durg the Fort’ which looks right on the web but is maybe too far from centre town. Anyway, another really good band, and dancers keen on engaging the diners in their sport. Ali, of course, a trained dancer herself, joined in the fun with the pot-headed lady.

Food excellent again- I had an excellent tandoori plate, chicken, lamb and lots of veg. A great send-off from one of the most interesting and comfortable of our stops, a great intro to Rajasthan.

Next day we left Rajasthan for a detour towards Delhi.

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