Saturday, May 26, 2007

Jaipur: the Pink City

During the initial planning for UniverCity, I was intrigued with the idea of restricting the allowable materials and colours to create a more coordinated community design. The inspiration came from places like the Greek Isles, where all the buildings are white; and Jerusalem, where every building must incorporate golden Jerusalem stone. Now I can add the old city of Jaipur to the list of places that are remarkable because of their use of consistent colour and materials.

Jaipur owes its name and planning to a great 18th century warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II. In 1727, he laid out the city with its surrounding walls and rectilinear blocks according to principles set down in the Shilpa-Shastra, an ancient Hindu architectural treatise, conceptually similar to Chinese Feng Shui. All the main streets were very wide, with continuous arcades at street level, and dividing the city into neat rectangles. Each rectangle is devoted to a different craft: precious and semi-precious stones; saris and fabrics; shoes and clothing; jewelry, etc.

In 1876, Maharaja Ram Singh had the entire city painted pink, a colour associated with hospitality, to welcome the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). The tradition has been maintained. Today, all the buildings are various shades of pink, except for the occasional non-conforming site. The overall effect is impressive, especially at dusk when the town takes on what our guidebook calls ‘a magical glow’.

I write this having just spent one and a half days in Jaipur. Unfortunately, the buildings in the old city have generally not been well maintained. The public infrastructure is also decaying. We stayed in a ‘Heritage Class’ hotel called Alsisar Haveli that was hidden behind a high wall just off a busy commercial street. Not wanting to be cocooned in our hotel as we were in Agra, on our first night I begged Sally to venture out into the streets to find a restaurant for dinner.

It was like being in hell. The traffic was chaotic and noisy, and there were no safe routes for pedestrians. There was a permeating smell of urine and feces, and cows and the occasional camel blocked our way. Just as we were trying to adjust to all of this, it suddenly got very windy, knocking over bicycles and scooters and hurling sand and debris into the air. At this point I knew it was time to give up, and we returned to the hotel where we ate in the elegant dining room.

Over dinner, we joined up with a German couple who we had met earlier in the day by the pool. They had been hiking in the Himalayas and had now come down to tour some cities. We discussed our first impressions of India. We were both having difficulty enjoying the country, and were feeling guilty about it. While we were impressed with the magnificent structures of yesteryear, it was hard to enjoy Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

I told them that I was particularly upset with the decrepit infrastructure and buildings. I rarely see a completed building, and it is difficult to know whether they are going up or coming down. Sally thought that parts of these cities looked like they had been through a war.

Early the following morning, I did venture out for a walk around the old town. It didn’t last long. I was again overcome by the filth and stench, and the sight of thousands of people sleeping in the streets. The truck drivers who often passed us at high speeds were sleeping on top of their cabs. The tuc-tuc drivers were sleeping in their vehicles. People were huddled in doorways, on pieces of cardboard, or on the bare ground. Dozens of cows were roaming around. I was later told that some have been abandoned by their owners since they can no longer produce milk, but cannot be slaughtered.

Later in the day we went for a walk through the bazaars to see what was being offered for sale, and to enjoy the sights and smells. But after an hour, we had had enough of constantly being barraged by merchants trying to sell us things we didn’t want. Sally was particularly disgusted seeing men defecating in open public toilets along the road.

I suspect some of our dissatisfaction to date has been influenced by our poor experiences with Travel Agents, and a number of other people that we have met. We have often been conned and taken advantage off. The merchants try to overcharge us, and Sally is nearly always given the wrong change. We are also troubled by some of the beggars and hawkers who hang around the tourist sites, and just won’t leave you alone.

There have also been a couple of potentially foolish decisions on my part. Although a number of people told me to visit Jaisalmer, we never really discussed the time of year we would be traveling. It is often unbearably hot, and I’ve arranged for us to go to off to the desert for a camel safari! After that, we have to endure a 17 hour overnight train trip, and a 4 hour train trip to Chandigarh.

But, as Sally discussed with Isabelle and Laura, two lovely French ladies who we met in the pool, to enjoy India, you have to be ‘in the moment’. You need to cast aside many of your habits and values, and take things as they come. After our first 5 days, we do not think we will be back soon. But we are going to try and adopt a more positive attitude to whatever happens, in the hope that it will help us more fully enjoy our remaining time here. Who knows, maybe we’ll become like the charming couple we met at our hotel from California, who return here almost every year. But if things don’t work out, we will soon be heading off to Dubai and the Greek Islands, where we know it will be very different.


Anonymous said...

Sorry you are so unhappy with your experiences
in India. I adore India and think about it every
single day-hoping to return for a 4th time in
4 years. Perhaps going in late fall and having a
wonderful company making car/driver arrangements
makes all the difference. Look for the good! It's
there. Our driver took us to his village where we
stayed with his family for 3 days on our last trip.
Such kindness I've never experienced.

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