Search This Blog

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jaipur: A Little Bit of History

A quick narrative:

The capital of Rajasthan was originally Amber (or Amer) and it was Dhola Rai, the legitimate heir to the throne in the tenth century was forced to flee with his mother after being usurped by his uncle. He was adopted by a Meena (the tribal folk of the region) chieftan and a couple of generations later, it would be his grandson who would found the Rajput state of Jaipur, resting Amber away from the Meena tribesmen.  The state, in turn, prospered due to its relations with Akbar the Great. Always a good man to have in your corner.

It was this man, the Maharaja Jai Singh whose descendent, Raja Man Singh was appointed chief of the Moghul armies and won important victories of Akbar. It was he who founded the Amber Fort.

Raja Man Singh's successor was Bishan Singh who held no rank from Moghul nobility. "He had been serving with Ram Singh in Afghanistan, even though the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had demanded that he be sent to serve in the Deccan Wars. But remembering the fate of other Hindu princes when serving in the Mughal armies on distant campaigns, Ram Singh had evaded that order. For this he had been demoted in rank and reduced in the possession of some estates—Bishan on the other hand was entirely deprived of his rank and lands" (from Wikipedia, fount of truth). The man was not an idiot. That said, he was not without loyalty to Aurangzeb; however, he refused to participate in the Deccan Wars and in the quashing (attempted) of the Hindu rebellions for which he had scant resources and refused to slaughter civilians. He ended his days in Kabul in the cold of winter in December 1699.

Raja JaiSingh, who inherited the throne at the early (understatement?) age of eleven (or twelve) when his father Maharaja Bishan Singh had died. I don't think it's a stretch to characteize Raja Jai Singh as a true renaissance man: scholar, architect, mathematician, astronomer, he laid the foundation of a new city which he named after himself:Jaipur.

Raja Jai Singh's road wasn't necessarily an easy one. After a power struggle in 1707, he had to win back his rule by uniting the Rajputs against the Moghul ruler of the time, Bahadur Shah Zafar. It was Bahadur's predecessor who gave Raja Jai Singh the title of Sawai (one and a quarter) in recognition of Raja Jai Singh's intelligence. After reconsolidating his power, the Sawai Jai Singh, founded Jaipur.

The foundation of the city was laid in 1727 and the architectural plans were drawn up based on his vision by Vidhyadhar Bhattacharya a Bengal architect, who himself had been, if memory serves, more of an accountant prior to his appointment to this task. The results, to be seen in some of the photographs, are stunning.

After his death in 1744, internicine familial stuggles resulted in leaving a vaccuum for other powers to come in and reduce the influence of the Singh clan. Perhaps as much to preserve what influence they could (which was yet substantial), the Jaipur area found itself slowly aborbed into the British Raj. In 1876, Maharaja Ram Singh painted the entire city pink ( the colour of welcoming) in honor of the visting Edward, Prince of Wales. Hence, Jaipur is also known as the Pink City.

Jaipur's last Maharaja was Sawai ManSingh II, who ushered in a new era for Jaipur in the 1930s. He married the Maharani Gyatri Devi, was an extraordinary polo player and he established hospitals, schools, and other civic buildings outside the walls of original city in a push for development and modernization. After India's independence in 1947, Jaipur was established as the capital of Rajasthan in 1956.

The royal family still lives in the City Complex and are well-loved from what I can see, much in the way the royal family is still for the most part, in England.

One thing that struck me right away on the way to Jaipur and the surrounding area is the preponderance of technical schools. The legacy of Sawai Man Singh II's initiatives seems to continue and I understand that Rajasthan has one of the best infrastructures in the subcontinent. As I mentioned above, I really didn't get the same sense of crushing poverty in Jaipur that I saw in Delhi and I don't think this is mere luck. That said, I also get the sense that there is a demographic shift as young people move away from the traditional avenues of an agricultural and artisan based economy to more contemporary fields of work.

I wish I could speak to conditions in the wider state of Rajasthan beyond Jaipur. As I say, if I'd had more time, I'd spend it traveling the region. I don't recall stumbling into such a wealth of diversity and sheer adventure of learning.

Jaipur, an Introduction

Before I launch into the show and tell, I have to say that if I'd had more time, I would have stayed longer in Jaipur and Rasasthan, in general. Jaipur is remarkable for a lot of different reasons, as is the state of Rajasthan; it could be the history, the architecture, the arts, the handicrafts, the people, the relatively lighter traffic. To be perfectly honest, I didn't even scratch the surface.

Essentially, I settled on the City Palace, the Jantar Mantar (the Observatory), an elephant ride and the Light and Sound show at the Amber Fort, mostly because there's an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I was fortunate to check out a purveyor of fabrics who showed me the block-printing techniques on some of the shawls and saris as well as examples of some amazing fabrics.

Seriously, I would go back in a heartbeat and spend more time in Jaipur proper and then that much more in the region. I doubt I'll be able to convey much of what I saw, but I think there's enough here to get an idea. I do want to give a quick reprise of Jaipur history before launching into this because the history is so tied into the contemporary scene, more so than what I saw in Delhi.

I'll try to not make this into too much of a history lessong, but it's important to bear in mind the contributions the Moghals made to the region, the interstices of religion, the arts and statecraft that have come to make the region so vital. As Ram pointed out, the Rajasthani people are very hard working and very (rightly so) proud of their heritage.

Water supply has historically been and continues to be a major problem in the region and while the arts and crafts for which the region is known continue to thrive, there is a drain on the workforce as Rajasthanis move to other parts of India to find work (including Kangra/McLeod Ganj/Dharamshala).

Apparently, the Indian government is looking into solutions for abetting improved irrigation and/or transport for Rajasthan's water supply, but this is only one aspect of difficulty that the region needs addressed. Like much of the rest of India, there is a sizable population that lives at a subsistence level. I haven't reviewed the stats, but one thing that seems heartening is that the kind of poverty I saw in Delhi didn't seem quite as prevalent or at least, didn't manifest itself in the same way. This is very much a matter of degree and kind, I suspect.

By and large, I didn't sense the same disparity or social pressure of class division in Jaipur as I did in Delhi, but this could be completely illusory since, let's face it, all I saw was geared for the tourist, although my elephant driver alludied to bearly scraping by and not seeing much of a chance to improve his life. In fact, if there was a persistent theme from people I spoke to, it was a profound feeling of not being able to rise above one's station (again, my drive Ram was very straightforward about that; hence, his desire to come to the U.S.)

Interestingly, I haven't had to raise these issues; they arise organically out of the course of a conversation, as people want to know more about what living in the U.S. of A. is like. Some still see it as a land of golden opportunity while others seem to have a more rational sense of proportion about it. In either instance, there is a palpable feeling that the 99% in India would very much like their lot to be a bit brighter or more flexible.

That last might be the key. Flexibility in social adaptation is the cornerstone, I think, to a heathy society. If that's not there, the degree of division between the haves and have-nots is going to be much greater and this is why it's important for both Europe and the States to bear in mind that movements like OWS aren't about “dirty hippies” mouthing off; these movements are about whole populations recognizing that that flexibility is vanishing. I think what started with the “Arab Spring” is almost the same as what has generated the OWS and it's interesting to see that kind of social movement is circling the globe. I don't know what form it's taking here in India, if any, but reading the media here is telling in that the papers seem to report routinely on routine corruption in the government and that no one seems to be too keen on knowing quite how to address the problem directly.

State by state, I've been reading a lot of reports about official abuse, crimes that go unprosecuted if not univestigated and what I find an intriguing counterpoint will be notices posted here and there about addressing this or that issue. These come from locally established groups and one imagines, without support of state or national support.

I mention all this to provide a kind of context, not just for this current post about Jaipur but as a kind of background for much of what I see throughout the country. I think I'll have to do some more online research before I can draw any conclusion about relationships between the different movements we're seeing sprouting up here and there, but these too can provide a relational perspective (I think) with what I'm seeing here.

My main advice in looking at what I'm posting is to click on links and do some quick reading just to get aquainted with what I'm not explicitly writing. I really do think I'll have to take some serious time to digest all this and give it a more coherent form later, probably sans pictures! I mean, let's face it, this is more of a travel blog for friends and family and less a sociopolitical essay on this history and economics of the Indian subcontinent. Still, I don't want people to just look at pretty pictures divorced from some of the deeper elements that go to characterizing and colouring the diversity and (I know I use the word a lot, but it's so apt) richness of the populations that make up India.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Your hotel room? Really?

I don't know how much people care, but hotel rooms to me are not always a dime a dozen. I'm not picky, really, but I've stayed in some places that are quite nice and some that are well, a little dodgy.

In Delhi, I stayed at the Hotel Tara Palace which was convenient, but nothing I'd rave about. It was run by a very nice staff, but overall, I don't know that I'd head back to it. In Jaipur, however, the Rajputana Haveli was really good. As you might be able to see from the pics, the furniture was hand carved from Rajasthan, the room was pretty spacious, and some of the details were nice flourishes. I wish I had thought to shoot some of the rest of the hotel; the lobby and even the stairwell was handsome. I don't know what I paid per night because the whole Golden Triangle tour was a package deal I booked in Delhi with Rameez who runs the travel agency next door to the Tara Palace and who I do recommend for any traveling assistance.

I thought the wallpaper was kind of cool...not the toilet.

Okay. "Ghost Rider" is a crap movie, but tell me this isn't a cool photo that happened by it An Ode to Jack Kirby.

On the Road to Jaipur

I was pretty happy to be heading out of Delhi. It is a rich, complex city, but one that I don't think I need to see more of.

My driver for the next four days was Ram, who was in constant good spirits and genuinely looked after my well-being. This, despite working every day and with a missing friend of his on his mind, another driver who was younger and who Ram felt may have met with foul play. Nevertheless, he was great. He set up guides for me, ensured that I didn't tip too much (after he saw me piss away a bunch of rupees on a monkey handler) and withal, he was great company. He wants to come to the U.S. and asked if he could come live with me and if I could help him get a visa to stay, etc. I didn't say no, but I hope I got the message across that this wouldn't be likely until/unless I was back in the states and on my feet.

The road to Jaipur saw a couple of tumped over trucks, the real king of the road (a cow), the ubiquitous honking of horns and the regular bottleneck every few kilometers.
Yes. It is "tumped" over.


The real king of the road

We'll come back to this

Friday, November 25, 2011

Farewell Delhi

The following views are from the rooftop of the Tara Palace Hotel where I was staying. My driver Ram and I hit the road eightish to head for Jaipur. The haze/pollution lends a dreamlike quality to the cityscape.

Jama Masjid in the distance

You can kind of make out the Red Fort here

On the road to Jaipur!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fatepur Sikri

In the distance, the Victory Gate of Fatehpur Sikri
I don't know quite where to begin with this. Fatehpur Sikri was built at the behest of Akbar the Great who ventured to Sikri to seek advice from the Sufi saint Shaik Salim Chisti. Inasmuch as Akbar was a great conqueror, ruler and visionary, he had no scion to carry on the lineage.

The Shaik prophesied that Akbar would indeed have a son and so it was: his son, Prince Salim (named after the Shaik) was born.

"Fateh" means Victory and one can infer that the victory here is as much that of the saint's prophecy as any worldly victory of the great Mughal emperor. And this is what leads me to consider something deeper here. Thus, the Place of Victory. Additionally, it is believed that Fatehpur Sikri is the first planned city by the Mughals.

I could go on and crib from a bunch of sources and cobble together a decent historical essay, but that's not what this is about. When you stand in the presence of an edifice like this, you need to listen deeply to the rhythms of centuries of worship and what lies behind that.

Akbar was pretty syncretic in his practice, I think. As a Mughal, he was de facto, a Muslim. However, he seemed to love and respect all religions and his three wives were each a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim. He initiated a religion that was meant to bring all three together and, I think, overrule the sectarian nature of each. He founded Din-i-Ilahi, "Divine Faith", although, this is disputed by some modern scholars.

In any event, Din-i-Ilahi waas posited as an ethical system and the feeling I get from this is that it is a direct result of Akbar's allegiance to Salim Chisti. Sufism is vast and profound and is not necessarily limited only to one religion or path, but seems to be the warp and woof of the fabric of what lies behind the religious life.

Consequently, it is not easy nor I think, possible, to describe what actually lies behind this building. Yes, the historical story handed down is the obvious raison d'etre, but I would respectfully ask anyone who treads these grounds to ask if they feel some deeper resonance. I felt it at the great mosque in Delhi. I certainly felt it here.

Below are Fatehpur photos:
In the foreground, you can see the mausaleum; in the background is Salim Chisti's tomb. Above ground, are the Muslim tombs, Christians were buried below and Hindus were cremated.

Fatehpur is carved of red sandstone and this window is an example of the heights to which such carving can reach.

Below are some shots taken by my guide, about whom you can read at the end.

Below is the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti. No photography is permitted inside and one is tasked with a donation to the poor before entering.
I found the experience of entering the tomb quite moving. I find it so, still, in memory.

Next up are some more aspects of the complex.
Off the Jama Masjid, are porticos that incorporate architectural flourishes of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.

Sikri is now a ghost town. Apparently, it was abandoned not too long after Akbar had founded Fatehpur Sikri as the capital. Indeed, he relocated the capital to Lahore. This is probably owing to water scarcity in the region and the economics of trying to maintain a populace of any size under such conditions.

Fatehpur Sikri is in Agra and there is certainly a thriving population, but the city of Sikri itself lay quiet. A home to ghosts, as my guide put it.

Regarding my guide:

Fatehpur Sikri is a wonder. It is magic itself and I hope I've conveyed some of that here. I was also impressed by my, who was a guy about my age who was extremely knowledgable (35 years of experience) and quite articulate. He also had a good eye for composition. But most of all, he was very much in the Sufi spirit, I think. I don't mean he was a Sufi (although he might very well have been), just that he was possessed of a very ecumenical spirit.

As informative as his tour was, it was more his bearing that I found impressive. A Muslim, he prays at the jama musjid at Fatehpur Sikri and I'm willing to bet he may be more tied into his community than he let on.

He said I was one of only five tourists who seemed to " get" Fatehpur Sikri and showed the appropriate respect. Two Americans, one Englishman and a Swiss man. I don't think he says that to all the tourists. Really, I don't.

We talked about the true meaning of jihad and we both agreed that the only real jihad is with oneself. He was very vocal that terrorism had nothing to do with Islam; quite emphatic, in fact.

I wished him "Salaam aleichem" as we bowed to each other. We parted with hugs and I truly feel that he would have been a god running buddy in another time and place. He tapped on the window, said "goodbye" and bowed one more time.

I didn't get his name.