Monday, May 13, 2013

India’s Golden Triangle–Jaipur, Day Two: Amer Fort

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Our same-same driver, who I call Vikram, a name meaning “pace or stride,” was ready in the morning with the car. Our first destination was Amer Fort, which is not to be missed, but beyond that we were ready to just go with the day’s flow, letting a tour guide help us decide what to see. Vikram said we would be picking up the guide on the way to the fort.

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We drove the same road that we were on the previous evening, about 8 km north of the Raj Palace hotel to Amer, which was once a capital but is now merged with the municipality of Jaipur. The busy streets were lined with vendors selling crispy fried breakfast savories and marigold garlands, which are not worn by people, but instead are offerings in the temples.

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Just like in Delhi and Agra, the oldest part of Amer, where people have lived for millennia, was full of the sights, smells, and sounds of the tightly packed mass of people and vehicles.

A small man jumped into the front seat. He was our tour guide, Rahul, a name meaning “efficient.” That’s how it works in the Jaipur area – the approved guides wait in a lineup, like taxis, and you get the next available one. That way it’s fair to all.

Rahul was very authoritative, assuring us that he gives the best tours, having been in the business for 40+ years. Because the Lonely Planet guidebook recommends that you always agree on the fee ahead of time, I asked how much the tour would cost. He said, predictably, that it didn’t matter. We should see how much we enjoyed his tour, and then decide how much to pay at the end. He was so sure of himself that we didn’t argue.

We saw elephants in the street, and I remembered reading that you can walk up the road or ride an elephant to the fort. However, Rahul and Vikram both said that the elephants were not available that week because there was a festival. We would drive.

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We went up to the fort on a narrow, winding road, following a truck. Trucks in India don’t really have rear view mirrors, so they rely on drivers who are approaching from behind, and planning to pass, to honk. To make it clear, they paint some version of “HORN, PLEASE” on the rear of the vehicle. It is polite to honk in India, then squeeze around the slower vehicle, forcing it to the side if necessary.

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We were stopped by a team of security guards, there was some discussion between them and Rahul, and possibly some rupees exchanged hands. This was the first of several times during the day when Rahul requested, negotiated, insisted, or bullied his way into receiving what seemed to be VIP treatment for us, but it was the only way to get to everything that we were to see. As Rahul kept pointing out throughout the day, there was no time for unnecessary walking!

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Vikram, meanwhile, placidly complied with every request Rahul made, driving up onto sidewalks, dodging pedestrians, and pulling up to the closest possible point at each gate. Mark was thoroughly impressed with his skill and composure. And, I suspect, his car and classy hat.

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Amer Fort, like all medieval forts, is also a palace. Built of red sandstone and marble, it is divided into four sections, each with its own courtyard. We entered through the Moon Gate, Chand Pol. There was a long cue, similar to what we see lining up at airport security, but it was empty. Rahul explained that very soon it would be filled with people coming to make offerings at the Siladevi Temple, which was our first stop. If you are wearing leather, you must remove it before entering.

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The beautiful embossed silver doors of the Siladevi Temple caught my eye and I was just about to take a photo when Rahul warned me away – photos are not allowed. So we settled for an “accidental” photo.
Inside, people were making offerings of garlands and sweets to the goddess of empowerment, Kali.

Rahul took us through each section of Amer Fort, explaining which ruler had added what, and when, and for what purpose. He knew every detail, and he spoke almost as if he had been there himself. During his monologue he would interrupt himself to say, “Which ruler?” or “What year?” and my heart would stop, thinking that I was supposed to know the answer! But no, he would immediately provide the information, and so we began to recognize the names, and understand who did what and when.
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The first courtyard, adjacent to the Siladevi Temple, is where the returning armies would display the spoils of war. Women could look out from the protection of the palace windows above. Today, as part of the festival, there would be a market.

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The next courtyard was the Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience. Every fort-palace has one. Here, the ruler would speak to the common people.

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The magnificent Ganesh Pol looks out onto this second courtyard, and is also the entrance to the maharaja’s apartments  in the third courtyard. Again, the ruler’s wives and consorts could view the proceedings below from behind lattice covered windows without being seen.

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Women remained behind veils and screens. The marble lattice screen was specially designed with beveled edges to let cool air flow through while blocking the hot sunlight.

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The Ganesh Pol is decorated with exquisite paintings.

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Part of Rahul’s one-of-a-kind tour guide service was knowing all the best places to have his clients pose for a photo. Here we are in the Diwan-i-Am, in front of Ganesh Pol and the lattice windows I am peeking out of in the photo at the beginning of this story. In the olden days, I could have been watching a magnificent parade with horses and elephants.

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Inside the third courtyard is the Jal Mandir, or Hall of Victory, which is exquisitely decorated with glass-covered foil and paint that once glittered like the stars in the nighttime candlelight. Although much of the original embellishment has been lost, restoration efforts are being made with varying degrees of success.

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Once again, Rahul ordered Mark and me to pose.

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Across the courtyard from the Hall of Victory was the Sukh Niwas, or Hall of Pleasure, where we looked down over the ramparts onto Maota Lake, the beautiful terraced garden, and the village. The lake often goes dry in summer.

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Finally, we entered the fourth courtyard, the zenana, which housed the maharajas’ wives and concubines in identical chambers surrounding a courtyard. Each room was the same size, with the exact same decorative painting, same size window, everything.

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At one end was the raj’s quarters, with access to a passageway designed so that his highness could pay a visit to any wife without the others knowing.

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The only inhabitants of the women’s quarters now are pigeons and monkeys.

As we were leaving Amer Fort, we could see that the line at the entrance had filled in. Rahul knew what he was doing. He asked us what we wanted to see next, but at the same time gave us his opinion of what is the best.
Next: Jaigarh Fort, just above Amer Fort, on Cheel Ta Keela, the Mound of Eagles. 

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