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Chapter 10: Amber Fort, Jaipur

Dawn isn’t so bad when you can watch it lighting up Jaipur during a lavish rooftop breakfast in a former royal palace. (image credit: all photos unless otherwise noted are ©Janine Smith & Jayalakshmy Ayyer)

Fully caffeinated, we headed out to the first stop of our day, the world’s skinniest palace, the Hawa Mahal.

Like so many things in India, the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) is both seriously odd and sensuously beautiful. From far away, the ornate five story facade of projecting bay windows and balconies resembles the crown sometimes shown on statues and images of Lord Krishna. But all that architecture is a thin-walled, barely one-room-wide illusion erected in 1799 by Maharajah Pratap Singh, grandson of Jaipur’s founder, Sawai Jai Singh II. It’s basically a 3D trompe-l’oeil facade that allowed the veiled ladies of the harem to watch events in the city below.

We could, Jaya told us, climb a winding ramp to the top floor past all the administrative offices currently occupying Hawa Mahal, and visit the small archeological museum. Or we could go to Amber Fort and ride elephants. Janine and I raced each other back to the car. Because… elephants!

[NOTE: In response to protests and court cases, regulations have now been imposed limiting the number of trips and number of people each elephant is allowed to carry per day. It was an amazing experience, but one we would not repeat today.]

As we waited in line for our allotted elephant slot, Janine and Jaya bought matching safari-style hats they’ve worn as travel trademarks ever since. That’s also where we met Lucky.

Lucky took one look at us and (correctly) identified us as prey. He showed us his camera, assured us he was most definitely licensed by the government, and informed us he would be taking our pictures. We declined. We explained that we had cameras. We told him we would not be buying his photos. We might as well have been speaking in Martian.

Lucky recorded every step of us hoisting our chubby tushes onto our respective elephants. He chased us up the steep hill, fending off other would-be photographers and snapping photos. “Lucky!” he screamed at us. “Remember my name. LUCKY! I will meet you in parking lot at end of tour. I will make Best. Pictures. Ever!”

As Lucky fell back, he was replaced by an army of vendors. With remarkable precision, they threw their wares high, flinging them into our elephant-swaying laps. Elephant-themed quilts, purses, hats rained onto us. We threw them back down, feeling guilty at our pathetic aimless tosses, especially when we saw what the elephants left behind.

After about twenty minutes, our elephants reached the Jaleb Chowk, the huge entry courtyard of the fort—basically the elephant and camel parking lot.

The Amer (or Amber) Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) from Jaipur and was originally built in 967. When Raja Man Singh acquired the fort in 1604, he built the first of the palaces that define the fort, including rooms for his twelve queens (each complete with staircase connected to the king’s quarters above, although the queens were not allowed upstairs because… traffic control!).

Under the protection of an enormous circle of ramparts and forts above—including subterranean passages connecting the royal quarters to the higher Jaigarh Fort in case of attack—the Amber fort grew into a series of palaces, audience halls, and gardens.

We wandered in awe through Diwan-i Aam, the public audience hall where the king could meet with the people, admiring the 27 elephant-head topped pillars, and into the Sattais Katcheri where an army of scribes sat among the pillars (sattais) recording tax and revenue petitions.

From there we passed through the spectacular three-story Ganesh Pol gateway with its elaborately carved screens on the top level to protect the privacy of the royal ladies.

This led us to the three royal pleasure palaces built around a garden with mathematically precise patterned beds radiating out from a huge central star-shaped fountain.

At the far end we entered the Diwan-i Khas, actually two palaces. On the bottom level is the king’s private audience chamber, also known as Jai Mandir or Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) for its walls and ceilings covered with mirror mosaics, which even a single lit candle transforms into a starlit sky.

The second level, Jas Mandir, contains the pleasure palace for the royal ladies—also an incredible fantasy of mirrored surfaces and carved lattice screens.

The Baradari pavilion is in the courtyard of one of the oldest structures, the Palace of Man Singh I. Privacy curtains would have screened the edges of the structure when the royal ladies met there, just beyond the lattice walls of the Zanana (women’s quarters).

From there we went further up to the roof level for a birdseye view of Kesar Kyari Bagh gardens whose lotus and star-shaped beds seem to float in Maota Lake.

As with so much of ancient India that we’ve seen, we were stunned again at the combination of engineering, artistry, and reverence brought to water harvesting. The protected location and gorgeous garden ornamentation show clearly how the lake was also a king’s treasure.

There was still much to see, but it was getting late, and Jaya had us on a schedule. She was firm as we stopped to marvel at cookpots the size of generous hot tubs, snack vendors selling bright assortments of fried foods combined into a paper cone, tables offering boxes of candy and glass bottles labeled helpfully “Indian Perfumes”, and… Lucky.

We’d been exploring the fort for hours, but Lucky somehow knew the second we emerged. Back in the Jaleb Chowk, Lucky picked us out of the crowds to congratulate us on our good luck in getting to purchase the photos he’d promised, for a mere 1800 rupees.

I think the Academy Awards missed a category that year. Jaya would have been a shoe-in for the “Best Lead Tourist in a Bargaining Role” Oscar. And Lucky would have nailed Best Supporting.

Jaya: I am a photographer myself, and I wouldn’t have the nerve to charge such outrageous prices.

Lucky: I have many pictures. I will give you both album for 1700 rupees. Both. Album!

Jaya: I will give 500 rupees.

Lucky: I would lose money after I spent for printing and photo album.

Jaya: We didn’t ask you to print them. You can just keep them.

Lucky: [Holds out photos with the air of a parent handing a beloved child over to executioner] Just take. I don’t care.

Jaya: [Keeps refusing to take them for free. But we notice she doesn’t let go of the photos…] Both of these albums are the same. Why would we want extra copies of the same pictures?

Lucky: You are only coming on elephants one time. I made you the most beautiful albums.

Janine and I thought he had a good point, but we were too busy fending off other vendors who had circled us, sensing blood in the water. If Jaya didn’t reach an agreement soon, Janine and I would own a significant number of the elephant-themed items we’d thrown back down as we rode in.

Jaya and Lucky settled on 300 rupees per album. Both looked delighted. Lucky asked us to pose for a selfie with him, but Jaya refused.

“Lucky’s photos were not good,” Jaya confided later. “I felt sorry for him.”

While waiting for our driver, we bought paper cones filled with bhel puri, the incredibly delicious Indian street snack, washed down with orange juice squeezed on the spot.

It was lunch time, but Jaya was a woman with a plan, and that didn’t include sitting around a restaurant. Instead we sat on outdoor benches and inhaled incendiary-HOT chickpea chole. Our tongues were on fire, eyes and noses running. So so good.

We’d barely cleared our plates when Jaya piled us back into the car and Dashrath pointed the car up. And up.

[Please see my next post for buried treasure, a floating palace, and the world’s biggest cannon.]