Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is an enthralling historical city and the gateway to India’s most flamboyant state.
The city’s colourful, chaotic streets ebb and flow with a heady brew of old and new. Careering buses dodge dawdling camels, leisurely cycle-rickshaws frustrate swarms of motorbikes, and everywhere buzzing autorickshaws watch for easy prey. In the midst of this mayhem, the splendours of Jaipur’s majestic past are islands of relative calm evoking a different pace and another world.
At the city’s heart, the City Palace continues to house the former royal family; the Jantar Mantar, the royal observatory, maintains a heavenly aspect; and the honeycomb Hawa Mahal gazes on the bazaar below. And just out of sight, in the arid hill country surrounding the city, is the fairy-tale grandeur of Amber Fort, Jaipur’s star attraction.
A complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, the impressive City Palace is right in the centre of the Old City. The outer wall was built by Jai Singh, but within it the palace has been enlarged and adapted over the centuries. There are palace buildings from different eras, some dating from the early 20th century. Despite the gradual development, the whole is a striking blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture.
The price of admission includes entry to Jaigarh, a long climb above Amber Fort. This is valid for two days.
Entering through Virendra Pol, you’ll see the Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Palace), built in the late 19th century for Maharaja Madho Singh II as a reception centre for visiting dignitaries. Its multiarched and colonnaded construction was cooked up in an Islamic, Rajput and European stylistic stew by the architect Sir Swinton Jacob. It now forms part of the Maharaja Sawai Mansingh II Museum , containing a collection of royal costumes and superb shawls, including Kashmiri pashmina . One remarkable exhibit is Sawai Madho Singh I’s capacious clothing. It’s said he was a cuddly 2m tall, 1.2m wide and 250kg.
Set between the Armoury and the Diwan-i-Am art gallery is an open courtyard known in Sanskrit as Sarvatobhadra. At its centre is a pink-and-white, marble-paved gallery that was used as the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), where the maharajas would consult their ministers. Here you can see two enormous silver vessels , 1.6m tall and reputedly the largest silver objects in the world; Maharaja Madho Singh II, as a devout Hindu, used these vessels to take holy Ganges water to England for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902.
Within the lavish Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) is this art gallery. Exhibits include a copy of the entire Bhagavad Gita (scripture) handwritten in tiny script, and miniature copies of other holy Hindu scriptures, which were small enough to be easily hidden in the event that zealot Mughal armies tried to destroy the sacred texts.
The Anand Mahal Sileg Khana – the Maharani’s Palace – houses the Armoury, which has one of the best collections of weapons in the country. Many of the ceremonial weapons are elegantly engraved and inlaid belying their grisly purpose.
Pitam Niwas Chowk & Chandra Mahal
Located towards the palace’s inner courtyard is Pitam Niwas Chowk. Here four glorious gates represent the seasons – the Peacock Gate depicts autumn, the Lotus Gate , signifying summer, the Green Gate , representing spring, and finally winter embodied by the Rose Gate .
Beyond this chowk (square) is the private palace, the Chandra Mahal, which is still the residence of the descendants of the royal family and where you can take a 45-minute Royal Grandeur guided tour of select areas.
This magnificent fort is largely made up of a royal palace, built from pale yellow and pink sandstone and white marble, and divided into four main sections, each with its own courtyard. You can trudge up to the fort from the road in about 10 minutes, but riding up on elephant back is very popular. A return 4WD to the top and back costs ₹300 for five passengers, including one-hour waiting time.
Animal welfare groups have criticised the keeping of elephants at Amber, as recent government inspections have revealed inadequate housing conditions and abuse of the animals, so you may want to think twice before taking a ride.
Whether you walk or ride an elephant, you will enter Amber Fort through Suraj Pol (Sun Gate), which leads to the Jaleb Chowk (Main Courtyard), where returning armies would display their war booty to the populace – women could view this area from the veiled windows of the palace. The ticket office is directly across the courtyard from Suraj Pol. If you arrive by car you will enter through Chand Pol (Moon Gate) on the opposite side of Jaleb Chowk. Hiring a guide or grabbing an audio guide is highly recommended as there are very few signs and many blind alleys.
From Jaleb Chowk, an imposing stairway leads up to the main palace, but first it’s worth taking the steps just to the right, which lead to the small Siladevi Temple , with its gorgeous silver doors featuring repoussé (raised relief) work.
Heading back to the main stairway will take you up to the second courtyard and the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), which has a double row of columns, each topped by a capital in the shape of an elephant, and latticed galleries above.
The maharaja’s apartments are located around the third courtyard – you enter through the fabulous Ganesh Pol , decorated with beautiful frescoed arches. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is noted for its inlaid panels and multimirrored ceiling. Carved marble relief panels around the hall are fascinatingly delicate and quirky, depicting cartoonlike insects and sinuous flowers. Opposite the Jai Mandir is the Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure), with an ivory-inlaid sandalwood door and a channel that once carried cooling water right through the room. From the Jai Mandir you can enjoy fine views from the palace ramparts over picturesque Maota Lake below.
The zenana (secluded women’s quarters) surrounds the fourth courtyard. The rooms were designed so that the maharaja could embark on his nocturnal visits to his wives’ and concubines’ respective chambers without the others knowing, as the chambers are independent but open onto a common corridor.
Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark, the Hawa Mahal is an extraordinary, fairy-tale, pink sandstone, delicately honeycombed hive that rises a dizzying five storeys. It was constructed in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh to enable ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city. The top offers stunning views over Jantar Mantar and the City Palace one way, and over Siredeori Bazaar the other.
There’s a small museum (Saturday to Thursday), with miniature paintings and some rich relics, such as ceremonial armour, which help evoke the royal past.
Claustrophobics should be aware that the narrow corridors can sometimes get extremely cramped and crowded inside the Hawa Mahal.
Entrance is from the back of the complex. To get here, return to the intersection on your left as you face the Hawa Mahal, turn right and then take the first right again through an archway.
Raj Mandir Cinema
Just off MI Rd, Raj Mandir is the place to go to see a Hindi film in India. This opulent cinema looks like a huge pink cream cake, with a meringue auditorium and a foyer somewhere between a temple and Disneyland. Bookings can be made one hour to seven days in advance at windows 9 and 10 – this is your best chance of securing a seat, but forget it in the early days of a new release.
Alternatively, sharpen your elbows and join the queue when the current booking office opens 45 minutes before curtain up. Avoid the cheapest tickets, which seat you very close to the screen.
Adjacent to the City Palace is Jantar Mantar, an observatory begun by Jai Singh in 1728 that resembles a collection of giant bizarre sculptures. Built for measuring the heavens, the name is derived from the Sanskrit yanta mantr, meaning ‘instrument of calculation,’ and in 2010 it was added to India’s list of Unesco World Heritage Sites. Paying for a local guide is highly recommended if you wish to learn how each fascinating instrument works.
Jai Singh liked astronomy even more than he liked war and town planning. Before constructing the observatory he sent scholars abroad to study foreign constructs. He built five observatories in total, and this is the largest and best preserved (it was restored in 1901). Others are in Delhi, Varanasi and Ujjain. No traces of the fifth, the Mathura observatory, remain.
Built in 1734 and extended in 1868, this sturdy fort overlooks the city from a sheer ridge to the north. The story goes that the fort was named after Nahar Singh, a dead prince whose restless spirit was disrupting construction. Whatever was built in the day crumbled in the night. The prince agreed to leave on condition that the fort was named for him. The views are glorious here and it’s a great sunset spot; there’s a restaurant that’s perfect for a beer.
The best way to visit is to walk or take a cycle-rickshaw (₹50 from MI Rd) to the end of Nahargarh Fort Rd, then climb the 2km steep, winding path to the top. To drive, you have to detour via the Amber area in a circuitous 8km round trip.
This museum is housed in the spectacularly florid Albert Hall, south of the Old City. It was designed by Sir Swinton Jacob, and combines elements of English and North Indian architecture, as well as huge friezes celebrating the world’s great cultures. It was known as the pride of the new Jaipur when it opened in 1887. The grand old building hosts an eclectic array of tribal dress, dioramas, sculptures, miniature paintings, carpets, musical instruments and even an Egyptian mummy.
Iswari Minar Swarga Sal
Piercing the skyline near the City Palace is the unusual Iswari Minar Swarga Sal. The minaret was erected in the 1740s by Jai Singh’s son and successor Iswari, who later ignominiously killed himself by snakebite (in the Chandra Mahal) rather than face the advancing Maratha army – his 21 wives and concubines then did the necessary noble thing and committed jauhar (ritual mass suicide by immolation) on his funeral pyre. You can spiral to the top of the minaret for excellent views over the Old City.
The entrance is around the back of the row of shops fronting Chandpol Bazaar – take the alley 50m west of the minaret along the bazaar or go via the Atishpol entrance to the City Palace compound, 150m east of the minaret.
Perched between the cliff faces of a rocky valley, Galta is a desolate, if evocative, place. It is also known as the Monkey Temple and you will find hundreds of monkeys living here – bold and aggressive macaques and more graceful and tolerable langurs. You can purchase peanuts at the gate to feed to them, but be prepared to be mobbed by teeth-barring primates.
The temple houses a number of sacred tanks, into which some daring souls jump from the adjacent cliffs. The water is claimed to be several elephants deep and fed from a spring that falls through the mouth of a sculpted cow.
There are some original frescoes in reasonable condition in a chamber at the end of the bottom pool, including those depicting athletic feats, the maharaja playing polo, and the exploits of Krishna and the gopis (milkmaids).
On the ridge above Galta is the Surya Mandir , which rises 100m above Jaipur and can be seen from the eastern side of the city. A 2.5km-long walking trail climbs up to the temple from Suraj Pol, or you can walk up from the Galta side. There are hazy views over the humming city.