Pink My Ass

January 15, 2008

Jaipur was founded in 1727 by the astronomer king Sawai Jai Singh. Much of the city is constructed of pink stucco meant to look like the classic Mughal red sandstone although, in reality, it more closely resembles a light peach with ornate brown trimmings. It's said that the city was repainted pink during Prince Albert's 1876 visit to reduce the glare of the desert and that the prince was so pleased, the city continued to do so, thus earning its famous sobriquet: "The Pink City".

The Pink City has a completely different look and feel than Delhi in the north. Being in the state of Rajasthan which is largely desert, the climate is drier with cool winds that blow through the city at night. There is a more pronounced Mughal feel to the architecture and the colors of the city are the light pastels of the desert. Brightly painted elephants and camels roam through the city pulling wooden carts or transporting passengers decorated with elaborate jewelry and noserings. At night over the city, Rajasthani drums drift across the breeze accompanied with joyful singing and puppet shows.

Having been subject to the whims of our young guide, Jean and I were resolved to have a better idea of what we wanted to see our second day in Jaipur. We drove past Albert Hall in the rather wilted and disappointing Ram Niwas gardens and, fending off further suggestions, continued to the City Palace. A relatively recent collection of courtyards, gardens, and buildings, the palace also had several good museums showing a history of Rajasthani dress, textiles, and weaponry. One building of note, the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, includes harem chambers where special screens built into the facade allowed royal women to view the marketplace in the street below without being seen. I found it chilling to see these spaces where women were herded together and confined by such powerful rulers unable to interact with the world around them.

We left our guide to walk around the bazaars and shop for a while walking up and down the streets constantly bombarded by offers and requests to just look around without (of course) any pressure to buy. It was here that I first noticed that I couldn't stand still for even thirty seconds without someone approaching me to talk. The conversations usually started the same way. People standing in storefronts would look me up and down gauging how lost I looked and then ask me where I was from followed with questions about America. Then they would try to be of service hoping to pick up a tourist commission or a few easy rupees. I couldn't be rude to anyone, but slowly my sense of privacy and personal space began to erode.

After a dinner of Dal Peshwari -- yellow lentils cooked Punjabi style garnished with clarified butter -- our guides suggested taking us to Chowki Dhani, a recreated Rajasthani village on the outskirts of the city that I had read about. Questioning the authenticity of the place, I had my doubts, but our guide insisted that he had been there "thousands of times" and that it was one of the best places to go in Jaipur. Considering that local nightlife consists almost solely of going to the cinema to watch Hindi movies, we were hardly in a position to decline.