I concluded my Rajasthani tour in probably the state’s two most touristic destinations: Jaipur and Pushkar. Jaipur is one corner of the overhyped “Golden Triangle”, a triumvirate of charmless, dusty and congested cities that harbour some of India’s most iconic buildings. While considered to be the gateway of Rajasthan, Jaipur is often derisively scorned by backpackers as wholly underwhelming and entirely skippable. Alas, I visited Jaipur purely because I was biding time for the Pushkar Camel Fair... and to attend the city’s famed Lassiwala. Pushkar, a small town even by Australian standards, was brimming with tourists attending the Camel Fair. My imaginations of a festival of exotic splendour were sadly misplaced, as rampant animal cruelty was instead the defining attribute. Fortunately though, the company of British Hermione in Jaipur and British Lotti in Pushkar facilitated an enjoyable final week in the Land of Kings.
Hermione pretentiously opted to skip the backpacker scene and stay in a luxurious hotel in Jaipur, replete with its own silver and silk shops. Rather than meet in a more convenient location (like my hostel), I was routinely summoned to her aristocratic abode before venturing into the mayhem of Jaipur. Nevertheless, this bubble of Western comfort was a pleasant refuge from Jaipur’s hellish streets choking from interminable traffic and stenches of urine (characteristic of all Indian cities but particularly noticeable in Jaipur). Jaipur is a sprawling mass of concrete urbanity within the merciless aridity of the North Indian plains. The centre is also frustratingly expansive, with the hotel cluster and transport hubs located several kilometres from the “Pink City” (historic zone). Utterly incomparable with the charm of other grand Rajasthani centres, the Pink City is simply a grid of sterile, monotonous buildings painted in a colour more similar to ochre than pink. While the crowds of tourists and touts creates a lively atmosphere, the presence of heavy, flowing traffic (enabled by the grid layout) prevents the area from feeling like a typically enchanting bazaar district. Nevertheless, Jaipur is probably the best shopping destination for purchasing traditional Indian textiles and handicrafts; shame that’s not my thing.
Jaipur’s constituent attraction is actually located in a separate village 11 kilometres to the north. Predating Jaipur by centuries, Amer Fort was the original centre of regional power and remains one of Rajasthan’s most visually arresting sights long after its strategic importance faded. Defended by several robust fortification walls, Amer sprawls imposingly across a steep slope and evokes the golden-brownish hues of the surrounding landscape. The interior architecture is a fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal (Islamic) influences, the latter of which is particularly evident in the symmetrical Persian gardens.
The entrance ticket of 500 rupees adheres to the Indian government’s policy of ripping foreigners off, so Hermione intended to forego entering the fort. However, I decided to try purchasing two student tickets at the more reasonable cost of 100 rupees each with just my student card. My first attempt was unsuccessful, as the turd-cake behind the counter gesticulated angrily that I specifically needed two cards for the privilege of paying 5 times the local price rather than 25 times. Incensed by his rudeness, I chose to spite him and join the queue for his adjacent colleague. After indicating I needed two cards, the man accepted my excuse that Hermione and her (nonexistent) card were not nearby and sold me two tickets. It was tremendously gratifying to finally reverse the roles and rip India off for a change!
Jaipur was established in the early 18th century by the Raja of Amer, Jai Singh II, to accommodate the population growth and increasing water scarcity of his existing capital. The relative modernity of Jaipur and the scientific approach Jai Singh adopted for the design thus explains why the Pink City has a noticeably unIndian formation: planned, rigid and with a dearth of intriguing, organic architecture. To honour the visit of Edward VII (as Crown Prince) in 1876, the entire city was painted pink; the colour denoting hospitality in Hindu culture. Buildings in the historic zone have maintained the pink colour (compelled by law), no doubt to achieve a semblance of pleasantness in the city. The Hawa Mahal is easily the most beautiful structure in the Pink City, a multi-level building formerly used by the women of the court to safely view the street life of Jaipur. The Hawa Mahal features terraces on each level and a unique honeycomb façade. Neighbouring Jantar Mantar is a World Heritage precinct of megalithic instruments that were used to take astronomical measurements (using now debunked methods). The precinct’s purpose reflects the importance of cosmology to Hinduism and the value Jai Singh placed in scientific endeavour. Unfortunately, comprehending how each instrument actually functioned required listening to an audio-guide with overly complicated narration scattered with lame jokes; severely challenging my attention span.
Pushkar is considered to be one of the seven holy cities of India and certainly the epicentre of Hinduism in the state of Rajasthan. Despite its auspicious status, the town is astonishingly small with only 15,000 inhabitants. Its neighbourhoods are clustered around Pushkar Lake, the focal point for religious activity in the town. The lake is completely surrounded by “ghats”, which are concrete steps that lead down to the water’s edge of holy lakes or rivers. Photography is prohibited around Pushkar Lake, which is strictly enforced during the day (although I managed to sneak a couple – I decided not to bother respecting such rules since Indians were shamelessly photographing me all the time) but strangely ignored from dusk onwards when puja (prayers) occur on the ghats. The puja ceremonies basically featured chubby men dressed in bright orange garb chanting the same nasal tune for an hour and waving a large candleholder above the water. The highlight of the first puja I watched was the totally random and sudden appearance of a cow galloping toward the group of priests. The cow stopped very close to the group and, right at the climax of the ceremony, begin pissing on the ghats. Classic. That cow really has superb timing on stage.
The layout of Pushkar is defined by one primary thoroughfare tracing the circumference of the lake. The thoroughfare is somewhat pedestrianised (although occasional murderous motorcyclists do blaze through the crowds) and lined with innumerable textiles and handicraft stores. The hassling is surprisingly and thankfully restrained, giving Pushkar a much more enjoyable vibe than Jaipur. Pushkar is dotted with dozens of Hindu temples, which in North India are rather disappointing architecturally. The temple compounds usually feature small, omni-coloured sanctuaries housing orange-painted and tinfoil-decorated depictions of the deity the temples are dedicated to. My dormitory in Pushkar was an open-air rooftop garden, completely exposed to the evening coldness and noises from the festival. Yet somehow I slept remarkably well in the circumstances.
The opportunity to witness mystics, snake-charmers, horse dancing and particularly a sea of 50,000 camels compelled me to attend the Pushkar Camel Fair in early November, which was the only set date I committed to on my trip to India. Unfortunately though, the Fair was also the greatest disappointment of my trip to India. There just wasn’t much to see or do. Once you’ve seen one grassless paddock crammed with camels, you’ve seen them all. And once you’ve seen hundreds of camels treated viciously by their owners, its quite difficult to return in the knowledge there is nothing you can do to change their habits. Lotti admirably questioned the need for their cruelty, and also the sexist nature of some of the Fair’s events, but it always fell on deaf ears. We saw countless camels standing on just three legs, because one of their front legs were tied up to prevent them from moving. We saw camels with their two front legs tied together and whipped mercilessly by their owners as they trained the camels to walk on their two front knees. We saw horses forced by their owners to perform graceless “dances” in stunned terror of the crowds mobbing them. And repeatedly we saw camels with decrepit scars from the abuse they endured. I think many Western tourists were shocked and ashamed at what we witnessed. The locals attempt to hide the gruesome reality of their treatment by festooning their animals in colourful Rajasthani garb, and I suppose that must be sufficient to placate the Indian tourists. Meanwhile, Pushkar is a strictly vegetarian city. What a bunch of hypocrites.
Indians have a knack for intensifying the unhealthiness of dishes already detrimental to human well-being. For example, adding thick dollops of butter to the top of creamy lassis, scrambling paneer in more butter than the cheese itself and soaking buttery roti in even more butter are probably not recommended by conventional nutritionists. The Indian obsession for snacking on fried goods also exemplifies their disregard for nutritional eating. On virtually every corner throughout North India, men deep-fry samosas and pakoras over piping-hot cauldrons of oil. Pakoras are basically just slices of vegetables or a chickpea flour mixture coated in a masala batter and fried until crispy. In Rajasthan, kachoris are also available. Kachoris are basically disc-shaped pies filled with a rich onion mixture and fried not once, not twice, but three times to maximise the crunch of the batter.
Jaipur poorly reflects the majesty of Rajasthan and its status as one of India’s premium tourist destinations is utterly undeserved. While Amer Fort is impressive, I personally don’t believe it matches the stunning location of Jaisalmer Fort, domineering presence of Mehrangarh Fort or interior opulence of Agra Fort. While the Camel Fair didn’t exactly meet expectations (although I did see a cobra charmed!), Pushkar is still a lovely small town with fascinating religious customs.
That’s all for now,