Monday 7th December
Today we had a full day tour in Jaipur, the third and final point of our 'Golden Triangle'. We have stayed in three lovely hotels, but the Samode Haveli in the Old City if Jaipur was the best. It was an old palace, probably nearer 300 than 200 years old. The 35 rooms are all different, all large and beautiful, tucked away up little stone staircases or hidden away behind stone latticework and furnished with a variety of pieces of antique furniture and lovely carpets. There were pools, fountains, trees, decorative archways and balustrades, meaning that wherever you went, you seldom saw or heard another person.
The day started much earlier than planned with the 5am call to prayer from all the local mosques... Now we know why complimentary ear plugs are amongst the other more familiar items provided on the bathroom shelf!
We watched the dawn sky through the ornate arched windows on our balcony and dozed in comfort until 7. We then enjoyed the early morning peace and quiet of the swimming pool and then breakfast by the lily pond watching the fish.
9am signalled the flamboyant arrival of the lugubrious Mr Katari, who bore a striking resemblance in both appearance, gait and personality to a close friend back home. This helped to create an easy familiarity that irrationally dispelled our traditional British reserve on meeting a stranger.
We drove out of our hotel, through the city gates into New Jaipur and out of town to the Amber Fort (so named for its position in the town of Amber).
The fort sits atop a hill and lies amongst the mountains giving spectacular views over the ancient defence walls and distant views over the arid looking countryside. The fort is huge, and covers an area of about 18 square kilometres.
Being on a hill, there is a steep climb up to the fort and we accomplished this on the back of an elephant.
Seated on a small flat cushion on the back of our elephant, Karakba, we were introduced to her by her driver Mr Husein. She was 25 years old and although owned by someone else, was only ever driven by this driver.
There were many elephants carrying tourists to the fort. Some were very highly decorated with bright pastel paints, indicating that they had recently been part of a wedding procession. Each elephant was only allowed to do five trips a day before resting. An elephant can live to around 70 and usually works from age 25 to 50. Although highly decorated and covered in brightly coloured cloths, the elephants seemed happy enough and well treated. We set off at a steady pace, overtaking other elephants as we went. The views from our wobbly perch were great as we wound our way up the track and through the gates to the fort.
The Amber fort was built by Rajaman Singh and his descendants in the 16th and 17th centuries. There are three main sections built by the three generations. Although he was a Hindu, Jai Singh formed a tactical alliance with the Muslim Mughals in the north by marrying his sister to Akbar the Great. This offered some protection against attack and looting, which explains the size and preservation of the buildings and their decorations.
The royal family later moved to Jaipur when it became the capital city of Rajasthan, there being insufficient freshwater at Amber.
The red sandstone and marble palace was still in very good condition with beautiful carvings, filigree work, painting and the mirror palace which is decorated with thousands of small convex mirrors. These give the appearance of a starry night sky when the room is lit by two candles (or Mr Katari's smartphone torch). The Hindu / Muslim alliance was demonstrated in a repeated floral design known as the 'magic flower fresco', carved into the marble that is at first glance a simple motif of a lily and a butterfly. Closer inspection reveals a fish, a scorpion, elephant ears and trunk, a lions tail, hooded cobra, cob of corn and lotus flower.
We saw the latticed windows where the ladies of the royal family could watch the goings on at court without themselves being seen.
We saw details of the ancient plumbing - earthenware pots on ropes bringing water from the lake far below, and latrines with the facility for hot and cold washing water. We viewed the thoughtfully arranged bedrooms and staircases of the King's 12 wives. Mr Katari was particularly pleased to point out the kama sutra frieze painted at intervals high up in the walls amongst the more innocent pictures of antelopes and flowers.
Our camera was never in our own hands as our erstwhile friend snapped our posed pictures in archways, in front of viewpoints and reflected in mirrors... He had done this tour everyday for about twenty years and was clearly in his element.
After the Amber fort we stopped to photograph the Water Palace, and admire black-winged stilts, egrets and herons on the waters edge, and red-vented bulbuls in the trees.
Next was the Wind Palace, a tall five storey pink plaster building, standing incongruously in the middle of a busy city street. With its 953 windows it was well ventilated and cool and the windows and lattices once again allowed the Royal ladies to observe street festivals unseen.
The last stop before lunch was the Jantar Mantar Observatory. An amazing and fascinating place that houses the world's largest sundial. The structure is accurate to within two seconds! The King, Jai Singh had been fascinated by astrological phenomena and with being able to tell the time accurately.
There were also other structures to do with signs of the zodiac, tracking constellations and demonstrating the angle of the sun.
This was clearly Mr Kataris favourite place and he enthused at length over each of the exhibits, delighting in our horoscopes and that of our families until we almost had to beg him to stop!
He was obviously well known to everyone at these tourist sites and strolled along greeting and shaking hands with other guides as we went.
One more visit before lunch... Textile block printing and carpet weaving. Fascinating and beautiful demonstration of the printing with vegetable dyes, and the hand weaving of gorgeous carpets - but we knew what was coming next. Into a side room for the carefully choreographed display and hard sell of rugs in all shapes and sizes. Eventually they realised that 'No thank you' to the pink rug, the blue rug, the green rug actually meant 'No thank you' to any rug of any size or colour,and let us out!
Lunch was a big improvement on the last few days as we hit on the idea of ordering three starters - a plate of assorted kebabs, some chargrilled aubergines and spinach kofta. All delicious and still rather more than we needed! The waiters simply couldn't understand why we spurned the rice, bread, main courses and puddings!
The tour continued at the City Palace. Some of this building is still home to the present Indian royal family, the teenaged King, his two siblings, widowed grandmother, mother(daughter of the late King) and her husband.
The rest of the palace is full of beautiful artefacts, paintings and clothes worn by the ancient royals who ranged dramatically in size from an enormous Henry VIII sized maharaja with very short legs, to a very tall and very thin king with child sized feet and John Lennon-style glasses.
There was one final visit - to a jewellery workshop to see how gemstones were cut, polished and mounted. (Bill could see where this educational visit was going to end up and fiddled nervously with the Velcro fastener on his travel wallet!)
It was genuinely fascinating and the owner was a kindly well spoken elderly man with a twinkle in his eye. We started by watching a handful of 'unskilled men' with no education, just the techniques taught to them by their fathers. Using a variety of electric or manually powered discs, they cut, faceted and polished stones. The owner produced a bowl full of small rocks of various colours and we guessed which was ruby, sapphire, opal etc. Harder than you would think.
We watched the designers sketching ideas for pieces of jewellery and then saw a room full of people mounting the jewels into gold and silver settings. There were no magnifiers, just young adults working with white light created by putting a paper shaded glass bottle full of water and pieces of white chalk in front of an ordinary electric light bulb.
Then it was upstairs to the showroom.... The jewellery was very ornate and probably of very good quality but we showed polite interest in our birthstones and various other little diversions before Mr Katari appeared to whisk us away, our wallet intact!
The hotel was an oasis of calm after the noise and bustle of the day. We drank chai latte on our balcony until dusk and then returned to the roof top air conditioned gym, pool and jacuzzi.
Still full of lunch we managed a couple of starters for dinner and retired to our room. Here we set about the challenge of packing our 45 kg luggage (the 2 x 23kg allowed on international flights) into the two 15kg bags and two 7kg day packs allowed in our Air India internal flights. Our plan to leave all our snorkelling/ mountain walking kit in left luggage had been foiled, and shipping costs to send the unwanted kit home was quoted to cost about £200!
In the end we left a pile of unwanted bits and pieces in the room for the maid, planned to wear as much of our heavy clothing as we could stand and stuffed the rest into bags as best we could!
That achieved we flopped into bed, anticipating a big change of scenery at our next destination, Mumbai.