Between literary sessions at the Jaipur Lit Fest and all-night parties, ANURAG MALLICK finds the stamina to uncover some of the best-kept secrets of the walled city of Jaipur, on foot.
Pandit Ramkripalu Sharma held the yellowed manuscript with the sure hands of a surgeon, yet at the same time, he held it with such tenderness as if a newborn child had just been handed to the proud father. ‘I have over 1,25,000 such manuscripts in over a dozen languages,’ his voice quavered. ‘Some of them date back to the 14th century.’ To prove his point, Mr. Sharma’s son opened four Godrej almirahs to display endless stacks piled neatly. Above it, glass cabinets were already chock-a-block with more parchment. ‘Where’s the space to display everything? We’ve been planning to move to a bigger location, but let’s see,’ he sighed.
Tucked away in a crowded back lane of Jaipur, this small three-storey tenement housed one man’s life-long obsession with antiquity. ‘Some call it madness,’ Mr. Sharma added softly with a smile. I looked at his private museum of unusual artefacts in awe – brass lamps, wooden dolls, metal statues, paintings displayed wall to wall, medieval games, shoes, textiles, every inch of space had been used judiciously.
In one corner, locks of all sizes and types were on display; some shaped like scorpions and dogs! The scrolls covered everything from spirituality, science, art, architecture and yoga to medieval punishments for committing various crimes. It was fascinating and equally humbling to see the Sanjay Sharma Museum & Research Institute. And it was just the first of my discoveries on a heritage walk of Jaipur.
Having ‘done’ Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, City Palace and Jaipur’s forts, most visitors consider Rajasthan’s capital city as a mere gateway to the desert state. However, Jaipur’s charm lies not only in its monuments but also in what lies between them. Only a walk within the walled city was the real way to discover its true soul. And what better way to do it than through the eyes of a local resident. Akshat, my well-informed guide represented Virasat Experiences, a travel offshoot of Jaipur Virasat Foundation that specialized in heritage walks and cultural tours.
The Modikhana Walk took us through the historic chowkri (ward) of temples and havelis, named after the Modis, a trading community. The Kalyanji temple displayed beautiful frescos of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the Sanghi Juta Ram Jain temple had stunning kundan wall decorations while the Sita Ramji and Tarkeshwar temples predated the city of Jaipur.
We stopped at Fine Art Palace, a fourth generation antique store cluttered with bric-a-brac. The Afghan family was brought here by the kings to teach the art of tie and dye and the use of bow and arrow to his army. Besides a diagrammatic sketch of their family tree, their visitors’ book was worth a look as some entries dated back to the 18th century!
In one lane, master craftsmen worked with brass, another alley was dedicated to lac bangle makers while an orchestra of ironsmiths hammered away in Thatheron ki galli. Jaipur’s streets, organized by professions and communities, owed their orderliness to the very foundation of the city in the 18th century.
After a tantrik’s curse reduced the original capital of the Kachwaha Rajputs Bhangarh to a haunted site, they moved to Ramgarh and finally overran the Meenas to found a new citadel at Amber in 1592. By the end of the 17th century, a burgeoning population and scarcity of water led the rulers to seek a new, better-planned capital. It is said that Sawai Jai Singh II’s gaze fell on the chosen site while praying at the Garh Ganesh temple. Consulting a Brahmin scholar from Bengal Vidyadhar Bhattacharya, Jai Singh laid the foundation of a new city in 1727 based on the ancient principles of Shilpa shastra (Vedic architecture).
Built in the form of a Pitha Mandala, the city was divided into nine blocks with wide roads. Every street and market was aligned east to west and north to south. The Eastern gate was called Suraj Pol to mark the rising sun, while the Western gate was called Chand Pol, after the moon. Letters were sent to traders as far as Gujarat, Calcutta and Kabul, inviting them to settle in this new place. And that’s how the various communities and artisans set up shop in streets that still bear their name.
Nearly 2000 years after Pataliputra, Jaipur lays claim to being India’s first planned city. A good way to appreciate its architecture is the Temples & Havelis tour. Chhoti Chaupad (small square) near Chand Pol, one of the seven original gateways at the walled city’s western end, was the starting point of my second walk. Traditionally a chaupad (crossroad) has temples on all sides – either regular shrines or haveli temples (dome-less shrines within the precincts of a haveli).
As old as the city itself, the twin haveli temples of Sri Chaturbhuj and Roop Chaturbhuj were built by twin merchants. After the first brother, older by 2 minutes, built the first temple, the younger one built an almost identical one to its left within two years! Accessible by raised steps flanked by stone elephants, the temple had a profusion of paintings on the walls, ceilings and pillars. Even in the hot sun, the walls were amazingly smooth and cool to touch. ‘It’s a local technique arish where seven layers of limestone are put on the wall and the last wet layer is rubbed with coconut kernel,’ Akshat explained.
Walking ahead, we reached Jharlaye walon ki mandir, an unusual 200-year-old Krishna temple with four pradakshinas (circumambulations) on four levels. The owners had been called from Benares to teach wrestling and the art of stick fight. Shri Gopal Sharma said that he still taught wrestling in the afternoon in an akhada behind the house. Taking us to the inner shrine, he pointed out ‘Lord Krishna… with 11 girlfriends!’ Er, do you know their names, I ventured. ‘Lalita, Vishakha, Chapla, Chitralekha, Rangva devi, Gaindva Devi…’ came the reply.
We cut in from the road to reach Atal Bihari or Laal Hathi temple, named after two red sculpted pachyderms guarding the front. The 1839-built Kothari House seemed too florid for comfort, but I was told that elaborate paintings and designs were done on the exterior to indicate the prosperity of the occupants.
Madho Somani, part of a prominent jeweler family in Jaipur, welcomed us into Somani Haveli. By definition, any house with more than one courtyard was a haveli. This one had been neatly restored in the old style and rooms and doorframes bore painted floral borders. A creeper spiraled through the central courtyard as we climbed two floors to the terrace. We looked at the cityscape as the old forts of Nahargarh and Jaigarh looming behind us.
‘You see that?’, Akshat pointed out below. Before he could even say ‘Tantra Temple!’ I was down in a flash, knocking on what was a very strange door. Two eerie figures carved on the door in Indian garb stood as guards to Rudra Mahadev. One was wearing a strange peak cap. Beyond the courtyard, stood a tiny complex of 11 Shiva lingas. It represented the navagrahas (nine planets) and the sun and moon.
After a quick stopover at Shri Gopinath Ji Krishna Temple and the Ramchandra Temple with beautiful frescos and a gold painting of the City Palace, we reached Bagru Ki Haveli for a well-earned breakfast of aloo, puri, kachori and sweets. It was the royal home of a Rajput family from Bagru, a small village 30 km from Jaipur famous for block printing. They organised workshops for visitors to see the process of printing on tablecloth and saris with wooden blocks.
As I thanked Akshat for being such a wonderful and informative resource, he remarked, ‘But how can you go without doing the ultimate culture and culinary walk?’ I hemmed and hawed about the next day’s flight and my unavailability the following morning when Akshat put an end to the argument. ‘That’s perfect! The Bazaars, Cuisine & Crafts Tour is an evening walk. So I’ll see you at 5 today, Badi Choupar?’ The prospect of missing out on the best street food in Jaipur was too much to bear.
Thus, having fasted like a lion about to be unleashed into a Roman arena, I was 10 minutes too early for my third conquest of Jaipur. While I waited for Akshat, the words ‘Dal Lassan Pyaj ki Pakodi’ seemed branded into the back of my head and a thousand voices whispered it in my ear like an incantation. I walked up to Santosh Agarwal straining a fresh batch and opened my innings for the evening, when a playful voice piped in ‘Couldn’t wait, eh?’
A quick peep into Purohit ji ka katla (a market within a market) and we were soon walking past Swayambhu Hanuman Temple towards Hanuman Ka Rasta. The busy alley bustled with wedding card dealers, bookbinders, paper-sellers, printers and manufacturers of coloured envelopes for the local diamond trade. Gopalji ka rasta was an entire street dedicated to gem stone cutting and polishing.
Legend has it that a few hundred years ago, the area of present-day Jaipur used to be a jungle. While on a hunt from Amer, Sawai Jai Singh II got separated from his party and found sanctuary in the Gopal ji temple, where he was given food and shelter for the night. The king promised that when he built his new city, he would reconstruct the temple and name a street after it.
For centuries, Jaipur’s royalty and the elite had patronized the city’s talented craftsmen and artisans, who honed their skills over generations. Weaving our way past gold and silversmiths, we visited a fifth generation meenakari craftsman in his workshop. Honoured by a President’s award, he displayed his prize-winning creation – a rainbow coloured bird with an emerald bead hanging from its beak like a pendant. I don’t know whether it was the aromas of evening snacks wafting up from the street or the suggestive image of a bird carrying something in its beak that was the trigger, but we found ourselves magically wafting out of the building and onto Ghee Walon ka Rasta.
We were about to trawl Jaipur’s legendary eateries, their identities closely guarded secrets, virtually unknown to outsiders. Batasa, misri and other forms of crystal and candied sugar were being sold wholesale. Slabs of fresh paneer were stacked on shards of ice like a game of laghori (seven stones). Namkeen Bhandars had shaped their colourful dalmoths, fried peanuts and yellow lentils in geometric designs in glass containers. We started with Dedh sau or Shop No.150. Karodiya Dukan specialized in Hing ki kachori (stuffed asafoetida savoury).
Ramdev Restaurant run by Brijmohan served regular mithais like rajbhog and kesar bati to disco jamun and disco rasgulla. I saw more signs saying ‘Pure Desi Ghee’ than STD/ISD/PCO. We packed a meetha pan (for later) at the 80-year-old Kailash Pan Bhandar before stopping for makhaniya lassis at Johri Bazaar. The thick lassi had the consistency of an unguent! It tasted heavenly but I was so full, it felt like a tumbler of Brylcreem shoved down my throat. We somehow squeezed in some laddus at Nathulal Mahaveer Prashad and rabdi at Ramchandra Kulfi Bhandar.
Early next morning, I reminded the air hostess twice before take off that I did not want to be disturbed for breakfast. She smiled with saccharine sweetness and asked whether I was unwell and wanted any medicine. I asked her for a pillow instead. Just then the phone rang, rudely interrupting the announcement to switch off all mobile phones. ‘Hello..’, I whispered. ‘Akshat here’, said the voice. ‘Just checking if you caught your flight. In case you missed it, come for the Amer walk. I’ll show you Panna Miah Kund, a step well built by one of Jai Singh’s eunuchs!’ ‘Forget walk, I don’t think I can even fly. Some other time! Along with the Mehrangarh walk,’ I mumbled.
‘Please Sir’, the airhostess said sternly. She had returned with the pillow and held it threateningly, ready to smother me into eternal silence. I put my phone and myself into Flight mode. Just when I was drifting into unconsciousness, a hand tapped my shoulder and a wide lipstick smile in Sugar Plum Shade 086 mouthed ‘Veg or Non-Veg Sir’.
Om Nivas, E–23, Kaushalya Path Durga Marg, Bani Park Jaipur 302001
Ph 0141 5109090-95, 9828220140
Duration: 2.5 Hours
Group size: Minimum number required 2, Maximum 6
Departs: Daily (subject to local conditions)
Join a walk and receive a copy of ‘Jaipur: Six Walks to Discover the Old City’, published by Jaipur Virasat Foundation
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the April, 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.