India’s Jaipur – The Pink City & Pyaaz Ki Kachori
The dusty air of the city around me constricted my lungs, as I stepped outside the confines of our railway retiring room to be consumed almost whole, by the masses of people coming and going, congregating, ebbing and rising like the endless flow of the ocean’s tides. This was my first experience of The City of Victory, the Pink City of India, Jaipur. We had arrived by train, at the red-eye hour just before dawn, at 5 am. Not having slept much at all the night before, we had to wait for what seemed like an age before the attendant could check us in. Even when he did, the I.T. system seemed to have a mind of its own, conspiring against us getting any more rest, before we were scheduled to meet our guide for our early morning walking trip through the streets of Jaipur.
It would be worth the wait though, the shower in the room, offering us the first opportunity to wash away the built up grime from the last day and half of traveling; a most welcome relief.
In the end, we even managed ninety minutes of sleep before we had to set off, the sting in my eyes from lack of sleep, only amplified by the smokey dust that floated in the air. We managed to make our way out of the railway station, waves of people pushing their way in. It was here that I saw my first statue of Gandhiji in India, he stood as a firm protector for the Indian Railways. There were taxi drivers clambering to offer us their services but we had opted for an Uber instead to take us to our destination. We had experienced the service in New Delhi and found it a reliable and fair price for the services offered.
We asked the driver to drop us off just inside the ancient gates of the old city’s wall, at a famous Golcha cinema, where we were to meet our guide – Sherpa Anirudh. At the sake of sounding like a broken record, traveling the world and digging behind the real stories of the people and places we visit is one of the most important aspects of our journey. Having the opportunity to connect with authentic people who are the caretakers of the stories of the places we visit, is always a blessing that we treasure. Wherever we are, we always seek to meet, interact with and share these stories. In Jaipur it would be no different, thanks again to the helpful assistance of SeekSherpa, a young Indian company, dedicated to providing high quality opportunities for visitors to meet and connect with genuine local people, who are quality purveyors of local knowledge and will go out of their way to make your visit a very special one to remember. Sherpa Anirudh greeted us at the front of the Golcha cinema.
He immediately provided us with personally prepared walking packs, which included a locally handcrafted diary or notebook, an information sheet on the upcoming tour, a carry pouch and bottle of spring water for our journey into the heart of the city. Our first stop was a local temple, this one dedicated to Krishna. We removed our shoes and as we stepped in beyond the boundaries of the city outside an other worldly calm seemed to take over, as the noise just metres away seemed to completely fade into the background. This temple was handed down from generation to generation, since the founding of the city in 1727. Lacking grandiose decoration or adornment, it had a serenity to it that allowed me to hear the quiet in me for the first time since setting foot in India, but this only lasted a moment, as we had to move on, with so much to cover in our short three hours together.
I saw someone coming into the temple and my Dad asked who they were. Anirudh explained that this was someone coming to ask for assistance. He explained something to me then and there, which I found very interesting, a concept that was deeply moving and close to all our hearts. He said that the west and India have a different perception of what it means to be poor. He said very humbly, “Here in India, a person from the west might look upon people living on the street and say they are poor. But that would be a mistake to make this assumption. Wealth is not measured in this way. In all of India, it is very rare that a person will go hungry or not have a place to stay. In the meld of Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the Indian people believe it is very important that everyone is provided for and wherever you go, most people will always be assisted, even if that means looking out for them for life.” I wasn’t sure whether this was always true, but when I examined my memory back over the last week, I was challenged to find an image that would contradict this. In fact, I had seen people assisting others. Even though we had walked through the dense Havelis of Old Delhi, I witnessed someone buying some food and handing it over to a person sitting on the street. In any case, this gave me much food for thought to contemplate.
We pressed on walking across a wide boulevard road now standing on the opposite side of the temple. It was here that Anirudh explained the significance of the city of Jaipur in Indian history. Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh or Jai Singh II was determined to build a great city of learning, culture, arts and commerce. It was to be the first planned city in all of India and he sent special invitations to the people who would live in it. Designed by Brahmin Vidyadhar on the ancient Sanskrit manuals of Shilpa (Silpa) Shastra (Sacred geometrical design) for city construction, the city was to have seven gates, the entry to the South with four gates, 1 North facing Exit, The Sungate to the East and The Moongate to the West.
The road that we had crossed being 111ft wide, was the second broadest road in the world at the time of its construction in 1727. It was at this city that Jai Singh II invited people of the highest skills, trades, crafts and the Hindu religion to live in the city, each being allotted a free residence, free schooling for their children and the opportunity to practice their vocations and religions unhindered. These people were comprised of weapons makers and iron fashioners, sculptors of marble and red stone, the bangle makers, made from the rubber trees, the gemstone polishers, the gold and silver smiths, the priests and the Amer, the chosen people from the ancient capital city. Anirudh told us that to this day, 80% of the world’s gems are polished here in the inner blocks of this city.
Jai Singh commanded that city be built on nine square blocks, the number significant both in sacred astronomy representing the nine planets and also nine being a sacred number in the Hindu religion. Today we would be walking almost all of those blocks in the short time we had left and visit the places and stories where the trades and the culture had sculpted this city with little change since its foundation.
We started by walking into the metal sculptors’ block, stopping briefly at a residential part. Anirudh brought to our attention that each house had a Hindu God at the front of the entrance for a blessing and regardless of the resident’s religion, the owners would decorate it every day with the appropriate garland of flowers for the God. While the Marigold was neutral, Tulsi, or sacred basil was for Vishnu, with the Lotus for Ganesha. Here we sat for a moment by a community well that had long since dried up, but sitting on the benches you could see that it was a gathering place for the neighbourhood, where the day’s stories were told over and again. A single pair of eyes spied us, watching us from a portal above, as we sat to take in the energy of this place.
As we walked through these Havelis (townhouses), we were introduced to the living descendants of the founders of this city, to this very day practicing the same trades as their ancestors. It was as if a living portal had been opened to another age. We saw the skilled perfection of the metal beaters fashioning handmade metal water containers, plates, bowls and ornaments of all sorts, with the deft but almost deafening beat of their hammers. Standing inside the courtyard of one of the artisans workshops, we were invited to appreciate the work of their group, who had fashioned the most breathtaking giant metal lotus.
In the next street, we were treated to the skilful intricacies of the bangle makers, turning simple rubber into decorative designs of sparkling colours, encompassing every combination of the hues of the rainbow.
Further on, we were introduced to a local miller, still using an electric motor driven milling machine that was manufactured in the late 1800s. Even though he was milling kilos of wheat and other grains for mere cents per kilo, low in cost even to the locals’ standards, the modern supermarkets, now emerging in the new city, were deliberately killing his trade.
His-story, created in the heart of this city by his ancestors and handed down through the generations, would soon close its arc, as his business it seemed, was near its end. He explained as we talked that he was struggling to make ends meets and communicate to people the need to maintain the community values that had served them for so long. We bid him farewell and walked on.
In the next block, we were led into the inner courtyard of a building, which from all appearances looked like a residential apartment block in the heart of the city. We were asked by Anirudh whether we knew what kind of a place we were in. For a moment, I was stumped and it was my mother who spoke out and said ‘A Hospital’. Anirudh was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of her inference, asking how she knew. She explained that she was once a registered nurse and that while this place was completely different from your conventional hospitals, it still carried an energetic signature that gave it away.
This place was no ordinary hospital however, it was a specialist spinal clinic, practising the age old venerated sacred healing principles of Ayurveda. This clinic in particular, was world famous for the work it had done in healing those with ailments of the spine. Taking an elemental approach to healing, the very basis of Ayurveda is attending to the imbalance of Air, Water and Cough in the corporeal form. The mal-alignment of these elements in the human body are said to be the cause of all dis-ease or disease as we say it in the ‘modern’ tongue. The Arogaya Bharti clinic has a 75% success rate in the treatment of all spinal cord injuries and one of its directors, to whom we spoke, explained to us that there was a two-year waiting list. She invited us on a tour of the hospital itself, but time was now pressing against us too, as we needed to complete the tour. Our curiosity coupled with the plethora of questions dad had asked at each point of our tour, was now making Anirudh run way behind schedule. We were graciously offered the opportunity to return anytime and given a calendar as a gift, which was populated by the ancient Sanskrit affirmations that adorned the walls of the hospital. My favourite one was “Nobody can let you down. The only person who can let you down is you.” This affirmation was one close to my heart and my writing; one I strive to live and incorporate into my understanding of the world and my place within it.
We walked on again, now out of the little streets where we were introduced to a 300-year-old Tamarind tree that sat out the front of a temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. Like the residents, descended from the founders of this city, this tree grew up witnessing the early years of the city’s development. I marvelled at its beauty and longed to talk to it like a friend, imagining all the sad and wonderful stories it could have shared with me.
We walked on now out into the open market streets where merchants of all types vended their wares. Everything from silks and garments to foods, spices used to flavour and those used to heal. There were merchants selling brightly coloured packets of fluorescent powders that the bangle makers would use to colour their unique creations, next to them were tea merchants and further on shops of all sorts of stuff used in the daily living of the residents of this carefully planned metropolis. In fact, these shops were purposefully leading us into an open square, where flower merchants were working furiously to thread garlands of flowers of all kinds, their beauty and scent overpowering my senses.
We had finally reached the centre-point of the city, and the end point of our tour, Chhoti Chauper which held great significance in the old city’s past. At the time of the city’s foundation, it was forbidden for residents of a different trade or cast to visit each other’s blocks and neighbourhoods. The purposeful construction of the city and this centre-point, was intended to provide a place where all the people of the city could come, meet, conduct business, mingle and take in the life of the city.
It had four corners each of which has been occupied by specific merchants down through the ages. Now standing here by these flower vendors, the bustle of the city moving around me in this busy square, I took a moment to try and unify all the stories of this city and its people. At that particular moment it was too much to take in, but on reflection, I could see how a community of people keep an idea alive. I could also appreciate how change, a constant in our universe, is sometimes applied in a familiar manner to create a fusion of the past, present and future.
We thanked Anirudh for his generosity of spirit, this educational experience made complete through his living passion and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Jaipur and its people. It was then that I realised that the last three hours had passed in a blink of an eye and we had worked up a significant appetite that needed to be satiated, as we had not even eaten breakfast. We quickly asked Anirudh where we could get an example of great Rajasthani cuisine, like that which we had experienced back at the Dili Haat national cultural markets in New Delhi. He suggested that there were some good eateries back in the direction of the bus station, which was right on the route to the Railway Station, the place from which we would have to leave later in the day; our train set to carry us on to our next Indian destination.
This started another Odyssey that had us taking a Tuk Tuk to the bus station, from where we started walking in search of just the right place for our Jaipurian culinary experience. After about two kilometres of walking, we found ourselves back at the train station still searching and then being guided to walk back all the way to the bus station again, where we finally found a nice little restaurant in a side street hidden away. Having walked four extra kilometres on the frenetic streets of modern Jaipur, eating so much of the dust as we walked, I confess I was wondering whether I had any room left for food as I was starting to actually feel full from the muck.
But naturally, I found the room to eat. Having eaten a wonderful example of a Rajasthani meal, we started the walk back again to the train station. It was here we noticed a snack vending business that was filled with people coming and going. It just captured our attention and drew us in and thankfully so! Dad asked what people were queueing up for. “Kachori” was the answer. “We sell the best Pyaaz Kachori in all of India.”
“What is that?” my Dad asked.
“Onion Kachori, it is Rajasthan’s national snack and you must try it.”
This was the perfect opportunity for us to purchase something to eat for our next 15-hour train ride and so we purchased eight. If only we had purchased double that, as the attendant was by no means exaggerating the standard of their offering. The Kachoris were made piping hot, transported straight from the kitchen in the back to the display counter in volumes of fifty, disappearing almost as fast as they were unceremoniously dumped in the display window in front of the customers. People were buying them in volumes of 10, 15, even 20 at a time. They were incredible to taste, the unique spices of the Rajasthani spiced curried vegetables, encased in a crunchy, yet fluffy casing of golden crispy fried dough. While this may sound like a nightmare to those seeking cholesterol-free eating, the Kachoris were surprisingly free of the normally oily soaked essence and flavours of any other deep fried snacks I had eaten. Here, their technique was so well developed, that all that came through was a true burst of Rajasthan in every bite. If you go and you can afford to eat fried foods, it is an experience not to be missed.
As we made the third trip along this now familiar road back to the train station, I took a moment to ponder the day’s adventure. A smile crossed my face as I realised that I was in India and loving it!