by Martin Noval

Paradoxical though it may seem, Jaipur is a “new ancient” city. New because it was founded as recently as 1727, but ancient because it was planned according to age-old principles of geomancy. Based on the ancient Hindu Vastu Shastra texts (and precursor of the Chinese Feng Shui), these texts prescribe how to design, build and furnish human spaces and structures so they harmonize with the structures of the cosmos and the self. As such, Jaipur is a microcosm with streets laid out in grids composed of nine squares, homologous with the planetary functions of the universe. In the center of town is the sumptuously decorated royal palace complex, home of the earthly ruler, as, macrocosmically, Mount Meru stands in the center of the universe and is the site of the palace of the god Shiva, its ruler. Even the widths of Jaipur’s streets were determined by cosmically auspicious numbers and are related to each other in cosmically harmonious proportions.

There is a uniformity of design and color in the buildings too; all this results not only in a handsome and charming urban landscape, but in a living structure that brings well being and prosperity to its inhabitants, as it places them in a city space that is in harmony with the divine structure of the universe.

But long before they built Jaipur the Kachchawa dynasty ruled from a city located just a few miles away known as Amber. The present fort-palace, built on tiers in the rugged hills, dates from the beginning of the 17th century. It is a fairy tale of a palace with beautifully decorated pavilions and water channels, mirrored chambers and wonderful views over the surrounding countryside and of the defensive crenellated ramparts that snake up and down the surrounding hills. Although Hindu, the architecture and décor of the fort and its palaces show strong Mughal influences, one many examples of India’s cultural syncretism. Just as kings and dignitaries did in olden times, we too can ride up to the fort along stone-paved rampways and through triumphal gateways into the main courtyard of the palace on the backs of richly caparisoned elephants. Adjoining the palace is a wonderful pure marble goddess temple where Kali in her terrific sacrificial form is the center of worship.

Jaipur’s own City Palace is also a harmonious blend of Hindu and Islamic design. A vast, sprawling complex, each building is set in its own garden. Most of the palace is now a museum but the current raja still lives in part of the complex. The buildings contain displays of finery, the trappings of royalty, from textiles, costumes, carpets and furniture to weapons and paintings. The different parts of the palace are entered through beautifully decorated monumental gateways, one of them flanked by enormous white marble elephants. Among the more remarkable artifacts is a pair of silver water jugs. The largest silver objects ever created, they were used to store Ganges water and were taken to England so that Raja Madho Singh II could bathe in holy water every day during his four-month sojourn there to attend the coronation of King Edward VII.

One of the courtyards was used for dance performances and has four exquisitely carved and enameled doorways each with a different theme representing the four seasons.

Jaipur’s most famous monument is the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds. Built in 1799, it is actually more a façade than a palace (it is one room deep) and contains 953 stone screened windows in innumerable styles and designs and cleverly positioned to catch the faintest of breezes. The royal ladies would sit unseen behind the latticework screens and watch the action in the bustling bazaar below. The building exemplifies a major theme in Indian architecture: the repetition of the basic elements of a design, which provokes a hallucinatory, consciousness-altering effect in the viewer. Ultimately, this is a creation of sheer whimsy, a purposeless structure, built just for effect; and like the Eiffel Tower, it has become the iconic representation of its city.

Just next to the City Palace is the Jantar Mantar, literally the Formula of Instruments. Built in 1827, it is the last “stone age” observatory (in the tradition of Machu Pichu and Stonehenge). It contains monumental and surreal astronomical instruments. These sundials and astrolabes can tell time accurately to the second, give the positions of various celestial bodies, and the time of certain astronomical occurrences like the solstices and equinoxes. And all of this was not for disinterested scientific knowledge, but rather for astrological purposes, as traditional Indians were (and indeed still are) convinced that events and the outcomes of actions can be predicted. These instruments were the most accurate in the world at the time they were built.

We visit an ancient Shiva temple, the most sacred in Jaipur, where the central image is said to be Swayambhu, that is, self-manifested, created by the god himself. The temple predates the town and is one of the great spiritual centers in Rajasthan.

Beyond the planning and symmetry, the forts and palaces, Jaipur is a throbbing, vibrant commercial town, a market for the traditional products that are produced, still in a pre-industrial way, both within and around the city: gemstones, jewelry, the distinctive Rajasthani upturned, pointy-toed shoes, and blue pottery; but most noticeable of all, Jaipur colors cloth. Tie-and-dye and block printed fabric in a dazzling kaleidoscope of colors and patterns hang in the shops and almost overwhelm the uniform deep salmon color of the buildings lining the streets. But if you can wrench your bedazzled eyes from the cloth and check out the street profile, you’ll be charmed by the delightful facades, all planned when the city was built, with their protruding screened balconies and slender-columned domed pavilions. And the monumental gateways to the city, in the same salmon color, are even more fantastic, their details—window frames, arches and turrets—outlined in white.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2012