Walking out of my dorm room, I headed towards the wash basin area. It had been a long day, beginning with a 5am flight, followed by an entire afternoon of roaming about in the Jaipur ‘winter’ sun which was anything but wintery. I couldn’t wait to take my contact lenses off and plop under the blankets.
I reached the wash basin area and almost ran into this tall, bearded guy, who smiled at me. Hmm, cute smile. I smiled back. You know, one of those polite “Hello” “Hello” smiles that are common in a hostel full of strangers from all over the world. It usually isn’t followed up with a conversation. Usually.
“So, you’re new here?” asked the guy, washing his hands in the adjacent basin.
“Uh, yes.” I said, washing my hands and looking at his smiling face in the mirror.
“Where’re you from? I’m Nihal.”
“ I’m Mukto. From Kolkata. You?”
“ Oh. Nice.”
I had run out of my capacity for small talk. And my hands were washed too. Should I say ‘Ok then, goodnight’ or will that be too abrupt?
“So, what plans for tonight?” he asked.
I was stumped. Am I supposed to have plans at night? Don’t people just go to sleep? “Umm… no plans as such. What about you?” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“I’m going for dinner with this group at the Indian Coffee House. Do you want to join in?”
I was on my first solo trip to Jaipur. First solo trip to anywhere, actually. The trip was decided and the bookings were made purely on impulse. Because, had I gotten my rationality involved, I would not have let myself into this whole going solo madness. Because I’m really shy at approaching people I don’t know – and in Jaipur, that’d be a city full of such people. So, in a moment of great wisdom, I booked my accommodation at Zostel – a hostel for travellers, and the best in India (at least as per the reviews). I figured, if I place myself amidst a bunch of strangers living and breathing in the same space, someone is bound to come and talk to me sooner or later. Which worked, as you can see from the above conversation. Ka-ching!
I had arrived in Jaipur pretty early that day – around 7.30 am or so. I reached Zostel by about 8.15. The check-in was at 12 pm, so I lounged in the common room, working on my laptop and not making eye contact with anyone in that room. Many people came and went, a couple sat and had breakfast right in front of me, but my eyes were intently fixed on the screen. The sheer discomfort of being alone among so many unknown people was unnerving and I just wanted someone to allot me my room where I could go and curl up in the bed. But my room was a 4 bed dorm. Which meant at least 3 strange faces I couldn’t escape. What was I thinking, booking my stay here?
By the time it was 12, the common room was more or less empty, as most had gone out, sightseeing. I got into my dorm, kept my bags, took a quick shower, and armed with my Jaipur guide [provided by Zostel], I headed out as well.
First I went to the Rajwada hotel (suggested by one of the crews at Zostel), located near the hostel, for lunch. It’s a rooftop restaurant and was empty when I walked in. I placed my order and was taking in the view from up there when this woman came in. She was white skinned, blonde haired, wore spectacles and was quite smiley and friendly. She sat at the table diagonally across mine. We were the only two people there, and we didn’t say a single word to each other or even look at each other. We ate our respective meals in silence. And that felt amazing. For the first time, I could see one of the appeals of solo travel – you didn’t have to interact with ANYONE (not even out of politeness) if you didn’t want to.
I walked out of Rajwada, feeling a lot more motivated to make the most of my trip. And headed towards the Hawa Mahal, which was at a walking distance from where I was.
Stop 1 – Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds)
This building is synonymous with Jaipur. Pick up any book or postcard or article related to Jaipur, and you’ll see this five-storeyed, honeycombed, rusty red & pink, palatial structure distinctly stand out in all of them. This Mahal was built by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799, with the intent of giving the royal ladies a chance to observe the festivals celebrated outside as well as the everyday life through those 953 windows, (called jharokas) while maintaining their privacy. The structure has been made with sandstone and the windows are decorated with intricate latticework.
The pictures we see are mostly of the outer portion of the Mahal, which can be seen from the main road. It may seem like the front of the Mahal, but is actually the back! The entrance to this place is from the back of the complex and inside, the place is huge! A person standing right outside the Hawa Mahal, voluntarily escorted me till the ticket counter – the first of many instances of Jaipur’s hospitality. I bought my ticket and got in. Since I was there on a weekday, the place wasn’t that crowded.
The entrance gate led to a big courtyard, with double storeyed buildings covering 3 sides and a fountain right at the center of it. The first and second storeys have patios of their own. I began strolling around the place, following either the signs directing towards the entrances and exits on each floor or the crowds.
I was walking on the patio on the first floor when this guy, who had been trying to take a selfie for the past 10 minutes, asked if I could take a picture of him against the backdrop of the Mahal.
“Sure,’ I said, and took the picture.
Then I walked off to a comparatively empty point on the patio, and tried to take a few selfies.
“Would you like me to take a picture of yours as well?”
I looked to my right and found that same man, now walking towards me with this wide grin.
“That’d be nice. Thanks.” I handed him my phone. He took a couple of pictures, we exchanged the usual niceties, like telling our names and where we were from. He was from Chandigarh.
“So, where are your friends?” he asked.
“I’m travelling alone,” I said.
“Oh? All alone? That’s impressive!” he said, his eyes lighting up in a disturbing way. “You Bengali girls are very…unconventional, heh?”
“Uh… Haha..i guess, yeah.” I began edging towards the entrance to the next floor. And promptly went up those stairs.
I began walking through the corridors, the domed, pillared canopies, taking in the beautifully patterned ceilings in some areas and peeped through many of the tiny portholes as well. Inside, the chambers were indeed cool, courtesy the cooling effect provided by the passing breeze through the many windows – which was also one of the major intents behind its architecture. Inside the Hawa Mahal, the spaces are not heavily ornamented – but have an elegant aesthetic of their own.
I was admiring one such corridor when I heard a familiar voice.
“Do you have water with you?” The Chandigarh man again.
My bottle, kept in the side compartment of my backpack, was in clear view. So I couldn’t exactly refuse.
“Sorry, I’m irritating you a lot,” he said, smiling and finishing off half the water content.
You don’t say! I thought. “No, no, not an issue,” I said, stretching my lips into a reluctant smile. The man kept drinking the water and talked about how bored he was roaming around all alone since his friends had ditched him (sending a hint I was not willing to take). With my eye on the rapidly declining water content in my bottle, I kept nodding, and the moment he gave my bottle back I walked off, without giving him a chance to resume the conversation. I was more or less done with Hawa Mahal, so I got out and headed towards the City Palace.
Stop 2 – City Palace
This one was at a walking distance from Hawa Mahal. I walked in through the richly decorated gateway, and was once again taken by the sheer hugeness of the place!
The City Palace was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh. Within this complex, the most visited areas are Chandra Mahal, Mukut Mahal, Mubarak Mahal, Pritam Niwas Chowk, Maharani’s Palace, The City Palace Museum and Shri Govind Ji’s Temple. The first thing I saw in here was the Diwan – i -Khaas (or the Hall of private audience). This was a marble-floored chamber, situated in an open courtyard. The most striking features here were the huge silver urns which are believed to be the world’s largest sterling silver vessels. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well. Such prettiness!
And then there was the Diwan-i-Aam, (also known as Sabha Niwas) which was the hall of public audience. This place was used for public gatherings and social events. It has been turned into an art gallery and had paintings of the Maharajas and also other Persian, Mughal and Rajastani art. In the middle of the room there was this area with seating arrangements, along with a royal throne. Photography wasn’t allowed here, which is a pity, because this room was a sight to behold!
I proceeded towards the Maharani’s Palace, which basically showcased arms and weapons of the royal clan; the Baggi Khana, where several kinds of royal carriages were kept on display, and also walked into the Pritam Niwas Chowk, which is the inner courtyard that provides access to the Chandra Mahal.
This place had 4 small gates, each with 4 different kinds of motifs to symbolise 4 seasons and Hindu gods. There was the Peacock Gate, the Lotus Gate, the Rose Gate, and the Green (also called Leheriya) Gate. I really wanted to have a picture of me standing in front of one of the gates, but all of them were crowded with tourists taking their pictures. And, well, I was too shy to ask someone to take my picture (*whacks self*).
In Chandra Mahal, which is a 7 storeyed structure, visitors are allowed only on the ground floor, which basically is a museum. Most of this palace features as the residence of the descendants of the royal family.
I had been walking for a long time. So I decided to loiter near the Diwan-i-Khaas a bit before proceeding towards Mubarak Mahal. I was looking for an empty bench to sit on when accidentally I made eye contact with the last person I wanted to see at that time – the Chandigarh guy from Hawa Mahal.
“We meet again! Looks like it’s meant to be,” he said, sauntering towards me.
Is he stalking me or something?
“Haha, yeah. Hey. ” was all I could manage.
“Why don’t you give me your number, so we can catch up?”
Catch up on what exactly?
“Uhh, I’m not comfortable giving my number, I’m sorry,” I said, desperately looking for a way to get out of this conversation.
“Where’s your stay at Jaipur?”
“Okay…I’ll find you on Facebook I guess. (Persistent!) So you’ve seen the Diwan-i-Aam? I’m headed that way. ”
“Yes! (oh the relief) Yes, I have. But you go ahead. It’s beautiful!”
I almost pushed him towards the Diwan-i-aam and rushed towards the Mubarak Mahal.
Mubarak Mahal was a tad different looking. It had definite Islamic architectural influences. Inside, it was a museum, filled with various kinds of textiles – right from costumes worn by the kings and queens to carpets, different types of prints on fabrics and more.
By the time I was done with Mubarak Mahal, I was pretty tired and was dragging my feet out of the Mahal, when I spotted that Chandigarh guy proceeding towards the Mahal. He hadn’t seen me yet, and I knew, this time if he does see me, he’s going to latch on to me for the rest of the day. So I mustered all the energy I had and rushed through the exit gate at lightning speed.
I wanted to visit Jantar Mantar as well, but it was already 5 pm and that place closes at 4.30. So instead I got myself a Matka Kulfi and headed towards the Jal Mahal – my last stop for the day.
Stop 3 – Jal Mahal
A palace floating right in the middle of a lake – what can be more wondrous than that! There’s no entry fee here, so I walked right in and went to one of the viewing points, where people were busy clicking pictures. I stood there a while, waiting for them to leave, and only then could I savour the serenity of this place. Jaipur is a beautiful but pretty chaotic city. And in the middle of that, just the sight of these tranquil waters is enough to calm you down.
The Jal Mahal (or Water Palace), was built by Maharaja Madho Singh I, and it actually is a 5 storeyed structure, of which 4 remain under the waters of the Man Sagar Lake. It is a beautiful specimen of Rajastani architecture and looks even more surreal when it’s lit up in the evening. Earlier there used to be boat rides till the palace, but as of now, visitors are restricted from going anywhere near the Mahal. So now, you can only admire it from far, while taking a stroll through the chowpatty or street market there. There were plenty of vendors selling souvenirs, local jewellery, clothes and artifacts, along with various kinds of street food.
Just sit there, munch on some chaat, take in the view of the lake, the palace and the evening skies, against the faint backdrop of the surrounding Nahargarh hills – and you wouldn’t notice the minutes melting into hours. I was there for almost 2 hours, until the evening light was gone and the palace was lit up. Jal Mahal was, hands down, my favourite spot in Jaipur for the day.
I was back at Zostel by around 8 or so. With nothing else to do, I decided to take off my contacts and call it a day. So I went to wash my hands, which brings me back to my conversation with Nihal.
I went into the common area with my wallet and saw him sitting with a group of 4 more people, all foreigners. He introduced me to all of them – 3 of them were Dutch and one was from Canada (if I remember correctly). I don’t remember any of their names (sorry!) except for Maike’s because she became my travel companion for the next 2 days. Together we walked to the Indian Coffee House, which is basically a south Indian eating joint. We ordered a lot of dosas, and vadas and utappams (masala dosa was the crowd favourite). And had a lot of laugh over the funny anecdotes shared by everyone in the group. It was such an easy camaraderie – you wouldn’t realise these people were strangers even a day or two back. Then we went to the rooftop restaurant I had been to in the afternoon and had a beer each.
Anyway, in between all these, I had a conversation with Maike, where she told me she was going to visit the forts the next day. And I, quite uncharacteristically, asked if I could join her. She said yes! Also, I discovered she was the same woman I had seen in the afternoon, while having lunch, sitting at the table right beside me. Destiny, at play!
We were back at the hostel by around 11.30. We bid our farewells to Nihal, who was leaving in a few hours and this Dutch guy who was leaving the next morning. And that wraps up my first day in Jaipur!
Stay tuned for my second day, filled with my visit to the most beautiful fort I’ve been to till date, more detours, delicious foods, a stunning sunset and quite some amount of impulsive shopping. Coming up soon!