JaipurShades of Pink
Jaipur's particular shade is part Germolene, part wet sand, and with a touch of pepto-bismol and caramel thrown in.
To call Jaipur pink is like calling water wet – both statements are true but neither captures the infinite variety of what’s being described. Jaipur’s particular shade is part Germolene antiseptic, part wet sand – with a touch of Pepto-Bismol and caramel thrown in. Its hue changes throughout the day – at dawn its paler self appears to glow, while at dusk it radiates rich terracotta. During the monsoon season it settles into a shade that’s closer to baked rhubarb. But on the hottest, dustiest days, the city appears to emerge, fully formed, from the arid sweeping desert to the north.
The romance of the city’s distinctive colour has been enhanced by the myths of its creation. Most guidebooks will tell you that the city was first painted pink to celebrate the visit to the city in 1876 by the Prince of Wales. Pink is the colour of respect, welcome and of the rising sun. But like most myths, it’s not entirely true. The city had been painted pink long before, to imitate the splendid marble monuments of the Mughals. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II opted for a new rainbow look and decreed that every street in the city should be painted a different colour. But he didn’t like the result and ordered all-over pink instead. His decree coincided with the arrival of the Prince of Wales and the rest is history. It’s now laid down in law that the old city must always be pink – both myth and the tourist trade demand it.
I like the fact that Jaipur’s pinkness is more chaotic and accidental than guidebooks would have you believe. Jaipur itself is more chaotic too. It’s ferociously crowded and noisy – catch a bus and traders will catch it with you, trying to sell postcards, toys and trinkets. Attempt to cross the road by the Wind Palace and a host of people will accompany you, hoping to be rewarded for the help you didn’t ask for. The city’s pink shell is chipped, cracked and dented – much more than you’d imagine from watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – but beyond its scuffed, commercial exterior there runs a beguiling charm.
Jaipur was established in 1727 by Sawai Jai Singh II, ruler of the Kingdom of Amber. Jai Singh had been given the extra name ‘Sawai’ by a Mughal emperor. Sawai means ‘one plus one quarter’, the perfect name for a man who seemed more intelligent, witty and cultured than other people. One-and-a-Quarter Jai Singh was crowned as the Maharajah at the age of eleven, and was still only twenty-two when he founded Jaipur. It was India’s first planned city, based on a strict grid pattern of nine rectangles, subdivided into smaller blocks and surrounded by thick city walls pierced by seven gates. It’s a masterful, controlled design, which can sometimes be hard to fully appreciate given the crowds and traffic inside, but it has a beautiful, albeit chaotic integrity nevertheless.
I travelled to Jaipur by bus from Agra, enjoying the anti drink-drive road signs as we approached the pink city which pointed out that ‘a tree only hits in self-defence’. Just outside the city’s walls, as we inched along, I watched two women cooling the steaming back of a water buffalo with small cups of water scooped from a barrel. Entering Jaipur through one of its seven magnificent gates, the teeming old city was suddenly revealed in all its wild beauty. Aside from its startlingly pink hue, Jaipur is perhaps best known for an industry that also thrives on the vibrancy of its colours: hand-cut precious stones. I was told by a proud local man that “every seventh emerald in the world is cut and polished here, every ninth ruby and blue sapphire, and every eleventh diamond.” With a poetic flourish, he added that the “best blue sapphire should be the colour of a peacock’s neck. A ruby must be the colour of pigeon blood.” (I didn’t have the heart to say that, coming from Oxford, such comparisons would be hard to make.) Jaipur jewels are more than a colourful companion to their city’s pink walls – they’re apparently life-savers too. I had my palms read by an elderly astrologer who warned me that the only way to safeguard my health would be to buy a yellow sapphire, 5.5 carats in size, and wear it permanently on the index finger of my right hand. He was most insistent, but I left the pink city without a yellow stone. I feel ok so far.
Another industry that thrives in Jaipur, and whose fame once again rests on the beauty of its colours, is hand-printing. Watching an artisan repeatedly load his wooden printing block with dyes made from fruit and vegetables and press it into lengths of fabric was a mesmerising sight. Like so much else in Jaipur, the result was a riot of colour, yet in its endlessly repeated motifs it had a soothing, ordered quality. I have fabric from Jaipur draped around my neck as I write this. And, funnily enough, it’s pink.
Inevitably, when you’re in Jaipur you’ll admire the famous Wind Palace with its windows set at an angle to allow court women to look out and yet not be seen; you’ll marvel at the construction of Amber Fort with its perfumed garden and mirrored chambers faced with twenty million pieces of glass; you’ll be startled by the gigantic silver water urns at the City Palace – officially the largest silver objects in the world. The urns were made for Madho Singh II when he travelled to London for the coronation of King Edward VII – the man who inspired the myth of Jaipur’s pink hue. Madho Singh didn’t trust foreign water so had the vast urns filled from the Ganges to take with him, making them part of the largest, most ostentatious packed lunch of all time. And yet, in spite of all these feats of engineering, creativity, and design, it’s Jaipur’s pinkness that will always be the abiding memory. It’s a city that’s both ancient and modern, spiritual yet fiercely commercial, decaying but beautiful, infuriating and yet utterly sublime.