Palace on wheels to Jaipur
A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2019 - 12:00am

(Part III)

Travel to India requires time and study to appreciate a rich historical past. My daughter Sara and I reserved only seven days to tour the golden triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. It was quite different when my husband Max, Philippine STAR publisher, was an International Press Institute (IPI) fellow. We would travel with well-known newspaper publishers of the world to the yearly IPI conferences that dealt with freedom of the press and the quickly transforming IT technology. As one of the spouses of these leading world journalists, I was privileged to join post conference tours to Alhambra, Spain; Seoul, South Korea; Boston, Massachusetts, etc. The most memorable was the “express ride to romance” in Jaipur, and its surrounding legendary sites for a whole week riding the legendary “Maharaja on Wheels” train in February 2001.

The magic carpet to the fairy-tale palaces and fortresses

Let me tell you how we were given the royal treatment for six days. Our section of the train was reserved for us months ahead with circle of IPI friends: Elizabeth Chilton, president of the Charleston Gazette of West Virginia, the Greenways of Boston Globe and the Ayers from Alabama.

The world-famous Palace on Wheels tour starts at the New Delhi station where turbaned valets accompany tourists to their cabins. The five-day package then costs $1,505 per person on double-occupancy basis, now it costs $4,450 for twin sharing during the peak season (October to March); $3,500 during lean season (April to September).

As the dawn broke through our silk-curtained window, I would draw the curtain and feel anxious as a vast expanse of desert manifested itself. I thought, this is really thick dust, worse than what covers New Delhi. This was promptly forgotten when a band of sari-clad women gave us orange flower garlands and painted red tika on our foreheads. An air-conditioned bus with a Brahmin tourism director then whisked us off to see the palaces and forts of Jaipur. Painted elephants carried us to the mounted palace fortress of Amber, the favorite of Maharani Gayatra Devi.

At the garden luncheon of the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur we met Rajmata Gayatri Devi, once rated by Vogue as one of the 10 most beautiful women of the world. Her accent reflects expensive private schooling; the manners impeccable but distant. At 80 plus, the lady radiates mystique. She is in the forefront of the “Keep Jaipur Beautiful Movement.” This is the woman who broke purdah and started the first girl’s school in Rajasthan. She broke almost every rule in the conservative Rajput Woman’s Guide to Living book. Her self-aborted political career began with a record breaking victory over the ruling Congress party and ended with her imprisonment by Indira Gandhi. Asked if Indira felt “insecure” or had any “threat perception” from her, her answer came with the characteristic British expression: “My dear, that question is really not for me to answer.”

Touring the princely states

Every day for almost a week, we would spend the whole day touring the famous princely states of Jaipur, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jailsalmer and Udaipur. Before six in the evening our tour buses would take us back to the train for afternoon tea. We would change into fresh clothes to go to the two dining cars, four coaches away, for British-style dinner. To unwind, we would have a few drinks in the Bar of Mirrors adjacent to the Maharajas and the Maharanis dining cars. Our neat silk tapestry-lined air-conditioned room had a compact shower room and toilet. The hot running water was convenient in the chilly 160C winter to wash away the thick golden sand that covered us after each day tour.

Unlike Delhi and Agra which were built steadily over the years by successive rulers, Jaipur is the culmination of a dream envisaged by a visionary prince, Sawai Jai Singh, the title “sawai” (more in worth than the others) conferred on him by the Moghul king Aurangzeb, becoming his influential administrative and diplomatic adviser. When Rajasthan was declared a state Jaipur became the administrative and commercial center. Jai Singh meticulously planned the urban city into seven blocks of buildings with tree-lined avenues. He invited several craftsmen, artists and merchants to come and live in the new city, thereby sowing the seeds of a rich legacy of craftsmanship and trade that thrives till today. The outer court is the shopping area Jaleb Chowk where Sara and I were dazzled by the abundant Jaipur mirror work, embroidered kameesh and salwar, leather ‘jooties’ cut like Aladdin’s slippers and Sanganer block printing on silk saris.

Maharaja Ram Singh enforced that all constructions be painted pink when the Prince of Wales visited the city in 1876. The nucleus of the Pink City is the sprawling City Palace or Chandra Mahal, covering almost one-seventh of Jaipur’s area. The unique palaces include the pink and white Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal) covering its five-story building with 953 niches where royal ladies in purdah could watch street festivals down below.

Walking along the ancient Silk route

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes connecting Europe to Asia. It was central to cultural interaction between the regions for many centuries. We walked through the haveli palaces of Jaisalmer, known as “The Golden City” because of its distinguished yellow sandstone architecture. Now a World Heritage Site, ancient merchants of these silk routes traded Oriental merchandise including opium. It is 575 km west of the state capital Jaipur. School children here are a privileged lot because Rajasthan has the lowest literacy rate.

The ancient stone observatory (Jantar-Mantara) in Jaipur of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (1724) contains giant geometric instruments to calculate eclipses and the spring equinox. European visitors like Portuguese priests Xavier de Silva and Figuereido stayed here. Jai Singh set up similar observatories in Delhi, Ujjain, Varanasi and Mathura.

Max and I joined a camel safari to the sand dunes of the Thar Desert. Our entertaining camel boy was called Ali Baba. It is the world’s 17th largest desert which many epic Bollywood Indian films use for their set. Another out of town tour 130 km from Jaipur is Ranthambhore, a former hunting ground of the Maharajahs. This time we were chilled to the bones as we joined the publishers’ tiger-watching party. Our thick winter jackets came handy for the tour took place in the freezing winter morning.

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