The Pink City is steeped in tradition and wears its legacy proudly. It is full of heart, generosity, and grace.
Of all the cities that I have known and loved, Jaipur has been the most transformative in my life.
Perhaps I have a karmic connection with this place of forts and palaces, towers and turrets. I had to search deep within myself to find the essence, the thread of the complicated emotions that bind me to it. There is something in the air in Jaipur — the dry clean desert air — that makes me breathe more slowly, more meditatively. And when, in 2006, I helped set up the festival which was the prelude to the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival in its present avatar, I began a relationship with the Pink City through a different lens altogether. Twelve years later, I have gotten under its skin in a unique way, as it has under mine.
Jaipur was built along the principles of Vastu Shastra, following auspicious directional alignments, and was perhaps one of the first planned urban developments in India in modern history. Maharaja Jai Singh II had a deep interest in architecture and astronomy, and his master architect Vidyadhar Bhattacharya meticulously designed the city as an eight-part mandala divided into nine blocks. The broad streets and symmetrical alignments of the old walled city have adapted better to the present day than many in the rest of India.
This is a personal map traced alongside my own memories of the city. I won’t tell you about the Jantar Mantar, or Amer Fort, or the City Palace. I will leave you to discover the Albert Hall Museum, the Jawahar Kala Kendra, and the Anokhi café. Jaipur is steeped in tradition and wears its legacy proudly. Yet it is perhaps also the most cosmopolitan of Indian cities, on the cutting edge in fashion, in design, in jewellery, in the aesthetics of luxury. It understands and respects beauty. It is full of heart, generosity, and grace.
As I drive in from Delhi, the familiar landmarks welcome me with the intimacy that comes from long habit. That hill, those bushes, a spanking new heritage hotel. A stately camel, a herd of prancing Sirohi goats. The squalor and ugliness that surrounds most Indian cities are strangely absent here. Instead, there are bustling bazaars with vibrant colours; the most extraordinary collections of marble statuary, fountains, and pillars; and gods, goddesses, arches, and love seats.
As we approach the Hawa Mahal, the cascading displays of razais evoke the most arresting tapestries of local design traditions. Each quilt presents a design vocabulary, either with the lush and elegant floral Mughal prints, or smaller, symmetrical Sanganeri motifs and rich Bagru patterns — each unfurls a vista of unfolding colour. Tired as I may be from the drive, I stop to admire the texture of these fine razais, the stories they tell and the dreams they promise. Every year, for 12 years now, I have bought one — sometimes two or three — and they are piled inside a wooden trunk at my home in Delhi. I am deeply attached to them, for every one of them has a specific narrative in its folds.
That white-on-white print with grey latticed shadows was bought that first year of the festival when Shobhaa De had dazzled us all, as we shivered in the cold night air, as the music echoed and resonated in the Durbar Hall at Diggi Palace. The deep purple velvet quilt marks the second year when Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie were among the speakers and the great Hindi writer Uday Prakash had the audience weeping when he read out one of his poignant stories. And so on — a library of memories, dreams, and some nightmares, as in the other Salman Rushdie year, when he couldn’t come.
I am a loyal creature of habit, and every year since January 2006, I have stayed during the Jaipur Literature Festival at Loharu House, Civil Lines, the guest of the ever-affable Nawabzada Duru Mia and his gracious wife Begum Fauzia. An island of peace, quiet, and civility, Loharu House has a fascinating soundscape. There is the occasional hoot of a train from the railway crossing nearby, and then the roosters crowing, followed by the laughter of children from the Loharu Montessori Children’s House next door. And in the afternoons, the occasional harsh cry of a peacock. All this in the backdrop of the most deep and delicious silence anywhere. There is an eclectic mix of high-profile houseguests and we all appreciate the Begum’s legendary kebabs, as well as authentic Rajasthani and Hyderabadi fare.
The Diggi Palace, which hosts the world’s largest literature festival every January, is quite a different sight when I visit it other times of the year. For me, this beloved spot epitomises all that I love about Jaipur and Rajasthan. The dignity, generosity, and nobility of the Rajput way of life is exemplified in Ram Pratap Singh Diggi and his beautiful wife Jyotika. The old trees surrounding the lawns are alive with parrots and peacocks. The old rooms breathe history, and the sky above is always, in my memory, a brilliant blue.
For me, the Durbar Hall in the Diggi Palace is the heart of the Jaipur Literature Festival. That is where we began more than a decade ago, with the words resonating across the high ceilings, as the occasional sparrow or pigeon flew in to listen curiously to the writers. The magnificent Rambagh Palace hotel, with its marble corridors and magnificent gardens, hosts the opening dinner for the writers. This architectural beauty, built in 1835 and named after Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II, represents an inspired blend of Rajput and Mughal styles.
The street food and local cuisines of Jaipur are even more wonderful than the exalted high-end ones. The piping hot potato and onion kachoris at Rawat Mishthan Bhandar on Station Road have a cult status with foodies through the length and breadth of India, with long queues winding along the road in the mornings to savour the first batch. Friends coming from Jaipur to Delhi, who know of my weakness for such sinful treats, ply me with these fabled kachoris, and with jalebis and ghevar and gajak and suchlike.
Every time I hear the strains of “Kesariya Balam” echoing across the lawns of Diggi Palace, I feel a powerful sense of belonging, an identification with Rajasthani traditions and culture. This essential song of welcome was composed by Allah Jilai Bai of Bikaner, then a singer in the court of Maharaja Ganga Singh. Emblematic of the musical traditions of the Thar desert, it is inspired by the legend of Dhola Maru — a love story of the Narwar prince Dhola and Poogal princess Maru. It makes me think of my hometown, Nainital, in the distant Himalayas, and dwell upon how Jaipur, nestled amidst the low hills of the ancient Aravalli ranges, has, with its characteristic generosity, taken me in and given me so much. #KhabarLive