By Shahida Sakeri on June 8, 2018
I blame it on the movies – having watched so many films with incredible Rajasthani settings (‘The Darjeeling Limited’ and ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ to name a few), the state is painted in beautifully striking colours on the canvas of my mind. The image of its opulent palaces and historic hill-forts, together with extravagant wedding celebrations, moves me each time the word ‘Rajasthan’ drops in a conversation, prompting me to fantasise endlessly about visiting this land of Maharajas.
One day, that golden opportunity came straight from AirAsia X office, offering me a jaunt to the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur, in conjunction with its inaugural direct route from Kuala Lumpur to the destination. You can only imagine the kind of elation I experienced! Thus, with Bollywood anthems playlist ready on my Spotify and an overflowing excitement of ticking off the destination on my dream list, I finally set foot in the Pink City.
Jaipur is the biggest city of the Rajasthan state, and is a part of India’s Golden Triangle together with Delhi and Agra. It is renowned for its aristocratic roots, majestic architecture and handmade crafts such as delicate textiles and dazzling gems – in fact, I heard that the city is the go-to place for most brides-to-be in India to shop for their wedding. Read on as I dip into the tales of this remarkable city and experience its most-celebrated places that should be in your next travel itinerary should you plan to visit Jaipur in the future.
Also known as the Amer Fort, this once grand home of the Rajput royalties could probably be one of the most popular sites for filming Bollywood period movies such as Deepika Padukone’s Bajirao Mastani, and Jodhaa Akbar starring the dashing Hrithik Roshan. It boasts a timeless grand allure of Hindu and Mughal architectures that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also attest to the glories of the Rajput kingdom. Raja Man Singh began the construction of the fort in the 16th century and it was fully completed only two centuries later under the reign of Sawai Jai Singh II. For ages, the fort functioned as the capital of the kingdom before Sawai Jai Singh II relocated it to where the present Jaipur city is located due to acute water crisis and overpopulation.
Like many other ancient forts, Amber is huge in size, thus travellers should expect to spend at least two to three hours here. Get ready to time travel as travellers admire the architectural marvels that sit within the vicinity including Ganesh Pol, Man Singh Palace, Diwan-E-Aam, Shila Dewi Temple and my personal favourite, the glitzy mirror palace called Sheesh Mahal. Now, it is also important to note that Amber Fort is a popular tourist site in Jaipur. During the day, travellers can take advantage of the natural sunlight for amazing photography shots, but they need to brave through large crowds. Conversely, travellers can visit the fort at night and skip the noise and heat altogether; the fort gleams in different hues under the stars and if you allow for a little imagination, it does make you feel that you are transported back to the era when the fort was at its heyday, especially when there are no annoying tourists around with their selfie sticks to knock you back into reality. There is also light and sound show that takes place at the bottom of the fort near Maota Lake at night, which unfolds the historical tales and legends of the 28 kings of the Kachwaha (Rajput) kingdom.
Entrance fees: INR200 for foreign travellers and INR25 for Indian nationals. The Light and Sound Show in English costs an additional INR200 per person.
The proto-modernist City Palace served as the capital after the relocation made by Sawai Jai Singh II from Amber Fort. Being the modern and well-travelled gentleman as he was, the king instructed the palace and its structures to be designed with Mughal, European and the Shilpa Shastra (the Indian ancient science of arts and crafts) architectural influences. The complex spreads over several acres and was in fact, the first planned city of medieval India. Today, the royal family still lives in the private section of the palace, while the rest of the complex is open to the public such as throne room, Diwan-I-Khas (a private audience pavilion), museum and special gallery for crafts produced by artisans of Jaipur that travellers can purchase as souvenirs. Do consider joining the private tour of the Chandra Mahal building where I believe the true gems are hidden: Sukh Niwas Blue Room and the golden room of Shobha Niwas with their elaborate interiors and ornate archways. All gates within the premises are also incredibly gorgeous and make stunning backdrops for Instagram posts.
Entrance fees: INR500 for foreign travellers and INR190 for Indian nationals. The Chandra Mahal private tour costs an additional INR2,500 per person.
Probably the most photographed architecture in Jaipur, Hawa Mahal is the city’s icon built in 1799 by Sawai Pratap Singh, who was the grandson of Sawai Jai Singh II. Built as an extension of the City Palace leading to the zenana or the ladies’ chambers, there were many claims regarding the inspiration behind the architecture’s beehive design. The popular belief is that the architect, Lal Chand Ustad, was inspired by the crown of Krishna, the Hindu God. Hawa Mahal was initially constructed to allow women back then to witness the day-to-day events and royal processions happening on the streets through jhakoras or windows without appearing in public. These jhakoras, moreover – all 953 of them – are carefully positioned for proper ventilation, especially during hot summers, giving Hawa Mahal the moniker ‘Palace of the Winds’.
Entrance fees: INR50 for foreign travellers and INR10 for Indian nationals.
King Sawai Jai Singh II was a man of many expertise, including astronomy. Since ancient times, Indians have been referring to astronomy calculations prior to holding auspicious events. During the reign of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah, the sharp-witted King Sawai Jai Singh II was commissioned to revise the astronomy calculations of Ulugh Beg’s tables, which he did by gathering data and assembling a group of great astronomers from east to west. He then built five astronomical observatories in India, with the largest one being in Jaipur that is in fact, still functions until today.
There is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments built on site that can be used to estimate local time and locate celestial objects. The world’s largest sun clock can also be found here, which is said to be accurate up to 20 seconds. Since 2010, Jantar Mantar enjoys World Heritage status by UNESCO and considered as one of Jaipur’s greatest assets. Travellers should consider visiting the site at mid-day, when the sun is right above the head, to understand how the readings are taken. Guides and audio guides are also available upon request at the ticket counter. The site is only a stone’s throw away from the City Palace, so it would be a great idea for travellers to visit these two sites at one go.
Entrance fees: INR200 for foreign travellers and INR50 for Indian nationals.
Along with Amer Fort and Jaigarh Fort, the Nahargarh Fort forms a strong ring of defence for Jaipur city. It was built by Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734 in one of the oldest mountain ranges of the world, the Aravalli Hills. The story goes that the initial construction of the fort was hampered by the unsettling spirit of a Rathore prince, Nahar Singh Bhomia, thus a temple specially dedicated to him was built inside the fort to pacify the spirit, consequently lending the fort its name. Another version of the story, which is more popular, says that the fort received its name from the mighty tigers that used to frequent the site, hence the name nahargarh, which means ‘abode of tigers’.
A popular attraction of this fort complex is the two-storey building called Madhavendra Bhawan built by Sawai Madho Singh as a royal pleasure retreat for him and his 12 queens. All the opulent suites are meticulously adorned with delicate floral motifs and designed in a manner that allows brilliant natural light to flood in. Today, the government of Rajasthan has collaborated with Saat Saath Arts in bringing spectacular art pieces by top Indian and international artists to be displayed within the building, turning it into a heritage art gallery.
The Jaipur Wax Museum is the newest attraction in the Nahargarh fort complex where it houses lifelike wax statues of prolific Indian icons such as Mahatma Ghandi, Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan. Also, be sure to visit the first glass palace museum in India, Sheesh Mahal, located near the entrance of the fort that honours Mughal and Rajput architecture, displaying approximately 2.5 million glass pieces that create a magical kaleidoscopic effect. Give me some good Bollywood beats and I swear I could go into full dancing mode a la ‘Deewani Mastani’ in this particular room because the space is so dreamlike!
Entrance fees: INR200 for foreign travellers and INR50 for Indian nationals. Entrance to the Wax Museum and Sheesh Mahal costs an additional INR700 per person.
Stepping into Chokhi Dhani is like entering a world frozen in time, a dreamscape where history and traditions are treasures to be honoured. This is the place where travellers get to be part of the unique Rajasthani culture on a splendid evening sparked by the vibrant spirit of its people. There are plenty of fun activities available here including camel rides, cultural folk dances, puppet show, magic show, acrobatics, and fire performances. Travellers can also get their photo taken in ethnic costumes for a lasting memory. The nights conclude with a feast of traditional Rajasthani dining amidst open-air setting. To take the experience a notch higher, there is a resort on site offering incredibly gorgeous rooms that pay tribute to Rajasthani’s ancient splendour.
The rates at Chokhi Dhani cultural village start at INR700 per person.
Baori or stepwells are the unique way of collecting and providing water all year round during medieval India. Chand Baori, in particular, was built in the Abhaneri village between the 8th and 9th century by King Chand who gave the stepwell its name. It is considered to be India’s largest and deepest stepwells with 13 storeys of 3,500 narrow steps arranged in perfect symmetry on three sides of the walls. Besides functioning as a water storage system, the baori also served as gathering place for nearby villagers to cool off during hot summer days. The remarkable geometric complexity of the stairs truly makes for a wondrous sight, remaining as a truly significant Rajasthani architectural legacy considering it was built over a thousand years ago – just imagine the precision that the ancient workers possessed back then! If the baori looks familiar, you might have seen it on ‘The Fall’ and Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ movies.
Entrance is free, but take note that it takes approximately two hours to reach Chand Baori Stepwell from Jaipur city.
There’s no more thrilling way to see Jaipur’s heavenly sights than from a hot air balloon. With Skywaltz Balloon Safari, a hot air balloon ride is never boring. I was up before dawn because I had to be driven about an hour or so from Jaipur to Samode, where I was treated with hot masala tea and crunchy biscuits in darkness while the balloons were prepared on a field. Usually, the trip departs between 5:45 a.m. and 6:45 a.m., when the light is at its most beautiful. Before long, my group and I got into the basket, received safety instructions and were lifted off with our pilot of the day, Francisco. The best thing about flying over the rural Samode valley is that the ride does not only give travellers a bird’s eye view of the beautiful countryside, but also the glimpse into local daily life as it hovers quietly and closely above the villages. Be ready to be wowed by Rajasthan’s scenic rural landscapes!
Price: USD265 per person. The price includes free pick-up and drop to and from the hotel.
Due to its rich history and vibrant culture, one should expect no less than beautiful and colourful crafts when it comes to finding traditional goods of Jaipur. For years, the old city has been the world’s gemstone capital, plying priceless items such as the dazzling kundan (age-old form of jewellery believed to have originated from the royal courts of Rajasthan) sets and lac bangles, which are sought-after souvenirs.
Other memorable mementos to bring home include traditional Rajasthani textiles (sarees, lehengas and embroidered bed sheets), handcrafted camel leather products, and handmade paper diaries. On top of these, I personally love the local blue pottery collectibles that definitely bring cheer to the dining table. For places to shop, Sireh Deori Bazaar – located opposite of Hawa Mahal – makes a good one-stop place as it has everything that Jaipur is famous for. Johari Bazaar, Chandpole Bazaar and Nehru Bazaar also offer more options.
Mandawa Haveli: A former residence for the 15th ruler of Mandawa in the heart of Jaipur that has been transformed into a dreamlike fantasy land of majestic grandeur and timeless Rajput architecture. During certain nights, there are special folk dance and puppet shows are performed at its courtyard.
Narain Niwas: An actual palace turned into heritage hotel that celebrates the glorious past of Rajput royalty. Expect to see elaborate Italian-Mughal interiors of colourful walls and decorated ceilings. It also houses Bar Palladio – arguably the most popular and exquisitely styled bar in Jaipur.
Hotel Grand Uniara: A former historical palace neither suffocatingly traditional nor drearily contemporary that is fitting for a modern-day king.
Hotel Rockwell: Convenient hotel that is strategically located near to iconic points of interest such as City Palace and Jantar Mantar.
Hotel Ashok: Located in the heart of Jaipur city, Ashok is a decent lodging that captures the charm of the princely city. Rates are affordable and employees are friendly.
The Fern Hotel: One of the great examples of ecotels in Jaipur that remains modern yet mindful towards environment and society. Its world cuisine Restobar is also one of Jaipur’s most popular restaurants.
Spice Court: A restaurant showcasing hearty Rajasthani cuisine that melds flavours and traditions of Jaipur with finest ingredients and techniques. While dining, enjoy the vibrant ambience with live music and puppet show in the evening.
AirAsia X is the only low-cost carrier that offer direct connection between Kuala Lumpur and Jaipur. The airline operates four times weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Guests should opt for the Hot Seats that provide extra legroom for extra comfort, while the Quiet Zone promises a peaceful journey with minimal noise throughout the five-hour and a half flight. I have flown in the aforementioned categories and found the seats spacious and comfortable enough to endure the journey (take note that I am 5’5”). For travellers who don’t mind splurging a little, they should opt for the airline’s award-winning flatbed for optimum experience.
Jaipur has three distinct seasons: summer, monsoon and winter. It is best to plan your visit carefully. Winter months, which are from October to March, are generally pleasant and ideal. July to September is hot and humid. Summer in Jaipur, which is from April to June, can be brutal with temperatures going up to 45° Celsius.