‘The Jal Mahal in the middle of a lake was genuinely ethereal’
‘Quite frankly, it makes Hay or Edinburgh look like afternoon tea with the vicar’
Jaipur Literature Festival has been described as “the greatest literary show on Earth” and it’s certainly the one every writer hopes to be invited to. It’s larger, louder, brighter and more bombastic than any festival I’ve ever attended, with drums, dancing, non-stop food and drink and unbelievably exotic parties thrown in forts and palaces. The flow of alcohol reaches Hemingway proportions. Quite frankly, it makes Hay or Edinburgh look like afternoon tea with the vicar.
It’s free, and draws crowds from all over India. And by crowds, I mean as many as 30,000 people in one day, many of them sleeping in the street or on the platforms of Jaipur railway station to attend. Stars this year included Tom Stoppard, the irreverent Briton-basher Shashi Tharoor, Bollywood superstar Nawazuddin Siddiqui and former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai. I got a 45-minute slot, too, as well as visiting a couple of local schools; the children I met formidably intelligent and informed.
My first impressions were troubling. I’d been put up in the Marriott Hotel near the airport and, while I’m not complaining, it was rather too businesslike. If you’re going to get a feel for Jaipur, you should really stay in the luxurious Rambagh Palace or one of the many historic town houses known as
havelis. The Marriott was also a 40-minute drive into town, through some of the loudest, most hectic traffic I’ve ever experienced.
As dusk fell on my first day, I found myself in the back of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, swallowed up by a world that I found incomprehensible, almost nightmarish. It wasn’t just the packed streets, the endlessly blaring cars and motorbikes, the crumbling buildings, the sense of chaos, dozens of tiny shops all selling the same things. Mixed up in all this was an insane menagerie that included horses, camels, a cow, goats, dogs, monkeys and some quite enormous rats.
It was only the next day that Jaipur began to reveal its astonishing beauty to me. I went on a walking tour organised by Virasat Experiences and discovered that the city was actually laid out in 1727 along strict astrological guidelines based on the lucky number nine. So, nine blocks, nine gates, etc.
Take one step away from the crazy thoroughfares and you find yourself in surprisingly peaceful courtyards. There are streets where the same traditional crafts – weaving, paper manufacture, jewellery – have continued for hundreds of years.
And then there are the main tourist attractions. There’s the City Palace with its extraordinary beauty and attention to detail. Stand in front of one of the intricately decorated gates representing the four seasons, or gaze up at the soaring Moon Palace (still used by the royal family) and you see that the Maharajas of Jaipur had the wealth and leisure to reach almost undreamed heights of artistry.
Just across the road is the Jantar Mantar, an astronomical garden full of some of the most bizarre structures I’ve ever seen, all of them somehow aligned to the stars and the planets. I wasn’t sure if I was on the set of Star
Wars or had stumbled into a painting by de Chirico. Around the corner is the Hawa Mahal, or “Palace of the Winds”, probably the most famous building in Jaipur with its facade of pink sandstone and hundreds of tiny windows.
Further afield, about half an hour from the city, is the Amber Fort. Its huge presence, its position in the Aravalli Mountains with fortified walls snaking for miles over the crests, and, again, the sheer beauty of its decoration, make it unmissable. Driving to the fort, you pass the Jal Mahal, another jawdropping palace that floats in the middle of a lake. I saw it first thing in the morning, surrounded by mist. Without any tourists or hawkers, it was genuinely ethereal. The JLF takes place at the end of
January early in the year and that’s the perfect time to visit Jaipur, after the Christmas crowds have gone and before the impossible heat of the spring and summer months.
Certainly, I plan to go back. I know so little about India beyond school lessons and the Flashman novels. I want to know more.
Crowd-pleaser: Jaipur’s festival