‘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’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page - AN­THONY HOROWITTZ

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

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