Jaipur, the vibrant capital of Rajisthan, is known as "the pink city" because of the colour of the buildings in the old city. (Pink is Rajasthan's traditional colour of hospitality). It is on an arid lake bed, surrounded by barren hills dotted with forts and crenellated walls.
It is a loud and colourful place. Streets are packed with cars vying for space with camel-drawn carts laden with produce, bicycles, wandering animals, rickshaws, motorcycles and pedestrians. Locals scurry around in brightly coloured clothing, and at times it's as though all two million residents are all there at the same time.
The city's most acclaimed landmark is the tapering Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds. Built in 1799, the five-storey façade has 593 finely screened windows and balconies making it seem larger than it really is. Women of the court watched street processions from Hawa Mahal while remaining in a strict state of purdah. It stands near the city palace and is wonderfully orange-pink in the morning sun, its detailed stonework is an attraction.
The City Palace, in the heart of Jaipur, was built early in the 18th century by Kachhwaha, ruler of Amber Sawai Jai Singh. Its architecture is a magnificent blend of traditional Rajasthan and Mughal art. It sprawls across the walled city and is divided into courtyards, gardens and buildings. Part of the former glory of India, it still serves as home to the former Maharaja Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh's astronomical observatory in a palace courtyard, is quite astonishing. It is a mix of brick curves, slants, circles and pillars and sherbet-yellow gypsum. Eighteen instruments were erected between 1728 and 1734 by Jai Singh, many of which were his own invention.
It's worth paying a guide to explain the workings of the observatory. Instruments work on shadows falling onto marked surfaces which shows the position and movement of stars and planets, the time and predicting monsoon intensity. Calculated time is unique to Jaipur between 10 and 41 minutes behind Indian standard time, but it is used to calculate the Hindu lunar calendar. The 27 metre high sundial is a most impressive centrepiece and can calculate time to within two seconds.
Mubarak Mahal is one of the more important palaces inside the City Palace complex. It beautifully carved marble gate has heavy brass doors on either side. Beyond lies the Diwan-E-Khas where maharajas once entertained a select few. Across the paved square which has intricate decorations and manuscripts in Persian and Sanskrit lies the Diwan-E-Aam, meeting place for the general public.
Museum & Mukut Mahal showcases some of the best art and weaponry which made the warrior Rajputs famous. The armoury dates to the 15th century. There are dresses and costumes of former Maharajas and Maharanis of Jaipur in elaborate and colourful array. Each floor has a distinctive name and exudes sheer beauty and luxury. Paintings, floral decorations, mirror walls and ceilings in traditional style are everywhere.
Eleven kilometres north of Jaipur is Amber, the ancient capital of the state. Its Fort Palace is classic romantic Rajasthani. Its building began in 1592 and took more than 100 years to complete. Its forbidding exterior covers an inner paradise of a fusion of Mughal and Hindu styles and its superb hillside location overlooks a lake which reflects its terraces and ramparts. A climb up takes ten minutes, you can pay for a jeep ride but most people choose to ride up on an elephant.
The Diwan-i-Am "Hall of Public Audience" is reached by an imposing stairway. It has a double row of columns, latticed galleries and steps to a small temple. The maharaja's apartments, higher up, are entered through a mosaic and sculpture decorated gateway. The Hall of Victory has inlaid panels and glittering mirror ceiling and the Hall of Pleasure, with an ivory-inlaid sandalwood door, has a channel running through it which once carried cooling water.
Jaipur is an exciting place to shop it is a regular destination for foreign buyers and wholesalers as well as regular tourists. Clothing and textiles are popular, but it is also a city of jewels and streets are lined with vendors of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires.